You're Doing It The Wrong Way

Career ladders and job changes.

June 25, 2013

It's been a month since I left my academic job in Kansas to move to Houston with my husband and my daughter. In the weeks after my arrival, I have done the usual stuff you do after you move: change postal address, memorize nearest highway exits, figure out my bank’s closest ATM, find a new supermarket. (Still haven't found my favorite coffee shop close to home, although there are a few contenders about 15 minutes away.) I've also thought long and hard about career moves, particularly because I did not land in a new job in Houston by the time I arrived.

I haven't led a straight and narrow path, career-wise. This is normal, inside and outside academia. But if you knew why I ended up dreaming dreams of tenure track positions, my wobbly path would be striking. It was to me, at least. My parents, working-class folks who made it into the middle-class, espoused the benefits of a good education while I was growing up, and were staunch believers that education would be my way to upward mobility. When I proclaimed that I would be going to the University of Puerto Rico for a Bachelor’s degree in English, they weren't convinced that being an English major was the best way to go. Once they understood that I had my sights set on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an English professor, they were on board--professions speak clearer than career paths. But to be honest, I firmly believed too that it was all in the degree. The logic seemed fairly simple: get a Ph.D., go teach. It’s what all of my professors in undergrad had done.

I had no map to count on, so I depended on what my undergrad professors told me. After all, they had the job I wanted; they researched, wrote about, and taught the subjects I was interested in. So I went and applied to graduate school. Fast forward to nine years later: I finished my Ph.D., yes, but I have moved away from my tenure track dreams. If you follow my twitter feed or read my blog, you'll know that this is not a loss in my book but a win. I am satisfied with my academic track so far. I have taught at universities and a community college, I have worked with first-year college students, and the last two years I developed programming and provided support for graduate student writers. I even managed a new writing center location at a med center, from the ground up.

What now? The logical mentality would be to continue working my way up the career ladder. But I’m having difficulty figuring out what that career ladder looks like, or even if it's a ladder. Now that I am not working in an academic position and I have embraced freelancing, it might make more sense to talk about grassy paths than tracks. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the opposite of what I am used to. As a tenure-track faculty member, one could say the goal is to be “tenured.” As an alternative-academic, the goal is a little less clear, but there are still benchmarks to focus on: manage your own program, become an independent consultant, etc. What about me?

Although I have applied for several jobs (and I continue to apply, because you never know where opportunities will come from), I decided to embrace freelance full time, at least for the time being. I have worked on and off as a freelance editor for a while (something a lot of folks in graduate school have tried their hand at) but now that I have no formal job prospects in sight I am giving it a shot full-time. I am also taking the chance to dedicate more time to my writing: I am working on a sound studies article for an academic journal, I am blogging more often, and I am trying to pitch to different venues. Finding more time to write, makes me happy, and so I'm running with that for now even though I'm earning a lot less than I used to. Maybe I'll even find my way back to teaching.

I can't shake the feeling that I am making a risky bet here. Part of that has to do with the feeling that I don't have a handbook for the next steps. I recently blogged about how it feels like I'm caught in a fog. However, making the choice to go freelance felt like the first concrete step I had taken in a while. I'm scared but also excited to try something different. I’m also grateful to have connected with a group of freelancing Ph.D.s via Twitter, who have been very supportive and very patient with all of my (sometimes silly, sometimes obvious) questions.

Part of me wonders, what if I am I doing it all wrong, this career thing, this academic thing? And then another part of me chimes in: wrong according to whom? The most challenging part of going about one's own career path is precisely that, that it is yours and yours alone.

Kansas City, Kansas in the US.

Liana is an Associate Editor at University of Venus. Follow her on Twitter @literarychica.


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