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.