As the academic job market continues to deteriorate, I’ve been receiving a lot of inquiries and questions from friends and acquaintances in academia who feel stuck, frustrated and at a dead-end. Some are trying to find a job, others are struggling to find new positions for their spouses as they relocate to pursue their post-doc work. As the lowest people on the totem pole, new lecturers and adjuncts live in fear of losing their jobs. Others have simply grown weary of their colleagues’ egomaniacal antics and the constantly shifting landscape of academic politics. Many of them have questions about how I left, why I left, etc. Here goes…
The dream of landing a tenured position in humanities at a reputable 4-year institution is increasingly difficult to achieve. After spending a good chunk of one’s adult life living on less than minimum wage and working day and night, humanities Ph.Ds thrust themselves into a hostile job market and, best case scenario, are offered a position for which they have to relocate (at their own expense, naturally —- my friends in business are always shocked by this) in order to earn a starting salary equivalent to what private school undergrads pay for one year of tuition (or less).
Moreover, many universities continue to convey the message that the humanities are of little importance as they slash funding and bring on more adjuncts and less full-time professors (if they are hiring at all). Of course, this could not be further from the truth (the importance of the humanities is a topic for another post), but this trend doesn’t make finding (or keeping) a job any easier. At the same time, many Ph.D students are told by their advisors that the only respectable option for them is a tenure track position or a highly competitive post-doc.
It easy to commit to the system (I did for 4 years), to believe that being a professor is not just the “right” but the “only” career in which one will be happy. I know many incredible humanities scholars who are trying to make a go of it in an impossible system, and I wish that system could accommodate them.
I realized half way through my grad school career that traditional academia was not at all what I hoped it would be. I had entered with the desire to hone my teaching skills, acquire an in-depth knowledge of my field and open up more opportunities for my future. What I found was a system in which the rules and requirements change depending on who you happen to talk to that day, making it very difficult to concentrate on the goal (gaining skills and knowledge) because one is so focused on playing the political game. I was not alone in this, and I sympathize with graduate students and those looking for jobs who are currently experiencing such frustrations.
Realizing I was not happy, I researched my future options with a Ph.D. in French, trying to justify why I was there, why I should stay. Looking back, this period was very important; it forced me to identify my priorities and, to be blunt, screw my head back on straight. I learned that a Ph.D. in French would cause me to be over-qualified for many positions outside of academia, thus limiting my options should I fail to land an academic position (which, based on numbers, was looking like it would be the case). I began to think about other ways in which I could use my skills.
I left with my M.A. in French in 2007 and started a fruitful career teaching and writing. I soon had the resources to buy a house and travel. More importantly, I had time to devote to my marriage, my family and activities I enjoy. I continue to publish, make new connections, and am constantly driven by a genuine research interest in several fields. Though I enjoyed my graduate work (the actual work part of it, not the politics), I am also fulfilled pursuing my own research and publishing outside of a traditional university setting.
I work at a community college where I teach classroom and online courses. I have the freedom to design my own curricula for language, culture and literature courses and the pleasure of working with intelligent, down to earth colleagues and a diverse student body. I also own a freelance writing, editing, translation and consulting business that has not stopped growing since I started it 4 years ago. I use my skills every day and my income is considerably more than what I could make as an untenured new professor at a traditional university… or an unemployed Ph.D (not that it’s “all about the cash” when you’re a humanities person, but it’s nice to be paid a livable wage after training for so long).
When I left grad school, I received messages by people within academia warning me not to “ruin my life” by leaving the Ph.D. program. I remember being surprised and amused by this assertion, as if a Ph.D was some sort of identity or the “end all, be all” instead of a means to an end (that end being employment of some kind). On the contrary, by leaving I regained my freedom and am living a reality that would have never been possible had I continued down the path I was on.