The Prep School Job-Can You Still Do Research? (Part 3 of 3)

Ric Rader is a classicist and “recovering academic” who taught in non-tenure-track positions at Ohio State, USC, UCLA and UCSB over the course of 7 years. He now teaches in the Foreign Languages Department at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. He writes, “the fortunate thing is that I finally got out of the academy and it has been the best decision of my life.”  Feel free to get in touch with him personally at

This is part III on the Prep School Job.  Part I is here, and Part II is here.

Over the course of your graduate studies you develop scholarly and professional interests; you attend and present papers at conferences; you publish articles (if you follow Karen’s advice); you conceive of a major project for your dissertation and eventually defend it. Let’s say you enjoy this process and want to continue, say by revising your dissertation into a book or chopping it up and publishing a series of articles. But now you’re working in a prep school, teaching 4 or more classes a day, planning and grading, coaching after school and, once you do finally get home, raising children. (I realize that most faculty nowadays, especially those at non-selective SLACS, community colleges or regionals – to say nothing of adjuncts – labor under the same kinds of conditions as this.) Even with your comparatively light teaching load the reality is that you will have less time now for scholarship than you did at the university. Since scholarship is a requirement for most academics teaching at the university level, you simply make time for it. At the secondary level, however, there is no such requirement and so making time for scholarship requires pluck and, more importantly, honesty.

Let me start with honesty. You will need to ask yourself whether you genuinely want to keep researching and writing. Key word here is genuinely. Ask yourself in earnest: Do you really enjoy combing through JSTOR for bibliography? Reading heavily footnoted essays on arcane topics in German, French or Italian? Planning and writing 5000 or more words on a discrete topic over the course of months or even years? Getting revise-and-resubmits from journals – or outright rejections, sometimes nasty – and reworking that essay over the course of more months? Finally seeing it published years later in a journal whose readership you can count on one hand? Does your book project really change or contribute significantly to your field as you claimed so eloquently in all those job letters? Can you really imagine spending years scrubbing your dissertation of everything that made it a dissertation? Submitting yourself to punishing deadlines for revision, copyediting and formatting (which, though last, you will inevitably discover to be the absolute worst part of writing a book)? Really?

If all of those things sound dreadful to you, then you’re in luck! You won’t be required to do them anymore. No one will ever ask about that project on Etruscan eschatology you obsessed over but didn’t finish. You will never have to feel guilty or defensive about leaving it behind, or kid yourself into thinking you will actually finish it just as soon as you get the [insert imaginary panacea here: time/break/fellowship/support/feedback/recognition] you claim to need. The shame spiral and the self-deception will be things of the past! (Sing with me loud and gloriously: LET IT GOOOOO, LET IT GOOOOO!)

But only if you’re honest with yourself.

Of course as any therapist will tell you, self-knowledge is hard-won and provisional at best. So I’m not claiming it’s going to be easy to admit. You have been trained for years to believe that research and writing are essential parts of your scholarly identity. Indeed you wouldn’t have finished a dissertation without at least nominally accepting this professional premise. No one expects you to abandon it with ease. Occasionally you will with some justification be tempted to think, If I keep up with my scholarship, perhaps I’ll eventually be able to land a tenure-track job in the academy. But that’s a fantasy, so don’t overindulge yourself. (Sidebar: DO NOT TREAT A PREP SCHOOL JOB AS A PLACE TO BIDE YOUR TIME WHILE LOOKING FOR A “REAL” JOB AT THE UNIVERSITY. Go ahead and keep tabs on your discipline’s job-placement service or even – god forbid – the job wiki. Just keep your mind clear of their attendant pathologies.) Basically, you should expect to struggle with your decision to abandon research. That’s okay because you will eventually get over it. You will eventually recognize the absurdity of academic publishing.

If, on the other hand, you genuinely do want to continue your research – if the absurdity of academic publishing doesn’t faze you – then you too are in luck! Because now you will be able to pursue your research on your own terms, i.e. not as determined by the strictures of your tenure requirements. Doing research on your own terms, however, doesn’t necessarily make it easier. For many – like me – the pressure of strict deadlines, especially those that may result in your termination from the job, creates motivation (even if it’s anxious motivation). Absent this pressure and structure you might find yourself procrastinating, promising to get to your research later, using what little time you have for writing for other (totally legitimate) things.

This brings me back to pluck. All of the tools you used to get your research done in the past – writing between the classes you teach, creating a writing schedule (daily, nightly, pommodoro, whatever), joining a writing group – will still be useful and they will still be necessary. So pick whichever method you prefer and stick with it.

Maintaining your research at the secondary level creates a paradox: Scholarship is not required and so none of your colleagues will assume you’re doing it; at the same time, precisely because it is not required your colleagues will celebrate your scholarly accomplishments with genuine surprise and pleasure – no matter how small that accomplishment ranks in the academic system (review vs. article vs. book etc.). I gave a copy of a book I recently published to my headmaster and he sent me the kindest note of congratulations I have ever received in my professional life. Genuine validation from colleagues you like is, not to put too fine a point on it, F*CKING AWESOME. Guess what else it is: motivating. So you’ll probably feel the urge to do more. Now you’ve created a new and better relationship with your research – no longer a chore but a choice. And if like me you are at a school with a decent number of faculty holding PhDs, and if they too desire to continue their research, then you’ve got a wonderful small community with whom to share goals, deadlines, professional achievements and the like. From my experience it is a community entirely unlike that of the department at a college or university. And if I – a modestly productive scholar who spent too many years doing research begrudgingly – can thrive in this environment, then imagine what someone like you with real scholarly drive could do.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


The Prep School Job-Can You Still Do Research? (Part 3 of 3) — 4 Comments

  1. As some one that has been teaching at a high school for the past two years, I can say that yes research is possible but just like many colleges and Universities the amount of teaching and grading involved is huge. The same way it is difficult to do research at a community college or a state University with 4 courses a semester it is hard to do it in a high school.

    Another major problem is a library with database access and interlibrary loan. If and when I lose my library privileges it will be difficult to write.

    One last point, prep schools can mean many things, not all of them are filled with students planing of Yale and reading J.S. Mill for fun

  2. Thank you very much for the clarification, Treeoflife! Yes, much of your ability to do research will depend on your access to an academic library. I have the (totally unexpected) good fortune of JSTOR access through my school’s library but I can no longer reach the more discipline-specific resources I used to rely on. I live in Nashville and Vanderbilt is our major university; I naively thought that as a faculty member at a local college-prep (we’re really just down the street) I’d be able to get at least some access. Nope. I was told I could use the library’s resources if I physically come into the building, but obviously that doesn’t allow me to check out books. Going forward, this may well be a problem. Fortunately I still have a few friends teaching at Vandy and so I can take advantage of their generosity on occasion. Otherwise a lot of the PhD faculty at my school came from Vandy as well and they too may still have access.

    Anyway, yes, you’ve identified one of the major hurdles to continuing your research. You may well have to figure a work-around like me — by hook or by crook!

    Thanks, Treeoflife!

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