Josh Boldt

Technology Director at University of Kentucky

How I Got Out: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

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With all the talk of alt-academic and post-academic transitions, we thought we’d explore what some of those career shifts look like—especially for adjunct professors who knew they needed to make a change and just had to figure out how. That’s the goal of our “How I Got Out” series. Have a suggestion about who should be featured next? Reach Josh Boldt on Twitter (@josh_boldt). Or join our Flexible Academics group to talk over transition strategies.

Things aren’t always as good as they appear to be on the other side of the road. Sometimes we get it in our heads that we’d be better off somewhere else, but once we get there we find an even worse situation than the one we left. This was the case for Kate Weber, a 34-year-old adjunct professor of English who teaches at Monterey Peninsula College in California.

It was never Kate’s intention to support herself fully as an adjunct. When she moved to California back in 2009, she had a master’s degree in English and a couple years of experience teaching writing part-time. Her husband was in the military, and his steady income allowed her to pick up a class here and there for some supplemental pay. For a few years, teaching as an adjunct was a flexible side job, and it allowed Kate to do what she loved—teach writing to college students.

That all changed in 2011 when her marriage ended. Suddenly, Kate was forced to support herself. She quickly picked up some additional classes at other local schools in order to piece together a livable income. Finances got tight, but this sudden change posed another, even more difficult challenge for Kate.

Tougher than the immediate economic struggle was the mental turmoil brought on by this transition. For nine years, Kate was a military spouse. That was her identity. She was regularly reminded, both explicitly and implicitly, of her responsibility to her enlisted husband.

“Being a military spouse is your full-time occupation,” she explains. “After the divorce, I had to redefine myself and find a new identity.”

Kate faced a kind of identity crisis: Was she—could she be—a full-time writing teacher? Was that enough?

Wrestling with these questions brought on a lot of stress. At the time, she had also just begun teaching several sections of composition at multiple campuses. She felt spread too thin.

“I had 120 students and I couldn’t get to know them,” she explains. “At the end of the semester I wasn’t even sure I remembered all their names, which was a big problem for me.”

After just one semester of this new lifestyle, Kate started looking to leave the job she loved. The stress was too great, and she felt guilty that her students weren’t getting her best because of her hectic schedule.

Like every other English major who has ever been on the job market, Kate started reading websites that spun her English degree in a positive light—“Ten Careers For English Majors,” “How to Earn Money With an English Degree,” that sort of thing. There are plenty of these resources, and nearly all of them make the same vague suggestion: that English majors are well-suited for “careers in marketing.”

So Kate started looking around for one of these mysterious marketing jobs, despite the fact that she didn’t really have much prior marketing experience. She figured she’d at least give it a shot, since all the blogs recommended it.

She interviewed for an entry-level marketing position at a small local company that promised an opportunity to grow with the business. Turns out the owner was looking for someone she could train from the ground floor, and Kate got the job.

It was a local company that had a grassroots style. Kate felt good about the work and she liked her co-workers. There was just one little problem: She wasn’t that great at marketing. Those blogs that assured the writing and communication skills she picked up during college would lead to success? They were wrong. This English major was struggling as a marketer.

In Kate’s defense, the owner of the company had promised hands-on guidance that, due to a spike in business, she couldn’t deliver. Kate just wasn’t sure what to do each day and was quickly becoming overwhelmed by the work. And she knew she wasn’t doing enough, which made matters worse.

The biggest problem was that Kate didn’t fit in at the place. She never quite felt at home like she used to in the classroom. This suspicion was confirmed when she helped the company lead a presentation at a local high school. Kate was immediately back in her element, surrounded again by students who wanted to learn. She knew she had left a bad situation for one that was even worse.

The pay might have been better on the marketing path, but that wasn’t enough to justify her decision to leave teaching. After a year away from the classroom, she resolved to find a way back—a way that would be both enjoyable and sustainable.

In 2012, Kate looked up her old department chair at Monterey and asked if the department had any openings. Sure enough, they welcomed her back and gave her a couple classes almost immediately, which was a good first step. But now Kate was right back where she started: teaching as an adjunct and barely making ends meet.

She started applying to every full-time teaching job in the area. She did what she could to make herself more employable, which included taking an online course in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). This TESOL course turned out to be the golden ticket.

When Kate applied to a full-time position in the English department at California State University at Stanislaus, her TESOL experience helped her land the job.

Which means this story has a good ending after all. This fall, Kate will begin her full-time teaching job at Stanislaus, where she will have an annual contract, a salary, and health insurance—three pleasures unheard of for most adjuncts. Technically classified as a lecturer, Kate will have the opportunity to sign longer contracts after three years of service to the university. She’ll be moving two hours away for the job, but she’s pretty happy about the new gig.

“I’m very lucky. I mean, when was the last time I only had to work one job?” she laughs, alluding to the adjunct lifestyle of having to work several part-time jobs in order to pay bills.

Kate’s exit from the academy and foray into the world of marketing provides some valuable lessons for other adjuncts who are thinking about getting out. Although she got along well with her nonacademic boss, the job was not a good fit for the experience she brought to it.

“Entry-level marketing could work better for young English graduates,” Kate says, “but those with advanced degrees might not be happy in that field.”

Another lesson Kate learned is sometimes leaving isn’t the best option. It depends a lot on what job you’re leaving for. As she puts it, “escaping being an adjunct isn’t always a step up.”

That being said, continuing to adjunct long-term was an unsustainable scenario for Kate. She knew she had to do something to alter her path a little and find a job she enjoyed, but that still paid her bills. For her, the answer was to take the TESOL class, which qualified her to teach in a field less flooded with applicants.

She reminds other adjuncts looking to make a transition that, whatever the stresses and realities of adjunct life, it’s important to push through and continue working harder and smarter.

“I know it’s easier said than done,” she says. “But whether it means taking classes, networking, or even moving, an adjunct looking to get out has to be willing to do whatever it takes.”

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