"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A long and rambling post on how I came to leave academe

So, here we are in 2013 ... Back in January 2011, I started this blog concurrently with the Think Tank secretary job as a way of chronicling The Road Finally Taken out and away from the Ivory Tower --  or the Dark Tower, as I have come to think of it. But what's somewhat missing from the many entries that followed, as a recent reader email or two has brought up, is the story of how I came to leave -- what the process was and how I reached the point of taking the rather drastic action of walking away.

The reason that story never emerged is perhaps because leaving for me, at first, meant walking away from adjuncting rather than from academe. While many post-acs make a final decision to leave and then just do it, come what may, I had only made a final decision to quit adjuncting, leaving the door open for the possibilities of another attempt at the tenure-track job market in the fall of 2011 and pursuing my research interests as an independent scholar.

Many of my 2011 posts explore these possibilities, as well as vent anger and frustration, only fully developing over time -- rather than in a single moment or post -- the "I've totally had enough of this bullshit and am never going back" position I think I finally reached at some point early in 2012. That year, 2012, saw a great many new post-ac blogs, which is fantastic, because, as JC has emphasized many times, it's important to know you're not alone in this business of leaving, given all the angst -- identity crisis aggravated by peer pressure, feelings of failure and self-doubt and betrayal, employment and career uncertainty, and financial hardship. If you found this blog relatively recently and are still in the throes of working through some of this, I invite you to go back and read some of those 2011 posts. We all make the leap in different ways, but my experiences may be especially worth reading about for those of you who actually like academic work -- the research and the teaching -- and are leaving (or contemplating leaving) because you feel like you don't have an alternative rather than because you hate the work.

As I look back, I realize that I have moved on from those first anguished throes -- both the venting and the exploration of academe's remaining possibilities. Frankly, the possibilities outside academe seem a lot more interesting to me now, as I become more familiar with them. If you got a Ph.D. because you wanted intellectual challenges and you wanted to spend your professional life working around smart people, rest assured that both of these things exist outside the Ivory Tower. The hard part is getting your head out of that special tiny corner of the library you've come to know so well you have the titles on each shelf memorized. That was what your dissertation did for you. Not a bad exercise but limited and limiting in scope. If you want to make the post-ac world work for you in an equally intellectually stimulating way, cultivate a more detached curiosity. It's refreshing and will free you from some of the fears about what you're leaving behind. You will retain a connective thread between the thinking person you were and the thinking person you are -- and you'll have more to talk about with other people.

Aarrrrggghhhh, I digress and ramble .... Mostly. what I wanted to share in this post, was a pre-blog chronology (events leading up to my departure and starting of the blog) that might give newer post-acs a sense of how much time it takes to get all this sorted out. I still have some sorting to do, but here's a little more on how I got to where I am now, two years out and counting:

March 2010
I defended my dissertation at the end of the month and felt great for about a day. As much as I had stressed about the defense, it was actually kind of fun -- essentially, a seminar with 5 really smart people I respected on a subject I had chosen. The best part was getting them so engaged with the subject that they forgot they were supposed to be grilling me and started arguing with each other! My defense was in the morning, and Peaches took the day off so we could celebrate properly. It was a glorious day, one of the first and best warm and sunny spring ones. When I got home, we drank good scotch, got righteously stoned, and walked all the way to the National Mall (about 3 miles from our house) to see the cherry blossoms, which were at their peak.

April 2010
As the semester drew to a close, I started to freak out about what came next. I had put in requests for both summer and fall teaching but couldn't get a straight answer from Scheduler of Adjuncts about either. Maybe they'd have something, maybe they wouldn't. Maybe it would be two courses, maybe four. As much as I wanted those teaching gigs, however, my teaching that spring had already started to suffer from all the anxiety I was feeling about what was next now that I would be officially "finished."

Teaching-wise, spring 2010 was probably one of my worst semesters. Besides two sections of comp, I was teaching a required course for majors that was supposed to be both an introduction to all the awesome "critical methods" they had at their disposal and a sort of rallying camp for the major itself. The course was supposed to get them prepped and psyched for the "real" literature courses they'd get to take with tenure-track faculty. I'd had fun teaching this class in the past, but this semester, it just made me ill. I realized that no matter how well I taught it nor how good my own scholarship was, I'd hardly ever get to teach the "real" courses. And, no matter how badly I taught it, I'd get assigned to it again and again if I stuck around because not a lot of other adjuncts were willing or able to handle the theory component and the tt faculty hated the course almost as much as they hated teaching comp. I realized then exactly what my value to the department was.

That semester, when I should have been ecstatically coasting through to the end following my defense, I was seething with a quietly building rage. I went to bed angry and woke up angry. Sometimes, I'd wake up in middle of the night with a bitter taste in my mouth that wasn't from forgetting to brush my teeth.

May 2010
Scheduler of Adjuncts offered me a summer class a week before commencement and two weeks before the summer term began. I accepted it because I had no other options. It was a course I had not taught before, and about fifty percent of the content was material outside my primary area of expertise -- stuff I hadn't read or thought about in years. It was a shit-ton of prep to try to cram into two weeks, especially with family coming to town for commencement. At commencement, my well-meaning family oozed pride at this spectacle of costumes and speeches, but my advisor, with whom I had worked for the past 7 years, couldn't be bothered to interrupt summer vacation plans to attend and I was hooded by someone else I hardly knew. Silly, I know, and I don't hold it against my advisor (we did share a low tolerance for bullshit), but the lack of participation by faculty, not just my advisor, was one more reminder for me of how little finally finishing the long process and getting the mark of distinction actually meant in the community where it was supposed to mean the most.

June 2010
I was so busy with my summer course that I hardly had time to think about what I would do come fall semester, though I did pester Scheduler of Adjuncts at least weekly. The summer class went OK, not my best performance but a little better than the spring semester, partly because it was a very small class of reasonably good students, meaning I could put more time into prep rather than grading and count on them to pull their weight in discussions. On the first day, one student asked where Dr. Fancy Pants was, the tenured professor who was supposed to teach the class but backed out at the last minute. I said bluntly that Dr. Fancy Pants had better things to do and didn't need the money. The students thought this was funny, but I was seriously considering an experiment to try to figure out what it would take for an adjunct to get fired without committing an act of violence or sexual harassment. I gave those poor students an earful about where their tuition was and was not going -- and I did not neglect to mention that the total tuition being paid by the two out-of-state students for this one class was more than I was getting to teach it. That wasn't so funny, but, really, students have a right to know where their money is going. Sure was a beautiful new building where the class met, equipped with all the latest technology we didn't need to have good, old-fashioned, seminar-style discussions ...

July 2010
The class ended the second week in July. Still no word from Scheduler of Adjuncts. More freaking out. I snazzed up my nonacademic resume and started haphazardly applying for jobs. The last week of the month, I taught two intensive SAT prep workshops through the local community college for a little extra change.

August 2010
Finally, Scheduler of Adjuncts contacted me with an offer for fall teaching. Three evening sections of freshman comp. Awesome! At least I wouldn't have much prep because I'd taught this so many times before, but the grading would be brutal. Whatever. Apparently, the Ph.D. entitled me to an extra $300 per class ... er, well, it would have if Grad U hadn't been under a salary freeze. Scheduler of Adjuncts rescinded the contract I had already signed and gave me another one, minus the extra money. Apparently, if you're an adjunct, contracts are about as valuable as doctorates. What was I supposed to do? Say no??

September 2010
Fall classes started. I was still waking up angry in middle of the night. None of my summer attempts to find nonacademic work turned up anything. No interviews. Not even a nibble. I figured I needed a new strategy, but I wasn't sure what it would be yet. I concentrated on not being an asshole to my students.

October 2010
More of the same. I started bothering Scheduler of Adjuncts about spring 2011 classes. Ze said they could probably use me for at least one section of the methods course again but wasn't sure what else. WTF? My student evaluations for the spring 2010 methods course were rightfully and predictably terrible -- like, not just bad but the fresh smell of your cat just having pooped on your pillow TERRIBLE -- and yet here I was being invited to teach it again! Clearly, if you're an adjunct, good teaching counts about as much as contracts and doctorates.

November 2010\
No further word on spring. I was getting a little panicky by Thanksgiving but had decided on a new strategy for nonacademic job applications. I would market myself as a career changer instead of a recently graduated pathetic, perennial "student." I revamped the resume yet again, deemphasizing the Ph.D. and accentuating the teaching as work experience, highlighting elements that translated best into other kinds of work and using language I found in job descriptions. Cover letters mentioned career change in the first paragraph and deemphasized the Ph.D. and research interests. Instead, I talked about graduate school as professional development towards earning a credential I needed for the career in postsecondary education I had been pursuing. In that context, you have a lot more credibility to talk about changing careers than if you market yourself as a 30-year-old "student" with incidental teaching experience.

December 2010
By the time the semester was wrapping up, I had started to get a few responses and had a few interviews. Apparently, the new marketing strategy was working. The week between Christmas and New Year's, I had an in-person interview for a writer/editor position with a federal contractor. It went reasonably well, and the next day they emailed asking what days in January I was available to meet with the client, a government agency, and what my salary requirements were. I thought, "Sweet, I'm going to be able to be able to bail out on spring adjuncting before I even get formally offered any classes!"

January 1-10, 2011
And then, despite my optimistic hopes, January came and I heard nothing back from that company. I found out later that the contract had fallen through and needed to be renegotiated. They asked if I would be willing to be included as part of the renegotiation package, which I guess is a good sign, but it never went any further. Some other company got the contract. Scheduler of Adjuncts said I could have 2  courses (I had asked for 3 or more), the methods course and another totally new prep that was not just partly but COMPLETELY outside my area of expertise -- meaning I would have a lot of extra work and not nearly enough money. I sent out more nonacademic applications, including one for a "think tank secretary" thing I saw on Craigslist.

January 11-31, 2011
I had an interview for the think tank secretary job and got an offer the same day. Told Scheduler of Adjuncts to fuck off and find someone else a week before classes began. Started the blog and the new job ...

And the rest, as they say, is history. Go back and read through those 2011 blog posts (scroll down through these links for multiple posts) here, here, here, here , here , here, and here.

2012 was an equally interesting year, if for different reasons. In a lot of ways, it has become the second stage of my post-academic life, involving a move from the "next" job to the next "next" job, with a lot of insanity, synchronicity, and serendipity in between.

Who knows what 2013 will bring?


  1. Oh, and I forgot to mention that during fall 2010, as I was trying to navigate the whole nonacademic job search while teaching 3 classes, I was also on the academic market for the second time. By early November, I had already started getting back the "Sorry, you're super qualified, but so were the 700 other people who applied!" rejections, which made everything so much more happier and joyfultastic! I guess it's a sign of how far I've moved along since then that it totally slipped my mind to mention the academic job search as I was writing the post ...

  2. Wooah! What a tale. I loved the part where you told the Scheduler of Adjuncts to fuck off a week before classes started. I really hope you actually used that language. Anyway, I will pretend that you did to make me feel better. Of course, it would have been no drama at all to them as they would have had a million other adjuncts willing to drop everything to take what would have been your classes.

  3. Alas, I didn't actually use that language, but I did send a rather brusque "break-up" email saying something along the lines of: "Sorry, I won't actually be able to teach those classes even though I signed your worthless contract. I have another job that's paying a lot more. If you'd offered me 3-4 classes instead of just two, I might consider it, but the low salary from just two classes does not allow me to support myself without leaning heavily on my partner and family. Since I finished the Ph.D. more than half a year ago, I really don't feel good about doing that anymore. In fact I didn't feel good about it even as a graduate student, given how long I spent in that role. So, yeah, thanks but no thanks."

    Scheduler of Adjunsts wrote back saying ze understood what they were paying was a "pittance" (ze used that word) and wished they could offer more or another class or two. But alas! Best of luck, blah, blah, blah. Then -- would you believe this? -- just a few weeks into my new job and the new semester they were already asking me to adjunct again in the fall!

    Go figure ...

  4. Thanks for this (and all of it). It's not an easy thing.

  5. Glad it's of use in one way or another. Definitely not easy but good to be free, more or less, of all the frustrations, unfounded hopes, and misguided and disappointed expectations. Or, if not 100% free yet at least moving on ...

  6. It is amazing to me how easy it is to get adjunct work and how hard it is to get tenure track work. Teaching is so devalued. I worked for years as a contingent faculty member (part-time and full-time) and decided to cut the cord. I am currently going through the non-ac application process (blogging about it as well as I wrap up my last semester teaching. That moment of realizing that work outside of academia just might be more interesting is wonderfully freeing.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I am blog

    1. Haha, yeah, it really bites when you finally look and see clearly how devalued teaching is, especially when you genuinely enjoy it. Sadly, it really just isn't worth it when you realize what you could be doing.

      Good luck! I will add you to my blogroll -- enjoyed your first few posts! -- but (shhhhhhh!) I might be reinventing this blog on Wordpress in the very near future ...

    2. Thank you, and yikes! I am so embarrassed by my disheveled comment. I had a hard time figuring out how to get my comment to post that I accidentally posted a draft. Oh, well. I promise to be more "polished" in the future. I am enjoying reading about your post-ac journey. I find that reading about post-ac life is very assuring. Academia is really like a cult and you need people on the outside to lure you out and assure you that things are okay on the other side.

    3. Great analogy! Yes, it is like a cult and if you are a non- conformist, you are doomed. Thank god for the students, they are the reason I keep returning, and the occasional wonderful academic who know and have developed the suit of armor one is expected to acquire.

  7. Just found your blog - i have a lot of catching up to do! It sounds like you've had a pretty interesting journey so far. and from what i've read: no regrets. I agree with academic leftovers - i love that you gave your notice 1 week before classes started, but it's also too true that they've probably hired many an adjunct on such short notice.

    it's been 7 years since i quit adjuncting and searching for tenure. have been working on a book about it and blogging about other stuff, but just getting around to blogging about myself/life as an academic now. it's good to find a community forming on line - i could have used it years ago!

  8. This blog keeps pushing me out!

  9. I will try again... This blog speaks to me in so many ways. From the undervaluing of academic teaching to the vicious personal attacks and veiled bullying. I have worked in many areas and can quite confidently say that it is the worst workplace environment I have ever encountered. Unfortunately, I have tenure and hate it. I want out! I really do not understand why anyone would subject themselves to personal attacks and undermining, willingly. Imagine reading that in the job description! Your blog gives me hope that there is life outside this cesspit. Ironically, I had heard this floating around the hallowed corridors and laughed it off. Well, I am not laughing now I can tell you. Basically, my job is making me sick. The bleed of work into the whole of my life is unfathomable.