Sarah Kendzior and Rebecca Schuman, two of my favourite pundits on the post-academic problem, have recently agreed that the “I Quit Academia” letter has become an official THING. It’s been a thing for a long while–Kenneth Mostern‘s “What it Means to be Post-Academic” was written in 2001, and I’m sure people penned send-offs long before that–but the genre is proliferating, with Zachary Ernst‘s “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower,” Kendzior‘s “The Closing of American Academia,” Alexandra Lord‘s “Location, Location, Location” (which I’ve written about before here), Schuman‘s classic “Thesis Hatement,” and Lee Skallerup Bessette‘s brand-new “Moving Forward.”
For every person who has transitioned into the world of #alt-ac and #post-ac, there’s an “I Quit” story to be told. And it seems like more and more people are willing to tell their stories, to throw up their hands and say, openly, that they’re through. It’s partially a vent, a cry to a world that still believes that professors have it oh-so-easy, that we’ve all got cushy tenured jobs with summers off and tweed jackets. And it’s partially a service: a moment to let others–people like me, people like some of you–see themselves reflected in the words of others, a chance to impart some hard-won wisdom to those who are thinking of academia with stars still in their eyes. Despite being very happily ensconced in a role I would not likely have gotten without having pursued a PhD, I wish someone had told me their story before I started. Like Lee, I’d rather have heard that, and been able to make a clear-eyed choice to still do a PhD, than been given the platitudes and untruths I was.
So then. I quit. And here’s my story.
I started my PhD in Canadian Literature in 2008. After a year working in publishing after my M.A., I started coursework feeling like a bit of a dunce, like I’d forgotten how to speak academese. It took awhile to catch up, but I loved it all the same. And then we went on strike. For nearly three months, I did precisely six things. I walked in a circle in the blistering cold, I took the bus, I showered, I ate, I read, I slept. I was exhausted and depressed, and when the strike ended, so did my marriage. I finished coursework, and writing about poetry was my salvation. I started comps, and they were great–because who doesn’t love getting paid to hang out with their friends reading and talking about books all day? I mulled over my dissertation proposal for awhile, and then wrote it in a weekend. I started working on my dissertation. I published articles and reviews and encyclopedia entries. I gave conference papers. I won grants. I started a peer-reviewed academic journal, helped to run my department’s graduate students’ association, got great reviews as a teacher. From the outside, I looked like the model of a successful academic-to-be on the rise.
It’s hard to tell when exactly it was that the disillusionment crept in. It might have been realizing that the adjunct issues we fought so hard for in the strike would soon be, if I kept on this path, my issues. It might have been realizing that in a given year, there were usually about two jobs in my field. It might have been realizing that my partner’s mother, despite being a brilliant scholar, struggled to get tenure and then have her excellence recognized by her institution. It might have been recognizing that some of the professors I looked up to most were somewhere between a little and profoundly unhappy on the tenure-track. It definitely had something to do with sensing a fundamental disconnect between my desire to exercise control over where I lived and the academy’s refusal to admit that as a legitimate desire. It certainly also had something to do with the emotional maelstrom induced by my mother-in-law’s death, my partner’s grief, a major renovation, and my realization that the project I really wanted to do was impossible because of major archival restrictions. Whatever it was, it made me profoundly unhappy. Most of all, I felt very much like every word I wrote of my dissertation was a step closer to the edge of a cliff. Off the end of the cliff was a misty void, a vast nothingness–because if I finished my PhD and didn’t become a professor, as I was pretty certain I would not get to become, I would be nothing. My identity was so tied up with being an academic that contemplating not being one was something like contemplating my own death. It was terrifying and paralyzing and profoundly awful. It made me miserable and scared and edgy and sad and eventually, because of all the therapist bills, kinda broke.
That all changed on a sunny afternoon in Winnipeg. I was at the University of Manitoba on an archive trip, and I finished going through all of the boxes I needed a few hours early. One of my earliest #post-ac mentors had recommended that I read So What Are You Going to Do With That?, and I decided that I was going to park myself on a bench in the quad in the sunshine and actually take the time to read it. It was, in a word, transformational. Here was a book that was telling me that off the end of the cliff wasn’t nothingness. There was a whole world of things that I could do–things that I’d want to do, things that I’d love to do–that weren’t being an academic. They were jobs that would let me have everything I fundamentally wanted–intellectual stimulation, colleagues I liked, financial security, job stability, the ability to have a family on my own timetable, the choice of where I lived–on my own terms. I flew home feeling as though I were the one with wings.
Inevitably, all was not totally peachy thereafter. My desperate desire to stay in academe turned into fury at the system that had taught me that my self-worth lay in conforming to its standards, that those PhDs who didn’t become academics were second-class citizens, lesser, unworthy. Realizing that I was aiming beyond the tenure-track certainly removed a lot of the motivation to work on my dissertation, and I spent a lot of time figuring out why I was writing this book, a book that few would read, if not to get a job. Going was very (read painfully) slow until the archival restrictions that had stopped me from pursuing the project closest to my heart were lifted, and I started writing the book I had long wanted to, one that had (and has) intrinsic merit beyond its value on the academic job market.
And then I got lucky. At just the moment when my desire to change what was clearly a broken system was seeking an outlet, an outlet came my way. I got hired as a special research assistant in the faculty of graduate studies, researching and developing policy around graduate student professional and transferable skills development. I got to see how administration worked from the inside, talk to every single program, read the latest research on transferable skills, and find out from students what support they wanted the university to provide for preparing for #alt- and #post-ac careers as well as academic ones. In getting that job, I got luckier than I knew–because I wasn’t just researching transferable skills, I was developing them. More accurately, I was recognizing them, recognizing how all of the things that I did as an academic–writing, researching, speaking, analyzing, synthesizing, coordinating, project planning and managing–could be translated into terms that made sense in the working world.
And then I got even luckier–up came a job that required time spent in grad school (but not a PhD), a well-rounded familiarity with my university and its workings, a successful grant-writing record, experience with graduate student professional development, and all of those skills I just listed. I almost missed it. I wasn’t even looking for a job. I was planning to spend the year writing, defend, and then look for a job. But this one came up on my Facebook feed, posted by a friend, and–well, you’ve heard this part of the story. Eh, what the hell, I thought. I scrambled to put together a resume and a cover letter, sent in my application, and waited. When I got an interview, I went into overdrive and prepared like nobody’s business. I met with people who had been in this role, with others at the university with the same job title, with my old boss in the faculty who had worked closely with the person who had just vacated the job. I Googled everyone on the search committee, memorized Vanier guidelines, went shopping for the perfect interview outfit, studied power poses. I agonized over the memories of the interview for my old publishing job, in which my boss basically had to ask me to calm the hell down. But all that prep did just what I wanted it to do. It did calm me the hell down. And without desperate nerves to get in my way, I showed them who I was, and I tried to convince them of two important things: one, that I wasn’t biding my time until a tenure-track job came up, and two, that a PhD could be of real value outside of the tenure-track.
They bought it, and they gave me the job. And so, I quit. Not as completely as some–I’m still enrolled in the PhD part time, I’m finishing my dissertation because it’s a story I’m committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I’ve been doing my doctorate at–but I’ll never go on the tenure-track. I’ll eventually have a PhD, but I’ll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it’s just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job–and I have one of those, one that I love. Working in graduate administration has not gotten rid of my resentment for the way academia indoctrinates its graduate students to believe that those who go the #post-ac and #alt-ac route are second class citizens, or the way it fails to show grad students the ways in which their skills set them apart in the working world, or the way it glosses over the terrible realities of the academic job market in an effort to put on a happy face and keep enrollments up, or the way that it frames precarious labour as a necessary apprenticeship rather than as exploitation. But I’m in a far better position to actually do something about some of that where I am, than I could have where I was headed.
“I quit” isn’t the story I thought I’d be telling, back when I started my PhD. But it’s one I’m happy to be the main character of all the same.