The Career Counselor Is In – Cardozo 3

Strong stuff: Cardozo writes, “For many if not most, being an adjunct is the professional equivalent of domestic abuse, PTSD and Stockholm syndrome rolled into a single despairing plight that has only one feasible resolution: as with any dysfunctional relationship, at some point you must first DECIDE to go, then GO.  The terrible thing is that we lack the professional equivalent of transition shelters.  However, The Professor is providing one kind of safe space with the Alt/Post-Ac Initiative, and I mention others below. “


by Dr. Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

I began my visit to The Professor’s virtual office with a post on the problems of tenurecentrism, followed by musings on freeing the academic elephant from its limited range of motion.  Here I recount my own journey off, on, and all around The Track in hopes it might generate some transferable insights.

Not everything begins with a strategic plan; being open to what the universe sends is another option (read: you can thrive despite being clueless and indecisive). My first job after getting my B.A. in English from Haverford College was in the Harvard Office of Career Services—an administrative assistant position landed by filling out a generic application at the U’s HR department. I soon learned the ropes of counseling Arts and Sciences under/grads interested in a range of professions, a hilarious irony considering I had never had a fulltime job before, let alone a career.  But I loved that generalist work and was promoted in a few years to an actual counseling position.  This encouragement, along with constant exposure to other kinds of employers, only reinforced my sense that I belonged in higher education.

So I then obtained my M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration, Planning and Policy at Harvard and went on to hold multiple dean’s roles in academic and student affairs at Mount Holyoke College before completing my Ph.D. in English/American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2005. Pursuing my Ph.D. was the most downwardly-mobile decision I have ever made.  I have no doubt that, had I not embarked on the doctoral path, I’d still be a dean somewhere with a more advanced title and exponentially higher salary.  But I have no real regrets since it engendered diverse experiences that now leave me feeling pregnant with possibility.

Speaking of being pregnant, I got on the PhD track not only out of intellectual interest but also because my dean’s job didn’t comport well with infant parenting (it required carrying a beeper and working on site many evenings and weekends, and my partner had an all-consuming legal job).  Although counter-intuitive, having kids in grad school may be the “best” time to have them, considering the terrifying alternative of raising young kids while on the job market/tenure track.  The paradox of modern parenting (one of few major vocations that can still be practiced without a license) and the academy’s perennial “baby penalty” are huge topics in themselves, as suggested by Mary Ann Mason and an abundance of other literature (e.g. Mothers in Academia or Mama PhD book and blog ).  The larger problem, of course, is the normalization of a medieval model of being “married to the institution”: an ethos of overwork, insufficient boundaries, and narrow notions of “excellence” and “productivity” that advantages the subset that complies most fully while leaving those with different values and significant personal or civic responsibilities (not just mothers) at a distinct disadvantage.

As a doctoral student-parent with prior work experience, however, I was saved from the worst of disciplinary indoctrination.  I always knew there were other lives, other options.  Not only did having kids connect me to the wider community in different ways, but professionally I had already consorted with administrators and others who weren’t faculty, i.e. “Those of Whom We Do Not Speak” (cf. Night Shyalaman’s The Village, a great allegory for escaping any ideological enclosure).

Many of us are prevented by disciplinary myopia from seeing alternatives in our larger environments.  Do you have a genuine interest in career exploration or do you feel about the faculty role as you might about a soul mate – that there is only one profession for you, for better or worse till death do you part?  As Miya Tokumitsu has brilliantly noted, academics are fairly crippled by an overwhelming sense of vocation, making us ripe for the exploitation we are experiencing en masse.  Combined with the hair shirt of academic discipline and attendant loss of self-esteem, it becomes nigh impossible to understand:  you can be happy in other jobs.  There are other contexts where one teaches, writes, researches, or works with young people; there also jobs where you might enjoy doing none of these things!  Someone else will love you.  More precisely, someone will love you, elsewhere.

I spent a decade floating around the Five College Consortium of Western Massachusetts as a “visiting” professor due to the two-body problem that circumscribed where I could apply (my partner is a partner in a small law firm – a hard-won situation difficult to replicate across state lines). Most of my contracts were decent fulltime and multi-year gigs with benefits, not per course adjunct arrangements.  That is as good as it gets, but still temporary. Eventually I tired of being a perpetual applicant.

Here’s the thing, adjuncts:  your chances of “converting” to a secure academic job decrease with every semester—they almost NEVER hire the devil they know.  As a woman of color (diversity hire potential!) with exceptional teaching evaluations on five elite campuses, respectable publications, prior administrative experience, an admiring network of students and colleagues as well as a proven commitment to the geographic area, I had the tantalizing delusion that I would be an exception to this grim rule. NOPE.  Way later than I should have, I decided to seek work that promised advancement or at least a longer shelf life.  If you need stronger medicine here, try Rebecca Schuman’s Thesis Hatement.

For many if not most, being an adjunct is the professional equivalent of domestic abuse, PTSD and Stockholm syndrome rolled into a single despairing plight that has only one feasible resolution: as with any dysfunctional relationship, at some point you must first DECIDE to go, then GO.  The terrible thing is that we lack the professional equivalent of transition shelters.  However, The Professor is providing one kind of safe space with the Alt/Post-Ac Initiative, and I mention others below.

I was better treated than most working off the tenure track and had a safety net in my partner; I know that I cannot imagine the worst of what some of my adjunct colleagues are experiencing. Yet anyone who is untenured (including TT faculty) ultimately confronts the same dynamic:  at some point we have to decide whether our circumstances are worth hanging on to, or else pursue a change.  To achieve the latter, we cannot identify as helpless victims, engage in crippling rationalizations, or indulge in wishful thinking. You can’t control what others do, but you CAN decide what YOU will do.

In 2012, I decided to end my role as a faculty “Kelly girl” and went on a broader Alt/Post-Ac search. That was a nerve-wracking but hopeful time with plenty of ups, downs, and interesting nibbles.  Networking (more on that in a future post) and applying for a wide range of jobs was a laboratory on how to (re)present myself.  I learned to fashion strikingly different versions of a cover letter and resume, all of which drew selectively from my background in accordance with new position requirements but still made sense on their own terms (more on this “Art of Translation” in a future post).  Ultimately, I took a job as Director of a new Career Discovery Program at Williams College.

Once again, I discovered that I. LOVE. CAREER. COUNSELING.  It felt great to use my emotional intelligence freely, to teach without grading, and to “punch out” so a weekend was … a weekend! Ironically, while I joked to students (by way of alerting them to the uncertainties of the academic market) that I had come full circle and returned to the job I held when I was 24, this new role actually threw the value of my academic training into full relief, since 1) as an interdisciplinary thinker and researcher, I could engage credibly with people from a wide range of fields, 2) career counseling is advising and teaching by other means and 3) it enabled a key “bridging” function that allowed me to evaluate the core academic mission from the vantage point of student exit.

Essentially, career counseling invites backwards design; it asks us to evaluate a college education by considering what graduates go on to do and become, as well as what the world needs now (FYI, it’s still love, sweet love).  The tired dichotomy between liberal and vocational education is not only false but unproductive:  we need to talk about applied liberal learning.  Surprisingly, then, I found real intellectual challenge in college career counseling (even if the field itself doesn’t always elicit such conversations).

Similarly, thinking about the full range of careers for PhDs gives us a very different view of the doctoral mission, as suggested by the Woodrow Wilson and Carnegie foundations or The Versatile PhD (press your institution or scholarly association into membership – there are no individual subscriptions). These sites remind you, as I did in “Demystifying the Dissertation,” that your career angst is NOT an individual problem but an institutionally and socially constructed one. Unfortunately, most doctoral faculty members have worked primarily in academe, so they are not well-situated to advise students on a range of career options, or even on academic missions and cultures beyond their own R1 environments.

In any case, my return to career counseling was “Alt-Ac” in the best sense of work that was varied, stimulating and made good use of my academic training even though a Ph.D. was not required – an important reminder that you may need to move “over or down” in order to move out and (hopefully, eventually) up.  While you may not have an alternative career field to return to as I did, I assure you that the skills you’ve gained from academic training ARE highly transferable, not only within Higher Ed but to myriad outside organizations that will value your capacity to think, research, write, and/or teach. There are also jobs that look nothing like academic life, but which may nonetheless be a great fit (your capacity for making a more radical transition depends on your willingness to discover or claim new aspects that academic work may have suppressed). Either way, to convince others of your fit for Alt/Post-Ac work, you first have to believe it yourself.  We’ll talk about how to stoke the fires of that belief next time.

There’s an unexpected twist to my story that may offer strange hope to any academic debating (cue up the Clash): should I stay or should I go?  Just months in to my new career counseling job, I saw an unusual tenure-track job listing in Interdisciplinary Studies, with responsibility to also coordinate the Women’s and Leadership Studies minors, at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA)—one of few public SLACS in the country.  Had the institutional culture at Williams seemed more embracing of change, I might have envisioned a future there.  But since I was unsure whether the Career Center and College would transform as I hoped, I threw in for the position at MCLA, a more humble yet evolving institution.

Gentle reader, eight years after getting my PhD and a few years after I had stopped applying for TT jobs, I got on The Track for the first time at the tender age of 48 (confirming academe as the true location of the Fountain of Youth –where professors can be “Assistants” at any age, even permanently!).  Because MCLA is committed to experiential learning, my career counseling background was seen as value added rather than as evidence that I wasn’t scholarly enough. In addition, Interdisciplinary Studies promised a capacious home for my diverse teaching and scholarly engagements (21 discrete course preps thus far).  So, a la The Sopranos, “just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!”  I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this.  Did I get scared, and veer from my true North Star just because my trainer tugged my chain again, or might this actually be the long-sought professional home that can make room for my varied interests, including career counseling and being a singer-songwriter?  Time will tell.

Meanwhile, what can I tell you?  I applied for exactly one tenure track job last year and I got it.  I’m batting a thousand!  Seriously, I’m not suggesting that my situation is replicable or that you should put all your eggs in one basket.  Rather, I’m saying that you might need to ditch the basket.  That’s what I did, never imagining that my exit off the track would lead to an on-ramp back.  Like my unplanned start in career counseling, it’s a reminder that we don’t control the universe – all we CAN control is the decision to put ourselves out there, and to respond when opportunity knocks.

If my story is helpful, it won’t be because my path is representative, but because it speaks to the value of setting new possibilities in motion by making an affirmative decision to quit, which as The Professor assures us, is always OK.  If you are in adjunct hell or any another soul-crushing academic situation, success is defined as any job that effectively relocates you. Don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself by waiting for a perfect match (as in love, rebound relationships are par for the course).  Just know that breaking free is the first step in a journey of a thousand unpredictable but potentially wondrous miles.

In my case, there’s been another benefit.  My faculty career already died (or so I thought), so I don’t operate from the fearful outlook that being on the tenure track engenders in many.  I don’t feel like a hapless damsel trussed to The Track (hence my decision to blog under my own name).  It’s not that I’m immune to professional worry, but when such moments arise I remind myself that I left the faculty once before and can do so again.  They can’t kill you twice.

While my pre-doctoral path may have made me less vulnerable to the stultifying resignation engendered by disciplinary socialization, you can still deploy your inherent brute strength to free yourself from the academic stake that tethers you in place.  As discussed in my last post, change begins in the mind.  What new possibilities will you begin to imagine today?

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The Career Counselor Is In – Cardozo 3 — 28 Comments

  1. Thank you for this uplifting message. Without too much detail, I have left a secondary school teaching career for something else that might be termed a “rebound” job. I was feeling a little like a flake, since I would like to return to a secondary classroom now. It is nice to know that it is OK to go back and perhaps now I will give myself permission to do that without the guilt.

    • Robin, once your teaching background is there it can’t be erased. You can always make a good argument about why you’re an effective teacher. The trick will be talking about why you left and want to go back (easier to do if a relocation or two-body problem was involved, or if it looks like “field work” remotely related to subjects you teach?). However depending on the “rebound” situation, sometimes your “other” job may be seen as value-added to schools, which more and more are interested in school/community partnerships etc. So maybe there’s something in what you’re doing now that can be viewed as adding something extra to the school community?

  2. All of your posts resonate with me. I am a recent PhD with a visiting position for this year, but I also entered grad school as a parent (not of an infant), following a 15 year career in early childhood and elementary education. I still want most to be in higher ed in a teacher prep program and that’s why I got my PhD, but I also have the benefit of knowing that I am way more valuable than what academic hierarchies tell me I am and that I can very likely get a higher paying, satisfying job elsewhere. I decided that I would not accept adjunct positions and I will only be a visiting professor for 2 years at most. If TT doesn’t open up in that time (and allow for a balanced, satisfying and joyful life) then I will search in other directions – despite the fact that so far I love being a professor (except for the never-ending demands and constant work of trying to set boundaries around my time while still doing great work.) I haven’t done a lot of job applications, but I have had 2 on campus interviews both of which were completely fun for me and regardless of the outcome they taught me more about what I want – and part of what I want is to be somewhere where my experiences, passions and talents are valued from the start. I am not aiming for an R-1 for that reason – not because I don’t think I am capable of excellent research, but because I don’t want to play the game by R-1 rules. The schools I have interviewed at and where I work now are very mission-driven places, committed to social justice, supporting diverse student bodies that include working adults, and making a positive impact on urban communities. I felt “stupid” and “illogical” not applying to more prestigious places last semester (or just more places), but I have now come to realize that my intuition about where I might fit well is pretty good. I also have a partner whose next step will likely impact my geographical options and I am excited to see how our two paths (I would also use the word “callings”) will intersect and how life will guide us to the next open door, as complicated and scary as the lack of a clear path may be today. Thanks for sharing your journey!

  3. Thanks Deb! I like how you’re thinking about your situation. I would also add that while my story is extreme (1 tenure-track application, 1 job), it does raise questions about whether more applications are necessarily better when the “fit” isn’t there. You raise a great point about pursuing schools with missions and cultures that are more likely to value YOU. Yes, more applications increase the odds in general, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. Sometimes a perfunctory or mismatched application is as good as not applying. Save the hassle and time, don’t do it. But especially if you are willing to treat the process as exploration, by all means go for anything that appeals, within or outside academe. Best of luck to you.

  4. I have a newly minted doctorate in hand (January 2014) and was on the job market for a short time. I had a great experience with one school but was told they had several great applicants and had a hard time deciding. They hoped I would apply for a position down the road (and told me one will open up early next year). My problem is plain and simple. I need to work. I have been partially or minimally employed for the last 3 years of my dissertation and cannot not work any longer due to family obligations, student loans, etc.

    Is it going to look bad on my CV if I take a K12 position for a year until I go back on the job market next year? I am limited by location and where I live, nothing seems to open up in the TT line very often in liberal arts or interdisciplinary studies. I could make a decent living if I teach K12 again but I worry that this will somehow look like I wasn’t serious about higher ed and research. If I take a K12 position, it would be hard to make it look like a research site as my research was with a specific refugee population.

    • JAS – the contradictions in your question speak to the craziness of the system: in what universe where decent fulltime jobs are so scarce should it be considered “bad” to do the sensible thing and take another job?! And yet of course you have to manage the story of why you are elsewhere to ease the travails of small-minded hiring committees of your future (and I do think you can address the frank economic argument in a letter or interview). I’d say taking a K-12 position isn’t as “bad” because it is teaching after all. However if you can show ongoing higher ed engagements (e.g. speak at a conference, get some writing done) or conversely find a way to bring your research area into some programming at the K-12 place, that might help bridge the situation by showing ongoing and current academic commitment. As in my experience, you can only hope that the ability of a committee to look past your “alternative” location may be a hopeful litmus test of a good fit – a club you DO want to be a member of because they’ll have you! Good luck.

  5. Does anyone else find the analogies with partner abuse and PTSD a little icky? And a little victim-blamey to people who are actually in partner abuse situations, by implicitly reducing their situation to “You just have to get up and go!”, and who are “identify[ing] as helpless victims, engag[ing] in crippling rationalizations, or indulg[ing] in wishful thinking” and ignoring their valid reasons, many of which don’t apply to adjuncts (like fear of being killed), for not leaving?

    • As the writer of that shaky analogy and a teacher of women’s studies, I myself find it icky. You’re absolutely right. In part it was a casualty of the blog form where I couldn’t be nuanced enough in the space given. And maybe I also fell prey to the temptation of a shocking sound byte (indeed, The Professor grabbed it to highlight the post)! And yet, I DID mean to draw the analogy to Stockholm syndrome at least, the idea that one has begun to normalize one’s captivity or depend on one’s captors to the point that one doesn’t “just go” even if/when one CAN. But there’s also an existential analogy I was trying to get at: many academics have internalized tremendous levels of fear that can paralyze action or block perspective.

      Your comment helps me realize that it is the DIFFERENCE between the academic situation and partner abuse that is most instructive and what I was groping towards (although the grad student/diss advisor relationship at its worst may be most analogous given the privatization of the process and power differentials). The comment that you excerpted was intended to say: you’re NOT a victim but an agent when you adopt the mindset that you CAN “just go” (although adjuncts, too, may have their calculated reasons for staying).

      Ultimately, isn’t realizing that they can and must go also what survivors of abusive relationships have done and must do (ideally with lots of support, recognizing the grave danger that peaks around the actual time of exit)? Still, you are right that the difficulties do not analogize well to the academic situation. It’s the commonality of that required shift in perspective (that it’s possible to go, if not easy) that led me to draw the analogy in the first place. Such analogizing has proven problematic for many in the short forms of the blogosphere, and I hope to remember this when under deadline in the future! I appreciate your raising our awareness, and will try to curb my capacity for incommensurate, incomplete, or insensitive analogies. Mea culpa.

      • Karen, for what it’s worth, your analogies really resonated with me. Thank you so much for your blog post.

        I have seen and experienced abusive family relationships in my life, and I certainly do not make light of them or wish to blame the victims. However, abusive relationships are not just about physical violence or threats of physical violence. A lot of abuse is psychological in nature, and arguably just as damaging to a person’s well-being.

        Towards the end of my PhD, in conversations with friends, I actually started to refer to my relationship with my dissertation and with the academic enterprise in general, as an abusive relationship. I became increasingly conscious of how deeply my time in graduate school had eroded my psychological and financial well-being.

        Even after completing my PhD recently, it has been difficult to find some genuine joy in the achievement. The academic job market being what it is, I am now realistically looking down a long road of low-paid adjunct teaching, while scrambling to publish in order to stay even remotely ‘in the game’. I am tired, and I fear, defeated.

        As you wrote so eloquently “we cannot identify as helpless victims, engage in crippling rationalisations, or indulge in wishful thinking. You can’t control what others do, but you CAN decide what YOU will do.” I will not sit around waiting to win the lottery of a TT job, while sliding ever more deeply into adjunct hell. I am determined to spend this summer carefully going through my options in and out of academia, and to formulate a workable plan.

        Having had no family support to fall back on, I have supported myself financially and practically all my adult life. I have done some interesting and well-paid jobs along the way. Perhaps more than some of my fellow grads, I know that I could be happy in other jobs. Even so, it is difficult to let go of academia, for all the reasons you outlined above.

      • I thought the analogies were spot on. When adjuncting has been your bread and butter its hard to imagine a different reality. Certainly there is a major difference between being a victim of a natural disaster and as a result having persistent flashbacks and a host of other symptoms that land you with the label PTSD. However the similarities are striking enough that we can draw parallels. A person in a domestic violence situation is often not able to leave without considering the cost and consequences. A person diagnosed with PTSD can’t just forget the trauma. A person who has Stockholm has shifted their thinking from escape to survival to supporter. Adjuncts are not a homogeneous group however they are bound together by some basic similarities.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Piva. I’m glad to hear that you start exploring your options this summer. Sometimes, even if nothing happens right away, there’s great value in just starting to look elsewhere, and allowing yourself to imagine the alternatives. Best of luck to you.

  7. Glad to hear that Williams added career counseling at all! When I was there, everyone just went to work for the company Daddy owned or whatever, so there was absolutely nothing (to the degree that my friend and I looked at other colleges’ career counseling websites to get ourselves jobs.)

    • Ah yes, this is what I gently alluded to when I described the challenges of trying to build a more robust vision there (especially outside the traditional paths – business, law, medicine). It’s come a long way, and there’s a ways to go.

  8. Just one note – I’d always assumed that the “devil you know” had a disadvantage and that VAP/adjunting/sessionalining/CLT positions never turned into tenure track.

    I’m revising my opinion a bit. Quite a few people I know have recently seen this transition happen successfully. I think in smaller markets especially (especially without grad schools) this is a more of factor – they know you they like AND they know you like the town and are likely to stay.

    • That’s really interesting. I wonder how we could get real data on this, because at least around here the odds continue to seem extremely tipped in the other direction (i.e. despite all the folks I’m thinking of being known, liked, and committed to the area due to partners etc). I think you’re right though, about the niche being small markets away from a PhD-churning grad schools.

      • Also – there is now a regular series on post-ac/alt-ac on university affairs – called PhD to Life. There are interviews with people who have pursued various careers post PhD. I’ve found it really useful.

        • Kaye – thanks for this great tip! I hadn’t known about that site. I hope everyone finds it useful.

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  10. Thanks for this really useful anecdote. Right now the question I’m feeling anguish over is whether adjunct work on one’s resume has any potential usefulness for pursuing other work in higher ed besides more teaching. It seems like some positions in higher ed admin or elsewhere might favor someone with a bit of teaching experience behind them, no?

    In other words, once it becomes apparent that one is not likely to get a TT position, can one strategically pursue adjunct work with the idea of applying it towards a non-teaching purpose or getting a foothold in a particular institution or place for the sake of other work there?

    For instance, I’ve been thinking of living in a particular place, and I was recently offered a low-paying non-TT teaching job there. Should I take the job and use it as a platform to explore what else I might do while I’m there, or skip it and stay unemployed while directly looking for something else I can do with my skills?

  11. Ommg. I’m the embodiment of the person who has stayed adjunct for years, only to passed over for multiple professor positions, 2 Dean positions, and 4 director of student/academic affairs positions. I’m more than qualified, my resume is flawless, my teaching philosophy is profound and yet, I’m a single mom, who can’t afford to feed my kids and keep a roof. I’m so depressed it’s affected every aspect of my existence.

    So if you authors can help me. Please answer.

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  13. Thank you so much. These words are my refuge right now. I was a free way flyer who got fed up and reduced my load to one class so that I could finish my doctoral program and find another way to support myself. This sounds simple but when you are a single mom of four the story gets interesting. I have been part of the matrix (adjunct) for 11 years and as I began to work on personal development I could no longer accept the scraps from the “Masters” table. I was encouraged while I read this post. A few years ago I told my friends I’m pregnant not with a new baby but with a new life. I said, a seed has been developing in my mind and I am becoming a new person. Years later I found the courage to turn down the contracts that appeared to be my livelihood, humble myself and take a risk on me. I know there is something more than 18 units, three W-2’s, waiting on unemployment, and crossing my fingers for summer sections. I am reminded of a train of thinking that was clearly scene in the movie V for Vendetta when Valeria accepted she would die in a jail cell but she found clarity. I am a work in progress but Karen Cardozo I want to say thank you, I can imagine many new possibilities for myself and for the system. There is a better way. Thanks for being a light on the underground railroad.

    • Amira – thanks so much for sharing your response! I’m sorry I’m only seeing it now in May. Be in touch if you want to explore our initial short, FREE, consult for ideas about your situation. Meantime keep on keepin’ on!

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