The End of Summer Vacation: A Tale of Ambivalence

Since my last post, I spent five weeks being quite ill with a virus/infection that would not end.  I am just about feeling normal at this point two months later.  That was so not fun.  In my malaise-laden illness daze I managed to send out an application to an interesting alt-ac position.  I heard back fairly promptly with a request for a phone interview and then had an in-person interview.  After one more call-back and a background check, I was offered the position.  I start this week and I am currently experiencing a potent cocktail of emotions.

I am a bit surprised at how sad I feel.  Accepting this position, which I think is a good fit, makes the end of my academic career feel so final.  All of the years of struggle to complete my degree was fueled mostly by faith (and a love of the ideas in the discipline) that it somehow would work out.  And in the end this hasn’t happened.  It has been a long and bitter road.  Securing this position has allowed deep feelings of disappointment and fear to surface.  I actually think that this is healthy for moving on with my life which has been difficult because I have been caught in a cycle of mourning for years at this point.  I fought the fight for so long because I enjoyed many aspects of academic work and its more flexible lifestyle.  The work didn’t feel like work (except when grading large stacks of student work) even though it was certainly challenging.  I fought the fight so that I would have self-directed, engaging work that would keep me out of a cubicle from 8:30-5:30.  And this week I find myself figuratively returning to the cubicle.  I worked my way through undergrad and grad school, so I am no stranger to this schedule, but I remember how it felt a bit like handcuffs.  I worked very hard to avoid those handcuffs.  So as I share the news with friends, family, mentors, I am greeted with hearty exclamations of congratulatory wishes, but I don’t feel like celebrating.  This was not my life long dream.  In addition, I think part of the reason for my less than celebratory mood is the compensation.  I would not be able to support myself on this salary in the expensive region of the country in which I live.  I tried to negotiate salary, an earlier start of retirement benefits, more vacation days, but nothing was negotiable.  Higher-ups recognize that the position pays 20%-30% below other similar positions and work is being done to rectify this discrepancy, but I was assured that nothing would change before the new fiscal year (next July).  I feel a little defeated in the face of what would appear to be a victory.  I spend upteen years working on developing skill sets and I can’t support myself with my job.  I didn’t go into academia to get rich, but it would be nice to think that I could sustain myself with the skilled work required of this position.  Despite its salary, I accepted the job because it potentially offers an opportunity for later transition. It is a foot in the door or a well-paid internship with benefits.  I think (I hope) that the work will be interesting as well.  Much of today I spent reading post-ac blogs to help assuage my fears about post-ac transitions.  Thanks to all of the bloggers for sharing their experiences.

After years of resistant independence (and summer “vacations”) it will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

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?

The Critical Difference Between Failing and Being a Failure: How I Realized That I Have Not Wasted My Life

One of my most important “aha!” moments during this post-ac transition was when I was able to distinguish between my failure to reach a goal and being a failure.*  The distinction between the two is nothing less than recognizing the difference between invalidating your whole person, entire self, and all of your achievements and, instead, recognizing that something you tried didn’t work out the way you anticipated.  Most of us view our work as academics as being personal; we often view it as an extension of ourselves.  We place our ideas and writing out there and in the process, we share very intimate parts of ourselves.  We expose to the world, like some peer reviewed diary, how we think and how our mind works.  These are ideas that we have spent hours crafting, mulling, and honing which we then publicly display for the world (or the five readers in our niche subfield) to judge.  It is understandable how blurred this line between self and work becomes.  The thing is, that work does not sum up who we are.  It is a part of us, but not all of us.

This is “easy” for me to write now after years of believing that I was a failure.  And sometimes I still slip.  Thinking of my academic experience in terms of this distinction is still new for me.  In some sense, it is such an easy thing to do, to conflate my academic career and my self identity but it is also so wrong.  I was the first person in my family to go to college.  I worked my way through college and then graduate school.  I earned a Ph.D. in one of the most rigorous programs in the world.  I won a prestigious award for a published article.  I had my work debated by a national government, resulting in a response paper.  I mentored and inspired students and asked them to consider thinking about the world that challenged their assumed understandings.  For all of these reasons I am proud and have a huge sense of accomplishment.  For years I did not allow myself to enjoy these accomplishments because I did not land a tenure track position.  I thought everything was a waste because I didn’t achieve that goal, a goal that was largely out of my control.  I framed all of these things as incidental to the goal, but in reality I was living the life of an academic.  I accomplished so much.  I taught; I got to know students; I changed students’ lives; I advised; I researched; I helped students reach their goals; I made an impact on the field; I published; I mentored.  I did not get an opportunity to shape departments or university trajectories.  And I did not get the opportunity to make this enterprise a life long career.  This is regrettable and sad.  For me, living life as a contingent faculty member is not sustainable.  I am not sure that the tenure-track would suit me well, but I wanted the opportunity to make that decision for myself.  I didn’t get that opportunity, but that doesn’t mean that I am failure or that I wasted my life.

*Therapy helped me to make this distinction.

Tough Week in Post-Ac Land

This week I received three rejections for positions I applied for over the last few weeks.  On the positive side, at least they let me know and the rejections were very respectful, which is a lot more than I can say for what usually happens in the academic world:  1) Apply; 2) Hope; 3) Tap, tap, tap, is there anyone out there?  Sometimes there is:  4) Receive snobby letter that makes you feel like crap.  I have actually received letters worded in such a way that put down the rejected candidates.  Luckily, job market rumor mills have developed which create some transparency for this wretched process.  I do remember, however, two academic rejections that stand out to me as being so well written that I actually felt better about myself after applying even though I did not get the positions.  Proof exists that respecting people while sharing the bad news is possible – even in academia – which makes this whole process a bit more humane.  I wanted to meet the letter writers, have a coffee with them, and thank them for their generosity and kindness.  Using a little bit o’ reflection theory here, I would argue that when applying for jobs (academic or not) the way in which a potential employer handles your application and interacts with you,  “reflects” workplace culture and how you are likely to be treated as an employee.  I had a devastatingly poor interview for a dream job earlier this year (more on that later, maybe) but the way the whole thing unfolded sent up red flags all over the place.

Respect aside, it still super sucks.  Two of the positions really, really, really, really interested me.  I would utilize those skills that I fought so hard for in graduate school, have meaningful work that made a difference, and participate in more collaborative environment.  I can envision life post-ac, but I wonder if I will get there.  It is sometimes hard to conceive when I have been looking for more “permanent” (tenure track) work for about nine years.  It has been sooooo long since I have had a career accomplishment to celebrate.  It has been so long since my skills have felt valued.  It has been a bit of disappointment all the way down.

Thus far, I have been applying to academic-y type jobs that require research capacities because that is what fits my skill set.  The thing is, I am not sure I want to even use them.  It is where I decided to start, though.  I have no problem thinking of non-academic-y careers.  The problem is, each one of those is difficult to break into as well.  Interior design, cake decorating, landscape architecture (man, do I wish I knew this field existed when I was an undergrad), opening a niche boutique, and floral design all appeal to me, but good luck!  I can picture myself in funky work environment (preferably with exposed brick walls in a repurposed industrial building) thinking up solutions for important problems in a dynamic team environment with interesting coworkers.  Yes, this explicit vision is a little bit ridiculous perhaps, but it gets me through the tough times.  The many years of rejection in academia have taken their toll on me and my self confidence.  Add in three rejections in seven days, and it has been one tough week in Leftovers land.  At least I had a good week teaching, so that is some solace.

I have been reading a bit of Escape the Ivory Tower this week which has been immensely helpful.  Although, I keep on reading stories about post-acs (in various blogs) who get jobs 2-4 weeks out and change their lives quickly or they “fall into” something.  In comparison, I languish in the land of rejection.  I don’t know about you, but I have never fallen into anything.  I planned and strategized and planned some more.  And now that I am rudderless, I still don’t sense any opportunities to “fall into.”  Virtually everyone I know is in academe and my social networks are very thin after sacrificing them during endless years of grad school.  This process is very frustrating as I know I am qualified for many jobs but I don’t appear qualified. On the other hand, there are jobs that I know I could “grow into.”  I have all of the qualifications except office management experience, for example.  I have managerial experience leading research projects but that doesn’t seem to be enough.  I simultaneously feel over and under qualified and wonder if there is any place I will fit.  I went into academia, in part, because I didn’t think that I fit the “normal” work world.  All I know is, that after nine years of looking for work I am tired of looking for work.

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.