On the Post-Academic Life

My uncle-in-law sent me a link to this article yesterday: The Repurposed PhD: Finding Life after Academia–and Not Feeling Bad About It. He has a PhD in Ethics from Yale and is working in the Virginia court system. Being PhDs outside of academia is one of the big things that we have in common.

It’s an interesting article, but it misses some important points and fails to connect some dots that it does bring up.

I think its biggest weakness is that it misses the central connection between academic shame and the adjuncting system.

Within the last several years, academia has increasingly moved to a heavy use of poorly paid adjuncts in order to keep the costs lower, and I have friends who graduated with me who try to survive by cobbling together a variety of courses at multiple schools. Some of them are on food stamps because they simply can’t make ends meet. What’s amazing to me is that they’re willing to do it! It’s a fundamentally exploitative system but it can only work because there’s so much pressure and shame around having an academic career. I got that message quite clearly from my department: a PhD without a tenure-track position is a failure.

Period pieces sometimes give a picture of cash-poor aristocrats who, although on the verge of starvation, wouldn’t consider taking employment below their proper station; academics seem to be their modern counterpart… For my part, I remember one point where I was near the end of completing my dissertation. I was adjuncting at my university while also working as an IT consultant. I had just arrived at the office from teaching my 8 AM class and was contemplating my life. It hit me suddenly that what the university was paying me for a full semester of teaching my own class—from writing the syllabus, doing all the research, all the teaching, all the grading, etc.—was equivalent to what I made in IT in two weeks… I am a scholar—but I’m a father and a husband first and when push comes to shove, I’ve got to support M and the girls. Academic dignity is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t keep you fed.

However, the adjuncting system can work because that notion of academic dignity is still firmly entrenched in programs of formation. No one in my department said it; my advisor clearly understood my situation—and yet it was in the water. Nobody said it—but nobody had to, either. If you didn’t follow an academic career then you were wasting all of the time and effort put into it. No one who has gone through that wants to waste it, and adjuncting positions get dangled like bait. The hope is always out there—if you do a good job as an adjunct, of course we’ll notice that and transition you to a tenure-track position. Why, just next year one might open up…!  In the vast majority of cases it’s a false hope.

Hand in hand with the connection between shame and adjuncting is the cost factor of a doctorate. A PhD is costly. And I mean that in a whole host of ways. It requires a huge emotional investment to get through the rigors of the process: at least two grueling years of coursework, then the horror of exams before you get to the proposal and dissertation stage.  In order to get through all of that and to put up with it, you have to form an image of your academic self. You put yourself through this pain and poverty because it’s who you are! To go through that process, to form that mental image of yourself, and then to consider doing something else—anything else—with your career and life is confront the reality of that image and to call into question the worth of the effort and therefore your own identity. And, some—I’m convinced—remain in the vicious circle of adjuncting because they are unwilling or unable to confront or deconstruct their own image of that academic self.

In doing a doctorate, you’re sacrificing quite a lot particularly in terms of time. Academics must delay certain things in order to focus and get their work done and that frequently includes serious relationships and having children (in addition to gainful employment). And that’s one of the places where we come out behind… My girls’ friends parents tend to have at least a good ten years of earnings behind them that we simply don’t have.

They were working while we were schooling.

Given the time-value of money, this is a cost that we will never get back.

Because of the costs—emotional, financial, familial—at what point do you decide that you’ve invested too much to be able to change course? There are some who hang on to the tenure-track dream because it’s the only visible return on investment. PhDs are chiefly valued within academia; outside of it, most folks don’t care. If anything, the credential makes you appear more expensive to a prospective employer with little benefit if it isn’t directly connected to the work at hand.

I sometimes have relatives and friends who ask me if I’m looking for a teaching job or who point out open positions to me. I’ve even had a bishop do it. And while I’m grateful to them, it’s more complicated than that.

At this point in my life, I’m okay with who I am and where I’m at. In the few years that I did send out applications to schools, I intentionally limited my inquiries to a few religious liberal arts schools and seminaries. I have no interest in teaching general religion courses outside of a confessional context.  I’ve always said that my purpose in earning a PhD was to be a doctor for the church. And I’m doing that. With my writing and my work on church bodies, I’m applying my learning in that way that I intended. While I certainly wouldn’t mind teaching in an Episcopal seminary, it’s an open question whether I’d be a viable candidate.

The issue isn’t with the quality of my PhD, it’s the time in between. I didn’t do the rat race. I didn’t cobble together adjuncting assignments. I didn’t maintain the expected commitment to the discipline. I haven’t been reading, writing and publishing in the proper venues. It’s all well and good that I’m okay with all of that—how about the professors on the search committee? Are they okay with that? Or do they want to see someone who traveled their own path as their next colleague?

I haven’t talked to anybody about this, but my own sense of things is that the more time that elapses between my PhD and getting a position, the lower the probability of getting one drops. I’d guess its around .5% right now…

And so I write.

I’m a husband and a father. And I’m a scholar too. And in that order. I am an academic—that’s just the way I’m wired. But I don’t need a position in academia to validate that.  It’s enough to just be me.

9 thoughts on “On the Post-Academic Life

  1. Greg Tallant

    This strikes me as deeply true. The exploitative nature of the adjunct system is crystal clear to me, and I have little connection to the academic eco-system.

  2. Barbara (bls)

    What an awful system! Very sad that people who work so hard end up having such a hard time making a living.

    But personally, I’m glad you’re not in the academy, and instead writing as a layman and an ordinary – though highly educated! – person of faith. I think it might be different if you had to publish-or-perish in some more “objectively” acceptable way – outside of that “confessional context” you’re speaking of.

    In any case, you’re extremely valuable as “a doctor of the church,” in my opinion. You’re an excellent teacher – and your work directly reaches and speaks to many more people in the church than would be the case if you published in academic journals, I think.

    And of course, St. Bede’s Breviary followed naturally and immediately from of your IT background – so I think you’ve done everything exactly right!

  3. Stephen Shaver

    This rings true for me too, and I think you’re right to stay grounded in your own sense of calling rather than letting the academic culture dictate one for you. I love academic work; I love the learning; and I want to put my own Ph.D. to good use for the worshiping life of the church. That could mean being a parish priest who writes sometimes and serves on liturgical commissions; it could mean being a seminary professor or a cathedral staff member or all kinds of things. But chasing tenure-track positions around the country sounds like a losing proposition, and–like you–I don’t feel a calling to teach outside the context of the church.

    The church will always need good scholarship. When I was thinking of applying to doctoral programs, Louis Weil gave me very good advice: “Don’t do a Ph.D. unless you have a hunger for the learning. It can’t be about what you’ll do with it, because that’s increasingly uncertain. But if the work itself is what you crave, God will find a use for it; nothing’s wasted in God’s economy.”

  4. Jon

    It strikes me that there is a dreadful similarity between the academic world you describe and the ordination process and clergy work in the church. Although I suppose approval in the ordination process is less grounded in objective reality, and clergy feel worse about folks not being able to get a living than university administrators.

  5. aredstatemystic

    When I went through some recent life changes that included paring down my life to focus on my writing, a friend of mine said, “Andy, you’ve got to save your soul.” I think that’s absolutely true. Why go through some Kafka-esque process to please a group of people who don’t know what pleases them? I, too, have never been a hoop-jumper/rat-race-runner/bullshit-putter-upper and I’ve paid the price for it in several different circles.

    I still have my soul, though. Luckily, it is the only thing needed to write and write well. Everything else is negotiable. Life is too short to try to care about anything else.

    Prayers, my friend. Even though we’ve never met, your writing and the Breviary has been an incredible help to me. Keep it up. Save your soul and, maybe, you’ll end up save mine in the process.

  6. Michelle Ziegler

    Ah Derek, I know how you feel with my second MS. My family keep asking me why I haven’t got a job with it, to make it pay for money. I write and do my own thing with it, and that is enough for now.

  7. Isaac Goldstein

    Well I’m in the second year of my PhD in linguistics and I’m in a rather privileged position. My partner makes enough money for both of us, so if I don’t get an academic job right away, I don’t have to worry about finances. However I truly sympathize for those stuck in adjunct limbo. The American university system is simply broken. Not only that, it’s becoming more and more of a scam everyday.

  8. Pastor Jay Denne

    The entire post-secondary educational culture is on the brink of a major upheaval due to stories like yours. For years, law schools have been churning out more grads than the marker can withstand. Seminarians graduate with a mountain of debt, and our post-Christendom parishes cannot pay them enough so that they can pay off the debt in a reasonable time. The list could go on and on.

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