finding an academic job

Although this blog claims to be about academia, I’ll be the first to recognize that I spend very little time writing about that subject. It’s far easier to talk about biking or parenting or intercultural relationships and, despite expecting the inverse, I actually find work and career talk to feel much more personal and polemic. I’m also painfully aware of how social media profiles (and blogs) are public, visible, and permanent and that whatever I reveal here could be forever dug up by anyone for any reason. This kernel of information only shakes me when composing thoughts on work-related matters. Ironically, I think I had an easier time writing about my miscarriage than I have formulating my thoughts on where my career is going.

But I decided to write a few words about it because I want to force myself to talk openly about the academic job market. Too much of academia is shrouded in secrecy. Too many decisions are made behind closed doors and too many topics are taboo.

So this is where I am right now, in brief: I defended and walked last May. I officially graduated in August 2012 as I used the summer to make post-defense revisions. During this time, my husband also graduated and began a post-doc (much more common in his field of Microbiology than in mine of German and Comparative Literature). His post-doc was going to keep us in our current location for another year and then we were both going to co-ordinate a job search that would hopefully find us employed in the same city. I turned to my department here at the local university where I had taught full-time as a lecturer before receiving a dissertation fellowship that funded my last year of writing. As they had just hired a new faculty member, they had no courses for me to pick up last fall. A last-minute course became available this spring and I took it. Misplaced optimism led me to believe that there would be more courses for me in the following semesters now that I was back. But sadly, their teaching needs are fully met by existing faculty and there is little room for me.

As for the course that I’m teaching this semester: it’s a great course and I have a great group of students. It’s actually made everything unfolding the way it has even harder because I’m constantly wondering whether this is the last course I’ll ever teach. Maybe it’s good to leave on a high note but more often than not it just feels like salt in the wound. I love what I do and I’m good at it. I don’t want to walk away.

Meanwhile, this past winter, a really great job became available at my husband’s workplace. He applied for it and got it. It’s a job he’s thrilled to have and it comes with the added bonus of keeping us in a location that we’ve grown to love. We love our friends and our community here and even though I never in my wildest dreams expected to call Iowa home, I’m happy to do so. To sweeten the deal, we recently found our dream home in the part of town I’d been wanting to live all along and we made an offer on it. (Actually, we more than made an offer: we fought tooth and nail to outbid another interested buyer the day that the house was listed!).

Many things have fallen into place for us: my husband’s career, our home, our community, our daughter’s future in a great town with great schools, etc. The only thing still missing is a job for me. An academic job, please. Because I spent nine long hard years in graduate school working to get my M.A. and then my PhD. Because I love what I do and because I’m good at it and because I don’t want to have to walk away (have I mentioned that already?).

A more senior colleague recently told me that the last year during which as many Humanities PhDs graduated as there were jobs on the market was in 1983. I’m about 30 years too late to the game. I should have gotten this PhD when I was one. Even if I weren’t geographically immobile right now, the odds of finding something of the tenure-track variety are slim. Almost every single job listed in my field over the course of the past year has been for one to two year lecturer or visiting assistent professor positions. Jobs that demand long hours, offer little compensation, and have many excellent and qualified recent graduates fighting over them.  So I’m feeling pretty depressed about the academic job market in general and not just as it pertains to my situation. (Just take a look at The Chronicle if you need any further convincing).

Things could change of course. And they probably will as change is the only constant. Meanwhile I’ve been spending each day refreshing the university’s job board listings and looking for anything relevant to my training and work experience within and without academia in the vicinity of our town. I actually did find and apply for a dream job in administration here at our local university but I have no idea how likely it is that I’ll even get asked to interview for it. Meanwhile, I think I have to implement a new rule: only half hour of job searching allowed per day. Any more than that and dispair and disillusion set in. And I lose sight of everything good in my life as the demons of failed PhDs circle around my head whispering their poisonous vitirol at me.

Reality is: a perfect job is hard to find. Hell, a good job can be hard to find. Let alone a job in academia when you’re restricted to a given geographical location. But we’ve made decisions along the way with the good of our family in mind and I stand by all of those. So now I will just try to keep morale up as I look for that last puzzle piece to fall into place.

I’d love to hear from those of you who’ve navigated similar situations: How did you keep your spirits up when dealing with unemployment? How have you managed two partners’ career trajectories, especially if one or both of you is in academia?  

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40 Responses to finding an academic job

  1. Dorie says:

    For me it was a long slog through the postdoctoral years. It was a very depressing time because despite publishing 3-5 papers a year I was not getting any interviews. To my surprise I ended up at the same place that I did my postdoc (they were impressed by my productivity–my adviser was right: papers are the coin of the academic realm). We were not prepared for this–we expected to move. And it only worked out because my husband’s work is not location-dependent. Despite that we dealt with about three years when he was unemployed, which were absolutely brutal with a baby when I was making postdoc wages in one of the most expensive cities in the US.

    • simplybike says:

      Thanks for this, Dorie! I really appreciate the reminders from others that it’s not always a linear and easy road to successful employment. I also hear what you’re saying about publications! I plan on putting all of my energies into two articles I have in the works for the near future. Even if I’m unemployed, at least I can point to productivity during that time. It’s just hard to stay motivated to be productive in a field that may or may not have a spot for me. I’m so impressed that you wrote and published so much during a time of such professional uncertainty. I will try to channel that inspiration in the near future!

  2. e says:

    I’m in German, too…. To make our lives work, I’ve gone over to working on campus and not pursuing a TT. I get to teach (not in my area), advise students, teach workshops, manage projects, consult on teaching. I love what I do, and it makes it possible for both of us to be in academia(ish). Happy to share more beyond the blog!

  3. Jess K M says:

    We do not have children (yet), but for me it was about compromising and moving somewhere that didn’t have an academic position opportunity, but allowed me to commute to a post-doc. The post-doc kept me busy and publishing. As it turned out, my husband missed academia himself and we were both able to secure positions. (I’m in nursing though, which makes a huge difference in terms of availability of tenure-track positions). I think the key is to remain as active publishing and teaching courses as you can, so you will be able to transition in when something opens up. In the meantime, just keep plugging along!!

  4. Brandi says:

    Thanks for posting this. I particularly resonated with “And I lose sight of everything good in my life as the demons of failed PhDs circle around my head whispering their poisonous vitirol at me.” I’ve been needing to vent for a while myself, so I apologize in advance for my long comment.

    I don’t consider what I’m doing throwing in the towel, although I’m sure others might see it that way. I’ll still be teaching and working on my own intellectual projects, it just won’t be at the university level. I’m shifting to high school teaching. The past few years have been rough for us financially, but we didn’t really mind it at all until Penny came along. Now all I can think about is making sure we are financially stable and have good health insurance. We are surviving right now on just my graduate stipend, since the department decided not to renew my husband’s one-course teaching contract for another semester and he became unemployed in January. I just can’t have us live on so little for another year and I can’t imagine dragging Penny from one temporary position to another. I also can’t find the time or focus to work on my dissertation between teaching and the needs of home. I worked in a high school while getting my bachelors (and really enjoyed it), so I do look forward to pursuing that career path.

    I still really love my dissertation project, of course, and that makes this difficult. I had it in my head until this last week that I would still finish my doctorate. This last week was spring break and I thought I would finally be able to write my first chapter. I had completed most of my research for it and had outlined it, making sure that it would transition nicely into the next chapter. Spring break ended up being filled with other things, however, leaving me no time for writing and making me even more anxious about our future. Teaching obligations filled two of the days (writing test sections, midterm evaluations, and then a ridiculous amount of back-and-forth emailing between three people arguing over truly insignificant details concerning those test sections and evaluations). Penny had her six-month checkup Monday and it was determined that she would need a molding helmet after all, despite four months of therapy and repositioning, since her forehead is starting to bulge out on the left side (her hair doesn’t cover that) in addition to the other non-improved deformed areas. All of Tuesday was thus spent at the hospital running around between different offices. Our health insurance won’t cover the helmet, which just made me more eager for better coverage. The final blow to spring break was the sudden death of a friend of ours on Thursday: he was only 42 and left behind two young children. We don’t have any sort of life insurance or retirement in place and all I’ve been able to think about the past few days are him and his poor children.

    I simply can’t do everything I’m trying to do right now. I’m stretched too thin and I can’t focus since I worry constantly about employment and finances. I also desperately want to be able to read for fun again and to be able to work on my intellectual side projects without guilt. I notified the department that I’m not going to request funding for next year. I meet with my advisor later this week to discuss withdrawing. I’m applying to high school English and German positions across the state in hopes of being able to become a certified teacher while on a temporary license (I’ll have to take online classes and a couple of exams this next year in order to gain a regular license). We’re both tired of moving, so if we have to move, this will be the final time and wherever we end up is where we shall settle (if it’s in a small town, maybe I’ll be able to take inspiration from you and bike commute to work). If I’m fortunate enough to get a job in our area, then we will stay in our apartment for another year while casually looking for a bigger, permanent home and make our final move when we have found a nice place. Hopefully, after a couple of years finishing my certification requirements and adjusting to my new position, I will be able to work on my dissertation project again, even if it is outside of the academic context. I think it would make a great general non-fiction read, and I plan to try to sell it to a general book publisher (vs. an academic one) no matter if I write it in the context of the Ph.D. program or independently.

    • simplybike says:

      Hi Brandi,

      I can just imagine how so much of this must feel. The juggling of lots of responsibilities plus constantly worrying about providing for your family must be exhausting beyond belief. I also can’t believe you’re all three living off your stipend! T. and I thought we were strapped when we were living off our two graduate incomes, couldn’t imagine doing it on one. And with a baby. And yes, I’m all too familiar with the crap health insurance to go with that stipend. It sounds like you’re making the smart and responsible decision here even though I know it can’t be easy to leave and to have that conversation with the department. But then again, doesn’t becoming a parent change everything and doesn’t it shift your priorities so much?

      I hope you and B find work that you enjoy soon and that you can all three find a nice long term home. We must be getting old :) because I’ve had the same desire to just settle and nest somewhere :)

      Good luck with the high school job search! I had a brief exposure to teaching high school in Ohio and it so wasn’t for me. So I haven’t been exploring that option even though I have heard from lots of colleagues in our field who go that route that they’re really happy. Maybe I’ll reconsider if it comes to that.

      Keep me posted on what you guys do!

      • Brandi says:

        My advisor was incredibly understanding and we decided I’ll take a one-year leave to get settled into a new job (still waiting for interviews!) and to work on getting certification. After that, I’ll work on my dissertation in a slow, part-time manner while staying at whatever wonderful place decides to hire me. Hopefully after a year of growing, Penny will let us get a little more sleep, which would be a great help.

    • simplybike says:

      Also, I’m really sorry to hear about your friend! My condolences!

  5. Annabelle says:

    In the end, I gave up! Sorry! Maybe not what you want to hear.
    I got tired of coming second best on so many occasions I lost count. After the birth of my daughter and a great offer for my husband, I decided to let go… For now, at least. I keep a small toe in by teaching an online course. But I enjoy spending time with my girl and doing something different (like designing Kiddical Mass Ride posters ;-)).
    I look at jobs once in a while, but life may take me somewhere else, and I think I am ok with it.

    • simplybike says:

      Looking forward to those flyers, thanks so much for your help with that! :) And I get what you’re saying, I’m just not quite there yet. We’ll see where these next months/years take me.


  6. Mia says:

    Same here! I finished my dissertation at the end of last year and am looking for a job since a while. And may I add that my boyfriend with whom I wanted to start a family after the PhD just broke up when I was about to hand in. Well, although thing are not pretty, I am not willing to give up.

    • simplybike says:

      Sorry to hear that, Mia! I hope you find something great soon and can start a really wonderful next chapter to your life!


      • Mia says:

        I guess this is the “funny” thing. When I read your blog, I think: wow, this girl has so much good things going on,I wish I was here. But on the other side I really understand how much you can worry about the job hunt.

  7. Bryna says:

    Hey there! A while ago, after seeing a children’s lit professor give a conference talk, I came across his academic blog, and a post about finding a full-time faculty job after time in “adjunctland”: While his situation is unique (and he was ultimately more mobile than you might be), his post has a lot of useful ideas not just about publishing but about self-marketing and, if necessary, rebranding. He was an adjunct for 3 years before he landed his job, and it sounds like it was in something different from his initial doctoral specialization. Hope you find it useful and we’re rooting for you!

    • simplybike says:

      Thanks for the link, Bryna! I will look into this! I’ve definitely been thinking a lot about how to make the most out of my qualifications and my Comp Lit degree (and not just peg myself as a German PhD), so I’m sure this will be a useful read!


  8. Stephanie says:

    I have seen many in this position, and while it’s not my own, I see how difficult it is. I have quite a few friends who have gone the admin route (teaching the occasional course on the side), as it’s often easier to find a job in one’s current location this way rather than the relocation that often goes along with the tenure-track route. They have all found such work to be very satisfying in its own right with many of the things that attracted them to academia in the first place. Good luck! I’m sure you’ll find your way!

  9. Ann Wyse says:

    I always hesitate to post about these things, too. I avoid talking about my career extensively on my blog. But here’s the deal: I spent 12 years to get registered as an architect (got a BA, BArch and eventually, MAUD from Harvard). It’s not a PhD, but I know well how much pressure academia is and how much it hurts to stop doing – or not be able to do – something you love very, very much (and are very, very good at). It’s been 6 years since I was employed fulltime as an architect, although there has been part time and freelance mixed in. Also, my husband is currently a tenure track faculty in biophysics, so I can relate to *that* too.

    Here’s what has really helped me: when you get married and have children, your “advantages” change. Are you familiar with Michael Porter’s book Competitive Advantage? It was standard reading at the business school, and I was really influenced during my years in graduate school. The basic premise is that every business has particular advantages and will be most successful if they recognize and capitalize on those advantages. I think the same concept can – and usually does – apply to marriage.

    As a couple, we had to look at and evaluate our combined strengths. I had to accept that Fritz couldn’t just take a couple of years off – or work part time – and find a tenure track position AND get tenure in science. SLOWLY, slowly, because it was SOOOO frustrating to admit this – I realised that I COULD take time off. (Most architecture career peak relatively late in life; the building and construction industry (unlike science) changes slowly.) I also realised that going full throttle on my own career was going to be much easier once Fritz DID get tenure and once the kids were in school full time. It’s a lot of Ifs, but I think this is part of marriage, it’s part of using what you have in a common-sense manner. It’s about team work and frankly, competitive advantage.

    Maybe if we, as women who have slowed down/paused our careers, talk about it the most professional manner – maybe if we grab some business terminology :-), we’ll start feeling a little better about our decisions. It’s taken me almost 5 years of kid-raising to get to this point: but I’m so happy I’ve made the decisions that I have. I see them in our awesome kids, I see them in Fritz’s career success. They weren’t short term or reactive decisions, even though I didn’t understand this at the time I made them. AND THEY WERE AND STILL ARE REALLY FUCKING HARD DECISIONS. But I wouldn’t change them. And strangely, over the years I’ve become more confident – not less – that I can go back when I want.

    I’m not sure this helps. But I hope it does because I really didn’t even begin to see this until my first son was about 4. And maybe it would have helped me if someone had told me.

    • simplybike says:

      Thanks, Ann, this is really great! I’ve read the few things you’ve written here and there about your career thinking that we were in somewhat similar situations. I’ve been trying to think a lot more along the lines of the competitive advantage and the “we’re doing what’s best for our family unit.” Actually, we’ve been thinking about those things and acting with them in mind all along, but I always heard this little nagging voice in the back of my mind saying, “what about ME?” all this time. I’m trying to quiet that voice and to just focus on all the good.

      And sadly, but honestly, even if we did prioritize my career and decided to do whatever needed to follow my oportunities, it would be a LONG time before I could provide for our family as well as T. does. That’s just the economic reality of having a Humanities PhD vs a Sciences PhD. I often wish I had chosen a more economically sound major but I really love what I do and have always loved what I studied and naively believed that by getting a PhD in it, doors would open at the end of it all and a career would be there awaiting my arrival. Sigh.

      Thanks for the book recommendation, I will definitely look into it!

      • Mia says:

        Well, I have a PhD in science. An yes, if I would want to stay in research I wouldn’t have a problem to find a job. But during my PhD I realized that bench work will never make me happy. So it took me some time to figure out my other options. And I think there are several great jobs out there. Maybe not the ones you initially had in your mind but I guess as soon as you let go of the “expectation” you will find something great. I guess we were just to stuck into academia to realize that there is another world. So what about working for a publishing house for example? What about freelance editing? I think there are more options than you think.

  10. S., your post brought back many frustrating memories of when I was finished and looking for a tenure track job. We were committed to staying in Denver because Nate had just accepted his job and we had just bought a house. I was willing to look around the metro area, hoping that I could find something (even adjunct positions). Not one thing worked out and I decided to try nonprofits for a change of pace. Ultimately, I’m happy with how things turned out. I’m not ruling out academia for the future and I’ve tried to stay connected with people who are in the field. But, I’ve all but stopped publishing and submitting to conferences. I don’t have the time or money to make that happen right now.

    I’m with Ann too. My priorities have shifted with my family. I’m willing to slow down and take a look at a few alternatives. And you know what? My experience in nonprofits has been very helpful in discussing the potential for new courses in the department where I work now. I know that this experience will be an asset some day. For now, I’m increasingly grateful that I have some balance in my life. Once the kids are in school, I may re-prioritize. But, maybe not.

    I’m writing this from five years out, so much of the anxiety and frustration have melted away. I wish you all the best of luck in your journey!

  11. Tanya says:

    I’m not sure I’ve ever commented on your blog, but I’ve been reading for forever. You and I graduated with our PhDs from the same uni, but mine was in history and in 2011. My husband is a local to the area where that uni is, and although he was supportive of my job search, the fact still remained that we had strong ties to the area plus his own career to think about, and all of that caused stress and uncertainty. We couldnt both just start searching at the same time; the hope was that I’d find something where he could, ideally, transfer within his company. But the odds were really, really stacked.

    But I knew from the beginning that I was open to many possibilities. Academia was the dream, but the reality was pretty damning, and we aren’t a couple that can just live long-distance for a year or two. I was very, very fortunate when a local prep school had an opening for a teacher, and it was something I’d had my eye on as an option. I was even more fortunate that I was able to get an interview (secondary school market is glutted, too), and then to get the offer.

    I’m in my second year of teaching at the school and have found its really ideal for me. I just wanted to teach, but I’ve also found community and support and some amazing students who respect me and learn and have fun. And of course, it was amazing that it was here in this city and we didn’t have to move. For me, that was the best outcome. I could have thrived in academia, but I have freedom where I am in many ways, and I’m still doing academic work (encyclopedia entries, a chapter for an anthology, gave a couple of talks a year ago). And overall, I think it’s less stress and more family-friendly for me (we are expecting our first child in early June).

    It’s not a popular choice for those with PhDs, but this route really worked for me. And I love it.

  12. b. says:

    Similar story here. We both finished at the same time, and follow the only job opportunity we had that was in the same country, well, also in the same city. It meant for me a non-tenure track position, and my husband has a tenure track. I feel very unmotivated to do research, I thought I loved teaching as well, but it is fading away. Especially after my daughter was born, my motivation levels are decreasing more rapidly. Now next year, we are going to another country, where I will be unemployed for a year. I am ok with that. Hopefully, one day I will get my dream job! But for now, this teaching job I have is tearing me down in a way that I don’t know what my dream job is anymore. Of course extensive teaching, plus living in a country that I had to learn the language of and begin a new mother – I have a 8 mth old – all contributed to me not knowing what I want. I think one year of down time will do me good!

  13. K says:

    The academic job market can be so depressing! I’m finishing up my dissertation now — I go to your alma mater, but I feel lucky to be in a STEM field, where the prospects are a bit easier. I have a postdoc lined up after this, and I feel grateful to have it. Like Dorie, I am counting on publication output to be my coin, and I’m hoping that I can find a more stable position after my postdoc(s?).

    I feel a little lost personally. My relationship isn’t currently on stable ground and I am not sure if we are going to stay together. Moving for my postdoc will be the decision deadline for us, I suppose.

  14. L says:

    I don’t usually stop to comment, but this post struck such a chord with me as we are in such similiar situations. The only thing missing for my family too is my ideal job and for me to get it means probably moving country as we are in Europe. It is such a huge thing to consider and I swing between feeling selfish about thinking of uprooting my husband and baby (just a few months younger than yours) and knowing that I won’t be happy if I never get to do what I am good at. Last week I was all for leaving, this week I think I need to stop putting me first – it is so hard, isn’t it? I have no real advice to offer I’m afraid, but the comment above about remaining productive is great. Have you heard of MOOCs? Perhaps you could think about developing and delivering a course online to help prove your committment to academia? Good luck figuring everything out!

  15. Karen says:

    I’ve been reading these comments with interest as this has been my first year on the job market – I’m defending this summer. To nobody’s surprise, this year was far from being successful for me – not a single ‘peep’ from any of the positions (or post-docs) I applied to, except in rejection form.

    I’ve been scrambling for other options for next year and hoping to land some different adjuncting opportunities (a few are likely possible) while working hard to publish and get my name out there. An interesting development on our end has been the fact that my husband (on the TT in the area where we live – not where I am completing my PhD, incidentally) is interviewing for a different TT position. He won’t go if they don’t have a spousal hire for me so I may be able to piggy-back on his success.

    A couple of things I have learned over the past year, which have been both helpful (for my future) and insightful regarding things I can’t do anything about:
    – leaving your home institution puts you at a disadvantage. I haven’t been able to schedule practice job talks, see job talks, see seminars, or talk to people in my department/field about my research on a very regular basis for the past 2 years.
    – networking is as key for academic positions as it is for the kind of professional positions I had before coming back to grad school. Not because you’ll get a job necessarily, but because people in the field get to know you and your work – and keep you in mind when things like last-minute lectureships come up, or know who you are when you submit an application for something. At a recent conference I saw in action how helpful being friendly and talkative is – - one of my good friends, who just got a GREAT TT job while still ABD, was chatting with everyone and they all knew him. It was amazing. And I am sure it helped him this past year.
    – priorities definitely change. My husband and I lived apart for 5 years when he was first on the TT and I was starting grad school, but now that we have a small child there is NO WAY we are doing that again. It means I’ve applied to a more limited pool of positions, but like many others here have written, there’s only so much I am willing to do to sacrifice things. And yes, I’m definitely the one who is sacrificing more right now in terms of my career, but mostly because writing up my dissertation while teaching and raising a small child means I’ve been unable to get away for conferences and other good opportunities (no money for it either without a professional development fund!)
    – I came into grad school because of the question I wanted to ask, not because I knew I wanted to be an academic. I’ve been socialized into academia over the past several years and definitely want that elusive TT position more than I initially did, but I’m still open to other options. I just sent in an application today for a local position doing the kind of research I love for a non-profit, actually. I have no idea whether I’ll even be considered, but I keep on reminding myself on a regular basis that there are multiple options where I can use my skills and continue to be stimulated intellectually and otherwise.

  16. DP says:

    Hi S! I just wanted to chime in with a “don’t give up hope” story. When I was finishing my Ph.D. I turned down a competitive fellowship in favor of an “off-track” job in academic publishing. I did this both for personal reasons (my family needed a change of pace and my partner wanted to go back to school; with a then-nine-month-old, we wanted good health insurance and a steady salary; we wanted to stay home with her through her toddlerhood and were able to split our schedules so we could do that) and for professional reasons (I thought it just might be possible that I liked academic publishing better than teaching). Everyone figured I was done; my advisor simply encouraged me to finish up the diss “just because” and really stopped putting pressure on me to chase the elusive TT dream. After about a year on the job–in which I legitimately took a break from all the pressures of TT job searching/soul-crushing stress of being ABD, and instead enjoyed more time with my family, work I could leave “at work” and a peacefulness from not having an adviser/institution breathing down my neck–WE decided, as a family, that I would take a turn on the job market. It felt good because it was OUR decision, made consciously, and there was really no pressure: it was a, “this could be fun! let’s see what happens” situation. (And I realize, believe me, that that was a luxury.) Things changed, but not too much: like another commenter mentioned, I knew that publications were the “gold coins” of academia and so I worked hard to get out one really strong publication in a top competitive journal. I also took advantage of my publishing connections and worked with a grad school colleague (already on the TT) to get a book contract. I finished the diss and defended. And then I spent a LOT of time on my letters and materials. But, I kept my priorities–as I understood them–straight. I went to bed with my daughter at 7:30 p.m. every night (my partner had night classes) and got up at 4:30 each morning to work for 3-4 hours before I came home to watch her for my “shift.” Then I would go back to work from 12-6 at my job. It could have been a brutal schedule, but again — it was in accordance with what our family wanted and needed, and so it felt — dare I say it? — heroic, right, good, useful, WORTH IT. And we were lucky: I scored a TT job in a wonderful location, where I am now, and where we still largely care for our daughter at home, thanks to a supportive department and my partner’s still-flexible schedule (this will change soon — she’ll be starting school!)

    However, the moral of my story is not that I got a TT job. The moral of my story is that I learned that it is possible–with sacrifices and occasional heartbreak–for academic and personal priorities to align and for you to be able to hold tight to what you value. The two years I took “off” going another route were invaluable to us as a family: we learned to live with much less, but to enjoy life so much more, and we also learned that we could survive even if we didn’t land those competitive dangling carrots that everyone had been saying for the past six years of graduate school were the only thing worth valuing in life. We learned that it is okay to say no to professional opportunities in favor of health insurance or the ability to eat dinner together every night. We learned to be true to our own path, and in relaxing my grip on all this stuff–and it is just stuff, ultimately–something did work out that was best for OUR family.

    This time spent wandering is such, such a good thing and so precious. Taking time “off” totally changed our lives, and I am so much happier–and so much less defined by my job–because of it. Don’t give up hope. Keep looking for open doors. You and your beautiful family will find the path that’s best, not one that is prescribed. Pursue your passion! (And keep up this wonderful blog… :) ) Good luck….

    • simplybike says:

      Hi DP,

      Thanks so much for this! It’s always really good to hear that there are more ways than one to achieving one’s goals. And congrats on the TT job while also making family a priority!


  17. Carrie says:

    I’d like to share my story for any young graduate students who are reading and are even remotely considering leaving academia:
    I was in the same graduate program with Sandra. I ended up leaving the program after 3 years. It was scary at the time, as I had no assurance that my “back up plan” would pan out. Now, almost 5 years later (and 4 years into life as an actuary), I can without a doubt say that was one of the best decisions I ever made.
    Certainly, the compensation made it worth it (it took only two months at starting actuary salary to make up for the 6 months without my graduate student stipend), but I also found a career that was, dare I say it, even more intellectually engaging than the one I had left. Part of that is due to it just being a better fit for me personally, but it is also a job that champions thought leadership. In my job, in addition to producing reports for clients, we are also expected to do research, publish papers and deliver them at conferences. Yes, there is a business model behind it (cultivating an expertise in an area brings in more projects and builds a brand), but academia isn’t the only field where you can research and write.
    The other benefit to my leaving academia is that my husband was also in a long graduate program. Granted, as an MD/PhD, his employability was a lot more certain, but I knew that when it came time for residency, I wanted him to be able to attend the best program for him and not be limited by the few positions in obscure locations I might be able to find. As it turned out, we ended up making a residency choice based on what would also be very beneficial for my career. We both are very, very happy that we were able to optimize the outcome to something that would be very good for each of us. It’s probably not the choice either one of us would have made as individuals, but that’s not a bad thing; it makes it more exciting – part of a new adventure we’re creating together. Making decisions together as a married couple – and specifically developing two careers – is very tough, regardless of if one or both or neither is in academia.
    And a final anecdote, if anyone needs that final push to get out of academia: I was recently looking up faculty salaries at a prestigious public university in the US (I was trying to get a sense of what academic endocrinologists earn). I recalled that one of the great success stories to come out of the program that Sandra and I attended had, a decade ago, landed a tenure-track position at this university. I decided to look up this academic’s salary and I discovered that after 4 years at my job (and I’m not even credentialed yet), I already earn more.
    If you are committed to the academic path, I sincerely with you the best of luck.
    But if you are not independently wealthy, and are considering anything outside of academia, I strongly encourage you to pursue that other path.

    • simplybike says:

      Thanks, Carrie, so many excellent points! You don’t even know how many times T. and I have thought of you and mentioned how we think you were smart to do what you did! I don’t know that actuarial work speaks to me but I wish it did because I am certain that it’s a much secure and financially rewarding career! And I think it’s great that you got out when you did and didn’t “waste” years at a degree that wasn’t the right fit for you only to make the switch you made much later. I wish I had another calling like you had, but I really enjoyed our program and didn’t have anything else appealing to me and luring me away from it. So now I need to figure out where to go from here with the background and credentials I have.

      Good luck to you and B. at your new location! I think you’re off to San Francisco, which sounds amazing!


      • Carrie says:

        I know I am “lucky” in that I had an ability and interest in math to turn to, but there a lot of stimulating careers out there that at first don’t seem very interesting.

        For example, I know a woman in St Louis, about 15 years old than myself, who works in commercial real estate (specializing medical and doctor offices). I knew her as a well-dressed, well-spoken mama to a 5-year-old boy. One evening over some wine, I came to find out that she had a PhD in English lit and after 4 straight years of piecing together lectureships in the quest for a TT job, said enough and got out.

        I don’t think there is anyone who wakes up one day and says “I am passionate about commercial real estate!” or “I would love to analyse a company’s asbestos liabilities!”, but once you start the work, you realize that there is a lot more nuance than expected and quite a lot to dig into. Sometimes it’s just hard to see what else is out there, until you actually start doing it.

        It’s funny, I think I’ve actually become more open-minded since leaving graduate school. I don’t rule out the possibility of re-inventing myself again and doing something totally new in 10 years!

        Yes, we are off to San Francisco! Just waiting to talk to my boss (he’s been out for the past week) before making it “facebook official”!

  18. DM says:

    Hi Sandra. Here’s an article that might interest you and others:

    It’s about a conference at Berkeley called “Beyond Academia.” It helps to see that you are not alone!

    I am a prof. in the humanities on the tenure-track and have some experience with these issues, both my own and those of my students. If you want to talk, feel free to email me. Best of luck to you.

    • simplybike says:

      Thanks so much, DM! I will check out the link and be in touch!


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  19. Bridgett says:

    Your post expressed many of my own feelings when I graduated with my PhD in French and francophone literature 15 years ago and couldn’t secure a good job in a university. So much self doubt and frustration. The story has a happy ending though. I discovered the wonderful world of independent schools and have worked as a teacher, dept head, and now teacher and administrator in an amazing independent high school for many years. The work is challenging, the students are bright and motivated, and it pays well. Many of my colleahues have Phds and the course electives list would make you think you were in a small, liberal arts college. I encourae you to find out more about the private high schools in your area. NAIS is the National Association of Independent Schools. It’s a wonderful career path if you love teachng. Bestof luck!

  20. Patty says:

    What a great post! Let me reassure you there is life beyond the PhD and the tenure track. I completed my PhD 12 years ago and went directly into an administrative job that has led to bigger and better things for me in academia and I still get to do all the things I love–teaching, reading, research but do them in an administrative post (no grading is great for me). While I was climbing the ladder with two babies, my husband was finishing his PhD and staying home with them and teaching part-time. We made it work, knowing that in the long run, we would find a good fit for both of us. So, don’t give up. An administrative job is a wonderful option for you and the fact that you are open to it–keeping looking out for it, networking, putting yourself out there and something will come to you. My spouse and I spent several years kind of “making it work” part-time for him until we were both able to find great jobs on the same campus. Check out the Versatile PhD website for other ideas, ways to market yourself, etc. And my article I published many years ago above moving off the TT route can be found at The Chronicle website. Email me if you want more info! Meanwhile, keep looking and trust that it will work out in the long run, even if you can’t see the path directly in front of you.

    • simplybike says:

      Thanks so much, Patty! VersatilePhD is a great website, I check in there often. I’m actually really eager to hear about this one admin job I applied to that would be a great fit for me. I’m definitely open to different routes, hopefully something good will come along soon. I will look up your Chronicle article!


  21. Chrissy says:

    I’ve had this post bookmarked for when I had time to sit and read all the comments. I’m glad I did!

    I’ve got a year left in my graduate program, and then I will have an MFA in creative writing, which is considered the terminal degree – IE, I am eligible for tenure track positions once I graduate. I’m a teaching assistant now, and have gotten a lot of experience both co-teaching, and teaching entirely independently, and I have to say – I’ve loved it. I’d love to get a position teaching creative writing when I graduate, but as with any humanities degree, the pickings are slim. The added trouble MFAs have is that you often need the degree AND a published book to get a job, and I’m still a long way off from that. I highly doubt I’ll get a teaching job right out of school, if ever, and so I’m already thinking of backup plans.

    But then I remind myself that while I love teaching, what I really love is writing, and that my ultimate goal is to write and publish books, and that anything I can do in the meantime to support myself while still leaving time to write should be acceptable. So maybe I’ll fall back on my MLS and be a librarian again. I liked being a librarian, even if I wasn’t wildly passionate about it, and I made decent money (more than some of the tenure track professors, which just seems criminal!).

    I can’t imagine having a partner who is also in academia, or a child to think about. One of the reasons Nathan decided to become a paramedic was because it’s a more flexible career – there are ambulances everywhere, so it’s mostly me and my career needs we have to worry about. And worry I do! I’m good at being broke, but it would be nice to own a house one day, or just pay the bills every month without sinking further into debt.

    Anyway, this comment is long and not at all helpful, but I wanted to share my thoughts and thank you for opening up the discussion. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone, and good to hear the kinds of things I might expect in the future. xo

  22. Rita says:

    I’m a bit late in the game to comment but I had to come and say you’re not alone! Since moving to New Zealand a year ago I had to come to terms with the reality that the niche I found/created for myself back in England doesn’t exist here. When I was about to finish my thesis and the reality of having to get a job sunk in, I only bothered with a couple of academic options. It quickly became evident that it was not worth it. There’s no research group here on my field, no available teaching positions in my area and I couldn’t afford to spend a year or two networking to make it happen. The sad of it is that I love my research field and know there’s still so much to do in it, and also, I absolutely love teaching. It hurts a little to think that my career is not going in that direction… On the plus side, I found myself a job in public administration that involves all sorts of tasks that I absolutely love. So, while I mourne my academic dream, it has helped to realize that, actually, the person I am today is pretty happy to work outside academia. And who knows? Maybe one day I can make it happen again… In the meantime, democracy advisor at the biggest council in the pacific it is!

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