A few weeks ago, I shared my summer project, an intensive web development course. Since the cat is out of the bag that I’m transitioning to an alt-ac career, I thought it was time to talk a bit about my decision not to pursue an academic career.
First I’d like to say that I’m uncomfortable saying that I’m “leaving” academics. In truth, I had nothing to leave. My situation isn’t uncommon for humanities PhDs. There were no teaching prospects for me and I had already lived in poverty for seven years with no end in sight. I had no resources to coast on in the hopes that something would come up. If I say that I’m “leaving” academics, it implies that I had something I was walking away from.
So I won’t say I’m leaving. Instead I’ll say I’m “falling out” of academics. As I already said, my situation is in no way unique. Even if I finished my degree on time, the odds are I’d never find a permanent position. Precarious employment is on the rise in both colleges and universities. I was faced with two options: endure economic uncertainty for the immediate- to long-term future in the hope that maybe, someday, I might find something more secure, or find another industry with more secure employment prospects. Years of living below the poverty line meant that I had to find a reliable source of income, preferably one that would allow me to rebuild a small amount of savings and financial security.
A few years ago I had a conversation with a colleague who had not landed a teaching position. She was looking for alt-ac jobs without much luck and was feeling really down about the whole situation. She said something that was really moving to me. She said that she always knew that she’d never get a job but that she’d never believed it. There was always that small hope that she would be different, beat the odds, and ascend the steps of the ivory tower. I think that’s true of many of us. We know the statistics, the stress of precarious employment, and the hardships of low wages but we hang on to a slim hope that we will beat the odds. We give the best parts of ourselves to our PhDs for years and that hope is what sustains us. It gets us through the horrors of qualifying exams and the endless hours in the library.
But holding on to false hope is not the problem here. The problem is with dwindling employment opportunities and the pressures to stay in the academy, even if that means taking low-paid and precarious work. The vast majority of us don’t find permanent academic positions. Some of us eventually find a semi-permanent place in a university, a few of us end up with full time or tenure track positions, but the rest of us end up exhausted and exploited. There are just plainly too many PhDs for the number of full-time positions. This by itself isn’t a problem, but there is an alarming lack of support in the academic community for PhDs to pursue alt-ac careers. Even worse, many PhDs are judged harshly when they express a desire to leave their fields. There is a serious perception issue in place: PhDs who don’t get jobs aren’t victims of an overcrowded job market; they are not good enough or didn’t work hard enough.
In some ways, I was lucky. I knew enough PhDs who didn’t get jobs to know that they couldn’t possibly all be lazy or otherwise unqualified. I also benefited from their experiences. I put a lot of thought into my “plan B” and worked hard to ensure that I’d have the right skills to put it in place if/when I didn’t get a job. It was relatively easy for me to decide that the time was right for a switch. But many of us aren’t so lucky. We’re dissuaded from leaving and judged harshly when we do.
I think that most of us end up finding our PhDs anticlimactic. We put in so much work and end up with little to nothing to show for it. I’d hate to think of my PhD like that. I’d rather view it as an incredible educational opportunity that has helped make the person I am today. I’m not quite finished but I hope to be able to finish. I know that it gets harder to finish if you’re working full-time outside the academy. It’s also hard to finish if you’re teaching too heavy a workload. It’s still possible, and I’m going to hang in there and do my best to complete the degree. I worked hard and I deserve it, even if I don’t plan on using it in my career going forward. I think that more of us should take a similar approach to the PhD. If you make it, fantastic! If not, there is no shame is taking the degree, reflecting on all that it taught you about your field and yourself, and finding something else that is meaningful to you that you can pursue.
I personally would like to see and end to the shame associated with “leaving” and I think it starts with more, open conversation on the topic. That is why I wrote this post. That is also why I think that “falling out” is better than leaving. It more accurately reflects the feeling associated with being forced out due to abysmal employment prospects. Leaving gives me more agency than I really have here, but you can fight like hell and still fall out of something. Maybe you even fell out because you let go (and that’s okay too). It has nothing to do with not wanting it enough or not giving enough of yourself to it.
Most importantly, I’d like to say that there should be no shame in not pursuing academic careers. Instead there should be more open conversation about alt-ac opportunities and encouragement for those of us who wish to pursue them. We should also think long and hard about the future of the academy if the trend of precarious employment in colleges and universities is allowed to continue. There is nothing wrong with saying that you aren’t willing to sacrifice your entire life and in some cases your health for what might never turn into a stable, full-time career.
For everyone thinking of pursuing alt-ac, I support you and I hope that you find encouragement and understanding among your colleagues.