Tag Archives: exit strategy

Still here! Now with a new, improved life plan!

Apologies for the blog neglect! I’ve been doing a lot of traveling during the past two months, and while this has been tremendously necessary, both as an escape from this small town and as an aid to thinking about future plans, it has meant that I’ve been rather disconnected.

(As an aside, travel flexibility is the thing I will miss most about academia when I leave it. I fantasize about the 8-5 world of leaving work at work and actually being able to have weekends, but on the other hand, as someone who just put 7000 miles on her car in a month and a half of trans-continental gallivanting, I’m not quite sure what I’d do with only two weeks of vacation a year. It’s almost enough to make me consider teaching high school, but I may have abandoned that plan when I couldn’t get through an entire high school job ad without wanting to vomit at the jargon.)

At the beginning of the summer, I was feeling overwhelmed by my options–so much so that I almost had what we might call an academia relapse. Might it make sense to try hard to publish more things this year and then give the academic job market one more serious, selective go before I give up? This is the job I already know how to do, and hey, it’s a job I like a lot, if not love with the kind of overwhelming passion that cancels out all other life considerations. Wouldn’t it be great, then, if I could land a job much like the one I have now, except in a place I want to live, and without the zealous evangelicals? The seductive lure of the fantastic combined with the familiar.

It didn’t help that I went to a conference early in the summer and had a great experience, as usual. Conferences are wonderful, and because they are, they’re a horrible thing for someone in my position to attend. Who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend catching up with old friends, drinking a lot, and having conversation about topics that only you and these other 100 people–among all the people in the world–are truly passionate about? Wouldn’t I miss all of this if I left academia?

Then the reality check, of course. I know that the odds of getting that academic job in a more congenial place, sans zealous evangelicals, are miniscule. To raise them even a little bit I need, at minimum, a couple more articles and a book contract–none of which I am in a position just to bang out in the next couple of months before the hiring season starts, especially since a) I’m two hours from the nearest research library and have shit electronic resource access at my current institution, and b) writing that conference paper–the first research writing I’d done in six months–wasn’t exactly great fun. With research I tend to teeter on the edge between finding my work the coolest thing ever and finding it the height of absurdity. Usually, the further into writing something I get, the more the absurdity wins out. Giving academia one more try just seemed destined to pile on the absurdity and the misery, and dammit, haven’t I learned that lesson?

Meanwhile, I was also making trips to each of the three cities topping my “places I’ll move when I quit academia and prioritize location” list, and I was glad I got to visit with that specifically in mind. To make a long story short, city #3 fell in my estimation, city #2 stayed a solid second, and someplace I could probably be quite happy, except that city #1 really is my One True Place, and since the moment I saw it on the horizon as I drove into town a few weeks ago, I’ve been unable to think of anything but when and how I’ll move there.

There are some advantages and disadvantages, from a “what will I do when I get there?” sense. I have relatives I could crash with temporarily, should such a thing be necessary (hopefully only for interviews, but it’s nice to have the safety net of people who are genetically obligated to take you in for a few weeks so you don’t have to sleep in your car). I have one very good networking contact there, and another fairly good one, but their contacts are in the city’s dominant industry, which is something I’m not sure I could ethically be involved in. How big of an idiot would I be to move to a city and refuse to work for the city’s (indeed, the state’s) biggest group of employers, the industry where I have at least some contacts? And yet, it really is something I don’t think I could do. There are other options, of course–the city isn’t huge, but it’s not a one-trick town, either–but I suspect that in general my options will be far fewer than if I decided to go to city #2, for instance. Still, city #1 has been pulling on my heart since I was a child (I’ve never lived there but have visited regularly all my life).

So there’s a plan! I have a place, and it’s a place that’s moving on me strongly enough that I think I’d be foolish not to get there as quickly as possible (which, practically speaking, is still next summer). Obviously there is still a lot of unknown, but I feel like I’ve taken a concrete first step, at least mentally, to narrow my options in a productive way.

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A History of Decision-Making

I didn’t mean to be neglectful of this blog when it’s so new, but I’m in the midst of grading season. Is there anything so depressing as grading undergraduate essays? My problem, too, is that no matter how hard I try, I always care too much, so I spend way too much time trying to explain how to fix what’s wrong, etc.–even though the students are unlikely even to read the comments, much less try to incorporate suggestions into future work. I’m sure there are aspects of non-academic jobs that are similarly demoralizing and soul-sucking, but from where I sit, grading my last paper will be one of the biggest things to look forward to as this leaving academia thing moves forward.

Speaking of which, I’ve been thinking about priorities lately. In pretty much every past decision about where to live and what to do, I have primarily prioritized career and money (mostly saving it rather than making it). I did my BA at the college where my dad taught, so I got free tuition; otherwise, I would have gone elsewhere, but how do you say no to a free ride? It was an easy choice–almost a non-choice. Then I decided I wanted to be a professor, and exactly one of the institutions I applied to for an MA gave me a fellowship, so off I went to that institution. I switched institutions for the PhD, and that ended up being something more of a choice between three possibilities with fairly equivalent financial packages, but I chose the one that was the best fit for my academic interests. Then when I applied for jobs last year, I was offered this one and only this one, so I took it; I needed a job, after all.

At no time did I prioritize a particular type of place, proximity to family and friends, or anything like that. It didn’t seem necessary. I’m no homebody, and I enjoy a lot of different types of environments, climates, and regional cultures. Until this last move, I never had trouble making close friends in my new homes. I’m single, so I’ve not had to accommodate a partner’s career and/or preferences. I don’t have children, so I haven’t had to worry about schools or grandparents or uprooting anyone from friends and familiar places. In many ways, I’m the dream academic for this job climate, with what was, at least, a pretty genuine willingness and ability to move anywhere and try anything for the job.

Of course, all this is underpinned by the first decision: the initial desire to be an English professor. Around the time I learned to read texts on multiple levels and write critical essays about them (the latter part of high school), I felt like the whole world had opened up. I’d always loved to read, and this was reading but better! And I quickly figured out that I could major in this, and then go to grad school, and then I’d be a professor when I could read stuff and critically analyze it ALL THE TIME!!!! I could quite imagine nothing else in life that might compare. And you know, sometimes I still feel that way. Teaching To the Lighthouse is pretty much the best thing ever. From the time I was about sixteen until I was thirty, there was really no question that being an English professor was all I wanted to do, and all my decisions were focused around doing that as well and prudently as possible.

Well. Somewhere around the end of the PhD, and especially after those two years on the job market, the dream was fizzling. I was tired. My research seemed pointless. For every student who fell in love with Virginia Woolf, there were 30 others who whined and complained, and then the good students wanted to go to grad school to become English professors, which I could only see as a disastrous life choice (do as I say and not as I do). I’d worked so hard to be able to do this, and still really wanted to in some ways, but in other ways I was beginning to realize that a whole career of the demoralizing academic grind was a miserable prospect. But I got a job anyway, so I took it.

It’s not worth it. I’m terribly lonely, I’m at ideologically at odds with my institution, and the moments when everything clicks in the classroom don’t begin to make up for the piles of awful essays, or the students who come to complain that Jesus doesn’t want them to read books that contain foul language, or the fact that it’s really hard to get research done at a teaching-heavy institution two hours away from the nearest research library (the research, though, only being necessary for career advancement, since I still mostly think my research is pointless). Some of this would be better at a non-Christian institution, but a lot of it wouldn’t be, and the thought of focusing on everything I’d need to focus on for the next year or two to go on the academic job market again, where I might be fortunate enough to get a different job in another town I don’t want to live in, with different (and yet the same) piles of essays to grade, where I will continue to have to churn out articles that no one will read–no. I can’t do it. Besides,To the Lighthouse will always be there, no matter what my day job is.

But as I find myself at this juncture, I realize the factors influencing the next decision–where to live, what kind of job to look for, whether I want to prioritize the job or the location, etc.–are very likely going to be entirely different than those influencing my past decisions in this line. In the past couple of years, it’s been increasingly clear that what is important to 30-something me doesn’t necessarily line up with what was important to 20-something me. So how do I figure out how to make the decisions for the next phase? Well, I’m still working on that one…

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Introduction: One Year Later

Last March I interviewed for, was offered, and accepted this job: Assistant Professor of English, Anonymous Small, Rural Christian College. March is late in the academic job season, and this was the last possibility on my plate. I’d already decided that I couldn’t handle another year of adjuncting and that I was too restless in the city where I was living. It was time for a change, so either I lived the academic dream at ASRCC, or I went…somewhere else to do something else. Plan B was not entirely nebulous, but it definitely involved crashing on someone’s couch.

So after spending eight years in grad school because I wanted to be an English professor, doing two years of job market trauma, and reaching the end of my adjuncting rope (not to mention adjuncting bank account), there was a whole lot of appeal to the idea of being offered a tenure-track job, even one I knew wasn’t ideal. After all, plenty of my friends and colleagues haven’t been so lucky. And a couple of the features of this job that would have been deal-breakers for a lot of those friends and colleagues didn’t bother me so much.

The location, for instance. After almost a decade in big cities, I wanted something with a slower pace and more space. The fact that I can walk from my house to a country road where I may not see another human for miles remains a perk. So does the lack of traffic. Nevertheless, I miss being closer to my family. I miss my friends. I miss living in a place where not everyone is white, Christian, and straight. I miss my Indian takeout place. I miss my feminist, queer-friendly, social justice-oriented church. Some days the quiet country roads are small compensation for all that.

If your average urban English PhD would be unlikely to move to a small town in the country, far away from any major cities, she would be even less likely to do it for a job at an evangelical college. But I came from that world originally and thought I could handle it. I’m now a second-generation Christian college professor. I did my undergrad at a Christian college. And even though I no longer identify as an evangelical, I’m still a Christian. A lefty, pluralist Episcopalian, to be sure, but, I thought, surely if there wasn’t room for someone like me, they wouldn’t hire me.

And here’s the kicker: back when I was an ambitious college student, becoming a feminist and a socialist and an ex-evangelical, all at an evangelical college, I longed for professors who were like me. I had some great professors, but they were overwhelmingly conservative, middle-aged, white men. There were a few women, and a few people with left-of-center politics, but not in the same person. Even back then, as I was beginning to aspire to an academic career, I thought that someday I might become the kind of professor I didn’t have as an undergraduate. Here was my chance!

Well, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way, and even the moments when I have felt like I’m making a difference in a student’s life don’t do much to balance out the day-in, day-out isolation of being the odd woman out, without a support structure.

So here I am, a year later, employed (against all odds) as an English professor, after putting in a ridiculous amount of time and effort into precisely that goal, and most of the time I’m pretty unhappy. The work itself–full-time teaching, trying to make time for research on the side–is fine, but not as fulfilling as I’d hoped. I don’t think I made a mistake, taking this job a year ago. It’s allowed me to figure out some priorities that I might not have realized if the tenure-track job had remained the elusive goal rather than a concrete reality. It’s allowed me to start to gain some financial stability, after years of living on shoestring grad stipends and adjunct pay. And it’s been an adventure in a lot of ways, and that’s always valuable, I think. But unless something changes to make my situation here more tenable, I do need to start thinking about an exit strategy, and one that probably involves leaving academia.

Hence the blog. I want to organize my thoughts, try to process my current situation and my future possibilities, and I also want to hold myself accountable to making the most of the time I’m here. It would be easy to wallow and be miserable (and I’ve done some of that, to be sure), but I would rather choose to be as happy as I can be.

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