Kelly J. Baker

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

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The Hard Business of Letting Go

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“a kind of goodbye to all that, to all this—to this person I imagined myself as or imagined I’d become, this identity that I needed so badly in order to feel good about myself.”—Lauren Quinn

“Where do I go from here, how do I proceed now without goal, without path: how do I float?”—Sarah Menkedick

I search job ads at local universities. Obsessively. I started this as soon as we moved to Florida. Perusing the ads was a way to figure out alternate paths. It (supposedly) gave me a feel for what kinds of jobs were available. I avoided faculty and adjunct listings, focusing instead on administrative positions. Perhaps, I thought, I could stay in higher education in a different capacity.

Relentless perusal, I assured myself, was for the best: My grace period will eventually end. I’ll need to know what kinds of jobs are available. “It’s just research,” I say aloud. My infant son gurgles at me skeptically. My husband and I talk about possible career options; we strategize about turning my CV into a resume. I tell him that maybe the perfect job will come along. He nods supportively. I smile tentatively.

In early November, an academic-advisor position becomes available at a nearby university. It requires working with student athletes, which I’ve done before and enjoyed. The job is one that I’ve already considered as a good fit. I read and reread the job description, imagining how I might sell myself to the hiring manager. I might even love a job like this.

The pros and cons of the advisor position seem pretty clear. It’s a mostly 9-to-5 job, and my schedule would lack some of flexibility that I was used to in my previous lectureship. Both my five-year-old daughter and my son would have to go into full-time daycare, costing a whopping $1,400 a month. There would be no summers off, and I would spend less time with my children. There would also be little time to finish my manuscript, which is under contract.

Yet I am excited about the prospect of working with students again. I miss students and teaching more than I thought I would. Maybe I can find a place for myself at a university without being contingent labor, I think. Maybe I can be happy with this as my career. Maybe I should take the plunge and reinvent myself on the alt-ac track.

As the deadline looms, the cons seem to outweigh the pros. The daycare costs alone give me pause. Downgrading my writing and research to hobbies bothers me more than I expect. The decision to apply feels rushed. Why am I jumping so quickly at this opportunity? Wasn’t I was supposed to take the year off? Why am I pressuring myself to apply? The internal pressure subsumes me. It paralyzes me.

The deadline passes. I don’t apply for the job. Self-scrutiny remains.

Guilt rears its ugly head. I had let an opportunity pass me by. How very unlike me! I feel moorless and cowardly. The only way to move on from academia was to move on. Make choices. Apply for jobs. Be fearless. Experiment with new possibilities. Instead, I stalled. What happened to that fearless and confident woman that I was before graduate school and the job market? When did I lose her? How can I get her back? What would she think of me now? Would my 22-year-old self be disappointed in her 33-year-old counterpart?

Realization punches me in the gut. That woman was long gone. She dissipated with every year. She became less fearless, more nervous. My dream to become a professor floated away, too, in the flurry of applications and the brutal realities of the job market. The career that I trained for appears more and more untenable day by day.

Applying for a job off the tenure track, then, felt like the death knell of my dream. I stalled, not because I am a coward, but because abandoning who you think you are going to be is hard. I’ve let the dream I haven’t achieved define me more than my accomplishments. That dream turned toxic, and it is time to let it go.

This realization hovered over me from the moment I decided to take a year off. I’ve been struggling to ignore it. I have to let go, and now, I’m ready.

I get to find a new dream—or dreams. I get to figure out who I want to be. I get to be fearless again.

Image: Salvador Dali's "The Impossible Dream."

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  • I am struggling with the same issues:
    1) "abandoning who you think you are going to be is hard."
    2) "I’ve let the dream I haven’t achieved define me more than my accomplishments." - For me, it is turning toxic yet hard to go.

    Your article has inspired dig deeper and find a way to move on! Thank you!

    Holly Sawyer, Ph.D. EL
    Holly Sawyer, Ph.D. EL
  • If you take ANY kind of full time job, you are going to have those child care costs...

    Betty Ann Cook
    Betty Ann Cook
  • I have know idea why, but my above comment was ascribed to Betty Ann Cook. --Willena Moye

    Betty Ann Cook
    Betty Ann Cook
  • As a recent graduate with student loans and no family or friends to financially support me, I don't have the means to pass up any employment opportunity. Despite a few on campus interviews that went well, I didn't end up in a TT job. I am applying to a wide variety of jobs in and out of academia. I can relate to your feelings about moving on. Thank you for sharing this and I am glad there's someone writing about living out of academia. For what it's worth, I applied for the advisor jobs at my local college. I didn't get an interview.

    First Person
    First Person
  • It took me years to "let go" of academia. With time, I realized that I was in love with the idea of being a professor but not with the work (pretty much) the (meaningless) research I had to do. Glad to say that switching from academia to K-12 has been very fulfilling. I know I found my calling because every day I wake up so pump to go back to work. I make a difference with our future generation, I get to make/influence ed policy, and I'm making what I thought one day I would make when becoming a full professor. Life can definitely be good beyond the ivory tower!

    Efrain Martinez
    Efrain Martinez
  • Thank you for this article - inspiring and brave! I am in a quite similar position at the moment: PhD in Medieval History, a toddler and a preschooler, moved to a different part of the country - and trying to find a job in academia. If the world of academia is an ivory tower, I am bungee jumping from there. I keep my fingers crossed for you :)

    Emilia Zochowska
    Emilia Zochowska
  • Greetings:
    I was lucky to already have a FT non-TT teaching position when I was ABD and after defending the dissertation. The position wasn't great; it was at a for-profit where I taught with Ph.Ds from Columbia, Harvard and many other fine schools. The pay was comparable to an associate professor in the humanities and though it was not my dream job, we did not have to move, go into more debt and lose the low-cost child care that made teaching affordable. The for-profit was less than ideal from a management perspective and gradually the little "academy" we built was dismantled and the labor became more contingent.

    When I left that position, I took adjunct jobs and private contracts (mobile/web programming) to remain a "Professor." I chose part-time work to have more time with my son and because I knew that finishing a PhD at 40 put me on the "mommy-track" for more serious women in my profession who frowned on my choice to procreate. As the profession was decimated over the last 9 years, more tenure lines eliminated, no TT lines added, etc., I decided that if I ever wanted to earn a living wage, I would have to abandon the TT dream. That was the most freeing moment of my life. I am now teaching my last two classes and transitioning into a FT tech role that will be more rewarding and sustain our family above poverty. This decision was easy to make as I watched TT faculty lose jobs when their departments/majors were eliminated; it was also made loads easier by taking into account the risks associated with managing increasing numbers of mentally unstable/violent students who frequented my classes at R1s and CCs alike. Finally, the choice was made inevitable when I was at an R1 and realized that there were 14 FT TT profs (last one hired 10 years ago) and 56 adjuncts sharing two offices. With those odds, who stays? I cannot as it felt like being relegated to second class status.

    George Clinton sings: "Free you mind and your ass will follow!" This seems about right for leaving the academy.

    Dr. D
    Dr. D
  • I, too, struggled with leaving the dream of being a professor behind me. I did the same thing as you--I saw an ad to work as a project manager at a System office. I had done *similar* work while working on my PhD in English Literature and thought, like you, how I could sell myself to the hiring manager.

    Well, I applied (a day late) and got an interview. I also got the job; it was--and still is--difficult at times knowing that I'm no longer searching for tenure-track positions.

    I graduated a little over 1 year ago. I sometimes think I threw in the towel too soon. I felt like I failed at getting a teaching career. Lately, I've been embracing what I'm doing and how what I've learned and experienced is still applicable in different ways. I feel fulfilled and happy. Also, an opportunity recently came up where I am able to teach an online course *in my field* for the first time ever. Having a full-time gig actually gives me leave to be an adjunct professor, in the truest sense of the word--that is, I'm teaching to share my knowledge and passion. I'm still 100% for working toward getting faculty teaching full time as adjuncts the respect, benefits, and pay they deserve.

    Jessica Miller
    Jessica Miller
  • I stalled as well and have not really been able to understand what is holding me back. Thank you, thank you for putting into words what I've been struggling with for the last couple of years as I made a similar transition.

    Rebecca Larkin
    Rebecca Larkin