Buck Up, Li’l Campers, Part Nine Dillion

I keep thinking back to a year ago, and the furious mixture of emotions that went with leaving academia in such a public way. I have few regrets about anything (really!)–I only wish that now-me had been around to help then-me through some of the darker times, so that then-me wouldn’t have wasted any time on the then-couch (which is also the now-couch! TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE!), wishing I would “die in an accident.”

So it really is literally the least I can do to offer the odd listcicle to the latest round of kickee-outees, for whom I feel only compassion and empathy. I remember, still, about a year ago, when this one asshole on Twitter*–let’s call him the conservative caricature of Al Gore of alt-academia–got into it with me and was like “I INVENTED POST-AC” and all like, “You should have known” (how I was going to feel eight years into the future when I started graduate school), and, most memorably: “Wait until you’ve been out for awhile and someone writes something like this and see how you feel.”

Well, I’ve been out for awhile, and many someones have been writing many somethings like this, and I feel, as I thought I would…wait for it, nothing but compassion and empathy.

There is nothing–and I mean nothing–that can come of mocking someone for being earnest about wanting to be an academic, and being so damned earnest they ignored all the warning signs, and then having that dream die. I’m all for screaming in people’s faces what their futures will (probably) be like before it’s too late, but once it is too late, and once their hearts and spirits are broken, there is nothing to do but offer virtual hugs–and the odd listcicle, as I said.

So, without further ado:

Ten Buck-Up Reminders During Early Academic Recovery

  1. That eminent senior scholar who sneeringly insisted that you simply did not apply broadly enough, or that there was something wrong with your application materials–you know, the one who’s lived in the same subsidized dream house in Boston since 1972? His children hate him because he always ditched every family event for his “important” research. Which reminds me…
  2. You know that “important” research of his? Three people–at most–have ever read it, ever (of course, the same will be true of all of your articles–but hey).
  3. Many tenure-track–and tenured–people, even those at “great” schools in “desirable” locations, are staggeringly miserable. In fact, the reason they are currently sneering that “academia isn’t for everybody” is to make themselves feel better than someone, and thus feel better at all.
  4. Nobody outside of academia understands, knows or cares about the things academics are snobby about. Like one of my commenters nicely pointed out–most people believe an earned doctorate and experience teaching college are universally laudable achievements. Of course, they also hold professors under suspicion, which reminds me…
  5. Not being an academic means you never have to answer “college professor” when someone asks what you do for a living, which means you also never have to endure THEM responding with, “oo-OO-ooh.” Which means, “I bet you think you’re SO smart, and this makes me distrust you, Fancypants!” I thought I’d be proud to tell people I was a professor, but it just made me feel judged.
  6. Speaking of which, in the real world, it is considered not only socially acceptable, but downright welcome, to care about your clothing and grooming habits (I mean year-round, not just for four days at a conference). If you enjoy making your own clothes, nobody will ever regard you with suspicion because you dare have a hobby that does not include alcoholism or belittling.
  7. Speaking of those four miserable days at a conference: Enjoy getting your Christmas back, for real, no existential despair, hair-pulling nerves, interview prep or last-minute $1000 plane tickets. Ever, ever again.
  8. Ever wanted a job where your years of experience counted in your favor, rather than against you? Welcome to every single job in the world besides academia and the sex trade.
  9. It takes about three weeks after the veil is lifted to recognize the extent of your insane paranoia as an academic. No, department chairs will not pore over the comments on this blog, looking for people to blackball. No, search committees will not embark upon sleuthing missions based on a few personal characteristics revealed via this blog. The extent to which chickenshittery, just inexplicable batshit terror, defines the culture of academia–and the extent to which this is entirely unnecessary–will become manifest to you immediately, and you will fall over laughing about how much of your life you lived in the shadow of some mythical search committee somewhere.
  10. Any push-back from established academics about how your traumatic experiences on the job market are somehow your fault says far, far more about the academic establishment than it does about you.

Most importantly of all, though, what I hope you remember is that, as hackneyed as it is, time will help. It will. I know this. You have watched this happen before your eyes if you’ve been reading this blog for the past year.

You will feel better six months from now than you do now. You will feel even better six months from then. It might take years to repair what academia has broken, but it can be repaired. It can, and it will. Since this worked so well before, I’d like to invite contributions again–those of you just coming out or about to leave: What are the hardest things you’re hearing, from yourself or others? Those of you who have lived to tell the tale: What are your words of buck-uppery in this time of need?

*I just looked this guy up again, and I now have more Twitter followers than he does. SORRY THAT IS PETTY.

33 thoughts on “Buck Up, Li’l Campers, Part Nine Dillion

  1. HUGS!!! Thank you, Rebecca 🙂

    Hardest for me to hear:
    -You would have a job if you applied more widely.
    -There’s no job market crisis, our people still get jobs.
    -You can take this summer of unemployment to work on your materials and crank out more articles for next year.
    -It seems like you will need to take a couple VAP positions before you will get a real job.

    Things I need to not ever say to myself, but do when I am sad:
    -What’s wrong with you that you couldn’t get anything, not even a FT adjunct job?
    -Why won’t your advisors help you? You must be terrible.
    -You’re not smart enough or you would have been treated better.
    -Other things that are very, very mean and cruel to myself.

    Working on stopping the cycle of self-hate. I share so as to show others who may be reading that they aren’t alone. And to see how stupid these self-destructive thoughts are when I read them objectively.


    • -You can take this summer of unemployment to work on your materials and crank out more articles for next year.

      YES! My advisor has asked twice if I’m planning on traveling to a research site to do some unfunded follow-up this summer, and twice I’ve said, “No, I have to work,” which makes me worry that it’ll make the advisor think I haven’t done enough research to graduate.

      What is this assumption that work should be done regardless of whether it in any way relates to the paying of rent or the purchasing of food? When was the last time these people were unemployed? Oh right. 1970, when jobs fell out of trees for anyone who stood underneath and waited 2 minutes.


      • Yeah, that is absolutely maddening. That and the absolute refusal to acknowledge that the market is shit and they should maybe consider how they are preparing us for it. But it’s easier to just blame us.


  2. Or when you’re ABD and you’ve reached the point that you simply can’t take it any more, and you’ve finally maxed out on your dosage of Prozax/Paxil/Zoloft, people will say “But you’re so close to finishing!” Your parents. Your friends. People on the street. So there’s a lot of not wanting to disappoint people behind the decision to stay. No one wants to look like they couldn’t cut it. And no one wants to acknowledge that the life of a TT assistant professor is more or less exactly the same as that of a grad student, except harder.

    What people don’t understand is that one is *never* so close to finishing. Ever. Even if you’ve spent four years on that dissertation, you’re not close to finishing until the thing has been defended. I say if you’re not coping any more, regardless of being “so close to finishing,” you should just walk away. Consider the dearth of academic jobs, consider your terrible non-academic employment prospects with a PhD, consider your mental health, consider the opportunity costs of taking six months or a year more to finish, and walk away.

    And the “Alt-Ac” niches have been filled, despite the encouragement of those who profit from promoting their “alt-ac” career services.


  3. “Those of you who have lived to tell the tale: What are your words of buck-uppery in this time of need?”

    I left my PhD program (with an MA in English – a credential that, to my infinite surprise, has turned out to actually be somewhat useful!) in June 2010 and in August 2010 I started working the overnight shift as a temporary worker at Target. I refused to adjunct. I knew that adjuncting would lead nowhere, and that I need to get some, ANY, non-academic work experience. At the time I was completely crushed, confidence-wise, and deeply ashamed. Any number of people assured me that “things will get better! I promise!” and I wanted to punch each and every one of them in the mouth. So, at the risk of being internet-punched in the mouth:

    Getting out of academia does not make you a failure or a coward. It makes you brave. It makes you someone who has the guts to say “this isn’t working for me” and to leap into a completely fucking terrifying unknown. I can’t promise that things will get better, at least not at first, but they did for me. It took three years and a lot of hustling, but burning down my old career (not that it ever would have really been a “career” but still) and building a new one from scrap parts was the best fucking decision I ever made and I am so happy with my job now (ironically I now work at a great R1 university – as an academic advisor). So: go ahead and feel scared and worried, but do not ever feel ashamed because you are a badass and you should be proud.


  4. Thanks for this! Words of encouragement from those gone before are always so comforting.

    I think the hardest thing to hear is actually from people who are trying to make transitions out of academia who’ve been really, really struggling financially and professionally (personal friends as well as people on the internet) – it’s very scary to walk away when you’re walking into a void. I really admire your entrepreneurial approach but I’m not sure I could get by without a formal job, with my lack of creative spark and high local cost of living.


    • It is ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING to walk into a void, which a year ago right now I was doing. People kept saying to me “well now you write for Slate”–at the time I had that one article, which got me $250 and destroyed whatever remained of my piddly chances in academia. I had NOTHING. And I didn’t get what I had now from hustling or entrepreneurialism–I just said yes to every tiny part-time whatever that I could, and eventually a few of them metastasized. By the time I got brought on to do a regular column at Slate, I was already supporting myself with three jobs. I still, now, work 15 hour days sometimes, and make about $15,000 less a year than I did when I had a cushy postdoc. But I manage, and I’m here, and every day is another day I don’t have to be on the academic job market anymore.


      • That’s absolutely true – there’s a lot of hindsight judgment in my saying, “well, I don’t think I could do what you’ve done,” since you didn’t know what you were going to do at the time, either. And it doesn’t sound like things are all massive paychecks and roses now, but to those of us still on the precipice, seeing you move forward and do increasingly cool stuff is pretty damn inspiring.


      • Thank you! It has been really hard work, but more immediately and long-term rewarding than a lot of what I did as an academic. The one thing I miss is having longer to write things. I can’t imagine what academia would be like if we all wrote in 1000-word articles that were due after two days.


  5. Hey Rebecca, it’s the universe calling–you need to write a book! Your voice is a breath of fresh air. Thank you for being so brave!


  6. Once you finally make the break, you open up space for all kinds of things to happen.I started doing translations on the side while I was a grad student. When I ended up in Germany without an academic job, I (tried to) work as freelance translator and editor. Since I had few contacts, I was barely earning anything, but I got enough clips together that I could sell myself when I applied for my current job. (After I accepted the offer, I cried for days – something my happily non-academic husband still does not understand.) But I have a great life now, And even though I’ve been working for ten years, I still feel proud when I can buy my honey a nice gift, or pick up the check when I’m out with friends, or just pay my bills on time. Any kind of honest work is honorable and good, and nonacademic skills are just as valuable as academic ones. Please don’t despair – if you’ve gotten this far, you’re obviously resourceful, smart, and tough. You can put those qualities to us in an environment where people appreciate them, and it will feel really good.


  7. #5 ought to have some kind of “large college football town” exception. In this city if you didn’t graduate from THE osu, then you went to the wrong school, and if you went to a ‘better’ school, then you went to the double-plus-wrong school.

    Having done my undergrad at FancyPants Private University, the most common question I got in non-academic job interviews was “[FancyPants Private University]? So I bet you think you’re pretty smart, huh?” followed by “So why didn’t you go to Ohio State?” Strangely, the exception this seems to be jobs at the actual university where no one seemed to give a damn where I went to school.


  8. Here is one piece of advice, from someone who is now on the other side: use what got you into academia in the first place–your intellect–to help get you over it. Marshal the critical thinking skills you gained in academia to deconstruct its values and above all its ideology. It amazes me that some of the ‘smartest,’ most successful people in academia are the biggest kool-aid drinkers of all, the ones who are the most brainwashed by the academy and enslaved to its values. How is this smart exactly? It really helped me to move from the narrative of “i’m not smart enough to make it in academia” to “i’m too smart to buy all this crap. i see through it all and i’m not convinced.”

    I repeat: it is not that you are not smart enough for academia. It’s that academia is too dumb for you!! Might sound like a cheap way to twist the situation around, but I couldn’t believe it more.


  9. As someone who made it through and is now 3 years post-academia, I can offer some of the worst things said to me followed by rest-of-the-world reality checks: 1.) Worst thing: Said by a senior professor when I turned down postdoc offers: “But you’ll never have anything more than a second-class career unless you leave your husband.” Reality check: NOBODY has suggested it is feasible or even remotely healthy for me to have to live apart from my spouse since I left academia. And as for that second-class career, I am just one of a number of post-acs I know who now makes a better salary than a t-t- prof and is living in a city of my choosing with my spouse. Money’s not everything, but gee, after years of grad school penury, it’s damn nice.
    2.) Another crappy thing: “It’s okay you’re not going into academia. We’ve had plenty of housewives come through the program.” Reality check (with no disrespect to stay-at-home parents): Leaving academia does not mean you’re choosing any particular path or gender politics. It means you’re leaving academia. Period. Do not pigeon-hole yourself because someone else wants to do so.
    3.) More crappiness: “Well, I guess you’re not going into academia because you just don’t want to work hard.” Reality check: You got into grad school because you have an aptitude for hard work. This aptitude will be your friend in the post-ac world.
    Well, that’s my top 3. Hope this is helpful.


    • Wow, #2 just made my jaw drop! That is blindingly, unbelievably sexist. How can these people even stand to look at themselves in the mirror?


      • Ironically, that comment came from the only one of the profs I’ve quoted who genuinely seemed to mean well. But yeah, if a woman married a man with a career in my program, she very quickly found herself tagged as a “wife” with previous achievements erased in the eyes of some faculty. Interestingly, women who married men without lucrative or focused career plans did not seem to faces this. Nor did men, of course.


  10. ACS’s awesome contribution reminded me something my (awesomely smart) mom said to me the other day. “Your job market is absolute bullshit, and I wouldn’t stand for it. If you don’t get a professor job, you will get something else, and then you will go back to your advisors and say, ‘I think YOU are the failures because I make buckets of money and I have my weekends to myself and I live in a place I want to live,’ and it will feel really damn good.”


  11. Bucking up: The best thing for me was to stop worrying about “What will I DO?” (although I was on the point of applying for food stamps when I finally got my first above-min-wage, post-ac job), and start realizing that leaving academia also presented me with other, more interesting questions: What other kinds of writing would I like to do? Where else can I find people who love books and love to talk about them?

    I did find those things post-academia (in journalism, in creative writing, in reading groups, in open mic nights, in political organizations of different kinds, in dorky groups of Shakespeare lovers). One of the biggest lies is that academia is the ONLY place you can be if you want to pursue intellectual interests, and that leaving academia means saying goodbye forever to reading and thinking and talking. Even “intensity” and “seriousness” aren’t only in academia; if you like that kind of thing, it’s possible to find it.


  12. I left academia 7-8 years ago and I’m really lukewarm about the decision to leave. I worked in the private sector, in higher ed marketing/communications (recruiting and retention). There were some great things about it: money, money and money. As an editor and writer, I also got to work out of my home. Heaven, right?

    Not so fast.

    Jobs in the private sector simply aren’t protected the way a tenure track job is. Yes, I literally doubled my salary overnight by moving to the private sector, but I also threw away job security. It’s also (at least as far as MY experience went) so much more work. I was a prof for 6 years before leaving, and carried 3/4 loads (with directing an academic unit) and I still think the private sector was tougher: faster pace, higher work load, way more pressure, lower tolerance for failure, etc.

    Still it was fine for about 7 years but a year ago, after our company (an industry leader, btw), was bought a couple of times, new management laid off an entire division (unfortunately, the one that included me). It was out of the blue, and it was a decision made by a board of directors. At 3:05 on a thursday I had a job. By 3:10 I didn’t have a job. Just like that.

    Overnight, I was a member of the unemployed in America. And let me tell you, it’s fucking ugly out there. A friend of mine, an extraordinarily talented editor/writer, is still looking for a job 12 months later. He’s in therapy for depression, etc. I was almost there myself.

    So yeah, FREEDOM and all that, but it’s risky. I’m married and have a kid in college, and it’s been horrid since the lay-off. I have a job, but damn, it’s hard.


  13. Colleges have over-produced PhDs for decades and then covered up the damage to the “profession”. It’s not surprising that the chickens are coming home to roost.


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