In April 2014, I ended my career in academia — though calling it a “career” may be overstating the case. I had two months left in my fifth year of an English Ph.D. program. My wife was pregnant with our son. For the first time, I saw my professional future clearly.
It would probably take another year to finish my dissertation. With a hodgepodge of hard-won fellowships and teaching assignments, I had added three quarters to my original five years of funding. That money would support me through next winter. Then… what? Another teaching gig? One of those secret research fellowships that my department occasionally, according to mysterious criteria, handed out to advanced graduate students?
If everything went smoothly, I would defend my dissertation in the spring or summer, get a one-year VAP at my university, and go on the job market. Ah yes, the famous market for humanities professorships. Where colleges line up and throw cash at you.
I would have had as fair a shot at an academic job as any other graduate student in my field. I had worked my ass off in a name-brand program. I had presented and published research. I had assembled a credible teaching portfolio. But I, like the legions of other apprentice scholars who show up at MLA every year with the same qualifications, still faced long odds.
I don’t need to repeat the stats. We are all aware of those.
What ultimately settled the matter for me, as my son began to fidget inside my wife’s womb, was the realization that I — and my family — would never be able to choose where to live. All of our relatives were west of the Rockies, most of them in coastal California. After five years in Illinois, we missed them. And soon we would need their support more than ever. My wife, who had made smart career decisions, could find work anywhere. I could not. If I told my department’s placement director that I wanted to conduct a West Coast search, I would probably get a rueful laugh, but not much help.
Suddenly the choice was obvious. Even if I made it to the tenure track, I would be expected to move my family wherever the academic job market led. That was unacceptable.
The choice may have been obvious, but it wasn’t easy. I lost sleep. I stopped reading and writing. I developed a heavy ache in my gut — like heartburn, but lower. Finally I sent an email to a friend who had left our Ph.D. program after his fifth year and started teaching English at a nearby boarding school. I asked if he would be willing to meet up and tell me about his job.
The prospect of a career in independent high schools had long appealed to me. On most days I find teaching more absorbing and satisfying than my research. And I actually prefer working with 14- to 18-year-olds, as they tend to be less set in their ways than college students.
Oh yeah, also: in the world of independent high schools, there are jobs. Ones that pay well. Ones with 19 weeks of vacation every year. Ones that offer pedagogical and intellectual freedom. Ones that exist.
My teacher friend emailed me back. As it turned out, there was an opening in his department. Would I like to apply?
A few weeks later, I got the offer.
Again, none of this was emotionally simple. Even after I accepted the job, I worried that I was making a huge “mistake,” giving up on my “dream,” and generally “wussing out.” (My feelings at this time were oddly clichéd.) I had never wanted to do anything but teach and think and read and write. I had always thought that a university was the one place where you could do those things — exclusively those things, in more or less equal proportions — and make a decent living. That may still be true. But only for a few very brilliant, very ambitious, and above all very fortunate scholars. Not for me.
Now, more than a year later, my doubts have faded. At the boarding school in Illinois, I taught four small sections of bright, amiable sophomores and juniors. I coached swimming, a sport that I love nearly as much as my academic specialty. It was good work for good pay. That I had ever considered going on tenure-track market began to seem silly.
Not long after our son arrived last October, my wife and I agreed to move west as soon as we could. Raising a human being — gird your loins for this scalding-hot take — is hard! (And hilarious. And awful. And joyful. And the best, worst, best thing I have ever done or will ever do.) We needed to be closer to family. So I signed up with a placement agency and said I was looking for a job at an independent secondary school in California. They didn’t laugh at me. Instead, they gave me a list of 20 openings I could apply for.
I sent out a dozen applications. Got several phone interviews. Multiple campus visits, multiple offers. During my search, I never felt desperate or fearful or embarrassed; rather, at all times, I felt respected as a professional and as a human adult. This happened not because I’m awesome (I’m just okay), but because this is what happens in a real job market. Applicants compete for the attention of worthy employers; employers compete for the attention of worthy applicants.
One week from today, my wife and son and I will move into an apartment on the campus of a boarding school near Monterey, California. The fall trimester will start in September. In the meantime, we will visit family, I will scrape away at my dissertation, and my wife will browse job listings. My son will gradually whittle his jargon into language. None of us will miss academia.
I can remember now, with the clarity of an unintentionally fabricated memory, when I began to want an academic career. I was a senior in college, an English major, taking a course in Romantic poetry. The professor sat at one end of the weighty seminar table. “So,” he opened, “here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately.”
That’s it, right there. The nonchalant beauty of the intellectual life. This guy’s job, I thought to myself, is to think about stuff.
“Thinking about stuff” is, of course, a naive way to describe academic labor — and one that I never really believed. My mother was a professor, so I have always known that university scholars do a great deal more than ruminate on the Big Questions. They beg for grant money. They grade papers and write recommendations. They jockey for bureaucratic position. Yet the romance of the humanities, the ideal of “thinking about stuff” for a living, did its work on me. I spent the second half of my 20s in school.
I’m glad I did. I enjoyed my graduate education, and I benefited from it personally, intellectually, and professionally. I am not among those who tell everyone to avoid humanities Ph.D. programs. (Unless your institution fails to offer you full five-year funding, in which case: “Don’t do it. Just don’t.”)
But I would suggest that, if you want a comfortable scholarly life after your hooding, you should probably stay away from the American university system. Academia, it seems, is no longer for academics. And there are other options for you. Look into this “public humanities” thing — seems promising. Or pull a Wallace Stevens and compose monographs on your commute to the insurance office. I’m serious: independent scholarship is both practically possible and socially necessary. Or, just throwing this out there, consider secondary teaching.
You may want to stay and fight. Protest the neoliberal university, push back against the constriction of the tenure track, agitate for adjunct rights, grab your crotch in the direction of Scott Walker. These are all useful, important deeds, and I admire and support them. But my life is one-third over, and Scott Walker might win the goddamn presidency. There are other useful, important, and — yes — remunerative deeds to be done.
I plan to finish my Ph.D. and to keep doing literary-historical research. I’ll be “alt-ac,” or whatever. But I have chosen a boarding school — classroom, dorm, dining hall, pool deck — as my sphere of everyday action. It may not be the perfect fulfillment of the “here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately” fantasy. What could be? But on several occasions in the past year, I have walked into a classroom, sat at a seminar table, said hello to a small group of students, read them a few lines of poetry or fiction, and asked, “What does this make you think about?”
A more fruitful approach, I’ve found.