Stories of Failure: Academic Job Market Edition

Stories of Failure: Academic Job Market Edition

If you’re one of the many, many, many people who don’t end up with even the crappy consolation prize of an adjunct position, your worth as a human being is entirely independent of your professional accomplishments. You are not your work and your work is not you. Your sense of self has probably taken a wallop. Be kind to yourself when you’re hurting.

Here’s what I want you to know today: you are a worthy person. Full stop.

Staying Engaged Outside Academia

One of the most difficult parts of leaving academia is the idea of breaking up with the life of the mind. When you’ve devoted years of time and thousands of dollars into training for thinking up new ideas for a living, sometimes life outside of academia seems beige and uninteresting.

Fortunately, academia isn’t the only place you can chase your personal intellectual passions. Plenty of problems to solve and interesting things to think about exist outside academia. You can stay engaged with ideas and thinking up new stuff, but it may be on your own time.   

Like so many things in life, your access to resources (or lack of them) may determine how engaged you stay with your research and new ideas.

I’ve been thinking lately about our underlying assumptions about being an alt-ac person and how external resources shape life outside of academia. For instance, if your spouse happens to have a well-paying job, maybe you can still afford to go to all of your favorite academic conferences without travel funding from an academic department. If you have some cash laying around, maybe you can afford to make your research into a hobby. Maybe you’ve got enough resources so that you can start a freelance business from scratch without having to do it in your spare time.

On the other hand, because of the neoliberal debt-servitude model of the modern PhD, a lot of people are graduating under crushing debt loads, with shitty academic job prospects, and even scarcer resources. Getting out of academia gets us out of the adjunct rut (maybe), but the alt-ac life still hinges on the racial, classed, and gendered structures that shape our paths forward.    

People with few resources at their disposal are probably going to have to get day jobs while they’re trying to figure out what to do next. A day job often isn’t particularly satisfying, but pays the (student loan) bills. A lot of day jobs, though necessary and life-saving, are boring and soul-crushing. They require considerably less creativity than we’re used to exercising as PhD people engaged in the search for truth and the creation of knowledge.  It’s hard to leap from discussing Foucault and the idea of governmentality (particularly these days) to a job that requires little to no critical thought. Before I got my current job, I worked a whole slew of weird temp jobs; some were okay, others were awful. Some of them involved things like spreadsheets and bored me to tears. On the bright side, day jobs usually pay more than adjuncting.

Working 40-hours a week at a day job makes it hard to stay engaged intellectually. Exhaustion isn’t conducive to intellectual production. Working a day job may leave you intellectually understimulated and bored, especially if you’re only using a fraction of your PhD skills. You may start feeling like you’re slowly losing your critical thinking skills.    

Here are some ideas about staying engaged intellectually and practicing critical thinking skills while working your day job:

  • Read new books. Even better, start a reading group. Maybe you have a reading group where you talk about new ideas every month. If you live in the boonies, maybe you start an online reading group. Read some hard stuff. Read some new stuff. Keep reading and thinking.  
  • Evaluate your current job. Is there somewhere in your day job where you can practice greater critical thinking? Critical thinking skills are, after all, a search for the truth and a means to solve-problems. What problems could you be solving? Some day jobs have zero leeway for critical thinking, but some might.
  • Teach a class. There are literally zillions of platforms in which you could be teaching from. You may not be able to teach your traditional university courses from them (or maybe you could?), but maybe you’re teaching something new that you’ve always wanted to teach.
  • Take a class. PhD people are, by definition, learners. Why not learn something new at your community college? Maybe you finally learn HTML, Python, or Italian.
  • Pick a topic and start doing some public speaking. Why are you not doing a TED talk about some fascinating part of your research? Maybe you’re taking your research on the road and talking about it at your local rotary club. Join Toastmasters and learn how to give a great speech. (Bonus points for the networking aspect of public speaking to new groups.)
  • Start a website. Blog about your personal intellectual passions. Try some new kinds of writing. Talk about some new ideas.
  • Freelance writing. Find some intellectual blogs that you might guest post for and pitch some ideas. Someone might say yes.
  • Publish existing research. We wrote a lot as graduate students. Maybe we’re still writing? Write and revise in those little moments that you have when not working the day job. I get up early in the morning specifically for this reason.
  • Start a writing group. If you need to get some writing done, a writing group is the way to go. I wrote about mine here. You get to give and receive critical feedback.
  • Do some new research and make a new project. My PhD research was all about transnational relationships between Guatemala and the U.S. I thought about what I might do locally that would satisfy my research itch. I recently visited the Western History archive that’s a part of my city’s public library. While there, I found a bunch of really cool news articles that would make good history blog posts. Currently working on these.   
  • Volunteer with non-academic organizations that do things you’re interested in: libraries, historical associations, museums, art galleries.  
  • Be a reviewer. Being a reviewer is great fun. Not only do you get to read new and interesting stuff, but you get to comment on it. Be a peer reviewer for a journal. Review some books. Get some book reviews published.

In the ideal world, we’d be employed in jobs that gave us free rein to pursue our intellectual lives. In today’s world, with higher-ed and the humanities under attack generally, I predict that more PhDs are going to have transitional day jobs as they figure out what to do next. Staying engaged with ideas while working a day job isn’t easy. But better than boredom.