Taking a Break From Academe

An adjunct professor describes five lessons she learned when she decided to explore life on the outside.

November 22, 2016

In the spring of 2015, I resolved to stop being an adjunct professor.

I had been given three classes in the fall, but my request for three classes in the spring was met with an offer of only one class. Because this single class met during the day, I wouldn’t be able to work a regular job. The class met twice a week, so for each meeting, which lasted an hour and fifteen minutes, I would be commuting for two hours. I wasn’t even paid for an office hour, as the university didn’t allot time for adjuncts who only teach one course to meet with students outside of class.

With the commute, the difficult meeting times and no office hour, I realized that I was giving too much of myself to appease a system of contingency that didn’t care about inconveniencing or exploiting me. I was finally fed up with it, and I resolved that I would no longer scrape by as an adjunct, relying on whatever my department offered me. I set out to find a job outside of academe, and it was the first time in 10 years that I would be stepping back into the regular work force.

I was able to find a job as an executive and personal assistant in under a month. I began working from 9 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. For the next year, I worked 45 hours a week as a personal and executive assistant, and I also taught one night class at my college. This is what I learned during my year away from academe.

Rearticulating your academic background for a nonacademic hiring manager is easier than you think. A cover letter that is focused on the job and shows interest and investment in the potential position can often be enough to get your foot in the door. A résumé that highlights your skills, projects and quantified accomplishments, as well as any relevant experience, will also go a long way toward eradicating any perceived weakness about your academic background. Often, the biggest hurdles are in our minds: we struggle to shed our own academic identities, to start to define ourselves in new ways. All I had to do to get my position was demonstrate legitimate interest, rearticulate my experience and strengths for a nonacademic audience, and show warmth and personality in the job interview.

Academic experience is more often an asset than a liability in any nonacademic position. At first, I diminished my academic strengths because I didn’t think they would be useful in a nonacademic environment. However, by the end of the year, I realized that my time and the skills I had developed as an academic were not wasted in a different environment. To the contrary, they became my greatest strengths.

For example, academe had taught me how to learn and ask vital questions. Learning well, applying knowledge and asking questions are key components of almost every position outside higher education. My academic experience in leadership, time management, research, writing and collaboration also proved immensely valuable in a nonacademic setting. My academic skills helped me master and successfully use all the new skills that my job required.

Academe trains us to doubt ourselves. In my new position, I was valued and rewarded. I was able to more clearly see my own strengths and weaknesses and to learn that I was indeed a valuable asset. Academe very often trains us to focus on our weaknesses, and for some of us, that self-criticism can blind us to our strengths. I realized that academe had taken a toll on my self-esteem and my self-confidence. Part of that was the powerlessness of being a contingent adjunct, of having almost zero opportunity for advancement. In a way, then, my new position helped me squelch a lot of the pointless self-doubt academe had instilled.

Academic thought can hamper creativity. In my academic writing, any large leaps or unexpected turns I took were often met with harsh criticism. For example, I once questioned the point or logic of an essay by Walter Benjamin, and the entire class turned on me, as if challenging any thoughts of Benjamin were like a lowly Catholic questioning the pope. In my new position, however, creative thinking wasn’t criticized. Instead, my novel ideas were tested in the real world, and when they succeeded, the rewards were often immediate. My experiment with switching from Google AdWords to Facebook ads immediately gave us better traction with certain demographics, for example. Nor was I afraid to question my boss, who would take those questions seriously. In academe, I had found that what one is allowed to question is often limited.

Academic culture can be toxic. Academic hierarchies often operate like religious hierarchies. Questioning the judgment of someone with clout in the department can end a career. Although we (meaning us academics) like to pretend that we all operate in an egalitarian world where people freely exchange ideas and amicably resolve intellectual debates, the opposite is often true. Tenured or not, you can perhaps even lose your job or an employment offer over some tweets. When I was an undergraduate, my thesis adviser informed me that my thesis would never receive high honors because he and the authors he studied (Faulkner and Hemingway) were politically unpopular in the department.

Of course, the world outside of academe can often be just as toxic. Yet, in my experience, the internalized self-criticism that academe instills, mixed with the current job-market crisis, makes for a cocktail more noxious than your average workplace. For instance, while tenure decisions are made behind closed doors, one has more freedom in other fields to appeal directly to one’s boss, or even to change jobs.

A year outside academe taught me how to better value myself and my career potential. I realized, for example, that a lot of the stress I was feeling as an academic was from the nebulousness of many of my goals and pursuits. Being outside academe was a bit like transforming from Don Quixote to King Arthur -- suddenly my quests, my rewards and my own self-value were tangible and clear.

I would encourage any grad student or adjunct who is struggling in academe to take a year to explore life on the outside. You may find the strength and resolve to leave higher education forever -- or to return to it with renewed self-confidence and vigor.


Darcy Upton is the pseudonym of a doctoral candidate in American literature in New York City.


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