Thoughts On Throwing In the Towel

Today’s promised post is another Special Request post, at the behest of a number of readers, about knowing when to “throw in the towel,” or, in the words of one requester, “knowing when to fold ’em,” on an academic career.

I am totally unqualified to answer that question in the way that it’s being asked. Because although I did indeed leave academia, I didn’t leave under duress. I left a good position, that offered good money and status and the relative freedom to pursue the teaching and research interests that originally got me into academia. If those interests had still been important to me, I would not have left.

I have never confronted the painful, heartbreaking decision to give up on a dream that was still unrealized. I have not been in the position of having dedicated so many years and so many dollars to a Ph.D., only to discover at the end that the meager adjuncting opportunities available can’t even begin to pay off the backlog of effort and debt. I can only imagine the fear, grief, and loss that must accompany this excruciatingly slow realization that the hoped-for tenure track job is NOT going to materialize, and that the investment of time and money may well have set you far behind your friends and peers.

I only know two things germane to this experience.

The first is that it is important not to give up until you’re sure that you’ve actually done everything in your power to position yourself for the career that you want. And the second is that even if you do everything in your power, there are still not enough jobs for every qualified applicant, and many will have to make the decision to leave.

I want to discuss each of these points in isolation, as if the other is not true.

Regarding the first, you have to ask, and be ready to confront the true answer— Is my job letter perfect? Have I dedicated 2-3 months to writing and revising it? Have I had it subjected to critical edits by no fewer than 10 faculty members with search committee experience? Is my c.v. impeccable? Has it been checked and rechecked for both content and appearance? Does my teaching statement sparkle with inspiration and clarity?

I know for a fact that in the vast majority of cases, the answer to these questions is no.

All the years that I was a professor, and now that I’m The Professor, grad student after grad student, Ph.D. After Ph.D., client after client, comes through my office showing me job market materials that cannot possibly qualify them for anything but the reject pile. And they ask me why they aren’t getting tenure track jobs.

There are two sets of subquestions here.  The first:  whether or not you have actually done all the academic work to position yourself for a job. Ask yourself, have I published all I can *in* *refereed* *journals*? Have I pushed myself to attend high profile conferences in my field? Have I networked with influential junior and senior scholars? Have I promoted myself in every way possible?

The second: if you have done all of that, whether or not you have actually represented these effectively in your materials. Ask yourself, again, is my job letter impeccable? Have I utilized every professional skills resource at my disposal? Have I read every book? Twisted the arm of every professor and colleague? Checked every blog post?

Because, the sad truth is, most of you on the academic job market are shooting yourselves, systematically and with extraordinary aim and determination, in the foot.

You are spending year after year on the market without holding your materials up to the harsh light of truth and confronting just how bad they really are.

I’m sorry. This isn’t the message you want to hear. But it’s true.

And let me be clear, I am not talking here about hiring me*. There are other ways to skin this cat. But skinned it has to be. And until it is, giving up is premature. Because I know for a fact that I’ve seen many, many Ph.D.s move from unhireable to hireable, not because they published anything new but because they finally learned how to represent what they had already done in their materials. In short, because they FINALLY learned to write a brilliant, effective job cover letter.


The second thing that I know is that, even while you can and must do all of this, some of you will not get tenure track jobs. And then you must indeed quit, and move on to another line of work.

That is a terribly sad decision.  And a terribly hard one, because while Ph.D.s have many skills that can be transferred to other careers, and are smart and disciplined enough to quickly gain others, it is the feeling of failure that, I think, makes it so hard to just pull the trigger, and leap (to mix my metaphors).

I know that I spent one year feeling like an utter failure because I was no longer a faculty member, and I left by choice. I can only imagine how hard it is when you leave because economic conditions force you to.

What I know about that is that academia is a kind of cult. And it does not release its adherents easily. Extracting yourself from the academic mind-set does not happen without fighting powerful messages of failure and powerful demons of self-doubt and shame.

I actually believe that academia is a system based on shame and fear. Fear of being exposed as “not smart enough,” and shame at “being a fraud.” I don’t actually believe that the vast majority of scholars in U.S. academic settings are frauds or inadequately smart. I just think they feel that way, and do everything in their power to suppress and conceal those feelings.

The harshness of the judgments of failure in academia arises directly from these efforts of apparently successful academics to suppress their own inner demons of failure and shame.

Of course there is also love—love for the work itself—which is what draws so many of us to the academic enterprise. But the love gets squelched in the climate of judgment that permeates academic settings–judgments of not being dedicated, or resourceful or brilliant enough.

Giving up on the love that brought you to this world means putting yourself directly in the line of fire of this judgment. And it doesn’t just come from others. Anyone who has lived in academic settings long enough to get a Ph.D. has thoroughly absorbed this judgment into themselves.

In the end, I think, you can’t throw in the towel, and really move on to what life has next, until you face down this judgment, and the fear (of not being smart enough) and shame (that you’re a fraud) that underlie it.  I think that you can not just survive but actually thrive, when you reconnect to the love that brought you into this game to begin with, and realize–that love and passion are part of me, and don’t require an affiliation and letterhead to be “real.”  And then you can look up and ask, “what new thing is out there for me?” and be ready to hear the answer.

What I want to say here is, there is life outside of academia.  A world of potential jobs and paychecks and free time and friends whom you actually see.  It is OK to quit.  It is really, really ok.  Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can even enjoy reading for pleasure again.  And then you’ll know you’ve reclaimed the love.  And you will be fine.

* Although I am, you know, hand’s down the best reader of your job materials you will find anywhere.  I have some weird talent for it.  Don’t know why, but there it is.  It’s my societal contribution.


Thoughts On Throwing In the Towel — 16 Comments

  1. One point you do not mention is that there are times when we might re-evaluate what we want, both in our personal and professional lives. And find that the perceived gilded halls of academia no longer quite fit into our changed perceptions, wants and needs. Times are rapidly, and somewhat chaotically changing, and some of these changes may not coincide with our values, ethics, and/or our personal ambitions. This is also apparent in all levels of education and academic research. Some of us get to a point where we want to ‘unplug’ from it, seek environments and communities (personal and professional) that foster and nurture a more collaborative and cooperative community.

    In these cases, there is no reason to feel ashamed or belittled because we opt to step out of the grinding mainstream academia. We do what we feel is right for us, our families, and perhaps even the environment (physical and social) around us. Three colleagues have recently followed this path, and I will, too, before the end of the year. It’s never easy, but in the end we have to follow the ‘path that has heart,’ rather than continue on like ineffectual zombies. 🙂

    • I could not agree more. Thank you. This world is changing so fast, and chaotically, as you say, that it’s almost impossible to know if the job you end up with will bear any resemblance to the one that you set out to get. You know that I also left the academy because of my own “changed values and ethics.” Best of luck to you in your new path! Stay in touch and let me know how it goes!

  2. This is good, tough-love advice. I remember once, back when I was on the academic job market, being asked by a friend to look over his cover letter, and being amazed at how clueless it was. This was a smart, accomplished person who did absolutely nothing to make a case for himself. Likewise, as a tenured academic now, it certainly is true that (a) the number of applications that really know how to garner attention are a relatively small percentage of the pile; but (b) that number is still in excess of the number of positions available.

    As for the second part of this post, when to throw in the towel: you offer some good advice about trying to avoid self-blame and feelings of failure, but little practical advice about knowing when you have reached the tipping point. It’s a tough question, but I would think the practical answer might have something to do with:

    (A) setting some benchmarks for yourself in advance and sticking to them — e.g., deciding that if you don’t get any on-campus interviews for a TT position in X number of years, then it’s over; or that you will only adjunct for X number of years, etc.

    (B) AVOIDING SERIOUS DEBT! No matter how much you want this gig, let me tell you from the other side: it’s not worth burdening yourself with lifelong debt, such that you never will have any discretionary income, be able to afford a home, have kids, or whatever it is that floats your boat. Seriously: being placed in lifelong indentured servitude to credit companies will ruin your life much more effectively that choosing a different career path.

    • Thanks for this incredibly helpful comment. You’re totally right that I didn’t include concrete, practical advice: I thought about it and felt unqualified to do that. But what you’ve written here is an excellent start. Basically, yes: “3 years and I’m out.” Just putting yourself in the driver’s seat and exerting the control to say: I’ll do this much and no more.

      And the debt thing: hear, hear! Preach it, sister. Debt is the demon behind too many academic careers. I feel this deserves its own post. Interested in writing a guest post?

  3. Hi, Karen,
    I certainly would consider writing a guest post — if you send an email to squadratomagico@gmail, we can discuss details between ourselves. I’d like to hear more about what you have in mind; and I have travel plans coming up that we’d need to consider as well.

    S. Magico

  4. Another great post–been thinking about the “culture of shame and fear,” and while I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, I think moreso than shame, fear is a really big factor. In particular, I’m thinking of the very common fear of disappointing others: family, friends, advisors, etc. For many candidates on the market, this tendency to want to make others happy/proud feeds into the angst of the market on top of everything else.

    • I think you’re totally right—especially for women. And yet, I can’t let go of the shame thing either. I think that it arises out of the mind-set that many of us acquire around 5th grade. We’re the smartest kids in the class. And then we have to keep being the smartest kids in class. And then we’re afraid of making any mistake that might reveal us as not the smartest kid in class. Which is of course a kind of fear. But it’s even more a deep sense of shame around all the times that we WEREN’T the smartest kid in class. And then we shame others to deflect shame from ourselves. I’m going to need to write a post about this!

  5. True about debt, and I speak for myself, and I didn’t have debt from school but I did and do still have it from the tenure track and the job market which are both really expensive if you’re not at well funded places.

    Also true about peoples’ job materials and I speak as someone who has hired a whole, whole lot. It is really easy with any stack of applications to identify the 80% you won’t even consider because the presentation is so bad. I always think: OK, so this is how they’ll write memos, grant proposals, articles, oh no! People with well put together files stand out and get attention even when their particular combination of subspecialties and skills isn’t the one we most hoped for.

    Re fear/shame, I say shame. It’s traditional to say it’s fear and perhaps it is for many but in my case, it’s – I was 20 when I applied to graduate school, in the field of my undergraduate major which I had chosen at 17. I never lost interest in field but did discover (a) that I have strong tastes and preferences about places to live and also (b) I have strong professional interests that don’t all overlap with actual job descriptions in chosen field. I think it’s perfectly normal not to be, at 40, who you were at 20. But the message I’ve gotten a lot from other academics is that it’s a betrayal of everyone to leave, and that not being as monastically singleminded about a specialty as one may have to be is some sort of weakness (it’s just as rational to call it a strength, though, and also, there’s no reason to judge it).

    A friend more successful than I, who is in a position to move still further up, also wants to leave, not leave academia but leave for a different and less prestigious position, for the sake of region. She points out that that she doesn’t feel the need to prove worth or loyalty to a certain kind of career path by sacrificing quality of life.

  6. Thanks for the very useful post and website. I’m getting very close to throwing in the towel after a couple of dismal years on the market and with the realization that I’ve become unwilling to move away from the area I live in. But I also recognize that my CV and letter and accomplishments need work and am wondering if a couple more years on the market might be worth trying. I’ve heard we have a sell-by date though: can you tell me whether any committee would consider hiring someone whose PhD was awarded 3 or 4 years before? Say if I got a few plum publications and kept attending conferences?

    This type of concrete advice from someone who’s been on committees would be very helpful to me. Thanks again.

    • 3-4 years is not yet past your sell-by date. The key is to pump out some really high profile refereed publications and have the book well on its way to publication, if you’re in a book field. Also go to conferences, and make sure your letter writers are NOT from your phd granting institution (other than your main advisor, who can and should remain). And of course, get your docs in order. Chances are they’re awful. Almost everybody’s are.

      • I just noticed this response–thank you so much. I really appreciate your advice and your site, which I’ve been recommending to all of my students who are determined to go to grad school.

        And yes, the docs are probably on the awful side.

      • Are you saying that letters from people who don’t know my work well are better than letters from those I work closely with, those who actually know my work and can comment on my teaching? This doesn’t make sense to me. Can you tell me why this is so? Thanks!

  7. First of all, I do not regret getting my Ph.D. I am being interviewed for $125K jobs in private industry just two weeks out of my Ph.D. program with the possibility of earning much more than that. I have done adjunct professorships for $3500 a pop per semester. The schools where I interviewed this past fall were located in the middle of nowhere with some paying $60K per year. I was making that salary shortly after graduating from my undergraduate program. Full professors in my field typically top out at $140K and that is at a R1 university. The university administration at my program is looking at phasing out the tenure system. Given these options, I think that private industry presents more positive opportunities for a Ph.D. in terms of income earning potential and career advancement. Of course, I was smart enough to get my Ph.D. in a more practitioner related field where I can transfer my skills to organizational development and human resource management. If you come from some obscure field of study where academic employment is your only hope, you better have a LARGE trust fund or some other resource umbrella to avoid poverty.

  8. Very powerful stuff. I can recognize both aspects of dealing with academic failure.

    Firstly, the delusions of grandeur which lead into the kind of un-examined failure that you described first. Somehow, the initiation phase into the academic cult (student life, papers, exams) does not prepare you very well for the kind of professional, clear-cut tone in which academic job applications etc. must be presented. Quite the opposite (at least for MAs like myself): the more cryptic, understated, implicit your presentation is, the better (at least in the eyes of your fellow, pot-smoking students).

    Secondly, the dire need to realize that there is a life outside of academia. It is quite difficult to put into writing how powerful the judgment on “other paths” is inside academia. But I would claim that often, those judgments are based on deep illusions and a horribly stubborn kind of immaturity about the breath of choices that life in modern societies actually present you with. You come close at the end of your post, but somehow the gist is missing. Sometimes, what you need to realize is that the opportunities inside academia are actually not at all what you came looking for in the first place. If you have any kind of activism running in your blood going into that game, you will most probably find that in the end, academic research simply does not provide an outlet for it. It does provide society with a place to put strange characters like yourself, though. I am sure there are other perspectives leading to the same conclusion. The point is: sometimes the life outside academia is actually MORE of what you came looking for rather than an acceptable amount LESS.

    Keep posting. Your blog is the best thing on the net for struggling academics since grilled cheese.

  9. Higher Education Academia is basically a sham in most areas (especially in the liberal arts). It may have some validity in the sciences because there could be a tangible goal. But most if not all liberal arts and Humanities PhDs should just be abolished. They are just there to serve as advanced forms of intellectual masturbation. “Piled, High and Deep”. Sadly and immorally, universities have conferred thousands of worthless PhDs, exploiting the recipients in what is a grand Ponzi scheme. Because there are few positions, only those on the top of the scheme will profit. The circle continues because it is there to keep the many arrogant professors in their cushy jobs. If they did not have graduate students to teach and to continually enlist in the scheme, then they themselves would be out of a job. The academic world is, without a doubt, not steeped in the truths of the day-to-day real world. Since, I have one of those utterly worthless degrees, I believe I have credibility when I attack the Academic World 🙂
    Dr. CP

  10. It is more than 6 years after my PhD and I feel seriously lost. I just can not get out of my head that i would be deceiving people if I even apply for a permanent job, pretending being smart. The few permanent jobs I did apply for did not result in a job interview confirming my fears. I got an offer for two more years as a postdoc, but the prospects of moving continent for the fourth time makes me want to give up.

    Personally i have also felt divided emotionally not having the courage to seek love out of fear that I will have to leave the person when my contract ends (but then again, maybe I just never found the right one for me).

    Reading you post helped. Life is just not easy for us postdocs.

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