Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Left and Leaving - A Guest Post


The following is a guest post from one of our anonymous readers. If you would like to submit your own story about leaving and finding nonacademic work, please contact us!

I guess I’m a post-ac success story. I’m a PhD (English, 2011) who is gainfully employed in a full-time, salaried position. By that measure, I’m one of the lucky ones. I never had to apply for retail work, nor did I ever need to seriously consider it. I didn’t suffer through a prolonged period of unemployment. I have benefits, a home, and a little bit of money in the bank. I’ve been gainfully employed for a year and a half now. I’m thankful for that—I really, really am.

But I’ve also been pretty miserable at times since. All those quit-lit stories that begin with the overwhelmed, jaded, or depressed graduate student who finds solace and fulfilment beyond the ivory tower? That’s not me. I loved grad school. I made great friends there. We had great conversations about all kinds of things. I liked teaching. Marking was a drag sometimes, but I was getting paid (if not as much as I’d like) to talk about stuff I cared deeply about.[1] I loved research. Writing my dissertation was a struggle, of course. Some days it was absolutely brutal. But I really, really liked what I was working on and am proud of the result. I loved going to conferences and sharing my new ideas with fellow scholars who were interested in what I thought about Moby-Dick, and I was interested in hearing about their new work. I was in my element. Now that it’s behind me, I miss it terribly. Call it nostalgia or call it Stockholm Syndrome if you like, but I was sorry to go.

The decision to leave was very difficult for me. While I liked academic life, I was well aware of the realities of the job market. My wife and I were picky (by academic standards) about where wanted to live. We wanted to stay in Canada, and we actually wanted to be within a hundred miles or so of at least one of our families. That narrowed things down to a small number of schools. Staying on as a part-time faculty member wasn’t a viable long-term option, either. We wanted to start a family and own a home at some point, and it was important to me to have some stability in our lives before we did. So I started looking for non-academic work.[2]

I spent a lot of time that summer trying to figure out my next steps. I didn’t even know what other jobs were out there, much less what else I might want to do. I had a five-year-old’s mind when it came to career options: there was fireman, policeman, teacher, lawyer, doctor, carpenter, and so on. The career center at my university was well-meaning but ultimately not terribly helpful. Their assessment tool suggested I become, in order 1) History Professor; 2) Desktop Publisher; and 3) Writer. Great.

I ended up taking the approach of targeting an employer in town that I knew had hired PhDs in the past and, to make a long story short, it worked. They had an opening, I applied, and before I knew it, I had a job as a research analyst.

At first, I liked my job a lot. The first few months were great. My co-workers were smart, interesting people. I wasn’t all that interested in the material I was researching, but I liked that I was still doing research and writing (of a sort). This was one of those companies that prides itself on being a “fun” place to work; around Christmas time, there were plenty of activities like decorating the office, an afternoon of board games, and of course a ridiculous company party. I relished my regular paycheque, and re-discovered the joy of a weekend with nothing in particular to do. It wasn’t bad at all.

But the honeymoon didn’t last. The private sector moves fast, and the job that had been described to me when I was hired changed quickly. I wasn’t keen on traveling, and had been told when I was hired that my position would require little of it. But, before long we were expected to travel for a couple of days every few weeks. The company was growing, and management decided that they needed to standardize a bunch of internal processes. “Research” became paperwork, filling in blanks in forms and checking boxes. I felt more like an assembly line worker than a knowledge worker. During this time I truly learned the meaning of the word “micromanagement.”

I might have been able to endure that if I felt I was being paid enough. When I was hired, I accepted a salary a bit lower than I thought I was worth because I had been told that with my background and credentials I’d be able to move up the ladder very quickly. I understood that as someone without much non-academic work experience, they might want me to prove myself before investing in me further. I thus looked forward to my first performance review, knowing that I had more than met all the published requirements for a promotion. But, when we finally sat down for my appraisal, I was told that while I had more than exceeded their expectations for somebody who’d been with the company as long as I had (eleven months at that point) it was policy not to promote anyone before they had been on board for a year. Missed it by that much. Moreover, it was also policy that promotions only occur at the annual performance review. I’d have to wait another year before I saw any movement. I was given a pat on the head and the same raise they give everyone who doesn’t get promoted, less than a cost-of-living increase.

I only grew more frustrated after that. The level of micromanagement increased. The company took away some of our perks without giving us any notice. We were told to expect more traveling, in spite of being told earlier on that it was going to be a limited thing. By this point I had a baby at home, and I didn’t relish the thought of being away from him or my wife. I still liked my co-workers, but beyond that, I found it difficult to muster even a modicum of interest in my work. Every day I counted down the hours till quitting time; every week I counted down the days till the weekend; every weekend I counted down (with dread) the hours before Monday morning.

I started to despair that the problem was me. When I initially started looking for work, I had drank deeply from the #post-ac/#alt-ac cup and stories of lapsed or former academics who not only quickly proved their mettle in the private sector but found jobs that were deeply fulfilling. On paper, my job still looked pretty good. Again: good salary, good benefits, good co-workers. Why couldn’t I enjoy it?

But not all post-ac jobs are alike, nor are all post-ac employees. When I left, I thought I had a good idea of what I wanted out of a job: something that was time-boxed and would leave me my evenings and weekends free to pursue what I wanted. However, my day-to-day was so emotionally and psychologically exhausting that I had little energy to muster to continue, for instance, writing about those things I cared about. A personal blog that had been a pleasurable diversion for me in my last year on the adjunct circuit went to seed, and I found myself feeling bitter jealousy rather than happiness when my academic friends found success. I didn’t like it. I looked for other jobs, but found myself wrestling the same demons I fought when I first left academia: what do I really want to be when i “grow up”? What do I actually enjoy doing, anyway?

Maybe my standards were too high. Maybe it was too much to expect to feel comfortable at the place at which I was going to spend eight hours a day. I still don’t know. But I suppose I’ll find out. I’m pleased to report that I was able to find a new job, one that sounds like it will be a much better fit for me. It’s in a field that is something I care deeply about, and it will let me write actual paragraphs. My new employer told me that they strongly felt that my PhD is a great asset for the role they have planned for me. I’m excited to see where this goes.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but be ambivalent. A former professor of mine, who I’m now happy to count as a friend, asked if she could put my story in the department newsletter. The point is to celebrate the accomplishments of the program’s graduates, whether they found it in academia or without. I think that’s great, but I’m uncomfortable being held up as an example in case my story gets spun into one of those “Look at all the things you can do with PhD in English” marketing spiels that, at some point, I started to find unconscionable. I haven’t replied to her request yet. I’m still thinking about it.

But I do hope my story has some value to those who are embarking on a similar journey. If I could offer any advice, the first thing I’d say is that it’s not you. It’s probably not your fault you can’t find a job in academia. It probably won’t be your fault if you can’t find one without, at least not immediately. It’s really, really hard. The second point I want to emphasize is this: there are a lot of good, well-meaning #post-ac and #alt-ac advocates out there. There are also a good many who mistakenly think that because they found a job where they daily use the skills they built during their advanced degrees that everyone can and will. I’ve spoken to a few who are convinced that regardless of what kind of a job you get, you can “make it your own” and bring those skills to bear. This person obviously didn’t work where I did. If you end up in a situation where you realize the value of your degree on a regular basis, bully for you. But not all of us will be so lucky, and I think many who are that lucky don’t realize just how many factors had to come together to make it happen. And finally, there’s a lot to be said for mindset. I think a good part of my problem was that I still was—still am—an academic in my own mind. I don’t know what I can do to break that mindset yet. If you figure it out, let me know.

[1] I am in no way suggesting that the terrible conditions endured by part-time faculty are in any way “worth it” because they sometimes to get to teach topics they care about. If it were, I would have never left.

[2] Since leaving academia, there has not been a single permanent, full-time job posted in this country in my field. I guess it was the right choice.


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