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“You tell the truth, you tell it well. In the crowded and fetid swamp that is the job market, that is oxygen.” – a reader
“If you would like your academic career to begin in delusion and end in disillusionment, then by all means, ignore Karen Kelsky. If, however, you want unvarnished straight talk about the academic job market—and how to navigate it—then heed her, and heed her now.”—Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate.
At The Professor Is In, we have a particular commitment to supporting Black and Indigenous women in the academy. This is a core company mission. If you are a member of these communities, and finances are an issue in working with us, please get in touch to discuss possible arrangements.
A brief glossary of terms used in blog posts:
VAP – Visiting Assistant Professor
NTT – Non-Tenure Track
TT – Tenure Track
SLAC – Small Liberal Arts College
HBCU – Historically Black College or University
PWI – Predominantly White Institution
ABD – All But Dissertation (the stage where courses and exams are done and only the diss needs to be written and defended)
Today’s post is by our marvelous and insightful postac coach, Dr. Maggie Gover. This is not a postac post per se, but I want you to know more about her in case this speaks to you and you’d like to schedule a consult with her. Learn more about that here.
If you want to see how I’m coping in the almost total absence of reasonable Executive Function, see yesterday’s post, “Come On, Karen, FOCUS.”
Dr. Maggie Gover’s career is dedicated to helping students successfully complete their graduate degrees and then transition into successful professional lives. As such, she has quite a bit of experience helping students identify industries in which they may be successful and describing their graduate careers in ways that might be attractive to those industries. While she is most knowledgeable in alternative academic jobs, she has helped students transition into private industry, government, and non-profit jobs as well. Maggie’s service to students began when she was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California where she served as an intern in the Office of Admissions. While she was completing her Master’s degree at the University of Oxford she served as a Junior Dean at St. Hilda’s College. When she was a PhD candidate at UC Riverside she was the Coordinator for Academic Preparation and Outreach and then the Graduate Student Mentorship Program Coordinator, and later the Director of Graduate Student Professional and Academic Development. While she is now primarily an administrator, she is still researching and publishing in theories of new media and 19th C visual sciences.Maggie’s Consulting Philosophy: I am a strong supporter of graduate education and think that society benefits from having those incredibly creative and analytic minds in diverse industries. I want to help students find careers that are satisfying to them and in which they will excel. Remember that no career search is easy! It will take hard work, knowledge, dedication, and perseverance. However, the great joy of working with graduate students is that they have dedication and perseverance in spades! You bring that to the table, and I can help with the knowledge.
Are you finding that things take you longer right now? Do you have to read something a few times before you fully understand what it says? Is your motivation tanking? You are not alone.
In the best of times, working as an academic means that you are exercising a very high level of executive function skill. It is common for people to feel a bit spacey in other aspects of their lives while they are devoting such high executive function to one area. That means you might notice that it takes longer to do other things when you are particularly entrenched in your research.
Executive functions refers to “higher level cognitive skills you use to control and coordinate your other cognitive abilities and behaviors” (https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/executive-functions). They include the ability to organize information, prioritize and sequence tasks, perform abstract thinking, regulate emotional responses, and a host of other higher order skills.
Right now, we have the added challenge of social distancing and coronavirus taking up space in our brains. Things like planning the day’s activities (for ourselves and our dependents), determining how to obtain food and supplies, converting lesson plans to an emergency remote teaching environment, and worrying about the illness itself are all taking very valuable space in our brains.
Why does the strained mental load make everything more difficult? Think about your brain like your desk and every task that you attempt is a notebook open on that desk. When the desk is clear, you can easily pull out a notebook and start writing in it. When there are five notebooks out, you might take an extra moment to look through each one before figuring out which one you need. When there 100 on the desk, it will take you a while to find the one that you need and you will likely have to balance it on top of other open notebooks to begin taking more notes. So, with every added task, the entire load becomes more cumbersome.
When I think about all of the “notebooks” I am balancing on my mental desk, it becomes evident why every task is taking so much longer than usual. My brain is trying to remember moment-by-moment modifications to stay-at-home orders, the mom’s group post that told me which grocery store finally has a needed item in stock, the meals I have in the pantry for the next week, the five craft ideas for my preschooler I saw on pinterest, the baby’s napping schedule, are we supposed to be wiping down the mail now or not?, the number of minutes of physical activity my kids have gotten and creative ways for them to get more in the confines of our apartment… all while feeding the family three reasonably healthy meals a day and constantly cleaning up. If you make your list, I am betting you will see that you are using a herculean amount of brain power.
Hopefully understanding this can help you give yourself some leeway. But, how do we move through this to stay as productive as possible? Here are some tips and tricks you may want to try, if you haven’t already:
1. Keep a notebook or task list handy so that you can write down things as you think of them. This might be reminders to yourself, grocery lists, to dos, etc. If you aren’t trying to remember lots of diverse things, you might be able to concentrate more fully on the task at hand. Then, dedicate a few minutes each day to organizing those notes so that nothing gets missed.
2. If you don’t have one, try to initiate a daily mediation, yoga, guided breathing, or mindfulness practice while we are in the midst of coronavirus. Allowing yourself time to clear your mind and focus on nothing is like putting all the notebooks away and starting with a fresh desk. If these methods don’t work for you, maybe try taking a daily walk in nature (if that is available to you) or even listening to some of your favorite, relaxing music.
3. Transition time is a concept that deserves its own post, but I want to touch briefly on it here. Transitioning from one type of work to another requires your brain to perform some mental agility. Just like you wouldn’t go from sitting on the couch to running a 100 meter dash without warming up and stretching in between, you probably won’t be able to move from performing a close reading of an esoteric work to grading an exam or crafting with your four-year-old without some transition. If you do, you may find the second task, the one without an adequate warm up, suffers. For me, I find myself a bit snappier (lacking emotional regulation) if I transition too quickly between disparate tasks. So, recognize the need for precious moments or seconds in between tasks to regroup.
4. Look into your past and determine what motivated you before. Try to implement those motivational measures now. So, for example, I find that I always have a burst of increased intellectual activity after I speak with one of my collaborators. I try to speak with her once a week and I try to schedule it for a time when my husband will be able to watch the kids after so that I can get some writing done.
I hope these are helpful. What are other ways you have found to help stay productive?
I wish you health and contentedness during this challenging time. Cheers!
Today I talk about Executive Function why we don’t have any.
Turns out, when our brains are entirely consumed with basic security and survival work (as Dr. Aisha Ahmad explained in her excellent guest post last month), there just isn’t much brainpower left for anything else.
Case in point, I actually marched around the house practically in tears for 10 minutes just trying to find my phone to make the damned video, and ultimately had to resort to the indignity of Find My Iphone on icloud. Except that I couldn’t remember the password to my Icloud and had to endure the abject misery of trying to dig that up out of my unhappy brain (And naturally my phone was right next to me on the sofa where I now live my life, buried in the blanket).
And while making the video I forgot to mention that my biggest stressor right now is that my 19 year old son traveled cross country to Vermont yesterday and today, for a summer internship with low income kids through Americorps. The internship is of course online but they wanted the program leaders in town for things like deliveries and so on. I’ve been an utter wreck as he first, makes his away through pandemic hotspots (Boston) to get there, and then…. is on the other side of the country from me in a pandemic.
None of this is even remotely normal, and our brains just don’t work. And that’s ok.
Adding: I think it’s worth becoming more aware of our cues of Executive Function Overwhelm. For me:
Irritability, first and foremost, over the smallest things
Uptick in self-criticism
What are your symptoms?
Stay tuned for our guest post on Executive Function coming up tomorrow.
Stellar Limitless Foundation in S04 – my new obsession–this foundation is literally like a second skin, so light, so satin, so perfect. This color is my color. Took two tries to find it.
Urban Decay Lo-Fi Mousse in Echo (because I loved my one in Amplify so much)
NARS Contour Blush in Paloma – this was a cast-off of my daughter’s and is too red for me, but the product quality is incredible (the first contour product that, if I get the right cool tone – eg “Talia” – might possibly get me away from my Kevin Aucoin) and the highlighter that comes with it is so creamy, brightening, and non-creasing under the eye that it blew away all my other powder products that I’ve spent the last year trying to perfect. Which is good, but also a bit aggravating, tbh. Why did i spend all that money?
Let me start by saying this will take a bit to unpack. It took a week’s worth of writing sessions (three times a day, so 15 sessions!) to sort it out.
Where to start?
Last week, I was discussing healthy eating habits with someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder. We were talking about a concept called intuitive eating, listening to your body to learn how to respond to its needs rather than to your mind, which has absorbed all sorts of unhealthy messages.
I wondered aloud, “How, if you never learned healthy eating patterns, can you trust your intuition?”
The consensus: It requires a lot of compassionate exploration, self observation and, of course, crying while lying on the kitchen floor.
Side note: You might not want to hear this, but I often find that programs related to recovery from toxic and/or unhealthy patterns are relevant to writing and academia. Toxic relationships are toxic relationships after all. #Awkward
I went straight from the overeating conversation to one of my Unstuck Writing in the Pandemic sessions, which incorporate short bursts of work with coaching on the obstacles and challenges raised by the day’s participants.
For this particular session, I asked participants to ponder this question: “How do you know when you have overworked?” Understanding that just like the question of overeating, overworking requires SIGNIFICANT excavation of often deeply buried thoughts and motivations.
Now, I do this kind of coaching in every single session. And whether the topic is perfectionism or imposter syndrome or boundaries or anything else common to academia, participants are QUICK to jump in. There is always lively discussion.
But…. When I asked about overwork, the silence was deafening.
It was so quiet that I could almost hear the screams inside each participant’s brain: STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS! I HAVE WORK TO DO!
It was quite a thing. And when they finally started talking, they shared how hard it was for them to even recognize overwork as something they were doing at all, let alone recognize its symptoms.
What we finally got to as a group was a list of physical, emotional and psychological symptoms that clued participants into over work. These included: headache, crabbiness, inability to concentrate, agitation.
I left them with homework: Define overwork in their own lives.
So if you are resisting even considering the question, rest assured you that you are not alone.
The same day, totally unrelated, I was reading about how when we repeatedly set a goal or deadline and miss it, we lose touch with ourselves.
In Unstuck, I talk a lot about how when we say we are going to do something and don’t do it, we lose internal integrity. We don’t trust ourselves.
This language is a small shift from not trusting ourselves to losing touch with ourselves.
Somehow for me that shift in language releases a bit of judgment that might be associated with the “trust” phrasing, and opens up space for compassionate curiosity. Rather than “I don’t trust myself” the engagement moves to “Who am I in relation to deadlines and boundaries?”
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t make missing a goal feel any better, but it can make facing it less punishing. Rather than saying to ourselves “You failed! Now I don’t trust you!” we can be compassionate and curious. “Hey, I lost you. Where are you?”
Cue the second meeting of the day. Different group, same set up. This time I prefaced my question(s) about overwork with an observation.
“Today we are going to start to look at overwork. The goal is to work our way back to where we pushed past our limits. We can’t learn to set a boundary we won’t blow past without knowing our healthy limit.”
BUT, right now that line is so buried under the detritus of blown boundaries that there is no finding it without measured excavation.
So, here is the first question: How do you know you have overworked?”
Again, to a person, the indicator was physical, mental or emotional.
Next question: “Do you know when the overwork started?”
“Let’s modify that question: What are some of the sentences you have heard in your head when you didn’t want to work?”
The answers” “This is too much.” “I can’t handle this.” “I am soooooo tired.” “I need a freaking break!”
(You will notice these are not the same as the voices that tell you that you don’t know enough or are not up to the task. That’s a whole other topic!)
The interaction showed me that THIS is the place to begin excavating. Way back when you told yourself, this is too much, but your solution was to push through. The ignored “complaints” may be the best marker, even before the physical or emotional symptoms.
Third group of the day. Same set up. Except after they shared their symptoms, I added this:
“Here’s the thing. Those physical symptoms are outcomes — headache, crabiness, agitation — of ignoring an earlier warning. Think of it like your car. You don’t just end up broken down on the side of the road. You ignored the indicator light for how many weeks before that happened? So, the indicator light is the little voice that said, “I’m so tired.” “I need a break.” “This is just too much.” Listen to it before you’re broken down.
As you think about what your indicator light is, you can begin to excavate the line where you push yourself past healthy.
As you become familiar with that line again (In other words, begin to recognize the self you lost contact with), ponder the question I posed to the next group: Where can youI work less?
And if reading that made you guffaw at the ridiculousness of the question, you are, again, not alone.
And, I am not joking.
The solution to overwork is to work less.
And because we both know that simply working less is unlikely, try engaging these three questions as you are able:
How do I know I have overworked?
Where is the first indication that I am pushing past my limits?
When I get that first indication of overwork, where could I choose to work less?
I didn’t expect them — nor do I expect you — to be able to answer these questions immediately. For everyone who chronically overworks, the answers are buried under years of allowing outside circumstances to overwrite our intuition. Academia is literally built on this impulse. Like intuitive eating, discovering what is healthy work for you requires a lot of compassionate exploration, self observation and, of course, crying while lying on the office floor.
Two final notes:
Doing this work does not mean you will never overwork or that there won’t be times that you push past the limits for a short period of time. Like all things Unstuck, the insight is not about NEVER DOING IT WRONG AGAIN; it is about reclaiming agency and choosing rather than being shoved around by unexamined external demands.
For many of you it is easy to dismiss the idea of overwork because you have had (or are in the midst of) periods of not working at all. Instead you are writhing in shame, THINKING about work, or more precisely beating yourself up for not working. This is actually no different than overwork in its impact on your system. I encourage you to ask the same questions, but this time, about the shame around not working or not working “enough.”
Do you struggle with asking for feedback on your writing from your peers and mentors? Writers often seek my support for developmental editing because they’re scared to ask for feedback from scholars in their field. In my conversations with clients, I’ve discovered there are four reasons writers hesitate in asking for feedback.
In this post, I outline those four reasons. Then, I provide some tips on how you can change your mindset and approach when asking for feedback. I hope that once you read this advice, you’ll feel empowered rather than intimidated when asking for feedback.
I don’t want to be a bother.
You might believe that you’re being bothersome or annoying by asking for feedback. Most scholars are incredibly busy, and you’re being considerate by acknowledging that. Even so, rigorous scholarship can only be created through an iterative process of feedback and revision. I think a lot of graduate students and junior faculty hear the (legitimate) complaints scholars have about the peer-review process and internalize them. They believe that asking for feedback is somehow exploitative or intrusive. You, my dear friend, are not a publishing company generating millions of dollars of revenue off the uncompensated labor of academics. You’re not the reason academics are overworked.
Stop making assumptions about how other people want to spend their time. Whenever writers I work with express doubt about asking for feedback, I ask them how they’d respond to a request for feedback. Most say they’d be happy to give feedback, and share instances when they have. I’m sure you’ve also provided feedback to colleagues, friends, and mentees. If so, why do you assume that you have more free time than your peers? Do you think your peers are less generous than you?
There’s an entire conversation to be had about cultural and social capital in academia. Here, I’ll just say that fear of being bothersome is most pronounced among members of marginalized groups. Almost all of my clients are women, the majority being women of color. They reject the mere suggestion that they might deserve feedback on their work. If you share this belief, listen to me: Steve down the hall is asking for feedback because he believes he’s entitled to it. You should ask too.
The feedback won’t be constructive.
Some writers object to asking for feedback because they’re worried the feedback won’t be helpful. They’re fearful it will be a waste of their time to wait for feedback that ultimately won’t make a difference. Feedback becomes a risk they’re not willing to take.
If you share this objection, consider this: you control who you ask. If you’re asking scholars you respect, why wouldn’t the feedback be constructive? You’re not actively searching for the worst version of Reviewer 2 to tear your manuscript to shreds, or tell you to explore avenues that are beyond the scope of your research, are you?
If you have either or both of the two objections I describe above, think of it this way: If you’re a kind, generous scholar then I’m going to guess that you have some friends who are also kind, generous scholars. If you’re a jerk who consistently refuses to read your peers’ work but on the rare occasions that you do, you’re unnecessarily cruel well… good luck getting feedback.
They’ll tell me my writing is terrible.
You’re thinking to yourself, “who would want to read this sh*t.” You’re worried that once someone reads your work, you’ll be exposed as a fraud or impostor. Instead of sharing your work, you keep it hidden. You rarely submit for conferences. Publishing seems like an impossible feat because you can’t even imagine a friend commenting on your writing.
If your writing is indeed “terrible,” then you likely need help improving it. That’s the purpose of asking for feedback. This is also why it’s so important to cultivate a community of sympathetic, supportive peers, colleagues, and mentors to read your work — or to work with an editor. These are the readers who will give you objective feedback without being cruel. Some of it might be tough to read, but it won’t be unnecessarily mean.
I want to wait until it’s more polished.
Again, the point of feedback is to improve your work. This is really just an excuse to hold onto your work for longer than necessary. If your work is complete, there’s no reason to seek feedback. There’s really no point at which you’ll look at your work and definitively say, “this is the best moment to ask for feedback.” That’s because most of us don’t write in a linear fashion. For instance, you might have a really strong discussion section but an introduction that still needs improvement. Our drafts are uneven because they’re drafts.
If your draft is uneven, give your reader some guidance on where to focus their attention. It’s reasonable to tell your reviewer, “I think the discussion section is strong (so feel free to skim there), but I think the introduction has X, Y, and Z weaknesses. I’d really appreciate your feedback there.” If you don’t know the weaknesses but feel that something’s off, just say, “I’ve hit a wall here and would appreciate any guidance you can provide.” As long as you lead with gratitude rather than bossiness, it’s OK to be specific in your request.
This type of targeted request has two clear benefits. First, it saves your reader time (so you’re less of a bother!). You’re telling them where to focus their energies so they can get right to work. Busy people appreciate this. Second, it gives you a better chance of receiving useful feedback (alleviating your fear that the feedback will be unhelpful).
All of the objections I’ve discussed are completely normal. You’ve likely had one or all of them yourself. Putting your work out for critique is scary. The important action for you to take is to acknowledge the fear and share your work anyway. That’s the only way to teach your brain that you’re capable of doing scary things. So go and share!
For the past two years Wednesdays have been dedicated to guest posts by women of color, particularly black women. One of our company missions is to elevate and promote the voices of black women in the academy. Recently, our well of posts ran dry! I put out a call, and am pleased to have received this contribution by Professor Donna A. Patterson.
I continue to seek posts for next week and beyond. If you are a black woman, PLEASE do get in touch with drafts of guests posts or pitches/ideas on ANY aspect of your life loosely related to the academy. Posts can be angry, raw, and candid, and can encompass racism, marginalization, mental health struggles, new pandemic realities, uplifting stories, tactics that work, and/or advice on your favorite technology, apps, teaching techniques, fashion and makeup. If you’re unsure, just ask me! Email me at email@example.com. Currently I pay $100 for accepted posts.
Professor Donna Patterson is a department chair and professor at Delaware State University. She writes and teaches history and global health, including on Ebola and other epidemics. She visited West Africa during the 2014–2016 epidemic but this is her first time living through one.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, I was working in the city at Dillard University. On August 28, 2005—the morning before Katrina made landfall—I evacuated to Houston. I left at daybreak and 16 exhausting hours later, I finally made it to Houston.
To me, hurricanes were mundane. I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Hurricane Katrina was different—though all of the elements of a hurricane were there. Katrina taught me new things that I never could have imagined learning.
On the morning of August 29, 2005, I was peeled to news reports. The storm had weakened from a category 5 and made landfall at a category 3. We were lucky, so we thought.
Things still seemed normal in New Orleans on the morning of August 29th—until the levees broke. But after the levees broke, New Orleans would never be the same. The broken levees caused insurmountable damage and the effects are still being felt in a myriad of ways in greater New Orleans. Much of the city flooded and whole neighborhoods sat under water for weeks. At the same time, other parts of the city were relatively dry with only varied amounts of wind damage.
Somehow, within two weeks after the storm hit, I was able to visit the city.
I could only access parts of the city, but the damage I saw was devastating. The worst thing, though, was the smell—the smell that everyone described. It was an almost indescribable smell of death: the death of people who drowned in their homes. It was also the smell of pets and other animal corpses that were trapped in homes or lying on the ground. The smell was mixed with smells of destruction—of property, of places, of things. What you couldn’t smell were the broken lives, the broken dreams, the lost artifacts, the lost family heirlooms, the waterlogged photo albums, and the damaged artwork. What you couldn’t smell was the mental anguish of a city and its inhabitants, who were left with memories of a lost world: the city that existed before the storm.
I was one of the lucky ones. Though I was physically displaced for almost a year after the storm, I still had a home in New Orleans, albeit one with some damage. I left New Orleans in the weeks after Katrina struck for a one-year fellowship at Princeton University. Living in Princeton, N.J., was a port in the proverbial storm. Everything there was seemingly normal. Everything functioned—stores were open and plentiful, banks were in buildings rather than temporary trailers, mail service was consistent, and the looming memory of death and destruction wasn’t omnipresent. Some of my colleagues from Dillard and elsewhere were impressed that I had landed at an Ivy League university during that difficult time and assumed that I would be productive, researching and writing all sorts of things. Instead I spent much of the year looking for a job. Dillard University sent many of us our last paycheck weeks after Katrina hit. I also grappled with the sheer trauma of my displacement, the displacement of friends and coworkers, the loss of life and housing, and the uncertainty of the present and future of New Orleans. This made it difficult to focus: to write and to produce.
Just as I felt fortunate to be at Princeton in 2005–2006, I am lucky to be living amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. I now work in Delaware as a department chairperson and professor and I have the privilege of being able to work remotely. So many workers don’t have this privilege. Many of us in academia have been privileged to work remotely during the early months of this crisis. As we all know, health care workers are working tirelessly through this pandemic with great risk to their personal health, given the current lack of protective gear. Cashiers, delivery personnel, postal workers, restaurant cooks, childcare workers, gas station attendants and others are also working with the public. They don’t have the luxury of working remotely if they want to keep a job and job-sponsored health care insurance. Some of them work to the detriment of their own personal health security and that of their families.
Having lived through the aftermath of Katrina, I find it somewhat easier to work during this crisis. However, there are also periods of great difficulty given the sheer gravity of the loss of life, the slow response, and the lingering public health threat. Furthermore, I see what is happened in Louisiana—where the Mardi Gras celebrations in February created a hot spot that infected thousands. I’m also witnessing the lag in response and the preparation of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to house patients battling COVID-19. The Morial Convention Center housed evacuees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many suffered and others died as they waited desperately for help to arrive. There is an eerie feeling of déjà vu.
We are all collectively living through the worst global health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Our world will look different once this storm has passed. One of the lessons that I learned from living through Hurricane Katrina is that trauma seeps in if you don’t expect it or acknowledge it. It is not possible to live through something of this magnitude and remain fully unscathed. Many people are already describing how hard it is to perform at the same level productivity of even a recent week’s past. This is a normal response and many of us experienced something similar after Katrina.
There will be rough patches ahead but what I know is that we’ll create a “new normal” from the ashes of COVID-19. What I learned from the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is that you can never fully recapture what existed before. New Orleans never returned to “normal” after Hurricane Katrina. It survived with great loss and pain and now swaths of it are transformed into something new. Similarly, it will be possible to take elements of our pre-COVID-19 lives and to create something anew.
We continue with our new column, featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.
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.
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!
I graduated from my MA in 2008 at the peak of the financial crisis. Everyone around me was predicting that the non-academic job market would be awful for all the grads who entered that market. My department reached out to me in August 2008 to ask if I wanted to start a PhD in September 2008 (they recruited in my area because they hadn’t received a lot of applications for people in my sub-discipline). I had no other plans, so I said yes (the validation boost of being asked was also irresistible, and hard to turn down).
I wish I’d had the confidence and the skills to take full ownership of my decisions. At 23, when I started my PhD, I was still very caught up in seeking approval from the “real” adults in my life and staying in graduate school made it easier to keep chasing approval rather than doing the self-examination necessary to determine my own path. If I hadn’t been asked, I might have taken more time to decide whether I wanted to continue on to the PhD.
When I was doing my PhD, I saw my career goals as a high-stakes “game” in the way that the pursuit of absolute power in the game of thrones is a “game”. Looking back, this was silly, and again, spoke to a lack of clarity about what I hoped an academic career would bring and why I was pursuing a PhD.
I “won” and got a full-time well-paying position as a visiting assistant professor in the U.S. (I’m Canadian).
The VAP position was a series of 1 year contracts, but they renewed every year and it was fairly secure after the first year. However, I was so burned out from getting there that my career goals just never advanced. I had a reasonable rest between my PhD and my job — a full summer where I travelled and didn’t work — but it wasn’t enough to fully recover. I arrived at my 4/4 teaching job exhausted, and couldn’t keep up with publishing research and staying active on the academic job market.
In November of 2016, a tenure track position opened up at the school where I taught. I was invited to apply, but I would have been competing against a colleague I was close with (my fellow VAP), and I had serious doubts about my ability to commit to immigrating permanently to the U.S. (I’m LGBTQIA+ and long term fit was an issue, especially in 2016 when the future was so unpredictable). I decided not to apply to this TT job. Or, rather, I sat down at my computer to try to force myself to say yes I would apply, and found that I could not bring myself to say yes.
I stayed on as a VAP. In the next year, a second TT job opened up at the school where I taught (unlikely miracle). My fellow VAP from last year had successfully won the TT job after a full search, and I was confident that if I applied, I would have a good shot in this year’s competition since the job was specifically tailored to my area of expertise. But again, I made the decision not to apply. My department renewed my VAP contract for another year after I didn’t apply for the 2016 TT position, and that was a gift (gave me time to process, gather savings, make plans). My supportive department chair graciously scheduled two or three conversations with me over this two year period to confirm my decision and check that I wasn’t reconsidering, but I remained certain. I felt a lot of grief in leaving, but I knew that moving back to Canada was the right path for me and I knew that I wasn’t competitive enough after 4 years of a heavy 4/4 teaching load and minimal research productivity to get a tenure-track academic job in Canada. By 2018, I was ready to leave academia but it still wasn’t easy.
For me, the problems that made academia unliveable long term were structural and personal — sacrifices I thought I could make when I started on the academic job market, but which ended up being dealbreakers in the end. Some of the personal problems might have been ameliorated with access to affordable weekly therapy to help manage burnout and anxiety. When I finally made enough money at my job to afford weekly therapy (subsidized by my workplace insurance), it made a big difference and I wished I’d had access to regular therapy earlier. I can imagine an alternate reality where I am highly motivated and driven as well as healthy and grounded, and in that scenario I could have sailed from PhD to VAP to TT job despite the dire state of the academic job market.
I moved back to Canada, and gradually built up my work experience, starting with working part-time for my family’s business, then working as a temp, and now working on contracts at a university in administration.
I’m working in the city I dreamed of working in, at the institution that was my top choice when I was imagining my alternative career. I haven’t really “left” the ivory tower, but I did turn my back on one version of what staying looks like to find a career that felt more liveable long term.
In the process, I’ve been learning (and am still learning) how to work as part of a team and how managerial relationships work (hierarchies work a bit differently in every office and are paradoxically more structured but less formal than they were for me as an academic). Since I stayed in higher ed, the transition has not been that hard, but it has been difficult dealing with becoming “the man” as an administrator, especially since my administrative labor is still contingent.
When I told people I was leaving in 2016, they were all immediately accepting and vocally supportive, even though they’d get this look of anxious puzzlement in their eyes. I’m from a discipline that’s very vocal about the structural problems of higher education so it was easy to have those conversations. I think the place I’ve felt the most undermined post-PhD is in trying to find work outside of academia. People have very very strange beliefs about PhD holders, despite the fact that we are a hugely heterogeneous group. I met with a staffing industry expert who had over 20 years of experience, and she was flummoxed at the idea that PhDs don’t just walk into tenure track jobs. It was undermining to see that she hadn’t come into any contact with the decades-long conversation about the academic job market and that she believed that PhDs could only be teachers (and was willing to argue with me about it when I mentioned that more than half of us do not work as academics). I got much better at camouflaging myself and rebranding myself so that people would not be aware that I was a PhD, and that was helpful for me professionally but it was personally alienating.
This month marks two years since I turned in my last set of final grades and I’ve now settled into a position where I am constantly using the skills I developed during my PhD, and learning new skills all the time. The first year was hard and involved a lot of grinding, but I’m energized by what I can do and where I can go from here. Leaving can feel like you’re dying (or that a part of you is dying), especially if you’ve been trying so hard to stay that you’ve neglected developing other parts of your life and soul. But statistically and realistically, changing careers and redefining yourself are normal things to do and people are successfully doing it all the time, all around you, for all kinds of reasons. A transition can hurt, but it can ensure that you thrive in the long term.
In our Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.
Two weeks ago we posted the question: How has COVID19 impacted your career planning? We got 70+ responses in the first 24 hours! In total we now have 90+ responses, far exceeding any previous questions. Week One theme was “Leaving the Academy. Week Two theme was “Job Security and Planning” This week we go into Emotional Impacts. There are so many responses that I am not going to try and weave them into a narrative with my own comments, as has been my practice. Just sharing.
These are of course loose categories with LOTS of overlap.
You can keep contributing responses. See the link below. And, for now, I’m retaining the Questions that individuals contributed after their substantive responses, so you can also see the linkage between them.
And one explanatory note: We ask respondents to provide any personal identifying information in their own words that THEY consider pertinent to contextualize their responses. Some of them go to …. interesting places. We only lightly edit them, and I think it’s worth contemplating what people feel is important to share about their identities.
Response: I’m absolutely terrified about the future. I have not completed anywhere near as much of my benchwork as I needed to for writing my thesis, and even at home with a paper manuscript to write, I haven’t been able to get anything done. I’m supposed to be moving in the fall to start my PhD at an R1 institution with a prestigious government-issued fellowship. I am worried about my funding falling through with the economic crisis sure to come (already coming?), and I’m also very worried about finding a safe place to live for me and my partner when we have to move during a pandemic. Not only that but even if my partner and I survive the next few years, I don’t know what to expect afterward. The job market in academia is already so volatile, and now that hiring freezes and funding cuts seem to be happening across the country, I can’t imagine it will recover in a few years’ time. I’m worried I’ll never be able to secure a PDF after my PhD if I even make it that far. Particularly not sure how I’ll explain a drop in productivity for (likely) the next year to potential research groups without disclosing far too much personal information about myself and my spouse… It’s a whole mess. Long story short, I’m not even sure how to begin to plan around this, but it’s truly destabilized my immediate and future plans in a way no other hurdle has thus far. [Grad student, STEM, 23-year-old white transgender man in the last term of a thesis based Masters in Chemical Engineering. Married to a WOC with severe immunodeficiency]
Response: My NTT colleagues are terrified. Many of them assume they will lose their positions. The large research institution where we work has given no indication that it will provide any kind of security for contingent faculty. As a 20-year NTT employee in a department with few TT faculty, I have some seniority and a leadership role that *may* mean my position continues, but I honestly have no idea what the coming academic year will bring.
Question: What will tenured and tenure-track faculty do to rally support for NTT faculty and grad students? [NTT, Humanities, White, cisgender female, bisexual, partnered, age 50. MFA, 20 years in one NTT position]
Response: I can’t move anymore. I moved transatlantic – itself totally traumatic – for a postdoc and *this happened*. I can’t imagine moving transatlantic again. Even though “good short term” option in my sub-field are still appearing in the US, I can’t muster enough confidence in my ability to MOVE to apply well or at all. My funding runs out in September but I figured out I can live till December on my income from this AY without touching my savings. So basically, my career plan is … give up any ambition that would require me to move back to the US. Stay in my safe apartment trying to find any remote work at all. Maybe try to get back to my home country where I can stay with a friend and continue looking for any meaningful work that allows me to stay still in one place. [Post doc, Humanities, white, queer, single, migration = European (not Italian) with US PhD now living in Italy (which was a totally unknown country to me)]
Response: I am supposed to write my dissertation and submit by the end of summer 2020, and 1/3 of it is done so far. I am also supposed to be looking for a post-doc position but have been unable to do any of these two tasks. The uncertainty of the academic job market’s future has destroyed all my motivation. So I have suspended everything and I am progressing with writing very slowly. I worked for 4.5 years on this project and finishing seems so impossible right now.
Question: If you are in a similar situation as I am (writing up a PhD dissertation and having lost all motivation to do so because of the crisis), have you found any useful methods and tricks to ward off depression and this motivation-less state? Do you have any advice on how to get out if this?[Grad Student, Cognitive Science, I am a 32 years old female from a European country, writing up my PhD dissertation in cognitive science at a US-accredited university. I am unmarried but in a long term relationship with a person who works in the same field (and who recently defended their PhD, too).]
Response: My career planning has been heavily impacted by COVID. I am taking a leave of absence from my grad program to take care of my baby and to move because my husband is starting seminary. As such, I needed to find a full-time job to support my family, and I wanted to find a job at a university. But now I’m worried that I won’t be able to find any job at all and my husband and I don’t know why we’re going to do. [Grad Student, Humanities, I am a married white female in my mid-twenties, and I am currently 34 weeks pregnant with my first child]
Response: Few jobs are out. I’ve had 3 interviews and 1 virtual campus visit, which was 3 weeks ago and no updates yet. I’m not even sure if I should ask for an update. I’ve been building my CV, getting experience that would be most important for an academic job (assistant professor). Of course I could apply for industry jobs, and I have. I was contacted by a couple to schedule an interview. But then the COVID outbreak happened right during that time and I ended up not getting an interview. Am not able to celebrate finishing my phd the way I should with everything that’s been going on. Haven’t been able to focus and work on publications. So I just feel lost.[Grad Student, Humanities, 32, Asian, female, heterosexual, married, graduating with a phd in May 2020]
Response: I feel completely trapped. I work in academic affairs in a community college (admin-staff) and was getting a PhD to go TT – that’s clearly not going to happen. But I also feel it is nowhere for me to go in any direction in Higher Ed right now. I can’t even use my doctoral degree for advancement in my current admin-staff space. There are hiring freezes (which WILL result in these positions never coming back – I’ve seen this before and now it’s on an even greater scale). I’m completely defeated. I have nowhere to begin to look for other alternatives. All I’ve known is higher ed (I’ve been working in colleges and universities since 2007). Also, the structural gendered inequalities in cis-gendered, heterosexual marriages have put the burden on ME doing 80-90% of the childcare and household management functions so I’ve found it next to impossible to be any broad definition of ‘productive’. All of the publishing projects and dissertation writing have been put on hold. I’m doing the BARE MINIMUM in my day job to not get fired (basically responding to only urgent emails and zoom meetings). [Grad Student, Social Sciences, White, female, mother, married (to a man), working FT while getting a PhD, ABD]
Response: I am in the midst of a difficult divorce. And a parent was diagnosed with cancer recently. I feel like this pandemic arrived at the worst time (emotionally and psychologically) even though I recently got good news (successful federal postdoc application). I’ve been struggling to make progress with my writing even though I should have all the time in the world (according to my family). I met with my postdoc advisor and we made plans for me to start my position later than anticipated. All the conferences I was to attend have been deferred for a year, so my next project is on pause. I’m financially strapped because there are fewer teaching and research opportunities available and my savings are depleted. Due to my focus on writing and the support of scholarships I don’t qualify for COVID-19 funding assistance.
Question: What additional support might be offered to graduate students during these challenging times? Is there enough mental health and financial support available for grad students to achieve their goals? [Grad Student, Humanities, I’m a late-stage queer femme PhD student (last stretch of the dissertation) with a postdoc position awaiting me]
Response: I signed a job offer for a new NTT job in a professional/healthcare field in early March (I realize I’m one of the lucky ones). The day after I signed, I started hearing about hiring freezes and rescinded job offers, and I’ve been a ball of anxiety ever since. I checked with the department about whether my job is ‘safe,’ and received written confirmation that because I signed my offer right before the freeze started, they will not rescind it. But the constant news about the job market is making it difficult to trust even that. I procrastinated about giving notice at my current job and putting my home on the market because I’m so nervous that I’ll be left jobless and without a place to live. But now my home sold and I gave notice, so there’s no turning back. In the short term, I’m going to just go ahead and move across the country, and in the worst-case scenario that I still lose the job, I could do clinical work, giving up on academia for now (even though I’m almost finished with my research doctorate). I realize how lucky I am both because I signed an offer on time and because I have a fallback career. I don’t understand why I’m still so anxious though. [NTT, Professional, 37 y.o. single woman, no kids]
Response: My partner (tenure track) and I (non-tenure track) were on the job market but several searches were canceled due to the coronavirus uncertainty. We were hopeful this would be the year we escape our current positions. We wanted to find positions together where we could have it all – both of us having fulfilling careers. So far, everything we have done has to lead to one of us being under-employed and we haven’t found a good solution despite many years (six!) of trying. However, in light of the circumstances, we are grateful to both have employment.[NTT, Social Sciences, 37-year-old white, married female who took partner’s last name (I think the last name thing is important because women are judged regardless of their choice on the name)]
Response: Can’t find time or headspace to write.[Assistant Professor, Social Sciences, 39-year white old female. Married with 5 children]
Question: How to handle isolation in rural places far from family and friends during this time. Normally, I leave for the entire summer. [Assistant Professor, Humanities, Single woman, 36]
Response: I am in a job that I absolutely hate. I took it knowing I wasn’t going to like it but figured I could do it for 3 years and get vested in my retirement account before moving to another state system. I made it two months before aggressive job searching because of how incredibly insane and backward it is here. I have no friends at work or in my personal life here in this small (~2,000 people) town. I can’t relate to any of my peers. I have been covering student activities, reslife, conduct, title ix, student orgs, Greek life, RHA, and have chaired committees and searches and have run myself ragged even trying to do the minimum for each of the aspects of the TWO positions I’m covering. My supervisor has never worked in student affairs prior to starting here a month before I started last summer. At the time the virus broke out, I had applied to several mid-level positions all over the country. All of those searches have been postponed or canceled. I am stuck here. I really should be grateful I’m even employed (for now), but my mental health is at the worst low it’s ever been at and now because of this virus, I am going to be stuck here until the job market straightens out, if it ever does. [Administrator, Professional, White cisgender gay American-born man, single, 32, master’s level professional with 7.5 years of professional FT experience in higher ed plus 2.5 years of graduate-level experience]
Color Street Nails and Paint-by-Numbers. And my online dance classes (and yoga) – links below. And skincare. And bunnies. The video talks about the first two. Then I remembered the other three so those are in photos below.
That’s it! That’s the post.
Get your ColorStreet nail strips with Andrea Shaia, Friend of the Blog! Please note: because of the pandemic and supply chain disruptions, her official page is sold out of most designs but she has tons in her personal stock that you can still get. So be sure and just email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Skincare is of course my life, lol. I do a mask every week and serums/moisturizers every day. My current favorite mask is Glamglow GravityMud. It’s SILVER. And it smells like pineapples. And it works.
And then, NEEDLESS TO SAY, bunnies.
I needed to show my daughter how i got to pet Ryva, who is a VERY skittish rescue bunny we have been working to rehabilitate, mid-groom, in an unprecedented sign of trust! I didn’t have my phone handy so I had to sketch it!
For over a year Wednesdays were the days for women of color guest posts. But that well has run dry! I’m still actively soliciting guest posts so please do send any along to me, or even just ideas or pitches.
But until I have new ones, I’ll be using Wednesdays to uplift women of colors’ voices in other ways.
Follow Liz and Xine for on-point timely commentary on the state of academia for women of color. I am always learning from them.
This episode: COVID19 Anti-Asian and Anti-Black Racism with Professor Charissa Cheah.
Description: Who is seen as the disease or the diseased? Psychologist Charissa Cheah received RAPID grant funding from the National Science Foundation to study the forms of anti-Chinese racism from COVID-19 and their impact on Chinese-American individuals, families, and communities. PhDivas Liz and Xine discuss with Professor Cheah the politics and histories around racial identification health in research and how people, especially immigrants or international students, understand their own racial positioning. Race conscious research is necessary: the media is finally recognizing the disproportionate mortality rate among African Americans. However, Professor Cheah discusses how such research can be distorted to eugenic ends to blame Black people as a distraction from structural racism.
Another in our “Best-Of-Postac” series, showcasing our splendid team of postac coaches who can work with you, and the advice they’ve provided over the years to the blog. In our COVID19 higher ed collapse, finding new income streams outside the academy is absolutely urgent.
Today I am sharing a post by Dr. Darcy Hannibal. In this post she breaks down best practices for a cover letter for a job outside the academy.
Darcy Hannibal is a biological anthropologist working in data analytics and data science. Her non-traditional career path, post-PhD, started with a continuation of the data consulting work she began while in graduate school, followed by a staff job as a data analyst and laboratory manager at the University of California Davis. She then worked as an Assistant Project Scientist in the Department of Population Health & Reproduction at the University of California Davis. As of September 2018, Darcy works as the Principal Analyst of Student Success in the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis at UC Davis. During her time as a Lab Manager and Project Scientist, she managed primate behavioral research projects, which included recruiting, hiring, and supervising laboratory staff. In addition to mentoring the staff on their career goals and development, resumes, and cover letters, she reviewed hundreds of job applications and conducted interviews as a prospective supervisor. Darcy has seen the mistakes PhDs make when applying for non-academic jobs and she can help you avoid them. Find Darcy at: @DarcyHannibal and Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/darcyhannibal
Darcy’s Consulting Philosophy:
Our academic training, hobbies, and other experiences provide us with skills that can translate to non-academic jobs, but it takes some preparation to re-orient yourself, learn how to describe your skills in a compelling way, and become a contender for these jobs. Your plan B is someone else’s plan A, so you need a B-game brought up to an A-game level. The best cover letters, resumes, and interviews come from a combination of succinctly presenting who you are as a professional and doing your homework to find out what and who are behind the job ad. Your best shot at filling a position for a job you would love, is to fine tune your application materials and interviewing skills to make you an obvious top choice. Some clients I work already have a lead on a potential job and just need job application material and interview services. If that is true for you, then jumping right into those services is fine. Many clients, however, need assistance with building a job search strategy and for those clients a 50-minute consult is needed before working on job documents. Although good job documents are essential, few prospective employers will look at them if you don’t have a sound job search strategy. In the initial 50-minute consult, we will go over work history and interests, what path you envision for your career going forward, areas where your job materials need improvement, the importance of building a professional network and how to do that, where to find potential jobs, how to pitch yourself for the jobs you want, services you may want going forward, and any other specific concerns you may have. For clients interested in a career in analytics, I provide specific guidance on their analytical skills and translating these for non-academic jobs. Working with you on your next step forward will be a rewarding and fun venture for both of us!
In this post, The Post-Ac’s Guide to the Cover Letter, Darcy writes:
“A cover letter for a non-academic job is nothing like what you’d write for an academic job. It has to be less about you and more about what you can do for the employer. And short, very short. I previously wrote that resumes get a mean of 6 second review in the first cut. There are no similar studies for cover letters (although you’ll find lots of commentary on whether anyone even reads them), but I can tell you from experience it is much less during that first round of elimination. If you make it past the initial culling, your goal with the cover letter is to show them how you can help them and that you understand how to communicate professionally.
Many PhDs considering the post-ac route worry that they are over-qualified and that this will result in automatic elimination. That is rarely the reason for elimination (in fact some employers have explicit policies against it), but PhDs do have a reputation for being insufferably self-involved. If an employer has any misgivings about hiring someone with a PhD, they will see an unnecessarily long cover letter and resume as proof you don’t get that this isn’t a dissertation and that you probably will make meetings longer and more painful than they already are, drag projects out longer than needed to get the most complicated outcomes, etc. This is your opportunity to show them you don’t fit that stereotype.”