#alt-ac · administration · best laid plans · change · transition

My "I Quit" Letter

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.

balance · style matters · time crunch · transition · well-heeled (so to speak) · women

On the ‘Do

In her last post (Go read and comment! It will make your day), Aimee so nicely suggested that she’s hoping to learn more from me “about post-academic careers and what a new kind of life of the mind might look like.” We’ll get to that, but today’s post is anything but life-of-the-mind-y. Rather than writing about what’s in my head, I’m writing about what’s on it–my hair, in all of its shiny and political glory. Hair (at least mine) might be frizzled, but it ain’t just frivolous.

(If you like these style posts, check out all the ones tagged with style matters. And please ignore the fact that I’m shamelessly revisiting Aimee’s post on her feminist haircut).

My recent hair obsession started with three things: 1) being too busy to get a haircut for what seemed like an age and then fussing about with my overgrown mop, 2) starting the new job and trying to figure out how to juggle looking put together at work and fitting in time at the gym before my hour-long commute and my 8:30 start, and 3) seeing a woman on the bus with a beautiful short crop that looked SO stylish and SO easy. In the easy department she beat my rather high-maintenance bob, which requires endless blow drying and ironing every time I wash it, else I look like a electrocuted poodle.

I wasn’t kidding.

In the throes of hair obsession, I seriously considered following the suit of my short-haired muse and hacking the whole business off. If you’ll permit me a whine, expectations around women’s hair just seem so unfair, and so expressly calculated to channel our energies into the frivolous and the decorative instead of into the useful and the intellectual. And I want that half-hour of sleep back, dammit. Most men–at least prior to the advent of the man-bun–can just shower and be on their way, little-to-no fluffing required. (They also aren’t expected by society to put on makeup, or strap themselves into bras, or paint their nails, or jam their feet into high heels–all things which I know I’m not ACTUALLY required to spend my time doing, in any objective sense, but do anyway because I like to look nice and because painting ones’ nails is, not unlike making risotto, very relaxing.) But women in most parts of the world are conditioned to equate long hair with femininity and attractiveness, and thus grow luscious locks that require more babying than my rather neurotic cat. There are exceptions, of course, like those who decide that they just don’t give a damn, or those, like Halle Berry or my friend Belinda, who are made for short hair. And of course there are women who have long hair or high-maintenance hair for reasons other than style. But the coded (and not so coded) message many women get is that short hair is unfeminine, unflattering, unsexy, and only for those beautiful or dynamic enough to make up for their lost hair-related appeal in other ways. (I can’t imagine how terribly those messages must be compounded for women who have lost their hair for medical reasons, and thus are told that they’re doubly unattractive, being both sick and bald.)

Having absorbed this equation of hair = beauty (and being, let’s be honest, just a mite vain), I spend all kinds of time–valuable time, time I could be spending on intellectual pursuits, or with my family, or exercising, or SLEEPING, for goodness sakes–washing my hair, drying my hair, ironing my hair, working to pay for expensive haircuts, shopping for hair products. Think about how much time I could devote to concocting some brilliant money-making scheme, or practicing my French, or writing my dissertation, if I started refusing to style my hair, or cut it into a style that doesn’t require styling. A lot! It’s madness, I tell you! It’s hair tyranny! 

Sure, there are other ways to say screw you to the hair establishment than cutting it all off. The low-maintenance (and very popular) long-hair-always-in-a-bun style (or the every popular ponytail) is certainly one way, although it often comes at the cost of headaches from the weight of all that hair perched atop one’s head all day. (I’d go that route, but the migraines aren’t worth it.) And dry shampoo is a godsend, that’s for certain.  But wouldn’t it be lovely if we lived in a world where beauty and femininity weren’t tied to hair? Where short-haired women were just as unremarkable as short-haired men? Where those of us not in possession of Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones didn’t feel like we needed hair to hide, or accentuate, parts of our faces? Where long hair was a simple choice, and not, as it is for some people, a screen, or armour? Where I could get sweaty and shower and be on my way in the morning, no potions or hair irons required?

Sadly, we don’t. And I’m brave about some things, but apparently not about this. My high-maintenance hair is, somewhat to my dismay, a part of my personal and professional identity, and so it stays. I still resent the time I spend on my coif, time I could be spending in other ways, but clearly not enough to give Hannah-the-hairdresser free rein with the clippers. I’m keeping my poodle-free bob, which looks quite nice, I do concede. But I’m also figuring out other ways I can take back my time from the demands of appearances. Time to invest in some no-iron clothes, perhaps?

Makeup, jewelry, dress, heels, manicure, contacts, hair did–the whole shebang.

What about you? Is your ‘do a drag, a drain, a distraction from more important things? Or is your coif something you celebrate? Do you find the discussion of follicles frivolous, or fraught? Do tell!

#alt-ac · administration · transition

An Alternate Universe: On Administration and #Alt-Ac

It’s one thing to know that you don’t intend to go on the tenure-track, to spend months (nay, years) mourning that imagined life and reimagining a new one. It’s quite another to step onto that other track and begin to take the first steps along it that will lead to somewhere just out of sight. It’s proving to be quite the interesting walk, in ways that I only half expected.

I’m in the fourth week of my administrative #alt-ac position, which I can scarcely believe. Time is flying, which has a lot to do with the wholly different pace of life beyond the PhD. I used to have long stretches of time during the day in which I could sit and think and write. I had a few priorities to juggle–dissertation writing, editing projects, teaching, other academic writing–but not over many. I’m lucky now if I have ten minutes at my desk at a time, and to my still-overwhelmed brain, my priorities seem to number in the thousands. There are endless meetings–so many meetings–and score upon score of emails. And there are people. That’s less of a challenge than I thought it might be, even for this confirmed introvert. I missed working with other people during the writing phase of my PhD, sometimes desperately, and I’m making up for it now. To my pleasure and surprise, it’s largely women who fill the chairs–the Dean, one of two Associate Deans, both senior administrators, most of the mid-level administrators, and nearly all of the student services staff are women.

There’s quite a lot about being in university administration that I prize, and didn’t realize that I would. Instead of being one of many PhD students, frustrated and feeling impotent in the face of the seeming unwillingness of the academy to recognize that we have legitimate and far-reaching concerns, I’m one of many fewer who provide resources to those PhDs. I’m lucky that the people I can voice my concerns to, the lovely folks I work with, are people who have the power to do something about it. They’re people who want to do something about it, and to help me develop into someone who can advocate for grad students at the highest levels. I’m far from the top of the ladder now, but I have enough autonomy and power of my own that I can effect some change where I see the need for it. I still have to watch the oncoming tide of change and cuts–I’m not deluding myself that Ontario isn’t looking to Alberta as a model–but it feels less dire from here, somehow.

I’m still a bit bewildered and overwhelmed, naturally. Working 9-5 still feels both blessedly structured and terribly restraining. There are SO MANY acronyms to learn. I miss working in my pajamas, having my only interruption be the cat, and having lunch with office-bound friends. I feel guilty for not prioritizing my academic research even as I’m thrilled to get to put my policy-related research into action. The house is rather a little dustier than it was, the kitchen less well-used, and the cat a little needier. Students still come to argue grades, except now it’s their whole GPA instead of one assignment.

Whatever the challenges of moving on from the tenure-track dream of academe, I can’t complain.  I get to live where I want, do work I think is valuable, enjoy my co-workers, use my PhD constantly, effect real change, and learn the university from the inside. I wish I could have shown this post–this life–to Melissa-that-was, the Melissa that fretted and panicked about what to do if not be a professor. If you’re a Melissa-that-was: it gets better. Indeed, it gets pretty great.

jobs · reform · transition

So What Can You Do with That, Exactly?

Skills translation is a major issue for us—for those of us who are still in search of post-ac jobs, and for those of us who teach in non-professional programs. It’s a major issue for our students, who are going out into the world in search of meaningful employment, a world that can’t seem to figure out what to do with people who don’t fit neatly into a career that you could find in a Richard Scarry story. Translating their skills is a major issue for us too, for both our students’ success and the public perception of our disciplines–particularly for those of us in the humanities and social sciences–is at stake. How do we communicate what we do in the university–as undergraduates, as graduate students, and as PhD holders–to those outside of that system? It’s obvious, outside the academy, that someone with an engineering degree has been equipped with the skills to become an engineer. Same goes for nursing. Or social work. But English? As the old quip goes, you’ll either be found behind a teacher’s desk, or a McDonald’s deep fryer. I imagine the more up-to-date version subs a Starbucks espresso machine for the deep fryer. There is no one obvious career path for someone with a degree in history, or English, or biology, and that’s both a major strength, and a major challenge, of non-professional undergraduate degrees. The same goes for people with grad degrees seeking post-ac employment, with raised stakes–many years of missed earnings and retirement savings, delayed pregnancy or adoption, many years of accumulated debt–and a new set of challenges–public prejudice against PhDs, perceived over-qualification, and a professional network that probably resides mostly within the academy.

We and our students have skills, and valuable ones. But how do we get those beyond our classrooms to acknowledge the communication, collaboration, analysis, research, time-management, project-management, critical thinking, and technical skills we’ve honed in the university–and, for many of us, taught others? This issue is increasingly pressing given the social and governmental pressures to make everything countable, reportable, and monetizable. A humanities education, because it doesn’t neatly fit one into a slot in the business machine, gets dismissed as irrelevant. But as Max Bluow, the president of the Council of Ontario Universities argues, that’s not what we’re here for: “Universities are not, and should not be, in the business of producing “plug and play” graduates – workers who can fit immediately into a specific job in which they will spend the rest of their lives.” The world where people enter a career and stay in it for life has come and gone, and yet the university is, perhaps for the first time, being asked to produce those people. We don’t need programs that help people fit into one of those slots. We need the programs we have, and the tools to communicate to the world that what we do, and who we are, is of far more value than they probably realize.

How do we fix this, then? This being the mismatch between the skills we develop in the university, and the translation of those skills beyond the university? How do we translate our skills into terms that are meaningful to others, and that will land us work that employs, acknowledges, perhaps even applauds those skills? Bluow argues that it is employers who need to do the changing: “If indeed the statistics don’t bear out a serious mismatch between skills and jobs in Canada, the conversation should move away from turning universities into job training centres and toward the role employers can play in preparing graduates for jobs.” This includes, I should think, training employers to understand the skill-set that someone with a history degree, for example, could bring to the table. In “How to Get a Job with a Philosophy Degree,” The New York Times profiled a number of American universities that have created career-services programs specifically geared towards liberal arts students, ones that are designed to help both students and employers identify the ways in which their training and their needs match up. These schools highlight the unobvious degree-job matchups that happen post-graduation—the German major working at Deloitte, for instance—and profile successful graduates with quote-unquote useless degrees. My brain is full of useful and useless facts, but one that’s always stuck with me was that a past-president of BMO had a B.A. in English. Skills translation is a major priority for these centres; at the University of Chicago, “Michael S. Roth, the school’s president, says he wants the career program ‘to work with our students from the first year to think about how what they’re learning can be translated into other spheres.’”

For graduate students, the resources (at least where I’m standing) are far fewer on the ground, and the options potentially more difficult. There’s always the DIY route—So What Are You Going to Do With That? is a good place to start if we want to become fluent skills translators. My university offers a workshop on reframing academic skills, and I’m hoping to develop more of them as part of a professional development workshop series I run. Aaron Kotsko advocates for the creation of a “shadow resume”—working outside of the academy while studying and teaching in the academy so that you graduate with both a doctorate and a well-developed professional network. However unrealistic he might be about the feasibility of working two jobs at once (it would have been impossible for me, since my university prohibits us from taking any non-teaching employment while studying full-time), his point about our skills is spot on:

You have research skills. You have writing skills. You are basically an information processing machine. You hopefully have some language skills. Depending on your discipline, you might also have some advanced math or stats skills — in any case, you probably know how to use standard office software better than the average office worker does. You’re almost certainly anal-retentive when it comes to grammar and usage. These are things that don’t take any pre-existing special skills, and there are plenty of companies that need help with all of that. 

But what most of these options ignore is the dual-participant nature of translation. It doesn’t matter how well we translate our skills—we need to live in a world where the people we’re translating them for are willing to get what we’re saying. In an ideal world, they’d meet us halfway—the people with jobs would already know the value of what we were offering them, the value of a degree in English, or German, or gender studies. Indeed, they probably already do, although it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t help that the rhetoric around the humanities is working to exacerbate that feeling, and to frighten people into abandoning those fields that don’t lead to obvious careers. There’s lots of fulfilling work out there for us and our students—but how do we bridge the gap between the people who want the work, and the people who have it?

So, dear readers, over to you. What challenges do you face in translating your academic skills in your search for post-ac employment? Or in helping your students translate theirs? What issues around skills translation get your goat, or make you excited?

#alt-ac · administration · best laid plans · transition

Welp, So Much for a Gradual Transition!

The last time I started this post, on Monday, it went something like this:

Today is my last first day of teaching–in the university, at least. Both my funding and my dissertation will wrap up this year, and next September will see me goodness-knows-where. Not in front of a university classroom, though. You see, I’ve decided to go on the alt-ac/non-ac track. To hang out my shingle as something other than an adjunct or a seeker of a tenure-track job. The professoriate and I are parting ways.

What I didn’t know then was quite how quickly that parting of ways would happen. My thought was that I’d keep my eye out for suitable positions in the spring, once my classes were winding down, and that I’d start my new life as a “real person” (as the lingo goes in my graduate program for people who move out of the academy) in the summer or fall. It would be gradual. I’d have lots of time to wrap my head around the fact that things were changing, and I’d finish one thing before I started another. But life happens, and when a friend (who you really should read) posted a job that sounded positively dreamy–research focused, helping grad students, in my city–I decided to give it a shot. Couldn’t hurt, I thought. Good practice at turning the ol’ CV into a resume and talking about myself to other people, I thought. I’ll never get it, I thought.

I start on Monday.

So, there you have it. You were going to get, among other things, my thoughts on transitioning out of academia, or into non-professoriate parts of academia, from the perspective of a late-stage graduate student–one who was gradually entering the job market and trying to figure out where she, with an English PhD, could fit. Instead, you’re going to get posts on transitioning into the alt-academy (for I’m remaining at the university, my university, just in a different–but in many ways not so different–role) from someone who has just effected that shift. I’ll be writing as someone who is learning a new job, who is figuring how to be a “real person” and a PhD student (because I’m staying that too). Oh, and who has between now and Monday make that transition make sense in her head. Hang on for the ride!

And for those of you who might be considering a hop onto the alt-ac/non-ac track, here are some resources to get you started, or to add to those you’ve already got: