A Dual Exit

Why do both members of an academic couple leave higher ed? They tell Eliza Woolf.
December 3, 2010

Nadia and John (pseudonyms to protect their privacy) met at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, where they were both completing dissertation writing fellowships. As their relationship became more serious, they also started applying for tenure-track academic jobs. Both looked forward to joining the professoriate, with its life of the mind, hefty research funds, and flexible schedules. However, they soon confronted the stark reality of the state of the academy, particularly its inflexibility on work/family-life balance.

John received a tenure-track offer in one Midwestern state and Nadia a postdoc in another Midwestern state. Just as John began his tenure-track job, Nadia discovered she was pregnant. For the first half of her pregnancy, Nadia and John lived apart and traveled back and forth to see one another. By summer 2010, both had left the academy in search of more well-rounded lives and personal agency.

Q: Can you describe your most recent academic position(s) and tell us how you got there?

John: I had a tenure-track assistant professor position at a small liberal arts school in the Midwest. Casting a wide net, I’d applied to everything I thought I could remotely teach and/or where my research resembled the advertisement. I received one callback and eventually (after a phone interview, conference interview, and campus visit) an offer. The position called for teaching primarily general education courses, most of which were outside of my field — I was trained as a historian of Latin America and most (with the exception of one) of the courses I was scheduled to teach during my first year were U.S .History. Despite doubts about my ability to teach mostly outside of my field, I accepted the position due to my desperation. The alternative was teaching two courses as an adjunct, earning $5,000 for fall semester 2009 with no benefits.

Nadia: My most recent academic position was as a well-paid one-year postdoc with no teaching responsibilities at a major research university in the Midwest. Before that I had just finished my Ph.D. in communications.

Q: Why have you decided to leave the academy at the same time? Did myths about the tenure track influence your decision in any way?

John: As family unit, our situation was untenable in the long term. We lived in a mid-size city, isolated from any major metropolitan region, and could not acquire any offers from the local state university for Nadia. Additionally, my employer had no institutional protocol for partner hires and expressed zero interest in hiring her for anything beyond one adjunct course on a satellite campus. Before we left academe, Nadia thought about working at Target, because there was not much else beyond service-sector jobs in town. We also had a four-month old son and lived apart from both of our families. We decided our top priority was living in a location we would actually enjoy, near family — either California or New York.

Individually speaking, I left the academy because the job was not worth all the sacrifices, which included: relatively low-pay; a heavy 3/4 workload — with five of the seven classes outside of my field; living apart from our family/friend network in an ethnically homogeneous and Bible-belt conservative city; and working in an unsupportive department in a college that was not interested in dealing with diversity/inclusion at the administrative level. Over the course of the year, I eventually arrived at a place where I thought to myself, for low-pay and an O.K. job, I should live somewhere enjoyable and/or near family.

Yes, the myths about the professoriate being a vocation or calling did implicitly influence my decision. The whole discourse about having a passion for teaching and fighting the good fight proved illusory. I was doing the grunt work for the department. And though I was once enamored with the status of being a professor, I concluded that I was paying a high price for that status. I always joked with friends that instead of getting paid in dollars, I was paid in status.

Nadia: I decided to leave the academy primarily because my only other alternative was to adjunct for very low pay at a satellite campus in a place where I was very unhappy. I’d been on the job market for three years, and while I landed a great postdoc that year, I didn't have anything outside of adjuncting one course lined up for me. I’d had several campus visits but never gotten an offer. Either I wasn't a "fit" or they would hire someone with more experience. I knew that if I was to remain viable on the market, I'd have to not only continue teaching, but also publishing.

What really pushed me out of the academy, though, was an unexpected illness at the hospital after the birth of my son. I had developed a severe infection that the doctors could not remedy at first, and I got sicker and sicker with each day until finally my body fought back after changing medications. After this experience, I realized how unhappy I was living in what seemed to me an alternate universe in the middle of nowhere, with no familial support, just waiting around for some "dream" professor job to show up. I no longer had the energy to keep doing something so draining. On top of recuperating from being ill and taking care of a baby, I needed to publish more (I already had two articles and three book chapters out), teach, and go on the academic job market for the fourth time. I just knew I needed to make a change. So, I decided to talk to a career counselor, research alternative careers, and apply for non-academic jobs.

Myths about the tenure track definitely influenced my decision. First, I thought I would get a tenure-track job without a problem. I had received major fellowships and grants, published extensively, and presented at major conferences, and I had glowing letters of recommendation, but I had no idea what kind of competition I was up against. Even though I received professional training, it seemed like it was never enough to land a job. Second, I underestimated how I would feel about living in an undesirable location. When I was a graduate student, my advisers always told me to go where the work was; and as someone committed to the profession, I was willing to move. But I had only lived in major metropolitan cities and college towns. Where we ended up felt like an alternate universe: anti-intellectual, conservative, and very Bible belt. As a Latina from New York City, I felt extremely out of place and very isolated. I had never stuck out so much and this began to take a toll on me to the point that I knew if I stayed there it would compromise my mental health. Myth three: I thought that it would be less work being a professor than taking a 9-5 job. After watching my husband struggle through his first year, I realized that working as a professor demands 50-80 hours a week. Although I admit to having days where I fantasize about being a professor, I'm not sure if it's realistic now that I have a family. I know that I want the work-life balance.

Q: How did diversity issues influence your decision?

John: This was a big part of the problem for me, not only where I worked but also where I lived. I lived in a city where only three percent of the population looked like me. It was a predominantly white space, and not the progressive white academics I had been around in college and graduate school. These are questions that academics of color must take into consideration. For instance, my partner worried about me if I was out too late because of the threat of violence aimed at Latinos. It sounds a bit extreme and paranoid, but these are serious issues.

At the college, I was one of three domestic minorities on campus and the only Latino (US-born). The school was literally decades behind on issues of campus climate and diversity. The most challenging aspect of this for me was that very few people on the campus were reflexive or savvy on questions of institutional racism, white privilege, and diversity issues. There were only a few people on campus I could talk to about these issues — and I did meet some really caring and wonderful people this way — because the college had not implemented any kind of institutional structure to address these questions. One of the lessons I learned, and I do not believe it was unique to my institution, was that while Ph.D.s of color are good for website photos, accreditation, and cosmetic diversity, there is no room for critical analysis of racism in institutions of higher learning or real institutional change.

Nadia: Diversity is a paradox in the academy. On the one hand, it's heavily marketed as something desirable by university administration; on the other hand, faculty can seem leery of diversity in terms of actual hiring. In my case, while I was a postdoc the provost offered my sponsoring department a line to hire me. They declined it because they didn’t want it to seem like a "diversity hire." The provost didn't intend it as such, but the department worried that that's how it would look. I have to admit that I was very naive about these politics.

Q: Do you think it was it harder for you to leave a tenure-track position, John, or did you both go through an equal amount of soul-searching?

John: No, because I had already been in the trenches, so to speak, and there was not much out there. I also knew I had limited options: stay in a job where I am unhappy, and where my partner would be unhappy as well, or apply to super-competitive positions in great locations. Due to my heavy teaching load, I was not producing enough to keep me competitive. Given these considerations, I concluded the academy no longer had much to offer.

Q: Nadia, you now work as a fund-raiser at a large nonprofit in New York City. How did you find the position and what is it about fund-raising, or nonprofit work in general, that attracts you? Can you describe what you do on a daily basis?

Nadia: I found the job posting by searching the websites of nonprofits I'd like to work for. I got this idea from the career counselor. It took me two months to get a job. I applied to almost thirty positions and only interviewed for the position I hold now.

I was attracted to the field of fund-raising because I was a good grant writer. I had received a lot of research funding because I learned the art of proposal writing well. After looking over my non-academic options, I figured I had to start somewhere and this seemed like a good transition. My daily workday is mostly spent on the computer writing; I research new funding prospects, write proposals, reports, and acknowledgment letters. It's not too different from the research aspect of being a graduate student or postdoc. The only thing that I miss is the interaction with people that teaching affords. However, there are areas of fund-raising (like alumni relations or donor relations) where one can interact more with donors. That's something I might consider in the future.

Q: How different is the hiring process at nonprofits? Do you have any advice for Ph.D.s hoping to break into this sector?

Nadia: The hiring process is very different at nonprofits. The interview process went rather quickly. They called the day after I applied for the job online for a screen interview on the phone. I was invited for an in-person interview for the next week. My interview only lasted an hour and involved three people. Compare that to a two or three-long day campus visit meeting more than 10 people! Also, they asked me more skill-based questions in the interview; it was less about politics and how smart the candidate is and more about experience and whether he/she can do the job. I found the short-and-sweet hiring process refreshing because I didn't get burned out after the interview or too attached to the possibility because I wasn't spending so much time at the place. A few days after the interview I got a job offer. This was a very short job search process compared to academe’s yearlong search.

As for advice, I'd say definitely talk to a career counselor. At my graduate institution we even had a career office for graduate students. The career counselor really helped to make me aware of what other options are out there. Plus, she was a Ph.D. too! Also, I had an online community at www.versatilephd.com. It helps to know that there are others out there like you. Next, research different fields — read about them, do informational interviews with people doing those jobs. Take the time to really look at what you have done over your working lifetime and figure out how those skills translate into the sector. Then, apply! It takes a while to really write a good cover letter and resume, so keep sending them out and they will get better and better. What helped me was looking at sample resumes and cover letters of previous academics and getting feedback from the career counselor. Eventually you'll get a bite. And always have someone else (a non-academic) look over your materials.

Q: John, do you have any misgivings about leaving academe? What are your future plans?

John: I do miss the intellectual stimulation but am trying to pursue other creative avenues. The loss of status is a bit tough when my ego is out full-force, but for the most part I don’t have any misgivings. I have my hands full now because I am a stay-at-home father, taking care of our six-month old son. In terms of my career I am where many Ph.D.s who have left the academy seem to be, searching for meaningful and gainful employment. I’m doing some soul-searching about my genuine interests and am looking into volunteering for a nonprofit to gain some experience and test the nonprofit waters. The beautiful thing about being a family unit is that we each have our own job and mine is taking care of our child. This job affords me the opportunity to do some (in between naps, feedings, and dirty diapers) soul/career-searching.

Q: Do you think graduate programs are adequately preparing doctoral candidates for both academic and non-academic careers?

John: No. Looking back on my experience, one of the things I found troubling was that no academic ever gave it a second thought about whether or not I should take a position in the middle of nowhere and teach outside of my field. It was a given, regardless of my relationship or any other misgiving I may have had. The question of my quality of life or my happiness was never part of my formal/informal mentoring.

Advisers and professors should have an open and frank discussion about job prospects and Plan Bs. Of course, the argument can be made that professors at R1s don’t have any experience outside the academy, but they do know that there are not enough tenure-track jobs to go around. Ultimately, the onus falls on individual graduate students to discover life outside the academy, and while I definitely agree that we are responsible for our own learning/lives, we do look to our advisers for guidance and direction in our careers. What I’m suggesting, ultimately, is just more investment from advisers in the overall well-being of individual students.

Nadia: I don't think graduate programs are preparing graduate students for non-academic careers at all. They do prepare us substantially for applying to the academic job market but are not realistic about how many of us won't get a job no matter how well we publish or polish ourselves. They also don't advise students to develop a Plan B or Plan C. The alternative is just to adjunct and most people can't afford to do that, especially with a family.

If you’ve left the ivory tower and would like to be featured in a future column, feel free to contact me at eliza.woolf@insidehighered.com.


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