on leaving academia


After reading Anastasia's post on considering leaving academia I thought it was time for me to come out of the proverbial career closet that everyone seems to have.

I love academia. I love to hate the nasty politics. I love teaching hard working students and bad students alike. I love the research and talking about books that are written about other books. I love conferences with a zealous sort of love. I like sitting around and making jokes about poets and philosophers when I understand the joke -- and like learning why I don't get the joke after looking up the dude they were talking about on wikipedia when I go home after the party. In fact, I think I love wikipedia as unacademic or as academic as some people might see it, but that's another post altoghether.

But, I don't like the fact that I don't know if I will have a job in 5 years when I'm done my PhD and maybe done a postdoc. If I get a postdoc. I don't like knowing that advisors can go bad. I don't like dealing with the we are your family so you can't have kids if you're studying attitude that some people give me. I don't like how universities steal my money when I'm not even taking classes and don't give even me a bus pass.

Most of all, I don't like living off the generosity of committees and review boards. I don't like not knowing if I'll have money for the next year while I wait for external scholarship announcements to come out in mid-April. I don't like knowing that it might take me 10 years to get a stable job to support my child and myself.

I think what has made me consider something outside of the university system (again) is that I have found that there are things I can do outside of English departments that involve research and writing and higher salaries than most starting profs. Certainly, it's not writing about Mina Loy -- but it is writing. And it's not technical writing, and it's not memos and emails all day or even press releases or journalism. All things that I think would be great jobs, if not 100% stable, but great jobs nonetheless. I am just not very good at writing like that. Look at any one of my meandering posts on here and you'll understand why.

I can, however, research enough to write about anything in a thoughtful, engaging, and explicitly clear manner. If I need to. What I have learned thus far in academia is to find something solidly unclear, or unknown by someone else and make it clear and approachable. Sure, my arguments sometimes need work when I'm trying to prove something. My grammar ain't the greatest -- but analysis I can do.

So, when I was approached not long ago to look into an open position in the agency where I'm working, where writing and research are the main two tasks I was definitely interested. I thought that the job was agency-specific, or enterprise related, even though the folks in these jobs don't have commercial projects or necessarily talk to the press. I thought it was more about writing things so that the government can go ahead and do what it wants to. I had little faith in the sincerity of the writing, and I assumed that there would be a lot of "pixie dust" sprinkled on anything that came out of that department to make it palatable to the public.

And, indeed, those things happen from time to time. But -- BUT -- after talking to one of these writers, learning what they actually do (mostly research, with a national/international scope, looking into trends, programs, that would help to build other things (programs, reports, etc, etc) to benefit people in this country -- well, I felt a little like I was getting a pitch.

That the pitch was aimed at me, and that it all seemed to make more sense when I realized the director of the department is actually a PhD, who teaches at the university -- it has made me rethink my cynical vision of the government.

Oh I'm still a bit wary of the pitch. But, subsequent conversations about literature, writing, government jargon, etc...well - that's helped me to get to the point where I want to look into this.

If I got a permanent job with the government I'd have a pension, 3 weeks vacation time a year, great health-care coverage, including dental, prescriptions, vision stuff. Not to mention family related leaves, education leave, with and without pay for varying lengths of time. Some for up to 5 years w/o pay. Some for as much as 3 months with pay, or sometimes like 5 months off on income averaging (lower income throughout the year but getting paid the whole time). There are several types of leave, and of course, they would need to get approved. But.. medical, vision care, dental care, vacations, family leave, emergency leave, snow days...and a substantial starting salary.

I know that there are folks out there, like Dr. Crazy who are able to pull off academic work in my field. And, I know that I could do the same. But... is it all that bad..am I cheating on academia if I go for and then take a government job for the leave and benefits? Is it bad academic form if I try to get this and then what if I like the research and the writing and after my PhD not end up getting into an academic career or only teaching a course here and there?

It's not what I had dreamed of. I had dreamt of meeting and marrying another academic, or someone with an equally flexible schedule and having kids who I walk around with on campus. I dreamt of an unkempt office with books lying everywhere and reading shakespeare to my kids when they are finished school for the day. I wanted to petition the administration of universities for better maternity leave and parental help in other ways. I think it needs to be done.

And, more recently, I wanted to show people that you can be a single mom and a successful professor.

Is it a cop out to take advantage of a cool research job in order to have money to support myself and my baby while I get my PhD? What if it ends up being my career. What if I get locked in the golden shackles (as my father, government employee, says)? What if I get greedy for a nicer car, apartment, a downpayment on a house in the province I grew up in? Or worse, what if I end up in Ottawa?

What if I'm getting my hopes up for a real job and it's not going to be officially offered?


Jennifer B said...

Is it a cop out to take advantage of a cool research job in order to have money to support myself and my baby while I get my PhD?


I worked for the US government for a time. They really take care of their people. Many cost of living raises were given, not to mention federal holidays. Plus many Ph.D.s in my field (science) are also adjunct profs at universities.

You don't have to give up on your dream. Some of my best professors were ones who took jobs outside academia and came back. They were easier to communicate with and gave better direction on the career path. After all, most students are not going to end up as profs.

Babies need schedules and stability. You obviously realize this. Besides, the government wants you to have babies (or more tax paying citizens, lol).

Rob B. said...

OK, first, a confession. I'm an ex-academician. You love academia; I didn't. I was excited about it at first, then grew weary of it. I left it behind twenty years ago, and haven't regretted it. I started my own consulting firm a few years ago, and have done pretty well at it.

Since then, in the private sector, I've worked for Ph.D.s. I've worked with Ph.D.s. I've had Ph.D.s working for me. And I've come to realize that most academicians -- many of whom have never been anything other than students or teachers their entire adults lives -- come out of the ivory tower so thoroughly socialized into all of academia's assumptions, biases, and prejudices that they sometimes take years to "deprogram," and often lose employment opportunities in the interval.

Now, let me ask you something. Suppose you were on a search committee in your academic department. And let's say a candidate applied for a faculty position there, and said something like this to you during the interview.

"I've got my doctorate, but deep down, I really don't want to return to academia. But my employer is making cutbacks right now, and there are industry-wide problems which mean that employment over the next few years might be uncertain. On the other hand, academia has the tenure system. I think it would be terrific to have guaranteed employment, even if it's something I don't really feel right about doing. And I certainly have doubts about this job. I recognize that quite a bit of the research that comes out of university faculties is little more than CV padding to help get the brass ring of tenure; that many of the so-called 'best' professors regard actual teaching as a pain in the ass; that the nasty politics would make Machiavelli cringe. But I talked it over with some of your fellow faculty members, and found out that they actually do some worthwhile things from time to time. And I'm impressed by the fact that the head of your department is someone who's also employed out in the real world. Nonetheless, I still can't help feeling that I'm copping out, that I'm 'cheating on' the private sector by considering taking a faculty position here. But I'm here, I'm willing to talk about it, so how about hiring me?"

Would you want to hire that person?

Now, I know that what you wrote here was not a rehearsal for what you would tell your prospective employer during an interview. At least not word for word. But I've gotta tell ya, I've seen quite a few academicians apply for jobs and telegraph, in some rather blatant ways, their disdain and even contempt for everything outside the ivory tower. They don't mean to, and probably don't even realize they're doing it. But like the fish that have been in the water so long that they're no longer aware of it, they go through an H.R. department not noticing that they're dripping all over the carpet, then wonder why they leave empty-handed.

Nobody's saying you have to come on like the high-powered corporate type, or even just "put on an act." But if you can't at least work up the basic conviction that what your prospective employer does is generally desirable and good, that people need or want it, and that the job you're applying for sounds like a pleasant enough way to spend time and might even be interesting and challenging, then you shouldn't be there at all. Life's too short for you to waste your time, and your prospective employer deserves better for the money offered.