In the past year or so, we’ve gotten pretty fond of telling stories about people who forsake their dreams of the tenure track in favor of alternative careers. We’ve even come up with a name for the genre: “quit lit.” I’m not sure what it is about these stories, but I can’t seem to get enough of them. Even though they’re basically all the same, I continue to read every one.
I think my interest in the genre comes partly from the work I’ve done over the past few years with adjunct professors. I’ve heard so many tales from people who feel victimized by the academy that I can’t help but feel a twinge of excitement when someone escapes an exploitative situation.
Well, today I have a quit-lit story unlike any other. I learned about Claire (not her real name) last year. I confirmed that her tale is true and asked if she would be willing to discuss her unusual exit from academia here on Vitae. This ain’t your average why-I-quit interview. Claire is truly a Flexible Academic.
Claire is a thirtysomething Ph.D.-holder currently living in the South, where she recently completed grad school. Oh, and she’s also a stripper.
Look, there’s no getting around this: Hers is a story that will attract plenty of prurient interest. But Claire’s perspectives—on academia, on the job market, on the importance (or lack thereof) of loving your job—struck me as really interesting. Try taking her thoughts on their own terms.
At her request, we’ve made some identifying information confidential. Following is a transcription of our discussion, which took place over a couple months.
J: In what field do you hold your Ph.D.? What are your research interests? Dissertation topic?
C: Gonna be vague here to protect my identity, but: Ph.D. in English. Research interests and dissertation about literary “bad girls,” ironically enough.
Honestly, the women I wrote about are so obscure and rarely engaged in literary criticism that giving out this info would make me very identifiable through a quick Google search.
J: What made you decide to leave academia?
C: In my last year as a Ph.D. student, as the fearsome job market approached, I had to make some choices. Would I leave the city I loved behind? Would I leave this place filled with friends and fun? Force my husband to undertake another frightening job search of his own? (He’s a high-school teacher.) For what? To teach Freshman Composition in the middle of North Dakota—if I’m lucky enough to get an offer anywhere?
At last I had to look this question in the face: What was I willing to sacrifice in order to be a professional academic?
Not much, it turns out.
I see so many of my peers and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter gushing about their scholarship. I know they are lying in bed at night, fantasizing about the next step in their research. I don’t do that. My research is work to me. It is not my passion.
And I realized it is worth it to sacrifice everything for academia if and only if you are so passionate about your scholarship that you’re daydreaming about it. Your scholarship must be your art, your creative muse. My scholarship is not my creative muse.
I realized if you’re only pursuing an academic career because it is what you are most trained and qualified for—if you see academia as just your job—then it is not worth following to the ends of the earth. I will find another way to make money. Your job does not have to be your passion. You can just have a regular old job that pays decently and fulfill your passion in other areas of your life.
J: Were you on the academic job market at all?
C: I decided that I would apply only to academic jobs that were local and attractive to me. No adjuncting—except maybe one class to “keep my foot in the door” and act as a social cover for my stripping. I would strip to make money until I landed either a low-key academic lectureship or some other “regular” job. I made the choice to eschew the national job market altogether.
I am grateful for the education and intellectual growth this Ph.D. provided. I am much smarter, more sophisticated, and more culturally aware than I could have ever been without these degrees.
But honestly, the academy is too staid for me. Not hip enough. Not fun enough. Boring. I don’t want that life, not even under the best circumstances. That was a hard thing to come to terms with considering the amount of money and time I invested in this professional track.
J: How did you decide to work in a strip club, then?
C: I have a three-year-old kid whom I don’t want to put in all-day daycare. So a night job was essential, since my husband works from 9 to 5. I needed to make adult money—more than the fabulous $16,000 a year I was getting as an exploited grad assistant—to afford our house.
In this context, stripping was the easiest and quickest solution. I’ve worked in strip clubs my entire adult life, on and off, although my latest re-entry into the field was my first time back in over six years.
Although it is taboo to admit, I enjoy working in strip clubs. I like the glamour, the smoking cigarettes and talking to strangers, the dancing all night, the constant flood of compliments—and the tons of money. When I leave the club with $900, I feel valuable in a way that the cutthroat, ever-upward-struggling nature of academic life had never made me feel. Problematic? Sure.
However, I must note to any feminist detractors: I am also a feminist. Please do not judge me as a victimized sex-object who doesn’t know any better, especially if you have never worked in the sex trade. I am empowered in this position, and if you don’t believe me, please see my paid-off credit card bill.
Of course there is the issue with having the Ph.D. and being a stripper—the social frowning at my apparent failure. I imagine most people see the headline “Stripper with a Ph.D.” and think: How sad. What a failure; what a waste.
I don’t feel like a failure or a waste. Indeed, I felt like I would be living a less meaningful, more wasted life if I forced myself into the academic path that I now regarded as unduly stressful and all-consuming, not to mention a sinking ship. Would it be more “respectable,” more socially acceptable, for me to adjunct my ass off all across this state for peanuts and gray hairs? Sure it would. Will I live my life according to the judging eyes I feared might be watching? No.
J: Would you say your academic training has helped your work in the club or complemented it in any way?
C: My academic training absolutely helps me recognize the systems of power operating at the strip club, and that training informs my hustling strategies.
Here’s what I do understand. As a stripper, selling a very conventional “beauty,” performing sex to satisfy men who often regard me as an object (though not always: I have developed human connections in the club with customers), I am tap dancing for the man. I am perpetuating a social order in which a woman’s No. 1 value is her ability to be physically attractive to men. That sucks.
But here’s the thing: I know I’m supposed to feel bad about sex work—degraded, ashamed—but I don’t. It’s a great job, for the most part, although it is extremely physically taxing and the lack of a steady paycheck can wreak havoc on the mind as well.
I have this skill and it brings me income. It’s not an easy job, and no, not everyone can do it. I’m good at this job. I’ve always been good at making friends and engaging strangers, and over the years I’ve mastered the tricks necessary to convincing men to want me. (For example: say the customer’s name repeatedly throughout the conversation. Works like magic for emptying wallets.)
Most of my work involves putting happiness, fun, and love into the world. Why should I apologize for that? Honestly, I’m very suspicious of any framework that disallows female sexual expression as somehow socially irresponsible.
J: I see that you try to keep these two worlds separate. Do they ever intersect? Does anyone at the club know about your academic life, or vice versa?
C: The level to which my life is compartmentalized borders on insanity. No one in my academic life, outside of my most trusted friends, knows about the stripping. My strip club caters to a very high-class clientele, and I use the Ph.D. schtick all the time, when I sense the customer might like it. These men are often millionaires, and are interested in a woman with some culture. These men are the best catches—love them!—because they just want to talk.
With these men, I will usually talk Faulkner topless for $600 an hour.
J: Speaking of money, can you give me an idea of what you might earn in an average night/month/year? I know people will be curious as to how it compares.
C: No comparison! Stripping is the best money I’ve ever made, and probably the best money I will ever make. At the height of my career, I’ve made as much as $8,000 to $10,000 a month—that’s making $500 a night on a regular basis.
The money is the best thing about stripping. That kind of money is life-changing. Every time I strip: That money changes my life for the better. Most recently, it enabled me to get out of a bad lease and into a new home. In the past, stripping has bought me a car, taken me to Japan, Costa Rica, all over Europe, and furnished a home. The money is what it’s all about. Well, the money, and the free time. Shoot—as a stripper, I only work 24 hours a week.
I’m a pragmatist. Here’s what I want. Enough money to live in my modest home and not freak out about bills. Enough money to go on a family vacation every now and again. A job that I could leave at the end of the day. A job that wouldn’t consume every other aspect of my life. A job that wouldn’t become my whole identity. The tenure track does not meet these requirements.
Yes, I am a stripper with a Ph.D. I own that, and I’m proud of that. I think it’s a neat thing to be. Complex, contradictory, different.
Claire has a blog called Doctor Outta Here on which she writes about her exit from academia. For a more detailed description of Claire’s decision to leave, see her post “Why I’m Leaving Academia.”