Last weekend I went skiing with my kids at Mt. Bachelor. It was a glorious crystal clear spring weekend, and there was even fresh snow! You can ski late in Oregon. Bachelor will stay open until May 28, and Timberline stays open all summer.
Let me be perfectly clear. When I was a professor I did not ski. I didn’t have (make) the time. And more importantly, I didn’t have (make) the money. This new business, The Professor Is In, has completely transformed the financial status of my household. In its first year it will likely bring in an income equivalent to the salary of a Full Professor at Notre Dame or University of Michigan, according to the salary table in the Chronicle’s article, “What Professors Make.”
I share this, at the risk of appearing to brag, because I want readers to understand that by leaving academia and launching my own business—even as a former humanities professor (not from business or engineering or the like)–i have drastically improved not simply my earning potential, but also my mental health and work-life balance. I make excellent money doing something I believe in fiercely, and I spend that money on actual weekend activities, like skiing with my children. Sometimes, as a former academic, I look up and think, “I had no idea life could be this good.”
On the chair lift, I ended up sitting next to, believe it or not, another former professor turned entrepeneur. The lift was long, and I got to hear his story. His Ph.D. was in finance, and while he worked as a professor he also began to invest in some local real estate in his college town. After some years, he sold a couple of buildings, he said, for 20 million dollars. “Now I spend my time skiing, hunting, fishing, and traveling around the world with my wife. We’ve been to 70 countries.”
I bring up this story to raise, in a preliminary fashion, the idea of leaving the academy. Here are two examples, at least, of people who took their academic experiences and expertise, and turned them into successful businesses, one on a massive scale, and one far more modestly.
While I can’t speak for my Finance friend, I know that for myself, I made the leap because I needed to do work that was meaningful to me, and being a university professor no longer was.
I write above that as The Professor I’m doing something I believe in fiercely. All the years that I was a professor, I was profoundly interested in and dedicated to the question of professionalizing graduate students, my own and all the rest. I agitated to create professionalization seminars for my departments, and eventually, when I became Head, got the opportunity to use a donor gift to create a day-long professionalization retreat for all new graduate students in the department. I felt then, as I feel now, that this is a fundamental ethical obligation to graduate students in all graduate programs.
It was gratifying. But it was also necessarily a very minor side-project. Dedication to grad students gets you a sum total of nothing in terms of professional advancement. It didn’t count on my CV, didn’t bring me any merit points for raises, and didn’t play at all on the mid-career academic job market. As a former colleague of mine—a truly genius Ph.D. advisor back when I worked with him— told me a few months ago, “I don’t even accept new graduate students now. What’s the point? I am a damned good advisor. But it’s a LOT of work, with nothing to show for it in the end.”
The things that count, of course, the things that you have to “show” in the end, are evidence of competitive scholarly productivity— publications, major grants, high profile conferences, etc.
One of the most important impetuses for me leaving academia is that I no longer believed in the value of the work, when that work was exclusively defined as this kind of competitive scholarly output.
There were other reasons I left of course, all explained in my column, Death of a Soul on Campus. And I had two terrific long-term research projects prepared and ready to act on—on the postwar Japanese back to the land counterculture, and on Japanese lesbian and transgendered communities in Tokyo—that had already generated wide interest and would yield the competitive scholarly output I needed to stay, well, competitive.
I did believe those were valuable projects. But not valuable enough, in the end, to justify the single-minded focus, and sacrifice of other interests and commitments, required to bring them to fruition.
I just no longer believed that producing academic publications about Japan was work that made sufficient difference to the world at large. I could not get behind it as a significant societal contribution. I also was no longer motivated by the value/reward structure of the academy itself, in which we are required to “prove” our value by producing quantities of work within a microscopically narrow scholarly niche that is then evaluated by our “superiors” in an intense status hierarchy, with the ultimate reward being acceptance into the top rank of the hierarchy (ie, full professor) ourselves.
Lo and behold, I was no longer a company woman.
Nobody was more startled to discover this than me. I had been a thoroughly assimilated zealot for the cause for a lot of years. When I was an assistant professor my friends used to refer to me as “Dean Kelsky,” because I was so dedicated to my work and to the whole academic enterprise writ large. [That period I describe a bit in this blog post, "Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide."]
And then suddenly, I wasn’t. Suddenly, I could not care less what the full profs in the department thought of my “productivity,” and whether or not the college level merit committee thought I was doing “enough” for a raise. At some point, and I don’t know when it happened, I stopped being willing to accept the basic premise of academic worth and value. And I stopped being willing to put my financial “valuation” in the hands of someone else.
And then I knew I had to leave.
And here’s what I began to see vaguely then, and have come more clearly to see in the year since opening The Professor Is In. I went into academia because I believed that it was a land of free-spirits and risk takers. People who were willing to buck the norms of American life in terms of money-grubbing and materialism. A place where people would follow ideas to their conclusions, even if those conclusions were unpalatable to the powers that be. Yes, I was naive.
What I learned in my years in the academy, particularly as an administrator, though, is that the academy is actually far more commonly a land of rule-followers and risk-avoiders. It is the ultimate hierarchical organization. I mean—grad student->asst prof->assoc prof->full prof->endowed chair->dean-> provost->chancellor-> president—this is a hierarchy as intense as any military or corporate system. Yes, plenty of critical work happens in the university, even some radical work. But mostly pointed outward, at others, and rarely applied to the academic self. The critical work is then folded into academic reputation that again, yields primary results not in the world at large, but in increasing status and compensation within the university.
People do follow their ideas and share them with others through their work. And that’s a good thing. But I’ve come to understand that that’s more of an unintended consequence, or perhaps, a side product. Far more energy is dedicated to the imposition of rigid expectations and norms of value and behavior, and imposing them on those lower in the hierarchy, in order to continually reproduce the organization, without challenge, in its current form.
The goal here is not money, it is true.
It is status. Or, as Marc Bousquet says in the recent Chronicle article, From Grad School to Welfare, it is ego, identity status, and prestige.
“We socialize people into accepting the coin of reputation as status capital. Some people are so deeply socialized into the regime of payment by way of status that they are essentially trapped in it for life.”
My efforts in The Professor Is In are devoted to making sure that anyone seeking a career in the academy understands the workings of status and reputation with the greatest clarity possible. One of the ways that privilege is reproduced (and hierarchies remain intact) is that information is withheld in a system of secrecy, in which junior people are never clear or confident about their adequacy in meeting these unspoken expectations.
It is ironic of course, as my detractors often point out, that someone who left the academy is advising people how to succeed in the academy.
Why do I do that?
Well, first off, as I said, it’s not a terrible job if you’re successful. I had a lot of pretty good years in the academy before I began to hit up against its limits. It was a compelling job, with good pay, excellent benefits, the gratification of teaching and doing research (both of which I genuinely loved), social status, and relative freedom of scheduling my time (a huge thing for me then and now). Plenty of people have satisfying careers in the academy, and with a combination of grit, privilege, and luck, you can still do that.
More fundamentally, though, I am aware of the intense “sunk costs” of new Ph.D.s. People with years invested in the Ph.D. really have nowhere to go, for a certain period of time, but forward. They can’t simply quit en masse to pursue alt-ac jobs. And they shouldn’t. There are still academic jobs available, just far fewer, and characterized by declining conditions of work. But they exist, and someone will get them, and I can help to explain “which someone” that is most likely to be.
But what my own path and my work with clients has revealed to me very starkly is the psychic risk of staying in. Because, to stay in is to acquiesce in an absolute dependency on a system of external validation. You are successful if your committee validates your dissertation, if a grant committee validates your proposal, if journal reviewers validate your mss., if external reviewers validate your tenure case, if the department head validates your activity report…. the cycle of external validation never, ever stops.
And that is problematic for those who do end up needing to leave the academy to find work. Because to find or create work outside that hierarchical organization, after years of inculcation into dependence on external validation, is extraordinarily difficult. You have to suddenly begin evaluating your own worth and potential contribution.
I have a friend at the UO, a linguistics Ph.D. who after some years of seeking tenure track work, ultimately gave up and found a position as an academic advisor. She told me last week about how at one point during that process she and another friend from her Ph.D. program thought about creating a consulting firm doing market analysis based on linguistic trends. They were so excited and filled with ideas, she told me, until they came to the point of needing to set prices. “We had no idea how to put a value on our services!” she said. “What were we worth? We couldn’t even begin to imagine. It just fell apart after that.”
The greatest challenge for academics leaving what I call the academic cult, is to extract their sense of self from the cycle of external validation. I know this. After leaving I spent a whole year on the sofa, devastated, depressed, and filled with self-loathing. To have left the academy I was obviously a failure. What is your worth if you don’t have formal affiliation and status, and reputation, and evidence of competitive success?
Well, eventually I figured it out. That’s a story for another blog post. But for now I close with this: there is hope outside the academy. There is financial and professional and emotional success possible. But you have to learn your own worth to find it—the worth that comes from following your own values, and not those imposed by an organization.