Ivory Towers in the Rearview Mirror: Dr. Samantha Snively

Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Samantha Snively.

I’m a writer in the UC Davis Development and Alumni Relations office. I write customized philanthropic proposals to individual donors giving above $1m as well as executive communications and university-priority messaging, and serve as a writing/editorial consultant for frontline fundraisers across the university. I write compelling cases for supporting students. research in all fields, and the university. [I also have a side gigs: I’m a copywriter for a global translation software company, and I’m the social media and public outreach manager for The Pulter Project: http://pulterproject.northwestern.edu/ ]

I earned my PhD in English literature from UC Davis in 2019.

I began the PhD because I wanted to be a professor. I loved learning, research and talking about ideas with people, and I chose my field because I wanted to learn more about the way narrative shapes and captures history or could be used to push back against dominant narratives–plus I wanted to work with archival texts. I was a pretty good student and liked my undergrad research experience, so my professors thought grad school and academia would be a good fit. I agreed! But for a variety of reasons, those conversations didn’t involve  contemporary facts about the job market and real talk about the finances.

About halfway through my PhD, I began to realize that the things I most loved doing in academia could be done elsewhere (with more job security, flexibility and pay!): advocating for the importance of research, engaging with a wide variety of people about a huge range of ideas & research, conveying and translating specialist information to public audiences, writing in many genres. 

My health also started to confirm this: the unrelenting stress of grad school and financial precarity was taking some pretty serious physical tolls. (On top of this, I was starting my dissertation in 2016, which only amplified the urgency of my desire for community and stability and the need to advocate for education for all.) It took me a while to come to the decision to not make a tenure-track search at all: everyone wanted me to be a professor, and many folks in academia told me essentially that “if anyone could do it, it would be you” —but the numbers, and most importantly, my own heart, told a different story.

Though grad school was the best and most stable financial option for me when I entered, I started with no car, no savings, no family support. Even though I was able to save a modest amount in grad school, I frankly couldn’t afford an academic job search or weather multiple years of short-term contracts and low pay. To those in a position of power at a university: a daily reminder to advocate for your university to pay ALL workers a living wage.

I’d been preparing myself and gaining expertise to make a non-academic job move since about my third year (primarily communications experience and web articles to demonstrate that I could write beyond academic genres), but it wasn’t until my fifth year that I really committed to an exclusively non-ac job search. I was very lucky and had some excellent mentors in grad school! My dissertation advisor and a former boss were formative in my career decisions–my former boss because she helped me navigate the non-academic world and begin conducting informational interviews in the sector I wanted to work in, and my dissertation advisor because she encouraged me to build the life I wanted rather than living up to other people’s expectations–and always respected my honest evaluation of the costs of graduate school and the need to make a living wage.

One night, while talking about all the pros and cons of leaving academia, my partner said to me, “I hear you telling me what everyone else wants you to do. But what do you want?” That really drove home that I had to act for my own happiness–and in so doing, I’d be able to have more space for public engagement, advocacy, giving back, building my own community, etc. So in the fall of my last year of grad school (year 6), I started applying for jobs–primarily in my partner’s city, but also in the Sacramento area, since I had built a network here. My first phone interview was in late December, and I had a couple good interviews for positions in my partner’s city, but they didn’t pan out. I got a surprise phone call from my current role in late January. The various steps of the interview process kept going well, and I got an offer in mid-February. They wanted me to start almost immediately, but I was in the middle of the quarter, finishing my dissertation, and working part-time jobs that I needed to wrap up–so I finished grad school in late March and started the new job in April. There was about a month of overlap between starting the new job and finishing/filing the dissertation, which I do not recommend doing if at all possible.

Through my public writing and in this job, one thing I learned quickly was that people are *very* interested in the process, subject and impact of research–they’re just not interested in the jargon, the posturing, or the way research/academia can be used to reinforce various privileges. MyPhD–and primarily, teaching at a public land-grant university–also reaffirmed for me that education is a fundamental right and a powerful experience for so many. So I’m not convinced the “throw out the university altogether” strains of discourse–not when my brilliant, largely first-gen students learned to ask questions about structural inequities, read literature that affirms their experience and makes a place for their knowledge in the university, or discovered that they could use writing as a tool to express their own voice. Not when you see what research in action can do, what transformations it can work. I’m even more an advocate for shaping higher education to the way it ought to be now that I’m not an academic, and I’d like to stay in a place where I can keep promoting these ideals over and over.

In addition to a fair bit of personal growth in my new career, I also had to learn to not take things so personally and to give myself grace, even when others don’t. In academia, I’d fallen into the trap of making my job my identity. When I transitioned to this job, that wasn’t sustainable anymore. My job is just a job, and I am more than my current job. My job performance isn’t a statement of my worth as a person nor a moral barometer of my value. The hardest lesson to learn, which I’m still working on, is that mistakes/failures are not indicative of my failure as a person, just that I’m still learning the nuances of a highly complex job. Despite what academia taught me, it is ok if I don’t know everything immediately–and it’s even ok if I make the occasional typo, have to ask questions, or don’t interpret something “correctly.”

My message to PhDs considering leaving the tenure track: It’s wonderful on the other side! And there are so many jobs you can do or train for–and many of them value your expertise with actual money and benefits. I won’t lie and say it’s an easy transition, as you have to rethink your identity, approach to qualification, self-presentation and experience, but I think it’s healthier in the long run. You are not betraying anyone if you decide an academic career isn’t for you. You are allowed to make a career shift just like anyone else. And feel free to roll your eyes at anyone who thinks you won’t have a life of the mind outside academia–that’s incredibly classist, for one, and also, you know what you can do when you don’t work in academia? Pleasure reading! Learning exactly what you want! Learning from others! Learning from your colleagues, who are guaranteed to have interesting career paths and specialized areas of knowledge.

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