Exit Strategy Parameters

A Post-Academic in NYC has a great recent post debunking the advice, often given to academics contemplating jobs like mine at Small, Rural Christian College, that they can “just quit” if it doesn’t work out. (Also check out JC, who identifies this as a mark of privilege. I agree, though I also suspect that the supervisors who give this advice can’t conceive of quitting as career-changing. They assume you take the not-fabulous academic job, which you “just quit” when you’ve published your way to a less unfabulous academic job, etc.–never mind that that’s an increasingly implausible career path for most academics in this job market.)  In any event, it’s very true that I can’t just up and quit my job. Sure, I’ve often contemplated packing up the car and fleeing under cover of night. But I’m a grown-up in the real world, and part of that means being responsible about finances, among other things. No cutting and running until I have a new plan in place.

So here in the real world where one needs an exit strategy that takes time, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of priorities I want to set for myself in this next major life change. As I mentioned in my last post, most of my past decisions about things like where to live and what to do for income have been primarily motivated by a desire to achieve English professordom while incurring a minimal amount of debt. Well, mission accomplished, for what it’s worth. The plan worked, but it turns out that achieving some form of the academic dream does not make up for dissatisfaction in other areas of life. And I’m sure my priorities have also changed, as they’re wont to do between one’s early 20s and early 30s.

But if the plan for my adult life thus far has been predicated around achieving a career goal that it now turns out I don’t particularly find worth the sacrifices in other areas of life, then the new plan needs to be based on different premises, I think. No longer do I have a framework to narrow my options. I could choose to move anywhere and do anything. The world is my oyster.

I’m a big fan of personal choice. In terms of theological background, I’m more or less an Arminian (formerly a good one, currently not a particularly orthodox anything); I can’t make any sense of the world otherwise and don’t think I could remain on any sort of speaking terms with God if I had to believe God was predestining everything that happens to everyone. I get irritated with Christians who use “the will of God” as some kind of way to excuse whatever they decide to do, without taking ownership of their actions. In a similar vein, the idea of fate or destiny also leaves me cold. I’m big on making decisions and taking responsibility for them.

Nevertheless, I’m far more susceptible than I want to be to thinking patterns that would reduce my agency. Back when that one MA school gave me a fellowship, it was hard not to see it as some kind of sign that I was “supposed” to go there. Same with the PhD school, when I visited and everything just seemed to click. Then, on the brink of having to find something else to do with my life, I was offered this job. God? Fate? Or just a series of coincidences that I’ve given my own interpretive spin, despite all my protesting that I don’t believe in fate or in a God who messes around in things like my job while meanwhile, people all over the world are going hungry.

Academia has a different spin on the limiting choices thing: more of a utilitarian sacrificing for the alleged greater good framework than some kind of fatalism. In the academic world, staying in academia is the holy grail, and it’s assumed that you’ll sacrifice everything else for that goal. Faculty in my grad department openly mocked students who chose to prioritize living in Grad School City (despite the fact that it’s a great place to live, despite the fact that many of these students had partners with jobs there and children in schools there). The explicit message was to apply for everything, take anything you’re offered, and then publish your way out to the next thing you’re offered, etc. And if you’re not ready to sacrifice everything else to this, then clearly you’re not cut out for the game. All the faculty in the department with trans-continental marriages were held up as people who had their priorities straight.

So here I am, a product of academic goals and a series of coincidences that have seemed to guide the specific execution of those academic goals. And now I’m planning to do something else. Somewhere else. It’s not in the least clear to me right now what I want to do and where I want to do it. Do I prioritize place or job? How close do I want to be to family? How narrowly do I want to focus on place or on job: a particular city or two? A particular type of place? A particular field to work in? Particular working conditions? Provisionally, I think I want to prioritize place and have narrowed things down to three cities that I’d most be interested in moving to–all places where I already have family or close friends. I also think I’d like to find a job that would involve organizing and analyzing information of some sort, but I have little idea what form that might take (not to mention whether it’s possible to do that in “the real world” without a quantitative background).

Even as I begin to make those assertions, though, I find my old habits rearing their heads. Somehow I’ve become so indoctrinated by the idea that teaching is this noble work of service (this comes on one hand from the impetus by humanists everywhere to assert our own importance in the world–and I do believe very strongly in the importance of the humanities; on another hand it’s embedded in the Christian SLAC attitude, and in my own particular self-identification as a black sheep within that world, bringing the light of liberalism to the evangelicals or some such thing), that the thought of choosing to live where I want to live, just because I like it there, choosing to do a job that I don’t hate and that funds the rest of my life, regardless of whether or not it’s making a difference in the world–all of that seems a little selfish. Maybe I just think I want that because I’m reacting against the choices I’ve made thus far. Or maybe reacting is exactly what I should do, considering that the choices I’ve made thus far have not exactly made me happy.

In any event, I’ve clearly got a lot of head-straightening-out to do as I start to think about priorities, not to mention lots of career research. At the same time, it’s pretty exciting–though also really intimidating–to feel the world open up before me.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Exit Strategy Parameters

  1. Hugh

    Hi, Emily. I’m glad to have discovered your blog. In many ways I am in a similar situation to yours. I took a job at a small rural Catholic college several years ago. Apart from the fact that I was desperate at that point to take any tenure-track position, I thought I would be comfortable enough at such a place. A few years on, I find that even though I always considered myself rather conservative, I am far more liberal than any of my co-workers. This is really a quite narrowly dogmatic place, and I often have to conceal my real views about a variety of matters, often feeling, just as you, like a hypocrite. And of course the isolation of being in a small town with a monoculture, two hours away from the nearest city and research library, is getting to be too much to handle.
    I agree that having a good exit strategy is crucial. In my case, with a wife and children depending upon my salary, cutting and running is not at all an option. I have begun exploring options over the last few months, but I am realizing that I will have to most likely commit myself to another year (and another long, cold winter) at my current institution or risk being without an income and — most crucially for my family — health insurance. It is exciting, though, to be beginning to consider possibilities that would never have crossed my mind while in grad school. I wish you the best in your decisions for the future, and I look forward to reading more.

    • I’m finding that one of the best parts of this process is the growing realization that there are lots of us in this position. It’s hard and scary and exciting all at once, but whichever of those predominate at any particular time, it’s so nice to know we’re not alone. And yes, it does sound like you and I are in remarkably similar situations. I suspected there had to be others out there like me: those of us who landed in jobs like this not only because of desperation but also because of a belief, ultimately disappointed, that we’d fit better than we ended up doing.

      Best of luck as you start to explore your options! I’m hoping that the ability to think of this next year as the last year I do this, coupled with the exploration of new possibilities, will be sustaining in the difficult moments. Hopefully the same will be true for you, and you’ll be able to find a next chapter that works well for your whole family. (I’m certainly mindful of the fact that I have some freedoms as a single person without children, and I don’t envy how much harder it would be to have people dependent upon my decisiions about my career. Though on the other hand, a spouse and chidren would presumably be good support and allies in an otherwise difficult community, whereas I don’t have a likeminded friend within 600 miles. So perhaps, like most things, it’s a tradeoff.)

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