Thursday, November 04, 2010

Stepping Outside the Maze

Sometimes, particularly in the midst of a long and torturous job search, it can seem like you've been blindly walking in circles and are starting to run out of viable options. Your efforts have seemingly come to naught; the various, sometimes conflicting tracks you've been following into the distance have all but disappeared. Last month's job leads have dried up. It feels like your SOL: alone and lost in a bewildering job-hunting maze, without a map or a plan or even a piece of beef jerky to keep you going. 

What to do? Should you reconsider your options, lower your standards, or check out a pile of self-help employment books from the local library? Is it time to fill out a Starbuck's application?  (Or maybe you hit  bottom long ago and are already working there, or somewhere similar?) What, in other words, should you do when you have no idea where to go from here--wherever here may be?

As the tenure-track job advertisements dwindle down to November's haphazard drip, rather than September-October's steady trickle, I for one have begun to seriously consider the fact that I may not have any academic interviews, not to mention a tenure-track job, to gear up for in 2011. Am I OK with this? Am I ready to face the inevitable? Well, first of all, my search this year was quite "selective": not only was the number of jobs advertised in my specific history field limited to no more than 10-15 total in the entire country, I only applied for the handful of positions that I'm realistically prepared to accept, if it came to that point in the process.

In the past, I've applied for just about anything and everything because I didn't feel like I had a choice. Teach a 4/4 in North Dakota or Alabama? Why not? Work at an uber religious school when I'm not the slightest bit religious? Okey dokie. Who am I to turn my nose up at a relevant position? I'm an academic and should therefore suck it up and do whatever it takes to jump on the tenure track, right?  Even if that means making $40K per year; teaching classes I'm not remotely interested in; teaching summer school/night classes to make extra cash; living somewhere I know I won't like; and watching my research program dry up to a puddle of goo. It's still better than the alternative: leaving the ivory tower. Handing in my "professional academic" badge for good.

Hmm . . . Now I'm not so sure. After spending the past 6-9 months seriously considering non-academic job options (academic administration, communications, publishing, journalism, nonprofits, government work, etc.), I've made a complete 180, at least mentally. I'm no longer so committed to academe that I'd be willing to live anywhere, do anything, wrack up more debt, to stay in the game. I've finally begun to make peace with my past and consider the sunk vs. opportunity costs of my current professional situation.

Sure, I'm still squarely on the fence. I've applied for academic jobs at this point in the year but not nonacademic. I've yet to decide which direction I really want to go or to solicit contacts in a new nonacademic field or to arrange informational interviews. (Why? Because I still have another postdoc lined up for 2011 and another couple geographic moves to make before I truly taking the plunge one way or the other. I'm basically still living the life of an impoverished academic vagabond.) But I have stopped applying for postdoctoral fellowships and grants, visiting positions, and undesirable tenure-track jobs. I'm getting pickier just when all signs indicate that I should be getting more desperate. And, yes, I'm OK with that. Regardless of what happens in the future, I'll still be living the life of the mind as an impoverished scholar in one form or another, whether I'm in the academy or outside, so why limit my employment options? There's a big world out there.


KT said...

I hear you - I am also a female PhD who has several years of solid teaching experience. After moving to a new area to follow my spouse's position, and a disheartening job search locally, I am having strong doubts about remaining in academia. I've already been working part-time at a place that only requires a high school education, and have found it to be surprisingly refreshing and extremely personally rewarding.

Yet there is the mindset, so carefully cultivated by our mentors and peers during grad school, that we should attain academic positions. I do greatly enjoy teaching and hope to do that in one form or another in the future, but I am getting to the point where I am tired of jumping through hoops to acheieve an academic position.

For now my plan is to continue to explore my options in academia for the next year. To do this, I am accepting a 1-semester adjunct position recently offered to me at a local college. Through this I plan to network, discover future potential opportunities, and hopefully decide where I want to go from here. However, this decision comes at a strong cost, as the salary for the adjunct position is very very very low. In fact when I take into account teaching prep time in addition to in-class hours, the position will pay only slightly above minimum wage. Is it worth it? Only time will tell.

Best of luck to you on your search! I only recently stumbled upon your blog, and can very much relate to your situation.

E.W. said...

Thanks for your message, KT. Little known fact about me: I'm actually in a similar situation and have been following my employed partner around for a while now (plus we have kids). We’ve split up a few times in order for both of us to take fellowships in separate locations but our #1 goal is to find a place—soon!—where we can both be happily employed and settled. And as you well know, it's pretty difficult to find full-time academic employment when you're limited geographically.

Several female friends of mine are currently adjuncting for low pay in order to stay in the game, and they, too, really enjoy teaching. But some are wondering if it's worth it in the long run. We'd all like to stay in academe, ideally, but would also like to have fulfilling and financially rewarding careers. It seems like adjuncting is a viable short-term option, in terms of continuing to put lines on the CV, but if one is thinking strategically, it should be accompanied by other forms of nonacademic work as well.

Caitlin said...

Eliza, I think that's an important achievement: to declare, if only to yourself, that there are some things that you won't sacrifice for the sake of being an academic. And to take action on it in the form of refusing to waste time applying for the gigs that would compromise one's other life goals.
I arrived at this realization in last year's job cycle. My advisor persists in thinking that my decision to stop applying to everything that moves is a manifestation of low self esteem (that is, she thinks I'm telling myself "I wouldn't get it anyway, so why apply?"). Yet for me it's an assertion of independence: I REFUSE to be held hostage by the decision I made ten years ago to get a PhD, and to make my decisions based on what my peers and mentors think I should do. It's not because I think I'm not good enough: I actually think I'm too *good* for a lot of those lousy jobs.
True, I don't have a permanent new gig yet. But finally having my priorities straight feels like such an accomplishment.
My heart goes out to all of us as we navigate this transition.

WorstProfEver said...

I'm just gonna quote Richard Feynman/his wife on this one "What do you care what other people think?"

Easier said than done, I admit, and it's true that the level of denial in academia has reached fever pitch -- how else to explain 'disappoinment' with what can only be called a healthy life choice??

The best thing I ever did was give up on my advisors -- and anyone else who gave me guff about my decision -- and start cultivating a deliberately non-academic, and even non-teacher network.

But yes, I agree with Caitlin: we're too good for these crappy jobs, and good luck to all of us.

alternative phd said...

Hi -- I just found your blog and I really appreciate this post. I'm still working on my dissertation, getting towards the end of my current fellowship, and trying to figure out a post-academic plan.

I find myself trolling openings for both academic posts and opportunities outside academe, and fellowships of all kinds. And it's weird, I sometimes feel simultaneously gluttonous (Google stalking every possible job center I can find for every possibly relevant professional organization, etc.) but at the same time trying to be selective (realistic?) about what I think (want?) to be a good fit.

Going in circles, clearly. =)

E.W. said...

I'm really enjoying reading the comments here. It seems that we all have our internal demons to deal with and external worries to consider (primarily in the form of disapproving advisors) when looking for academic and non-academic jobs.

The point Caitlin's advisor made about "low self esteem" is interesting. You'd think it would be the opposite case: that if a PhD decided not to apply for an academic position, she would be doing so precisely because she thought she could find a better professional gig elsewhere. But the obsession with staying in academe at all costs is so intense among those firmly ensconced in the ivory tower; these "common sense" things--like actually enjoying your job and place of residence--are not taken into consideration.

I think it's even harder when you're ABD and still modestly optimistic about your job prospects in academe. Then it's even easier to fold to pressure or daydream that a one-year VAP or postdoc really will "make" your career. Who knows? Maybe it will. But I think the smartest thing to do is NOT to commit too intensely to any career path, despite sunk costs. Because you never know what opportunities you might be missing by fixating solely on one option.

Caitlin said...

Hey, WorstProfEver! I love your blog. I cannot WAIT to see you get a fabulous tech job. You are a trail-blazer and an inspiration. (Probably shoulda said this on your blog. I will, one of these days).

You're exactly right that we shouldn't care what other academics think. But I think it's also dangerous to feel bad about one's vulnerability to the judgment of others. Academia spends an inordinate amount of time ranking its acolytes against one another. We have been socialized to care deeply what our colleagues say about us.

Learning not to care is an achievement in itself, as is learning to distinguish what YOU value and want as opposed to what the academy values and assumes you want.

Paradoxically, I have gained some peace by not beating myself up for feeling a pang when I think about what my former colleagues are saying about me. Feeling bad about feeling bad is beyond silly!

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