Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Making the Switch: Q&A with Benjamin Harrison

When Ph.D.’s contemplate leaving academe because they either cannot find a tenure-track job or are dissatisfied with their current academic position, location, salary, etc., many turn to elite private-school teaching. For those who truly enjoy teaching and interacting with young people, working at a prep school is an understandable, and realistic, alternate career option. Unlike public schools, private schools generally do not require certification; demonstrating subject matter expertise is easily accomplished with a doctoral degree.

Private secondary schools are open to the prospect of hiring Ph.D.s, so long as they have teaching experience and are able to avoid the common pitfalls of appearing arrogant or anything less than passionate about working with adolescents. I spoke with Benjamin Harrison, whom regular readers may know as an assistant professor of history currently making the transition to private school teaching, about his background and interests in making the switch.

Q. Can you describe your current academic position and tell us how you got there?

I received my Ph.D. in a humanities field from a medium-sized university in the mid-west. After completing my degree I worked as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a small college before landing my current tenure-track position at a non-flagship state university. Like many in the humanities, I largely took this position because it was the one I was offered, but it also seemed like a good job.

Q. Why are you considering leaving the academy?

God, that’s a book in itself! The short answer is that the reality of life in the academy is not all that I’d hoped. I am at a third-tier institution in a part of the country my wife and I don’t much like. In a perfect world, I’d find a different job in the academy, but the market makes that sort of move nearly impossible.

At the risk of bragging, I’ve got a damn good CV: a book finished and under contract with a major university press, two articles on my second project in top-tier journals, prestigious fellowships, and loads of teaching experience. In the past these would have allowed me to move up, but that is no longer the case. Last year I applied for two jobs, made the on-campus stage for one of them. I lost out to a candidate with two books, multiple major articles and tenure at an R-1 university.

This brought home the fact that when you get to the final rounds, publications and awards don’t matter because all the finalists are going to have them. At that point it’s a matter of fit and personality, which is another way of saying “blind luck.” I could continue to apply for jobs, and hope that I would eventually win the cosmic coin-flip, but the stress of the market and the long odds of finding a desirable position made this route unacceptable.

I've come to realize two things:

1. Staying in academia would mean staying at my current school.

2. I am not staying at my current school.

Other factors, related and unrelated:

• Pay. Salaries have been frozen for four years and the chances of a meaningful raise are zero. We’re living pay-check to pay-check, and that sucks. I can make more at private school.

• Once you have tenure, my current university provides little/no support for research. As a result my research program is about to die, so why not let it die at a prep school?

• My current uni. provides no tuition support even at universities in the same state system. I see senior faculty teaching two courses every summer just so their kids can attend _____ State, and I’m not interested in going down that road.

Q. What is it about private school teaching in particular that attracts you?

Going the prep school route brings me and my family a tremendous amount of freedom. How many academics can choose the city, or even the state, in which they want to live? If I go the prep school route I will be able to do that.

$$$$$. Believe it or not prep schools pay more (often much more) than your average college or university. According to the salary schedule of one prep school (granted it’s in Los Angeles) I would walk through the door making $66,000. According to my rep at Carney, salaries in less high-rent cities would be in the high $50s to low $60s. That’s real money.

Quality and quantity of Students. Students at prep schools read and write better than the students in my surveys. And while I will teach more classes per semester, they will be far smaller, so the total number of students I have will actually decrease.

Community. While we have a handful of majors whom I dearly love, the majority of my students disappear at the end of the semester, and I never see them again. I attended and taught at small colleges, and I miss the sense of community inherent in smaller institutions. Most prep schools operate in the same way.

Career prospects. PhDs at prep schools are on the fast track to department char and administration if they desire. In my current department I’d make chair in about twelve years, and never become dean. I don’t know if I want to go this route, but I want to have the option.

Q. Do you have any misgivings about leaving academe and teaching at the secondary level?

Of course! Right or wrong (and I’d argue “wrong”) there is more social cache attached to being a professor than a teacher. That is a pretty significant psychological barrier to get past, and I can’t say I’ve done it yet.

There is also the fact that leaving would probably mean the end of my research agenda. That said, I’ve heard from several different people that research is possible. One friend had a colleague on a year-long sabbatical (funded by the NEH) to work on his book, and everyone agreed that prep school librarians can get you hard-to find books through ILL. Many schools also will pay for borrowing privileges from local university libraries. So while research may become a summer-only activity, for many of us it already is.

Q. How does the hiring process differ in the world of independent secondary schools?

First, it’s a bit later in the year. The majority of hiring takes place in the late spring, right as higher ed is wrapping up.

Second, a lot of it runs through regional and national hiring firms such as Carney Sandoe. This actually makes life much easier, as you write one letter, one CV and let the search firm do the legwork to find you appropriate positions. Then you sit back and wait to hear from schools. I’m sure it’s just as stressful as the academic market, but at least you don’t have to tailor twenty-five different letters.

Third, the PhD really makes a candidate stand out. At the risk of jinxing myself, this year (for the first time in my life) I’m going to be a hot candidate, possibly turning down interviews and offers. Imagine that.

*Thanks to Ben Harrison for the great interview. For more information on making the switch to private school teaching, and additional advice from BH and other Ph.D.'s, check out my Inside Higher Ed column next month.


Anonymous said...

I would look more carefully at the assumptions this writer is so blithely making; the job market pressures have led many others to make similar forays into private school teaching so the lead time on getting in ahead of the pack may have already elapsed.

The sky in those schools is also not unlimited; they depend for their income on the fees of individuals who may also be feeling economic pressures, and cutting back.

And finally, while C/Sandoe can be useful in finding positions, if they decide for any reason that your portfolio is not perfect (including your credit rating, apparently) they will opt out of representing you at all, so there is a steep downside to having to work through a one-stop shop.

As in, a nice little letter saying you don't fit their criterion, sorry.

Corinne said...

Great q&a. I've tried finding an academic job for several years and have finally decided to look elsewhere. (I refuse to adjunct for low pay or be a contingent faculty member my whole life.)

Knowing it ain't all kicks and giggles on the tenure track makes the search for a plan B seem less depressing than I had originally thought. Prep schools were not my #1 choice at first but I'm warming to the idea. Just need to get into a HS classroom asap . . .

Prep school teacher said...

@Anon. CSA is not the only game in town. You can find a prep school job w/o using a recruitment firm, though it may take longer and not pay as well. But it is possible. But I do agree that it is only getting harder to get your foot in the door--even with a PhD--at a private school unless you are in a STEM field or speak lots of foreign languages. But prep school teaching is still a good alternate career for the PhDs who like teaching and are lucky enough to get into the system.

Michael said...

Good, informative post. I haven't really thought much about the prep school route, but I will be now. Thanks!

Benjamin said...


There is no question that the field is far more competitive than it was just a few years ago, and I would hate for anyone to think otherwise. That said, there is simply no comparison between the job market in higher education and private schools. This year there are three (3) college-level jobs for which I am a good fit in the entire country, and each of them will have upwards of 100 applicants. There may be more PhDs on the secondary school market than in the past, but it’s simply not the same thing.

It is also true that the economy has hit prep schools as hard as many colleges, and some have gone belly-up. This adds a school’s endowment and overall financial health to the factors one should consider when looking at schools, and will certainly tighten the market. An important difference between universities (especially public institutions) and prep schools is that the latter cannot save money simply by increasing class-size by 50% or replacing tenure-track lines with adjuncts. Things may be tough all over, but they are tougher when the state legislature is slashing your budget.

As for CSA, while they are the biggest firm, they are not the only game in town. If you are out west (or interested in going out west) there is CalWest, which serves California, Oregon, Washington, and (I think) the mountain states. Also one should keep an eye on the NAIS job database. Once you register you can customize the search engine and they’ll email you a list of positions that fit the criteria you establish. (In fact, I just found and applied for a job that appeared on NAIS, but not on Carney. Even if you are a Carney candidate watch the NAIS listings!)

Anonymous said...

Don't assume that a Pn.D translates into an automatic hire. I had only one interview two years ago and luckily was hired then promoted. Some private school administrators look at newly-minted ph.d's with much caution; they want to make sure that you don't seek a transitional job. Moreover, they sometimes fear that educators from the academy won't "get" high school culture.

Expect your first few years to entail much work and you should also anticipate extracurricular duties. I inherited Student Government this year; it demands more time than other obligations, but thankfully is neither sport nor speech and debate (very time-intensive obligations).