The fact that our blog is necessary points to the fact that stepping away from academia is no easy task. One reason for this is that there are many subtle and not-so-subtle messages you receive during your graduate training that make it especially hard to imagine a future away from an academic setting. Even though I was fortunate enough to have amazing mentorship from faculty, who really did have my best interest at heart, these messages or narratives about the academy are built into the ethos of the university and it is almost impossible to avoid their affect. Despite my positive experiences, it took a lot of hard thinking and rewiring in order to get to where I am today—leaving the academy, or at least the TT, without regrets. In order to get here, I primarily had to think through and ultimately expose the academic myths that contribute to what I call the academic vortex—a force that keeps those in the academy from getting out or considering other options. Exposing these myths is only the first step in getting out. Our future posts will provide practical advice on how to pry yourself away from the academic vortex.
Myth #1: If you leave, or don’t get a TT job, you are a failure and not good enough.
truth: I was recently told by a reputable source that 75% of people with PhDs do not work in the academy. Does that mean that only 25% of people who get PhDs are “good enough” to snag a TT job? Hardly. We all know that the academy is not a meritocracy. Much like everywhere else, it has more to do with who you know than your talent. We all know this, but the myth of failure and not good enough still circulate because it simply validates and legitimizes those in power. This isn’t to say that those who have TT jobs haven’t worked hard or don’t deserve their positions. I’m simply saying that success comes in many shapes and sizes and we shouldn’t measure success by one single standard—the coveted TT job.
Myth #2: As a PhD, you are only trained to do one thing—be a professor.
truth: This was a myth that took me a long time to expose. I knew for a while that I didn’t want to pursue an academic job, but I didn’t think my skills and experience had prepared me to do anything else besides teach or research. Only after months of researching jobs and careers did I discover that I have a lot of skills and experiences that corporations, non-profits, and government agencies find valuable. Writing, researching, project management, analytical and creative thinking, curriculum design are just a few of the skills that most PhD’s in the humanities have, and these skills are in high demand outside of the university. This website https://careercenter.umich.edu/article/phd-transferable-skills was especially helpful in figuring out how to translate my CV into a Resume. Once I was able to see that my training was actually valuable outside the academy, I was able to match my skills and passion of teaching into a career—instructional design (more on this later).
Myth #3: Academic work is the only work worth doing or that can be fulfilling.
truth: First, let’s be honest, how many academics do you know that truly find their work fulfilling? Sure there are some who absolutely love their job and feel they are making a difference through their teaching or research. And as a graduate student, I even found my work of teaching, mentoring, and researching fulfilling. But I was in a highly supportive environment. There’s no guarantee that I would land in an academic setting where my research would be valued or my teaching seen as important. Simple ask Dr. Boson how fulfilled she felt on the TT.
The truth is that there are a lot of non-academic careers that can be just as or perhaps even more fulfilling than academic jobs. And personally debunking this myth has changed my ideas of what it means to have a career and what that career should represent. In an ideal world everyone should be able to fit their career to look like this: https://instagram.com/p/0gKLCOMx4p/. However, I'm skeptical that this is possible for everyone or that everyone wants to fit into this model. Why do all of these aspects, "you love it," "you're great at it," and "the world needs it," have to come together into one thing? Why can't we match 2 or 3 of them with our career, and then do the other 1 or 2 on the side? For example, this blog is Dr. Boson and I combining 3 of these aspects, "you love it," "you're great at it," and "the world needs it." We're passionate about helping others like us and we find this work fulfilling, but it's not our job.
This model seems predicated on another myth #4: You’re identity is tied to your job or career. Or, you are what you do.
truth: This myth is not unique to the academy; people in other professions also get their identity entangled with their career in unhealthy ways. But it is an issue that those leaving the academy have to deal with. We put so much of our self-worth and ourselves into our work, that walking away or saying no, almost feels like walking away from a part of yourself. Realistically, changing careers or professions, does demand reimagining yourself, what you’re good at, who you are in the world, and who you are to others. But this isn’t a bad thing, and it’s something I’ve begun to embrace and find exciting. Ultimately, I’m not my job or career, I’m someone’s partner, a friend, a daughter, a sister, an athlete, a writer, a thinker. I’ve also have discovered things about myself and things that I enjoy doing that I didn’t know because my identity and my time has been focused on academics for the past 11 years. I love learning about nature, or how things work, and doing things with my hands. Certainly I could have discovered these things as an academic, but stepping away has given me a new perspective and hopefully a healthier outlook for the rest of my paid career.
Myth #5: If you leave the academy, you will never have smart coworkers, or you’ll never be able to talk about books again.
truth: As I stated above, 75% of graduating PhD’s work outside the academy. Universities don’t have a monopoly on smart people. There are plenty of organizations, corporations, and government agencies that are filled with talented, interesting, and smart individuals. It’s true that your co-workers may not care about the same things you care about. But you can engage with communities and people outside of your job. Yes, it’s nice that in the academy it may be easier to find others with similar intellectual interests, but it’s still possible to have intellectual conversations and communities outside the university setting.
My graduate school experience was probably one of the best experiences a person could have in the academy. In both my MA and PhD programs, I worked with outstanding scholars, had amazing teachers, and even better mentors. My mentors and advisors were all truly invested in my success and gave me practical advice about how to proceed in the next steps. This is far from the case for most people, and the pitfalls of grad school could be an entirely different blog. I say this, simply to point out that the reasons I am saying no to the academy are not based on any personal horror story. I’ve had mostly positive experiences in the academy. And despite that, I am still saying no. Even though the institution has treated me well, and may even continue to treat me well if I stayed—I’m walking away.
When I decided to pursue a MA and again a PhD, like most of us, I had a naïve perspective on what the academy was. Because my graduate courses was where I learned about things that are important to me such as social equity and social justice, I naively thought that inside the academy is where I could continue to pursue these goals individually and collectively with others. However, over the past couple of years I have realized that the academy is anything but just, and my goals of working toward social justice will be anything but honored in most spaces in the academy. The academy is an institution; and as an institution it is still steeped in racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and all the other isms. No matter how much we pretend that the academy is an oasis from all this ish that we say only exists out in the real world, it is not. This is even the case for fields and departments that are meant to offer a critical perspective, such as WGSS and American Studies. These spaces are also a part of the institution and are often just as culpable in perpetuating the ish.
Clearly I’m speaking from a white perspective. Minorities, particularly people of color, have long known this. White liberals, like myself, need to recognize how steeped and tainted the academy really is. It is not a safe haven or some benign entity that stands for good and justice. We especially need to recognize this of departments and fields that claim to offer critical analysis on issues of social inequity and injustice.
This may be obvious to you, and on a certain level I knew this about the academy. But the thought of saying no and getting a corporate job felt wrong, or that it went against what I thought I should be doing with my life. Working for a corporate, capitalistic system, just felt wrong. Are we not taught in countless graduate courses, that “they” are the enemy? Only academics who can theorize about capitalism and its effects are good and true. Right? Not quite. What is the academy if it is not a corporate, capitalistic system? We can claim it is something else, decorate it up with flowery language and make it sound like we’re really about educating people. But given recent high profile events in universities all across the country (I’m looking at you Urbana-Champaign, Illinois), this façade is quickly falling apart.
Certainly I could stay in the academy and work to change the institution from the inside. This is the entire premise of the founding of my field, WGSS. And many people I know and love are doing this good work. However, this option overtime has become less and less appealing. I cannot ignore the reality of the current job market, where the odds of getting a TT job are very slim even with a stellar CV. If I were able to get a TT job, or even a visiting position, the chances that it would be in a livable and viable location for me and my family are next to 0. Over the past year I’ve come to realize how much of a privilege it is to pursue an academic career, or any career for that matter, regardless of where it takes you. Place matters. I can’t simply go where the job is because that would mean most likely taking my Black partner far from any community that they desperately need to feel whole and normal.
From my perspective now, I can see several other advantages to saying no to the university, and working in a corporate or government setting. One, I will not be subjected to constant disappointment from colleagues, administrators, and other leadership who say they stand for one thing, but then whose actions negate those principles. Two, I will be appropriately compensated, and overall simply treated with more respect as an employee. If I work overtime, I will be paid. Period. Three I won’t have the constant feeling of dread that I’m not publishing enough or doing enough service. When I leave work, I can leave it there. Of course this will vary depending on the job, but for the most part, work email will get answered during work hours. It sounds like a small thing, but it actually has huge ramifications on a person’s life. Four, I can still write, publish, and engage in activism outside of the academy on my own terms. One of the things that excites me the most is writing for a broader audience. We all know that most academic work is only read by other academics because that’s what gets you tenure. But without the ever looming tenure clock, I can write and publish whatever I want for whatever audience I want. I can still use my skillset of writing, research, and analytical thinking to engage in activism. And dare I say, I think I can do it better outside the academy than in.