Monday, April 11, 2016

4 Years Later: Kathleen's Update

I'm excited that How to Leave Academia has a new home. As Lauren said, I don't think she, JC, or Jet will post here often, but we wanted to make sure the site remains free and accessible to anyone in need of support or advice. And if you're hungry for more stories of leaving academia, don't forget our Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia.

On the heels of Lauren's update, I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring and let you know how things have been panning out for "Currer Bell."

When I started Project Reinvention in 2012, I wrote anonymously. And those early posts show it. They're raw, vulnerable, honest, and angry. But then the New York Times came calling, asking for my real name. They wanted to write about the site and its authors as part of a longer piece on floundering academics. Nifty opportunities like that don't come along that often, and I decided it was worth ditching anonymity to be a part of the piece. Once that story broke, my blogging became more guarded. I even went back and erased some particularly rant-y diatribes against my old employer. It was a day late and a dollar short. Though I'd already quit my job, "SAP" (small academic publisher) moved up my last day the second the NYT story came out. Things have changed a lot since that articled appeared in November of 2013. At that time, I was newly married, unemployed, and my husband, Paul, had a struggling law practice that brought in little income. I don't know what kind of bravery, or insanity, made me quit a job when we had no income coming in, but I know I'm not that bold now.

The posts of 2012-2014 are from someone who felt she had little left to lose. From the despair of not being able to find an academic job, to the shame and misery of being a traveling academic textbook saleswoman, to worries over adequate health care, to never knowing where Paul and I might be living in 6 months, not a lot was going right. Yet, despite all that, there's a lot of happiness in those posts, too. Building a strong relationship, new adventures, and the sense of possibility and reinvention.

As I think about where I am in 2016, I realize two things--1. Now, I have a lot more to lose and 2. SIKE, I kinda ended up back in academia again, oops.

After quitting SAP, I worked as a life coach helping people with a variety of challenges, but much of my coaching boiled down to post-acs and career coaching. I struggled because I felt the post-ac coaching market was predatory (desperate folks low on cash, hiring coaches for guidance felt icky most of the time), so I went in search of a new niche. I dabbled in food coaching/blogging, but never quite felt at home. Eventually, I tired of most of the rhetoric of coaching and self-help.

In February of 2014, I was hired by my current employer. I work in a faculty role in a non-profit institution of higher education. So, after all that struggle, I'm an academic. Go figure. It's not the picture I envisioned when I started graduate school. I don't work at a liberal arts campus covered in ivy. I don't present papers at international conferences. I don't spend my weekends scouring microfiche for mentions of obscure nineteenth-century women writers. Instead, my university operates a lot more like a traditional business. I work pretty regular hours. I don't get summers off. I have no research requirements. Some days I really enjoy my job. Other days, I don't. I like working with students, but I miss scholarship. I love the flexibility of working from home, but I miss course development. Some days the business approach to education reminds me of sales. Some days I can tell I'm making a difference in the lives of non-traditional students who would have been shafted by most traditional universities. I'm learning that career fulfillment is a lot more nuanced than I ever expected. Sometimes I still mourn not being a "true" academic. Other days, I'm thankful I can choose where I want to live, don't have to grade, and don't have to spend my life worrying if I publish another article.

I always thought the biggest success of my life would be my career. I never cared about meeting someone, getting married, or having children. So, I'm routinely shocked that I still haven't quite figured the whole career thing out (despite lots of time and worry) but I'm rocking marriage though it requires nil effort on my part. Isn't life funny?

Paul left private practice and secured a good, stable government job in 2015. It's not flashy and I don't think he'd like to stay there forever, but it's a step in the right direction. We moved from Pittsburgh to Virginia (outside DC). It took us a good long while to sell our house in the Burgh, so money has continued to be tight. But the end appears to be in sight--we should close at the end of April. This means for the first time in my adult life, I'll have a real income and my spouse will have a real income. Two salaries. Two sets of benefits. Two 401ks.  Some mornings I wake up and think "I'm gonna be so rich...." I can't wait to see what life will be like with financial breathing room. Sometimes I toy with getting another degree, or using the extra money to start a side business of some sort. Knowing what it feels like to be close to the financial edge, I'd like to use a chunk of it to improve other people's lives, and so I've started researching food banks, charities, and political groups I care about. As an academic, I always felt my work was "political," but I'm realizing there are lot of opportunities for activism in my life that extend beyond carefully crafted syllabi and articles.

Right now, I spend most of my free time cooking, exploring my new hometown, listening to records, taking long walks, reading a variety of things, and writing. I've got two blogs at work, an existing one with humorous reviews of food TV programming ( and a yet to be started one because I've had a yen to write about my day-to-day life again (

As Lauren said at the end of her post, I've learned "everything's gonna be alright." And, she's right. Who knows where Paul and I will end up eventually, but, meh, in time it'll work all out.

4 Years Later: Lauren's Update

Hello, post-academic world. It's been awhile since I rapped at ya. After HTLA published our book,  we all got busy with our real and regular lives and the website languished. After a few years of paying for hosting without adding content, we decided to migrate to a free site (tada) so the content is still available for the searching grad school quitta.

The book is still available too, by the way.

I look back on my quitting time as turbulent, emotional, messy, and necessary. I cringe a little when I read my diatribes against the academy, even though I still agree with the fundamentals of those arguments. My wounds were raw. Now they're healed. Academia is, and always will be, in my past, but it will also always be a part of me (for better or for worse). My interest in the debates about the future of academics is almost nil. Change is inevitable, and from my outside vantage, I have no real way to make impact on the future of higher ed or the academy or whatever. I'm waiting to see how things shake out before my daughters go to college in about 10 years, if they go to college.

I don't miss grad school. I don't wish I'd stayed. My one regret is that I probably won't teach again. I still miss the classroom.

After finishing my last year in grad school, I took a job at the university where I'd been enrolled as an academic advisor for freshmen. I thought that this would work for me because I love students. I learned a lot about higher ed administration, institutional structure, and programs of study I had known nothing about. I connected with some students really well, and I do think I helped a lot of kids. But ultimately, three things made me restless in that position early on.

1. Boredom. Once I mastered the bureaucratic rules, the job became very repetitive. Sure, there were extra responsibilities one could take on, but they added to workload and came with no direct benefits. To get the promotion that would earn you more money for those extras, you had to work there for 5 years.

2. Frustration with students. I love teaching and the classroom, and I did connect with some kids and help some through really tough times. But with advising, you get all of the annoying side of students with few of the joys of classroom interaction. You get the emails that ask the same questions over and over again. Missed deadlines. Refusal to see the writing on the wall. Apathy. Eventually I started getting burned out and not caring as much as a good advisor ought to.

3. Money. I genuinely didn't know how I was going to pay for summer childcare my second year at the advising center, when my daughters were at a new daycare in our new town. My entire salary would go towards that cost, when most of it was already taken up by student loans. 

For this reason, I was pursuing my teaching certification in secondary ed and planning to move on from advising within a year, if possible. I was making lesson plans and visiting schools. The pay would have been the same. My only concern was committing to the lifestyle of teaching, which is your entire life, especially in the beginning. Nevertheless, I knew advising wasn't for me.

At that point, I had a friend contact me and ask if I was interested in doing consultant work for the test development company she worked for. (I live in the midwestern hub of assessment design). I gratefully agreed and was able to earn enough through consulting to pay for summer childcare. My job was to find reading passages for a college readiness exam. I was surprised to find that not only was it a bit fun, but I also had a knack for it. I told her that if there was ever a position open that I would be interested, and lo and behold, they had a spot open in their English Language Arts development team. I applied and, eventually, was accepted. After two years in advising, I gratefully left for a job that draws on my background in American Studies and literacy education and pays me well. I'm still not rich--in fact, summer childcare is looming in my mind again--but we are now down to maybe 1 or 2 times a year when we feel utterly screwed, vs every single month.

My work in assessment is enjoyable. It's intellectually challenging. I spend the day reading and writing about subjects across the spectrum. My classroom experience and grad studies make me a strong contributor to the team. I wouldn't trade that; I wish I'd done a master's or two in quick and compact succession and finished up earlier, although it's hard to justify any debt.

I'm certainly never bored: I've worked here for 18 months and still feel like a newbie in many ways. There's plenty to do, and I (as I did with advising) love that when I leave the office, I'm done for the day. I get to do some travel with my job, which is a huge treat, and continue to do professional development in my fields of study without being super academic about it (I ain't publishing). All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better outcome, barring becoming a world-famous and rich novelist. But it didn't happen magically or overnight, and I never would have expected assessment to be a good fit for me. In a lot of ways, the advising job taught me lessons about my working self that I never could have learned in grad school or teaching.

I realized after leaving advising that no entry-level job in higher ed--whether teaching level, admin, or whatever--would pay enough for me to make a living. It wouldn't have been worth it to spend however many extra years on a PhD to make less money than we could have lived on, or the same amount as I make now. I'm glad I got out when I did.

I read voraciously. I'm addicted to audio books. I've taken up drawing and calligraphy. I play Go Gummy Drop probably too obsessively. I'm attending a writing retreat in two weeks. I'm reading to my daughters' classes next week. I was a caucus chair in my precinct this fall. My life outside of work is rich. I'm still smart. I'm still sharp.

I still think that hardly anyone should sign up for graduate studies. I think every grad student should have a plan B, C, and D and think very concretely about the kind of life they want to live later on, beyond our fantasies about bookshelves and conferences and whatnot. If you're thinking about quitting, I think you should probably quit. If you're worried about what will happen after quitting, I think you can take lessons from JC, Currer, and I that it will neither be easy nor will it be catastrophic. That life rolls on, often without a grand design, but that's ok. Once you get through the turbulent shift in life and mind when you're in the process of leaving, I believe you will find that life on the other side is perfectly fine, and that you've saved yourself a lot of grief.

JC and Currer will share their stories, too. We hope that we continue to be of assistance to those of you doing that frantic midnight googling. Our overriding message is, and always have been: everything's gonna be all right.