Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Leaving at the Finish Line: Why I Withdrew from My Last Job Search to Become a Post-Academic


The following is a guest post from Nick Walsh (pseudonym). Nick is a gay, southern-born African American anthropologist who lives with his partner in a major city on the west coast of the US. He is also a first generation PhD who has mentored other PhD students and doctoral recipients of color in official and informal capacities. Before becoming a post-academic, he received several prestigious national fellowships and a competitive postdoc position.

“You are being very unprofessional and I suggest you put your application back in for consideration immediately."

These were the words in an email that came from a highly-respected senior scholar and my postdoc mentor. To this day, those words still sting in an email that I am still not able to read in its entirety, due to its harsh, disciplinary tone. (In fact, it sits in my inbox still, in a special folder.) This scholar was someone who I had respected for quite some time and, in many ways, still do. She had been the author of many cornerstone works on language and inequality, with a push towards working to eradicate inequality on a practical level. Yet her very words sounded like anything but a scholar interested in reproducing an equal academy.  She sent this email to me after I made the decision to withdraw from the short list of a tenure-track position. This was after a successful campus visit, with a perceived support on the faculty for my hire. They seemed to be in love with me, and yet I could not bring myself to feel the same about them and the career they were ensconced in. It was at that moment that I chose to finally make official what had been perhaps unstated for at least a year...

After two years as a postdoc (2010-2012) and another two years as an underemployed contingent faculty member in two institutions (2012-2014), I had become a post-academic. I no longer wanted what academia had to offer, nor did I seek invest my identity in this one small corner of the world. For my postdoc mentor, this change of heart seemed to come from nowhere. I believe this was because we had been out of touch for months at a time, only communicating around my applications that were still active on the academic job market. Outside of these interactions, though, I had been contemplating a post-academic life for a while. So when this moment happened, the choice to leave academia, although not easy, also was a no-brainer at this point. I knew if I didn’t leave then and accepted the tenure track offer, it would only get harder to do so.

During the campus visit, I had an inkling that I just didn't belong in this particular place, but I wanted to be sure. Little did I know that this also was my gut screaming loud and clear that I didn’t belong in academia. This is despite what others around me told me. The following Monday, the faculty were going to meet to vote on who to give the offer to. I knew I had to act fast but skillfully. Thus, I emailed the search committee chair, asking her to remove my name from consideration on the short list.

When I withdrew from the search, I (naively) asked the members of the search committee to keep it confidential. I hoped this would all pass quickly. Instead, the opposite happened. Consider it Murphy’s Law. One of the search committee members emailed my postdoc mentor who had written on my behalf. This faculty member apparently told my postdoc mentor  what I had done. The next day, I received rather extensive email bashings from my postdoc mentor. What came out of these discussions, to which I minimally contributed to with two line responses compared to her novel repsonses, was that, according to my postdoc mentor, I was the department’s first choice for the position. What she saw as entering the coveted royal court of academics was what I saw as the continuation of a few more years of bondage to something I didn't really want to be bonded to. Deep down, I knew it wasn't fair to hire someone who didn't really want to be there and wasn't entirely committed 110% to academia anymore. This was a far cry, indeed, from that ambitious 22-year old PhD student a decade ago.

It was at this moment that I decided for myself that I would no longer pursue the tenure track or any other postdoctoral fellowships. As scary as it felt, it also felt emancipating.

Why Did I Leave? A Mixture of the Usual and the Unusual Reasons
The reasons why I left are familiar to anyone who has read most of the literature and contributions in the post-academic blogosphere. There was a desire, in my early 30s, to have a life with some sense of financial stability after much graduate school-induced financial instability in my 20s. Knowledge may be forever, but, let me tell you, a credit score affects what I can and will be able to do in this lifetime. Additionally, the lonely life of an academic was something that became too much for me. As I would joke to friends during this time, "That great book I want to write will never be able to hug me back or comfort me when I've had a bad day in the department." Yet I told myself repeatedly I was the one who was free. Why? Because I was living the life of the mind. But when I finally got into a relationship with my current partner who is not in academia, I realized for the first time that maybe I wasn't so free.

When you are a gay African American man in a same-sex relationship with a first generation Mexican American who is well established in his non-academic career, things can and do get complicated in trying to live up to this ideal. This complication cuts across participation within both the LGBTQ community in academia, the  community of academics from racial/ethnic underrepresented groups, and the broader academic circle. I was attractive because I was able to help diversify the academy in so many interesting ways. At the same time, I became unintentionally narrowed to this utilitarian purpose in the career. To leave is not just me abandoning a calling. Colleagues construe it also as abandoning a political mission. How dare I, of all people, let down those others who fought for me to have a place in the academy for such selfish reasons! It is this part that constantly weighed heavily on me . If I left, who would be there to help guide future young scholars who found themselves caught up in the politics that come from being a multiply-marginalized person in the academy?

Beyond this, I constantly thought of my own physical safety and that of my partner in any place I might be sent to for a tenure-track position. For many heterosexual and racially-endogamous couples, physical safety is often a taken for granted luxury. For me and my partner, however, we could be a real victim of a hate crime for sexuality (by any racial/ethnic group) or race. Yes, even in this mythical post-racial and post-sexual climate of the US. There would always be the very real chance we could end up in a small town that, despite having a ‘relatively’ liberal university within its city limits (or the superficial appearance of one, at least), the townspeople could have conservative views that make them appear to be from the yesteryears. I also want to have children one day. My concern as a future father of children of a same-sex interracial couple remained very much on my mind. Would the kids be physically and emotionally safe, or the victims of bullying and discrimination from both students and teachers? When I relayed these concerns to my faculty ‘mentors,’ they often told me I was overthinking things. (This I still find strange to this day. How could one be overthinking about the serious implications of a career that provides you and your family with no control over your geographic location?) In essence, I learned that when you are in a relationship and on the market with a non-academic partner, all these issues begin to become very real. Yet I was being advised to not think of these concerns. Put the pursuit of knowledge first, my senior colleagues demanded, at times explicitly and other times implicitly in their advising practices towards me.

How My Relationship Saved My Life
Similar to other stories in the post-academic world, I have to say that being in a long-term relationship with a non-academic saved my life. Although my partner could see that I thrived in academic environment, he also saw the realities of the market and what I had allowed being on the market to do to me (and us) emotionally, physically, and mentally. He constantly reminded me that I had transferable and adaptable skill sets that industry would be happy to have. He also, at times, painfully underscored that, as a 31 year old man, I would need to find better ways of financially co-supporting the household in an area as expensive as where we live. Lecturing until the tenure-track job came along was not going to cut it. Although painful to hear, I couldn’t help but agree. It was because of him that I eventually swallowed my shame and went to visit the career center of my alma mater in Spring 2013. This was during the time I was doing my first lectureship at a local university following my postdoc tenure.

At the center, I remembered feeling guilty about asking about non-academic employment options. It felt like I was giving up on the people who had invested so much in my academic success. I also felt like I was giving up on the mission of diversifying academia. However, the counselor assured me that many PhDs often felt the way I felt. Moreover, she was the first person to tell me that I needed to think about myself now, rather than what my academic colleagues were thinking and saying about me. I told her I could no longer afford to put myself and my partner through the financial instability that we were going through with my lectureships, which were always term-to-term without guarantees. The life of the toiling academic was beginning to be too much. So at that moment, we began the process of changing my CV into a resume.

A few weeks later, she told me the new resume was ready to go out. We had identified jobs that would be suitable for me as an anthropologist, and I went after those jobs everyday with a vengeance. All this happened while I was still lecturing for another year. I even sent out cover letters and resumes in my tight, cramped campus office that I shared with another visiting professor, all right before I would go down to teach. Thus, when I made the decision to officially quit academia in my final year on the job market, I already had a backup plan in place about a year in advance. I just didn't have the guts to actualize it until my former mentor gave me an electronic lashing.

When the email lashing came in Spring 2014, I realized that I could not and would not be a part of an institution that praised and encouraged such dominating behavior that had a very clear message: as a ‘junior scholar,’ I had no control in my life. I knew I needed to take back my life, and I did. What also helped me make this transition much sooner was the vipassana meditation practice that I began in 2011, as well as my local meditation center. Practicing on my own and with my weekly meditation group really encouraged me to listen from within and trust that feeling more than anything else. In what seemed like hours on the meditation cushion, I came face to face with the emotional storm that raged within me. The meditation practice also reminded me to embrace impermanence as the truth of life, which helped me to see that all things can end long before we expect them to--even an academic career. This impermanence also applied to emotions too, for I began to realize during this time, I was not always happy, nor was I always sad or depressed each day of the transition.

Coincidentally, this was also that time I sought out the online post-academic community in the blogosphere. Reading those blogs daily after the campus visit fiasco saved my sanity and provided much needed strength in numbers. These blogs let me know there were other people out there going through my same struggle of unemployment and finding a new identity again. So when the time came to make that jump into the unknown, I did it knowing that what I was feeling was completely legitimate and that there were others who had done it before, surviving just fine.

The Aftermath
After I withdrew from the academic job search, my days included receiving numerous rejections from non-academic job applications across the board; having numerous talks to reassure my partner that things would turn out fine; designing and doing intense home workouts to relieve the stress of it all; finishing up my final semester of teaching; and venting over coffee to whoever would listen. I then came upon what I consider to be a great end and new beginning to my story. A month after my lectureship ended, I got a job offer to be resident anthropologist at a global design thinking firm. In fact, I was hired by another post-academic who had also become disenchanted with academia years before.

Now, I love coming to work everyday. I enjoy interacting with such a diverse workforce that includes people with so many different backgrounds, from business strategists to industrial/service designers. I still get to be an anthropologist and teach, traveling all over the world. However, I have new students now (VPs and CEOs seeking to create more meaningful products and services) and new classrooms (corporate boardrooms). I’ve also reconnected with many of my friends from my undergraduate film school days, which has led to us launching an animated web series. Of course, as you can guess, there’s some anthropological themes in the series, for sure, so I’m getting the opportunity to have an impact through entertainment. If that’s not enough to fill my schedule, I also just started a program to become a certified personal trainer, thus starting my goal of putting my teaching skills to work in helping others reach their wellness goals. This goal is near and dear to my heart because I will always say it was my personal trainers who helped me get through the PhD process, and I’d like to pay it forward.

In terms of the short-term rewards, I love having things like a paycheck that allows me to do more than just survive, an insurance package that doesn't terminate at the end of each semester, and free time at the end of the day and weekends to spend with my partner. Not everything is where it should be yet, though. I'm still paying back the credit card debt that I incurred from my long-time relationship with academia. However, it feels good knowing I can make the payments each month and I take immense joy in seeing my credit score rise. I'm also still involved in academia. I have a non-paying affiliation with a local university, which allows me to publish a paper or two on my own time and conduct my own research (on my own dime, of course). I also work closely with organizations focused on labor issues of contingent faculty because I truly refuse to leave my brothers and sisters behind in the struggle. In working with them, I’m hoping that my future children and their friends will have something to treasure in this changing landscape of higher education. Finally, I volunteer my time at my alma mater to speak on career day events to those who are struggling with leaving academia. Most importantly, I am happy.

So to my postdoc mentor, I express nothing but gratitude. Without her, I would have never had the courage to admit to myself that I was a post-academic long before it materialized externally. I also express thanks to the post-academic community, for your stories continue to remind me that I have the right to be happy about my life stage. Finally, I share my story to let anyone know that it is never too late to change course, even when a tenure-track job is forthcoming. Although there might be some backlash, the ultimate reclaiming of your authentic happiness is much too important to sacrifice for the purpose of making other people’s dreams of you come true, even if they are dreams that you once shared but no longer do, regardless of the reasons.

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