When I taught my first college class at the age of 24, my undergraduate mentor sent me a “Top Ten List” of things to remember as a new professor. Bill was always full of witty yet profound advice and he had a penchant for top ten lists. My favorite “Bill-ism” motivated me for years: “There are two reactions you should have after teaching: you’re tired and you’re grinning.” On the days I returned to my stuffy, windowless office and sank into my chair, if I was still smiling despite the piles of ungraded papers, the endless meetings, and the overflowing email inbox, I knew I was doing okay. More than okay, really. I knew I was happy.
This past year, however, I haven’t been grinning much.
I earned my Ph.D. in 2010 and dove enthusiastically into my first job search. I was on the hunt for the elusive golden ticket that would grant me admission to the Ivory Tower of Academia. My outlook was rosy. After all, I had a Ph.D. My teaching evaluations were strong. I had a unique and promising research agenda. Surely the gates would open for me! I envisioned spirited discussions with engaged students on grassy, sun-dappled quads; an office crammed with books, satiric posters, and a squashy armchair; lunch dates with colleagues during which we’d debate the latest op/ed piece in the Chronicle; a generous travel budget for attending conferences across the country. . . My future was bright.
Oh the naivete! Rather than a garden of delights, I encountered the capricious, exasperating, soul-crushing reality of the academic job market (for example, a department chair once told me during an interview that I was “too enthusiastic”). After four years of unsuccessful and maddening job searches, I decided to jump ship. I’m not the only one. Recently, Ingrid Steffensen, a former professor, compared academia to a bad boyfriend: they disappoint you, make empty promises, and lead you on. You stay because you think “it will get better.” But it doesn’t get better.
I was in love with the idea of academia, not the reality. The reality is most college classes across the country are taught by non-tenure track faculty (adjuncts, full-time lecturers, graduate students, etc.). The average adjunct is paid $2,987 per course. No, not per month. That’s $2,987 for an entire semester of labor. Thus far, this bleak outlook hasn’t stopped folks from pursuing doctoral degrees. This results in a growing pool of applicants for a diminishing number of tenure-track positions. Let the Hunger Games begin!
So the day has come to cut my losses and run. I am now a “former academic.”
I decided to name my blog “Past Prof” as a nod to this transition. I intend to chronicle my post-academic journey as a way to (a) potentially help others who are considering this scary but exhilarating move and (b) to help me process my own experience. Having a place in the hallowed halls of academia had been my dream since I was a sophomore in college. Giving up that dream is heart-wrenching. I know there will be many moments of regret, guilt, and uncertainty that I’ll need to work through. So I hope blogging will be more therapeutic than self-indulgent and a place for inspiration, not commiseration. Let’s see what happens!