Ivory Tower In the Rear-View Mirror – Dr. Ben Dumbauld

This month we introduce our new column, “Ivory Towers In The Rearview Mirror,” featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror. It will go up every Tuesday. (It’s Tuesday, right?! LOL… this week got away from us…)


Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers — rather than settling for them — will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

Remember, 50-90% of PhDs (depending on the field) end up in work off the tenure track. Putting traditional academia behind you IS the normative path! Do NOT let anyone tell you otherwise, least of all judgmental advisors and grad school peers. You are the captain of your own ship and IT IS OK TO MOVE ON.

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!

Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Ben Dumbauld. Ben has offered his email address if you want to contact him: ben@rockandrollforever.org. Note: this is not required if you are considering sharing your story!

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Dr. Ben Dumbauld

Ben’s story:

Currently, I am the Director of Content at Teachrock.org, where I work with a team that develops educational materials that integrate popular music into K-12 classrooms across disciplines. I got a PhD in Ethnomusicology from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2018.

I think there is a conception sometimes that PhDs come out of the womb wanting to be scholars – but a lot of us were led down that path because we didn’t know any other way to try and make a living pursuing what we are passionate about. My goal has almost always been to pursue a career of some sort in music. Since my undergrad, I was gradually led into believing that academia offed the most stable career one could have in music. (This was before the recession.)

When I started, I still very much believed the notion of academia as a meritocracy – that the most unique, rigorously developed ideas are the ones rewarded and celebrated, regardless of who they originated from. I thought academia provided some escape from the hustle of being a musician — but I found out it was a much more toxic hustle.

Around two years before graduation, I began becoming wary of academia as I saw people who graduated a few years before me still bouncing around the world every year for visiting professorships. These were brilliant people, superb scholars, and master musicians.

Nonetheless, while ABD, I entered the academic job market. I applied to practically every job I could and didn’t get to the interview phase once. Around maybe 8-10 months before graduation, with student loan payments bearing down on me, I opened my search to nonacademic jobs. By the time I got the degree, I was about over the whole academic thing. I couldn’t justify uprooting my family for a yearlong visiting professorship somewhere, or being away from them for days, weeks, or months at a time. I applied for a few tenure-track and community college jobs, but wasn’t optimistic.

My goal became getting a steady job in education. I wanted a salary, benefits, and a weekend with my family without freaking out about getting an article or book chapter written. Eventually I was hired in an entry-level position in the organization I am in now.

I had a rather smooth transition because I never devoted myself entirely to academia. Since my undergrad, I worked side gigs as a private music teacher, after school coordinator, or community educator. I wrote my dissertation while working for the NYC Parks Department, running job skills training programs at community centers across the city. So I was already operating in the Education nonprofit world for years before I graduated.

This might be the greatest advice I could offer graduate students: Think of your degree program as “one of the things you do” rather than the be-all and end-all. I had a part-time career outside academia out of financial necessity, but it turned out being one of the best decisions I ever made.

I would also say, “We need you!” The world needs great scholars who engage, inspire, and educate the public. The K-12 education sector is full of recovering academics. It’s a good place to be. We’re in the classroom, in Departments of Education, in museums, cultural centers, and advocacy nonprofits. K-12 ed folks are generally brilliant and dedicated to public engagement.

That’s not happening in an academic culture where everyone is fighting tooth and nail to get published in pay-walled journals that are inaccessible to the public.

I published a piece in the Chronicle last year on my experience looking to hire someone at my discipline’s scholarly conference. While there, I quickly got the sense that grad students are so terrified and consumed by the academic rat race that they fail to see other opportunities or pathways that might be open to them.

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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.

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