MITACoach Interview Series- “Contented Post-Ac”

I’m thrilled to be kicking off my interview series today. I’m going to be asking my interviewees six questions about their graduate training, thoughts about their career, and some individual identity and work/life balance questions. I’ve also asked them to write a short professional bio. If you are interested in being interviewed as part of this series please contact me at drjfs71 at gmail dot com. Just as a reminder, you can read more about my academic qualifications, affiliations, and interests here. In other words, I will follow standard academic protocol for maintaining anonymity and will email you exactly what the post will contain before I post it.

My first interviewee has requested to remain anonymous, so I’ll be calling this person Contented Post-Ac. CP-Ac graduated with a PhD from an elite humanities program in the Midwest in the last decade, spent seven years on the job market, and now has a #postac career as a tutor. Contented Post-Ac is a mixed race, heterosexual woman. One of the most striking things about Contented Post-Ac’s experiences is the ways in which her “lack” of a partner or children was seen as advantageous to career advancement by other grad students and faculty in her department, while she was simultaneously discouraged from co-ordinating departmental activities that could give her a sense of community and belonging at her university.

Short professional bio as written by Contented Post-Ac

I graduated with a PhD from an R1, elite humanities program in the Midwest. Following graduation, I worked as a tutor for a large education company and also as an adjunct at a private liberal arts university in the South while publishing and pursuing the TT job search for four years. I then became a university administrator and adjunct at another R1 university while still searching for TT positions. I finally gave up on my academic job search after seven years and now tutor and train tutors for a living. I am hoping to start a consulting business within a year.

1) Why did you decide to pursue a PhD? What was your training like? 

I first wanted to become a professor when I did a research project on the career when I was a sophomore in high school. Coming from a very nonacademic family (I am a first-generation college graduate), I had no real notion of what a university education might entail, much less an academic career, but after reading various articles and books about academia and interviewing professors, I dreamed of spending my life teaching, researching, and writing. My college and graduate school years only served to confirm my goal.

My undergraduate education prepared me well: in addition to my coursework and extracurriculars, I researched, wrote, and defended a proposal and thesis for my major department over the course of a year and a half. I received extensive feedback in most of my classes on my writing, so most of my training as a writer and researcher came from my undergraduate professors and reference librarians. I also served as a tutor for several courses and the university learning center and then had to complete two teaching assignments as part of the honors program. In graduate school, my pedagogical training came in the form of a required semester-long seminar for every student in my PhD program, but I learned much more just from reading books on teaching, perusing the resources located in one of our graduate offices, observing other instructors, and using trial and error in the classroom itself. My thesis chair was helpful in terms of guiding me in how to write abstracts for conferences and for the dissertation itself, and one of my dissertation readers responded to my proposal and two drafts of every chapter with extensive, insightful feedback to help me develop my arguments and crystallize my thinking about certain parts of my research. I also attended and then coordinated many of the workshops offered by my graduate school and various organizations affiliated with my department, which included topics like becoming more effective faculty, developing syllabi, presenting lectures, grading, writing grants, and developing teaching philosophy statements–these were really important in terms of shaping how I approached teaching and the job search.

2) Before you graduated, what did you imagine being a professor was like? Did anyone talk to you as a graduate student about how to manage partner/family responsibilities with being an academic? Did you receive good mentoring about how to create a life that was meaningful to you (like tradeoffs between choosing a place to live vs. taking a position in a less desirable place?)

I imagined being a professor would be a lot like graduate school: working from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep every day with hardly any evenings or weekends, my days filled with teaching, grading, researching, writing, and serving on committees (my graduate school equivalent for the last was coordinating various programs). However, I thought I’d have less time to research and write and would teach more courses per semester (I often taught no more than two sections of the same course per semester as a PhD student, but I expected I’d end up teaching 3–3 or 4–4 if I found a TT position).

No one addressed the issue of partner/family responsibilities with me in graduate school, but this might be because I was a lone wolf for most of my years in grad school. (I was told a few times by other students in my program that I was “lucky” for being partner- and childless because things should be “easier” for me in terms of finding a TT job; this turned out to be wrong, of course, but it also felt hurtful at the time because these colleagues failed to see how difficult it might be emotionally to endure the rigors of grad school without a partner. It also confirmed the perspective that one should stay in academia at all costs.) I felt like I received little to no mentoring on how to create a meaningful life outside of academia; I just assumed I was expected to take a job wherever I could find a job, regardless of how far I might end up living away from my family and friends, and I thought my priority was always supposed to be my career. I thought this in part because midway through my graduate career, I was told to stop coordinating events and volunteering because my graduate department chair felt my extracurricular activities might take time away from my dissertation. The chair didn’t seem to understand that I needed those other activities to help me finish my dissertation–as I had no relationship and not much of a social life, I needed an outlet outside of my academic work to achieve some sense of balance, and I was benefiting from earning some extra money on the side, too. I ignored the chair’s warning, and I am very glad I trusted my instincts because not only did I defend before most of the other people in my class but also those extracurricular activities were what helped me gain employment outside of academia.

3) What has the reality been like for you, after graduation? Have aspects of your identity (race, class, sexual orientation) played a role in your experiences?

The reality of post-graduation life for the first many years was crushing. Granted, I loved teaching–my students were wonderful, and I loved discussing issues in my field, mentoring students, watching their skills and knowledge grow, etc. I also loved continuing to research, and I was lucky that my adjunct position afforded me an office, copier privileges, and library access; for that reason, I do not regret adjuncting because I did, for five years, get to fulfill my professional dreams. But being paid so little and having no health care or retirement were difficult, to say the least: it meant years of having to work two jobs while publishing articles and being on the market, which translated to 80- to 90-hour work weeks just to pay the bills. To rub salt into the wounds, TT faculty outside of my department treated adjuncts and university administrators as somehow lesser, which was frustrating. I somehow survived seven years of the job market–and therefore seven years of deep, abiding depression–but because I had no health insurance, I could not afford therapy during this difficult time. Luckily, by this point in my “real” life, I did have a partner and later a spouse, and he was instrumental in buoying me up (emotionally and financially) throughout this very rough period; I also had many nonacademic friends who cheered me on throughout those years. Once I finally gave up the ivory-tower ghost and decided that my personal life and mental health were actually more important than this career that I had worked toward for more than half my life, I felt freer and more hopeful than I had since graduation. Today, I still have my regrets and miss classroom teaching and research, and I often think I could be doing more or better than what I am now (making more money, doing more interesting work, using more of my skills, feeling more valued by my colleagues and/or employers, etc.), but I do not miss much else about academia, and I continue to investigate career paths that might still be open to me.

I don’t know if my race/class/sexual orientation played into my experiences; I come from a working-class or lower-middle-class background, I am racially mixed, and I am heterosexual, and I haven’t noticed patterns in terms of who got academic jobs versus who didn’t, who ended up as an adjunct versus who didn’t, who I work with in my current position, etc. I am grateful, however, that I do fit within these categories because I wouldn’t have been able to go to college or graduate school without the aid of scholarships, grants, and fellowships, many based on merit in addition to financial need and/or race/ethnicity.

4) What is your biggest challenge in having work/life balance? 

This is going to sound like gloating, but I have no such challenges since I now work Monday through Friday for a strict eight hours (or less) each day. I work remotely, so I am at home with my spouse–who also works online (he also left academia)–all day. I do not check my work email outside of my work hours, and I feel absolutely no guilt about not working or not thinking about work outside my work hours. I have my evenings and weekends to do whatever I enjoy doing and whatever I need to do. This enormous change in my work obligations has been one of the greatest reliefs and pleasures of leaving academia.

5) What is your favorite thing about your research, teaching, or other academic activities?

I still work with students in my online position, and I still enjoy seeing those light-bulb moments happen when a student learns something new or understands something they previously didn’t. But I don’t really get to discuss issues in my field anymore, and I no longer do research or engage in other academic activities. I miss these aspects of my former life, absolutely, but I find just as or more enjoyable ways to fill my time, too.

6) If you could change one thing about the profession, what would it be and why?

“One thing” is too few–ha ha! So I’ll just limit myself by saying I wish the profession were willing to train graduate students for more than jobs outside of academia. I’ve had to fend for myself in navigating the nonacademic job world, and it’s been really, really difficult, and I have not really been successful (at least relative to friends of mine who’ve made a lot more of their professional lives post academia). I wish graduate departments (especially faculty) would be a lot more ethical and responsible in terms of being supportive of students exploring various career paths and not just the TT job track. I realize faculty might not have the experiences or background to provide the information students would need to pursue nonacademic jobs, and I know that some students are unwilling to even think about alternate tracks because they’re still holding out hope that they’ll somehow beat the odds in the academic job search. Nevertheless, graduate faculty, departments, and schools should take the responsibility of inviting alumni and other speakers who have ventured into nonacademic jobs to speak to current students. Departments and schools should subscribe to other available resources about alternative careers, too, and they should encourage students to see these opportunities as equal (not even “alternative,” really) to academic jobs so that current grad students can learn more early on about their nonacademic options.


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