Coming Up for Air, Facing Reality, and One Night Stands

The last six weeks have been extremely busy between teaching a very demanding course and taking on a last minute consulting project (the result of an application for a different temporary opportunity with the firm).  Now that I have completed these pressing demands, the stark reality of vast nothingness and my failure to secure other work weigh heavily on me.  This has been made all the more tangible due to receiving yet another application rejection email yesterday.

I am just not sure what to do.  I couldn’t secure tenure track work, or even longer-term non-tenure track work.  I have applied for a range of jobs that seek my skill set.  Specifically, these jobs involve qualitative research.  I specialize in qualitative research having worked on several qualitative research contract projects outside of academe during graduate school.  I mentored dozens of graduate research projects helping students develop their methods sections.  I use qualitative methods in my own work, and have taught qualitative methods to undergrads.  Somehow, all of this experience does not qualify me for these jobs.  I am not even sure at this point that I even want a research position, but I am so tired of my skills not being valued.  For years, I struggled for recognition at the schools where I was the “temp” employee and now I struggle for any recognition of my skills at all.  I am tired of work being a series of “one night stands.”  I am a professional temp.

I am frustrated looking at job postings knowing that I could do the job, but knowing that I do not have the stated qualifications.  I apply for some of these positions, but they don’t yield any bites.  There are too many people out there who have those specific qualifications.

I am also tired of the instability of entering middle-age and not having a career path or a retirement account.  I can think of alternative careers, but they involve training.  The opportunity cost of getting my Ph.D. (time, money, loans) has made a career switch at this point difficult.  It is not impossible, but it is not appealing (more money, more time) considering the fields that interest me most.  And, who knows if there will be a job at the end.  It is a huge risk.  I took a huge risk and lost.  Where to go from here?  I don’t know.

For those considering leaving academia or are on the fence, think really hard if you want to be in your early 40s without any stable career or retirement.  Will you be ready to start over?

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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: 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…