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.