Getting Started

Last week I wrote about how graduate study of the liberal arts–and especially the humanities–can create a peculiar sensation of being trapped. While some may question whether that feeling is justified, my concern lies elsewhere.  I find the most worrisome thing that many graduate students and recent Ph.D.s feel paralyzed and simply don’t know where to begin or how to look for opportunities outside a university.  For people in that mindset, it’s best to treat the symptom before addressing the disease.

A piece out this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education attempts to do just this.  In it, Michael Zimm–an ancient historian with a doctorate from Yale–described why he decided to stop pursuing tenure-track jobs, where he ended up working, and what he thought others considering a similar path should know when they begin.  I was of course very excited when this came out!  Mike’s story bears obvious resemblances to my own, and it was encouraging to hear about somebody who had landed on his feet after deciding to leave academia.  This feeling of affinity was further increased when I reached out to Mike through LinkedIn. Within hours I received a response from a kind individual who showed himself eager to help others find productive and meaningful work–a trait I admire greatly and have been delighted to discover is quite common among people in business.

If I have one complaint about Mike’s article, it’s that it was written from the vantage of somebody who has already endured difficulty and seems assured that the waters ahead promise smooth sailing.  I set out on this path in fits and starts, full of doubts and questions about whether I’m really making the right choice, and my sense is that a majority of those in my situation experience the same range of emotions.  In keeping with the anxiety that often marks such transitions, then, today I’d like to discuss what first led me to look beyond the professoriate and what steps I took during the first year that moved me closer to a place of more optimistic uncertainty.

My first twinge of doubt came just three months into my visiting contract at Tulane.  There hadn’t been many tenure-track job listings that fall, and despite having an article accepted for publication I didn’t land any interviews.  My advisors largely told me not to worry–that 2014 was a fluke and it couldn’t get any worse.  But something told me that it can always get worse.  As I approached the end of that academic year in the Spring of 2015, I decided to hedge my bets.  I still had one year left on my contract, and looking beyond the professoriate  would at least put me ahead of the curve if the academic job listings that fall remained sparse. The first place I looked was university administration.  I had always imagined my career might lead in that direction, and it was at least relatively familiar territory.  The problem was that I didn’t know where to start.  Feeling very much adrift, I decided to send a message to Dan Porterfield.  The two of us had met at Georgetown when I was an undergraduate and he was Senior VP for Strategic Development.  That position put him into contact with a lot of student groups, including the Georgetown University Grilling Society–a club whose operations I oversaw as Vice President in 2006. By the time I wrote to him, however, Dan was serving as President of Franklin and Marshall College.  I figured he would know better than anybody what it takes to reach the level I aspired to, but reaching out to him was a Hail Mary: we hadn’t spoken apart from Facebook pleasantries in eight years, and he had no real reason to take my call.

One hour and sixteen minutes.  That’s how long it took him to write back.  The first note was brief–just his assistant’s contact information and instructions on how to schedule a time to chat.  But two weeks later, the President of a prestigious college advancing the limits of college access called to help this Visiting Assistant Professor at another school figure out his next steps.  Dan started by telling his own story.  He had not, as I assumed, used an academic position in the English Department to jump into administrative work.  Instead, he was offered an administrative position at a time when he still considered going the tenure route.  As part of the negotiations, then, he convinced Georgetown to give him an academic appointment in case things didn’t work out.  He was no doubt using his Ph.D. to get a professorship, but in a very different way than most imagine!  After telling that story, Dan emphasized that it was crucial to get practical experience.  He urged me to reach out to people in positions I might want to hold and see if they could offer me part-time work that I could do on the side (he was quite adamant that somebody in my position should be paid for his time and expertise).  At the end of the call, he emphasized that I should feel free to call him again if I ever found myself stuck. Mentoring former students is something this exemplary individual always makes time for.

This conversation gave me the confidence I needed to speak a little more openly about how I was considering what academics call alternative work.  I still kept things mostly quiet, mind you.  At that point I still wanted a tenure-track job, and I feared this development might lead my advisors at Virginia or my colleagues at Tulane to write a less favorable letter of recommendation than they might otherwise do.

The first person I reached out to locally was Susann Lusnia.  She was already straddling the worlds of teaching and administration through her work as a Professor of Classics and the Director of Tulane’s Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching.  I respected this greatly, but most importantly trusted her to keep our chat confidential.  Susann was sensitive and encouraging.  When we met over coffee outside the department, she gave me the names of three people at Tulane and Loyola New Orleans who might be able to help.  All three took me up on my request for an informational interview, and each one pointed me to at least two others in turn.  Before I knew it, I had made contact with people in Development, Public Service, Institutional Research, Admissions, the Honors Program, Mission and Ministry, University Communications, and Student Affairs.  As spring faded into summer, I scheduled as many meetings as I could and built a larger network at Tulane in six weeks than I had in the previous six months combined.

For the remainder of the summer, I turned back to research and course development.  After all, the interviews were just supposed to help me determine a back-up plan, and everybody was sure the academic job market was going to be better.  And I was looking better as a candidate, too.  I had fine-tuned my course on Roman history and submitted the final version of my article to Arethusa knowing that it would be printed in October, just in time for interview season.  The Classicists reading this will already be groaning.  The number of tenure-track jobs listed that year was the second-lowest on record, coming in just ahead of the previous year.  But for people in my area of expertise–Latin literature and Roman history–things were especially dire: there was not a single tenure-track job.  In 2013, the year before I finished my dissertation, I had submitted about 35 applications for permanent jobs.  Most of these were good fits even if I was a premature in applying.  By 2015 I could only submit six, all of them listings that required me to massage my resume just to justify the application.  Once again, though this time more predictably, I struck out.

The next six months were dark days.  My contract at Tulane was scheduled to end, and I was quite certain I’d reached the end of the line with my academic career. I reconnected with people I’d met the previous summer to learn if there were any opportunities for work, and was disheartened to learn that there were not.  Mercifully, my Chair Tom Frazel convinced the dean to extend my contract for a single year.  This took the pressure off, but was only a temporary solution: Tulane policy strictly limits “Visiting” contracts to a three year maximum regardless of department need and individual performance.  I hesitated to take the offer knowing that it was only delaying the inevitable, but decided it would be foolish not to take the economic security when it was offered to me.

It was only early that summer that things began to get better.  While researching job opportunities in New Orleans I decided to reach out to a small management consulting firm.  One of their advisors had been pursuing a doctorate in Music at Johns Hopkins, but left to enroll in Venture for America–a program that eventually placed him with EMH Strategy here in town.  I figured it might help to speak with somebody who knew exactly what I was going through, and when I reached out Andrew quickly accepted an invitation to chat.  His energy and excitement showed me for the first time that life outside academia might be one I could pursue: he was intellectually stimulated by the work, it let him meet lots of fantastic people, and the starting pay-scale was significantly higher than even the best mid-career estimates for tenured professors.  At that moment, the scales fell away from my eyes and I saw an entire world of possibilities.  I began reaching out to people in more diverse sectors and realized there were countless jobs I was qualified to do and could actually enjoy doing.  I eventually decided not to apply for academic jobs in 2016, and instead to focus on building a network in town and developing hard skills via night classes in business.  As I’ve said before, I’m now at a point where the future is still uncertain, but the paralysis no longer afflicts me.

Time to wrap up.  The moral of the story is that leaving academia usually takes time.  It takes time to get used to the idea, it takes time to develop a network of support, and it takes time to learn how to talk about your skills in a way that is meaningful to people outside higher ed.  In my case, the process was a slow series of baby-steps.  Speaking to administrators was relatively easy for me since most were familiar with academic work and understood the points of contact with their own.  This helped me learn how to talk about my skills and gave me practice doing it.  Without that groundwork, I suspect my meeting with Andrew would not have been as productive and energizing.  Yet even talking to him was a small step: he was obviously familiar with advanced study and knew what I was going through.  So if you think tenure-track work might not be in the cards, or you at least want to know what else is out there, be sure to plan ahead.  Looking outside while you still have financial support as a graduate student or professor is considerably less scary than doing so when your back is against the wall, and informational interviews tend to go a lot smoother when people are confident you’re not just angling for a job.  Yes, you’re going to face a considerable period of anxiety and doubt, but as Mike’s article shows, persistence outside of academia can often pay off in ways that persistence inside may never do.



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