Post-Academic Job Search Advice in the Chronicle

Recently, I read an interesting article in The Chronicle written by a scientist who decided to skip an academic career and head straight into industry.  The author offers his perspective 10 years later as a person who both made the transition and now is in a position to hire others.  While based on the author’s experience in the hard sciences, there are several useful bits of advice for anyone planning or currently in the midst of a post-academic job search.

The most thought-provoking and useful part of the article for me is a discussion of how fear, regret, or second guessing one’s decision to leave academia can be detected in application materials:

It is my job to hire people who will succeed and thrive in my company’s environment. And you cannot do so if you are hesitant about stepping out of the ivory tower, or are constantly looking back over your shoulder at the life you had, rather than looking forward. So I probe for both the ‘push’ factors that are motivating job candidates to leave the bench, and also the ‘pull’ factors about why they are interested in my industry or my company. If either factor is unclear, or if I see telltale signs—such as the ubiquitous lists of laboratory skills that show up on academic CVs—then I know that the candidates aren’t quite ready to step into the nonacademic world.

This paragraph got me thinking.  How does one gracefully transition out of academia?  It seems in poor taste and unprofessional to speak too negatively about one’s previous career, yet it is its shortcomings that are my “push” factors.  In my letters I tend to focus on the “pull” factors of a position.  I wonder if this is convincing enough?  In any case, it is worth thinking about the subtle (perhaps even unconscious) messages that we transmit through the formatting of our credentials and how we sell ourselves through cover letters.

How I Quit

I decided to be proactive in semester three of a four quarter “spouse incentive contract” i.e., tossing the trailing spouse a few crumbs to entice the person they actually want to hire to accept the job.  It was bad enough that I decided to leave academia already because I was unable to secure tenure track work where I loved living (and the disjuncture between perceptions of what this career would entail and the sinking feeling of its reality) but to be offered a job as a result of my spouse’s hire is not a recipe for self confidence and blazing a trail towards new pathways of fulfillment.  So, here I found myself adjuncting again, albeit, at a very good SLAC.  I took the offer because every bit of money counts when you live in a stupid-expensive part of the country and I was delusional (once again) that my skills might be valued this time, after all.  The wording regarding the offer of my contract implied that there might be a future there which is another reason why I agreed.  DON’T EVER BELIEVE THAT THERE IS ANYTHING BEYOND THE INITIAL OFFER.  I apologize for the screaming, but I have to emphasize that I have been sucked into little rays of hope three times over and have been denied each time.  It was probably a line to entice my spouse to take the position.

Instead of waiting until the end of the contract, I decided, “It is go time.”  I am not getting any younger and that retirement account isn’t materializing out of thin air magically like I so wish that it would.  I emailed the chair inquiring about longer term opportunities.  The chair wrote back that it didn’t look good, budgets, yada, yada, blergh.  I requested a meeting.  After learning of the “bait and switch,” I realized that I was just another contingent faculty member for realz.  I wasted a year and a half on a hope.  Although, it actually was not completely wasted.  I needed that time to mentally prepare myself and feel the mourning over the loss of a career I spent my entire adult life preparing for, but never fulfilled in its entirety.  It also wasn’t a waste of time because I got to teach courses on my “bucket list” including a methods course which I am finding useful for my resume (but not useful for my overall sanity).

When I quit the first time, I worked on my online creative business (that I started while still professing) but did not really consider any other employment opportunities.  I wasn’t ready.  I just couldn’t see how my education and current skill set would translate to another job or career.  Also, let’s face it, I didn’t want to lose the flexibility and relative freedom I enjoyed.  But crying all of the time, being secretly jealous of everyone around you who “made it” is not sustainable either.  This time I took control.  I requested a meeting and told the chair that considering my long-term prospects, I have made the hard decision to leave academia.  The chair was surprised at this news which was, in turn, surprising to me.  Am I supposed to string a bunch of adjunct gigs forever into a non-retirement?  Am I supposed to endure living on the fringes of a world in which I desperately wanted full membership (even if it probably wasn’t right for me anyway)?  Am I supposed to live in a liminal space betwixt and between being an adult (being judged worthy and a valued member of the community with voting rights) and student (infantilized into one small niche of limited responsibilities) forever?

There are a number of realizations that have made this break with the umbilical cord of academia tolerable (but only after years of pain and crying almost weekly and sometimes daily after losing my first visiting position):

1) The realization that I want more (responsibilities, money, respect, value) than academia can give

2) The realization that this actually is starting to get boring.  There are few jobs in the world requiring higher education that hire you to do one to two primary tasks for the rest of your career.  There is upward mobility in your rank/title, but unless you go into administration, you teach and you research and you serve on variously useful committees.  Unless you loveeeeee these things with a passion (and even if you do) this could start to get boring after a while.  I realized that I want to learn new skills and have varying responsibilities.

3) The myth of being a professor (formed when I was 18-21) does not come even close to the reality of being one.

4) The realization that I want more “normal” colleagues.  You know, the ones who don’t think TV is a sin, who let their kids do kid stuff instead of learning twelve languages before the age of 5, who know how to or are at least willing to bowl?  While I have worked with colleagues on the more “normal” end (and yes, I do realize that there is no such thing as “normal” and that it is a social construction, but let’s be real, it is not typical to have conversations in which people try to “out elite” each other by emphasizing how removed they are from the mediocrity of quotidian life) even then, I just never felt comfortable with most other academics.  Once, when I admitted (that I liken this to confessing a sin is quite telling itself) that I watched American Idol to a small group of colleagues with whom I felt comfortable, I got blank stares.  “Really?”  “You watch that?”  WTF, yes!  (Well I did for the first few seasons.)  It is entertaining watching performers grow, stumble, sing beautifully and horribly.  I spent many therapy sessions being convinced that it was okay to actually be who I was in front of my colleagues without wearing the “mask” of the academic intellectual.

5) Most of my life I have been a loner, but having the entire workload of a research and teaching agenda being completed in isolation is getting tired.  In my sub-fields there is little to no collaborative research or teaching, so everyday I sit alone, read, take notes, write notes, and then teach.  I may not speak to another colleague during the whole day.  They are in their respective offices, reading, taking notes, writing notes, and then teaching.  It is a lonely life and I yearn to work on meaningful projects with others.  I realize that some social interaction is essential for my mental health.

6) I would like to more regularly interact with people who have social skills.  You know, I yearn for small things like saying, “Hi!” when you pass someone you know in the hallway.

7) Faculty entitlement drives me crazy.  I just want to say, “Take ten minutes to leave your bubble and see how less advantaged people live and then compare that to the ten minutes that you have been arguing over the declining quality of pens being stocked by the institution.”  I wish I could share real stories, but you get the idea.

8) Student entitlement drives me crazy.  I just want to say, “Take ten minutes to leave your bubble and see how less advantaged people live and then compare that to the ten minutes that you have spent arguing with me about how it is unfair that I won’t let you hand your paper in late because your parents decided to vacation in the Maldives in the middle of February and you “have to” go and shouldn’t be held responsible.

9)  The realization that I do not want to work for 19 year olds.  I would like to have a more mature supervisor.

I am sure that there are other reasons but this is a start.  I viewed this profession through rose colored glasses that are now becoming clearer.

My Quitting Story Part I (second installment): The 18 Step Program – From Idealist to Disenchantment to Relief

Step 11:  Send out “cold call” CVs and get bites from two institutions so I have some part-time work equaling a full time course load for the next academic year.

Step 12:  Start positions as adjunct.  Do the freeway thing.  Should be writing a book, but burnt out completely from the dissertation and can’t stand to do it even though I try.  Start an article in between learning two more institutions and their students.

Step 13: A full-time VAP position opens up at one the schools.  I apply and get it.

Step 14: Work full-time and a TT position in the department opens up.  Apply, get shortlisted and then not called for an interview.

Step 15:  Decide that I will quit academia.  This is the first time.  I spent over 10 years getting a Ph.D. and honing my skills.  I mentally had a hard time publishing afterwards due to the crushing end of my original contingent contract and learning two new institutions.  And I was just pain burnt out on research after a five year struggle a ridiculously ambitious dissertation.  I just do not want to do more crazy-hard work for free.  (I consider writing a book crazy-hard.)  You have got to be kidding me that I am expected to write a book on my own time, with no institutional or financial support for the slim chance of maybe getting a someday position.  I found a place that I loved living and was not willing to give that up.  I sacrificed enough, I think, and have proven myself capable of doing this job.

Step 16:  While I made this choice to leave, I still felt like a failure, that I wasted my precious youth, and that I never achieved my dream.  Spend summer aimlessly working on creative pursuits and trying to figure out “the next step” while wallowing in a failed career.

Unexpected Step 17:  Mr. Leftovers (who left his program ABD and began an administrative career after following me to my first VAP) sees a good job opportunity across country and for shits and giggles applies.  He interviews. Wants job. Gets job.  To entice him, they offer me a “trailing spouse bonus prize” of a small teaching contract for two years.  Isn’t this an interesting twist on the trailing spouse scenario?  There is some vague language that there might be more opportunities later.  I really don’t want to leave the place I love, but Mr. Leftovers is super into  this opportunity and there should be more opportunities for me there.

Step 18:  Fast forward a little over one year and I find myself in the third semester of a four semester contract.  I don’t love where I live at all.  I am teaching again at a top SLAC and do enjoy it, kinda, I think, but my soul dies a little each day as I walk into the borrowed office I squat in and face a lack of integration into the department and the institution as a whole.  Reminders of my status surface at every turn, just like the other three institutions I worked for as a contingent faculty member.  This, I thought, is my last chance.  I am not applying for any other academic teaching positions as I am no longer competitive with my lack of publishing.  If this works out, I will try this career again and restart my research agenda.  So, instead of waiting until the contract closes, I am pro-active and ask about “future opportunities.”  Denied!

Next, how I quit.

My Quitting Story Part I: The 18 Step Program – From Idealist to Disenchantment to Relief

Step 1:  Apply to and get accepted to top program in the country (but with tuition only aid).

Step 2:  Face: backstabbing, simple conversations that become a battle of wits proving who can outsmart whom, backstabbing (did I mention backstabbing?) ego-bruising toxic atmosphere for over a decade – where is the romantic life of the mind I dreamed of?

Step 3:  Relatively quickly realize that my image of the professor life sharply differs from the reality of: scrambling for funding (I didn’t get into this to be a fundraiser); the crush of the clock to produce, produce, produce; spending so much time manipulating course material and lesson plans to “make it interesting” to students; the crushing loneliness of working alone most of the time; and the daily judgment of your work as a scholar and a teacher.  The best part about the last one is that you are often judged by entitled 19 year olds who actually have the power to determine your future through course evaluations.

Step 4:  Have some doubts but press forward because it feels too late to turn back.  Teaching is interesting at this point still and I enjoy research just not in the way expected of me to succeed in this profession.  I also don’t want to feel as though this has been a honkin’ waste of time and my youth.  I still idealize the job of “professor” at this point.

Step 5:  Spend 1.5 years creating my own data set based on hundreds of interviews and document research.  Spend years coding and wrestling with the sheer amount of information to process it into a coherent document called a dissertation.

Step 6:  Go on job market with a publication, ABD.  Nothing.

Step 6:  Go on job market with two publications, ABD.  Nothing.

Step 7:  Go on job market with two publications and a paper award for second publication, ABD.  Hurray, a full-time Visiting Assistant Prof. position at a SLAC!  At this point, I am scratching the walls trying to get out of the city I live in so I am super happy.  I feel elated for the first time in years and am a bit delusional that this VAP might actually lead to something greater and is a good career choice.  My hard work and complete sacrifice of my ego has finally paid off!  (Or so I think.)

Step 8:  Finish Ph.D.  Yay!

Step 9: This should read…profit!  But the reality is high five-figure debt accumulated from undergrad, an MA program, and the Ph.D.

Step 10: Start dream job.  Love location, colleagues, and actually buy a house in an awesome neighborhood.  Live “the dream” for 1.5 years.  (It wasn’t really a dream, which I will write about in a future post, but it had its good moments.) Get caught up in administration changes, department politics, and economic fallout.  My contract is very unceremoniously and unprofessionally (lawsuit territory) not renewed after two years when I initially was told I could realistically work up to seven years as TT positions opened up.

Steps 11-18 coming soon…

On Leaving, a Second Time

I officially quit academia this past Thursday.  Well, technically, this is the second time. If you are “lucky enough,” you get to participate in this agony only once.  I have had the privilege of doing this twice, but this time it feels good, right, and on my own terms as opposed to being undervalued and “kicked to the curb.”  I think I am Type 1.5 leaver.  I loved my small liberal arts college, learning, and my professors.  Some filled me with awe and I yearned to be like them.  They were my heroes and role models and I thought they lived the glamorous “life of the mind” thinking deep thoughts in their quirky, old, homes.  In the classroom they would share these deep thoughts with attentive, respectful students (or so it seemed to me at the time).  This life was far removed from my working class upbringing and I wanted it.  I was pretty naïve about this whole professor thing being the first person in my family to go to college, never mind graduate school.  I just knew I wanted to be like them – sharing a passion, having a variable, flexible schedule, challenging status quo thinking, thinking up cool, new ideas, and connecting with students during office hours.  It is easy to look at my 20 year old self now, laugh a slightly evil laugh, and pat myself on the head.  But I didn’t know better and I had the full support of my professors which felt great.  My family was like, “WTF.  Why do you want to spend more time and money on school when the first degree didn’t ‘pay off.'”  (I graduated with my B.A. during the recession of the early 90s and my first job out of college was working in retail.)  I had no idea what being a professor meant.  It has, of course, changed dramatically and in unforeseeable ways in the 23 years since I initially made that decision.

There are a lot of post-academic blogs and I benefit from each and every one I read.  I hope to add to the discussion about life in and transitioning out of academia.