• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Career Coach: To Stay or to Go

I have been asked to write about a dilemma many academics face now: whether to stay or go. What do you do if you hate your job, or if your hours are non-negotiable and incompatible with your kids’ schedules?

May 10, 2009

I have been asked to write about a dilemma many academics face now: whether to stay or go. What do you do if you hate your job, or if your hours are non-negotiable and incompatible with your kids’ schedules?

A few years ago, the answer would have been simple: Look elsewhere. But what if you have built up seniority in your adjunct position, or are a fairly sure bet on the tenure track? As a new hire, you would be most vulnerable to cutbacks, and despite glowing assurances in the interview, there are no guarantees that the new position would be a significant improvement over your current one. Are you willing to risk your security for some elusive idea of occupational happiness?

That is certainly how my father, a Depression kid, responded to any suggestion that a job ought to offer “fulfillment.” “Fulfillment comes from putting food on the table and paying off your debts,” he would argue. And of course he had a point.

On the other hand, the job security his generation took for granted has all but evaporated. Institutional or departmental loyalty, seniority, and even
demonstrated excellence no longer guarantee a permanent place at the table. The tenure system itself is increasingly fragile. So it may also be useful to consider whether you are betting valuable time and energy on a losing horse.

And there are other, less concrete considerations. Here is an example:

A number of years ago, I worked as a speechwriter to the president of a large private university with a comprehensive tuition remission program. I
was pursuing a master’s degree at the university, so this benefit was significant. The other benefits — health insurance, pension, vacation and sick leave — were generous as well. My commute was not onerous, and my work was valued highly. There was only one catch: I was miserable.

When I tried to articulate the causes of my unhappiness, they always sounded petty. My boss was cold and businesslike. There was no one to talk to. The deadlines were so tight I often had to work into the night. The university repeatedly betrayed its stated mission behind the scenes, so my carefully penned speeches felt fraudulent and empty. When I considered what coal miners and house cleaners endured, I felt spoiled and unworthy.

An administrator at the university was recruited to head a development campaign at another, very attractive, institution, and she invited me to come along as chief writer. After considerable internal debate and nail-biting, I accepted. But when “my” university offered me a fat raise to stay, I couldn’t justify leaving. How did I know the second job would work out? How, my father asked, could I think of trading a sure thing for an unknown? How would I pay for my very expensive classes? What if I lost my job and got sick?

Instead, I kept my job, and got sick — I developed insomnia, lost my appetite, and manifested a host of ailments that later proved to be the early stages of a serious autoimmune problem. Maybe this would have happened if I’d changed jobs; there is no way to tell. What is known is that stress plays a significant role in triggering autoimmune episodes, and despite my protestations that my complaints were not serious, my stress levels were off the charts.

Six months after agreeing to stay, I was sitting at my computer when I was overcome with the conviction that I could not take my job a moment longer. I called a close friend and said, “I’m going to quit.”

“It’s almost summer,” she reminded me. “The president will be traveling; there will hardly be any work. That’s a good time to take it easy, catch up with yourself, maybe take some extra classes while they’re still free. It would be silly to leave now. Get the word out that you’re looking; then leave in the fall for a new job.”

Everything she said was not only sensible, but wise. I thanked her sincerely and agreed that that was exactly what I would do. I felt much calmer — for about half an hour, until that feeling came over me again. Like a sleepwalker, I stumbled on autopilot down the hall and into my boss’s office and gave my notice, a part of me gaping in horror and disbelief at what I was doing.

I called the administrator at the other institution and told her what I had done. I asked whether there was any possibility of coming on board as a more junior writer. As it turned out, she was in the process of terminating her chief writer, whose work she found dense and incomprehensible. “When can you start?” she asked. And so I embarked on one of the most engaging and, yes, fulfilling ventures of my career.

There is no moral to this story, except, perhaps, “Don’t generalize.” What is good advice for one person may be deadly for another in the same
position. Cost/benefit analyses are useful tools, but in the end, if your gut overrides your head, that’s not always a bad thing.

Have a question for the Career Coach? E-mail her.


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