A Difficult Quandary

Eliza Woolf introduces her new column about those considering both academic and non-academic jobs.

May 17, 2010

About a decade ago, shortly after finishing my B.A. at Western Regional State University, I gleefully quit my part-time job as a leasing agent at an apartment complex, packed what little I possessed, said farewell to friends and family, and drove cross country with my cat.

Young, motivated, and naïvely optimistic, I struck out on my own in hopes of hitting intellectual pay dirt as a graduate student in a history doctoral program at the desirably located and overpriced Comprehensive National University (CNU). For me, starting grad school at CNU was as much about living the life of the mind as it was about moving on and finding a change of scene, and I didn’t care how much money I had to pay or borrow to get to my destination.

It sounds hopelessly immature now, but at the time I believed that my acceptance into a top 50 humanities Ph.D. program, even without funding, was the best thing — career-wise — that had ever happened to me.

I saw my admittance to CNU as a stroke of luck, despite the warnings of a well-meaning academic adviser who cautioned me about the growing shortage of tenure-track jobs in history. Intent on my plan to enter the ivory tower at any cost, this piece of news simply went in one ear and out the other; I was too busy wondering how my application had survived the rigors of the graduate admissions process. Plenty of other undergraduate seniors had only piles of rejection slips from graduate studies’ offices to show for their efforts. But not me — I was one of the lucky ones.

By the time I started graduate school I had acquired a long and checkered list of unimpressive part-time and temporary jobs ranging from pet store cashier (duties included cleaning up in-store “accidents”), newspaper delivery driver, and bow tie- and cummerbund-clad university caterer to waitress at a dingy college town diner and medical office receptionist. My nonacademic career, such as it was, as well as that of most of my friends who held a B.A. yet were stuck living with their parents, waiting tables, mopping floors, and acquiescing to customers’ whims, led me to the following conclusion: life’s too short to work at a miserable job.

At the age of 22 I’d had it with the nonacademic world of low-paid drudgery; it was the life of the mind or bust.

Fast forward to 2010 and I find myself somewhere closer to busting. After many years earning my history doctorate while working as a teaching assistant, hundreds of post-Ph.D. job applications and several futile trips on the global academic job market, a string of temporary postdoctoral fellowships, and a combined student loan and credit card debt large enough to buy a condo, I’m now neither naïve nor optimistic about my future employment prospects.

I still believe in the intrinsic worth of graduate education in the humanities, but it isn’t a straightforward route to a professorship and certainly doesn’t pay well — surprise, surprise.

Although I began this circuitous path as a doe-eyed 20-something, academia has successfully knocked the rawness of youth out of me. Just as it has given me something to strive for and taught me to be vocal and self-confident, so too has it crushed my spirit, emptied my bank account, and sent me in pursuit of anti-anxiety medication. I’ve had more sleepless nights, existential and financial crises, and tearful meltdowns in the past 10 years than in the rest of my life combined.

Like many Ph.D.s and A.B.D.s seeking tenure-track employment during the current recession, I have a love-hate relationship with academe. I love it when my efforts are rewarded and hate it when they are trod upon. And most of my efforts are trod upon. But I keep coming back for more.

What gives? Am I a glutton for punishment? Why don’t I just find a nonacademic job and be done with it? These are questions I have asked myself on a number of occasions.

The simple answer is: I’m on the fence, torn between my twin desires to pursue the academic dream and to save myself from a life of poverty and uncertainty.

Each moderate success, each small step forward, keeps me in the academic game. I have yet to find a tenure-track job, but I refuse to give up. Still, I’m starting to think it might be wise to come up with a plan B — or two — in the near future.

And I know I’m not alone. A casual survey of adjuncts, visiting professors, postdoctoral fellows, teaching assistants, and chronically un- or underemployed Ph.D.s reveals a striking trend of insecurity, fear, and disillusionment among the newest generation of would-be academics. By now we’re aware that our chances of securing tenure-track positions in our various fields are pretty bleak; nonetheless, we haven’t deserted the ivory tower in droves. We’re pondering our options to be sure, but the vast majority of us are still plugging away on the adjunct track, the visiting professor track, the postdoctoral fellow track, or the A.B.D. track, hoping it will eventually pay off.

Why? What’s so great about academe?

I can think of quite a few things, but my inability to abandon ship boils down to these five factors:

1) Academe is the devil I know, and being a professor is what I’ve trained to do.

2) The promise of autonomy and a flexible schedule is awfully tempting.

3) Research and teaching feel like a career, not a job (service not so much).

4) How else will I pay off my hefty student loan debt?

5) I am terrified of starting over when a tenure-track job could be around the corner.

In this bi-monthly column I intend to pick apart my own and others’ preconceptions about both academic and non-academic jobs and to contemplate the social and psychological reasons why it is so hard to walk away from the ivory tower. Along the way I’ll also offer career suggestions for those of us caught between a rock and a hard place as we gear up for another academic job-market cycle and dabble in the realm of plan Bs.

I’m hoping to attract a diverse readership and to incorporate readers’ thoughts, concerns, personal anecdotes, and questions into future columns. I pledge to be brutally honest with you and hope you’ll do the same.


Eliza Woolf (a pseudonym) holds a Ph.D. in history and is currently a freelance writer and postdoctoral fellow at a prestigious British university.


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