King (or Queen) of Contingency: Work Histories in Post-Fordist Economies

It has been a busy few weeks here. I am still wrapping up the most demanding course I ever taught. I applied for a couple of jobs, interviewed for an internship, did not get the internship, but was then offered a very short-term and somewhat intense sub-contracting non-academic research position with a consulting agency.  Despite my reservations about the time frame and deadline (I started this intense job during the last week of the semester and will have to have it completed a few days after grading finals) I decided to accept it because it is an interesting project/topic and I thought it would make a good addition to my resume during this time of transition.  I also thought that it was a good opportunity to “test” a potential new career.  (More on this topic in a future post.)

Being offered this position got me thinking about my work history.  Since graduating with my Bachelor’s degree, I have only worked at two jobs that were “permanent.”  By “permanent,” I mean that the job was not listed as seasonal, temporary, limited grant funded, or contingent.  These two positions were filing medical records (as unbelievably boring as it sounds) and working at a historic movie theater (a surprisingly fun, “cool” job that let me get my grad school homework done).  This summarizes over twenty years of my employment history in which I have worked in approximately twenty-five positions both in an out of academe.  And fitting this pattern, my first post-ac employment is contract work.  I appreciate the opportunity, but at the same time I feel like contingent royalty.

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.

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.

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.