Leaving the Ivory Tower

What I found out after leaving my dream job

It took me eighteen months to decide to leave. I hadn’t finished my PhD thesis, but I had finished the last of my four one-year Level B contracts at Macquarie Uni. I still have to pinch myself when I ponder that appointment; I had a very light course load of two subjects (though I did do all the lectures, tutes, and marking for both of them), a light admin load, and no research expectations. All I’d wanted to do since beginning my PhD was teach my own courses, and for four years I got to do it. It is much, much more than I had any right to expect, given the average PhD student experience in Modern History is endless underpaid casual work, and I’m thankful for it.

My Head of Department had said, when he broke the news that my contract would not be renewed, that it was “somebody else’s turn”. As much as I resented it, I can’t fault his logic. There are far more PhD students than there are jobs as light-on as my load at Macquarie, let alone full-time teaching loads. They could have hired 15 casual tutors for what they paid me.

For a year I eked out a living on casual work supplemented with savings. The following year I moved to Melbourne for a change of pace, hoping it would help me finally put the thesis to bed. Halfway through that restless year — the year I would finally submit after just over a decade of study without a scholarship — I decided to leave universities. It was not an easy decision. It made little sense to many of my friends and family, given how hard I’d worked and where I had got to. By the time I graduated, I had four years’ full-time teaching experience, three published articles and PhD from a ‘sandstone’. Two of my examiners’ reports were supportive, and the critical one was full of great suggestions. A book contract would not have been hard to attain.

But by this point I had come to the realisation that to get a job would be difficult, and to lead a life in the academy without anxiety impossible. I knew I didn’t want to do the work I’d need to in order to stay, and I certainly didn’t want the uncertainty, the instability, and the insecurity anymore. So, knowing full well what I was giving up, once I submitted, I walked away. This is not the story of why I walked away. This is the story of what I found out once I’d left, namely, that the PhD is awful preparation for life outside the academy, and given the miniscule rates of stable academic employment post-PhD, that’s a real problem.

I recall a joke I read during my Honours year. It’s 1916, on the Somme. A Captain is surveying his 100-odd troops before a battle. “Men,” he says, standing on an upturned ammo crate. “The outlook is grim. Chances are, 99% of you will die in this offensive.” Standing knee-deep in the muck of the trench, each of them looks to the left. Each of them looks to the right, surveying the faces of their comrades. Every single one of them thinks “Those poor bastards!” The same Great War logic of attrition applies to PhD students and their knowledge of the widespread impossibility of securing an academic job.

I do not think the PhD should be a vocational degree. I would have scoffed at such a suggestion while I was studying, reading any attempt to give me work-ready skills as a distraction from the Great Work and the Big Ideas. I was there, after all, because I didn’t want a Real Job. I wanted to teach, read, ponder, and write. I miss doing those things constantly. I don’t want to go back.

That leaves me in an odd position. I have skills. Written and verbal communication skills. Research skills. I’m a ‘strategic’ thinker. I can solve problems. I can write for different audiences. But until I passed through a torturous eighteen months of applying poorly for the wrong jobs, I couldn’t have described myself that way. I would have preferred to talk about my knowledge of the field, my research interests. I might have used words like ‘methodology’ and ‘archive’. I didn’t get any interviews. It took me a long time — about 18 months — to learn what ‘transferable skills’ are, which ones I had, and that how you frame them is dependent on the job you’re applying for. It took me that long to realise that in a job application you don’t describe yourself, you describe the employee that your potential employer wants. Under no circumstances suggest that you may need to learn anything. There’s already someone else who doesn’t need training, ready to do the job, standing just behind you.

My first week on the job, every time I asked someone a question, they’d say “I’ll send you something to read about that”. I began to panic until I realised that a ‘reading’ here was a 20-slide powerpoint ‘deck,’ not a 35-page peer-reviewed article. From a world in which you could spend a year writing a single exquisitely-crafted 6000-word argument with 30–50 references (and all the research that entailed), I’ve come to one where every project starts with a scoping document, a working group, and a survey. Nobody is even the slightest bit concerned by the notion that self-report surveys are one of the most heavily freighted and least critically useful data. Nobody has read Joan Scott’s “Evidence of Experience”. There’s little room for academic critique in the ‘real’ world. I have been told over and over by two line managers that I’m a ‘fixer,’ and that I have to resist the urge to try and change things that everyone can see are broken because there are more pressing things at hand. There are always more pressing things at hand out here. Things move really fast extramural, and nothing in the ivory tower really prepared me for it.

I don’t know what I want Universities to do about the fact that they are producing 10,000 PhDs a year who are drastically ill-equipped for the lives they find themselves in once they’re out. Part of me thinks that they should be far stricter on entrance to PhD streams, but that has implications for equity. Part of me blames supervisors, who see too much of themselves in their students, and in the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” But that’s not fair either. The pressures on academics to bring in students who will net the university a cool $50k upon completion is immense, and I know from personal experience that for every fusty old bloke from the sandals-and-socks brigade who can’t figure out why students need to work while they study, there are five or ten in-touch academics who know full well that the game has changed and care as much if not more about the well-being of their students than they do about themselves. I know because I benefited from their support and care.

Part of me wants to blame the labour market for failing to see the utility in people with qualitative research skills and the ability to ‘fix’ things. But that’s too Marxist. A big part of me, the part that can’t get over the self-loathing anxiety of academic imposter syndrome, wants to blame the horde of hopeful PhDs clogging the halls, hot-desking shared workspaces and tutorial rooms of Australian universities. It’s absurd to pretend that your own unemployability is not a reasonable consequence of a choice you should have known you were making. But that’s far too liberal-individualist, and smells far too much of neoliberalism for my liking. In the end, I don’t know whose fault it is.

Perhaps blame isn’t the point, but the point is simple. PhD Streams don’t prepare candidates for extramural life, and they really should, because 99% of us aren’t getting jobs in our area of training. It’s an unfathomable waste of time and resources to consign, on average, 18 months of a crazily well-educated graduate’s life to a holding pattern of angst, and loss, and grief, and self-loathing at the crazy difficulty of self-directed resume re-tooling, and their erstwhile inability to get an interview, let alone a job.

The massive bulk of quit lit points to how hellish this transition can be. I’m three years in and I still have aftershocks. Just this month I realised I actually don’t know how to work in a team. I must be hell to manage, because until this job I’ve had two meetings a year with my line manager — now I’m at three a week. And if it’s hard for me, it’s not easy for my manager either. I used to be anxious all the time, and now I’m just angry. Angry that I can’t follow my thoughts to their conclusion whenever I want to. Angry that I don’t know what my line manager means half the time. Angry that I don’t get to use the skills I most value. A friend said, when I told him this, that at least anger gets you out of bed. Maybe he’s right.

I treasure my PhD experiences. I’m angry in part because they’re over, never to return. I’m angry because I wouldn’t want them tarnished by this extramural world, but I also wish they had been so I would have been prepared for leaving. There must be some compromise. Some therapeutic transition training, echoing the work the defense forces try do to bring war veterans back into the civilian world. Like the process of putting the bag full of water into the aquarium to let the goldfish acclimatise to the new conditions.

I don’t know who to blame for my predicament. Perhaps fault is the wrong frame. But after eighteen months penniless and a year into a new career, I feel like I’ve done enough of the hard work to say to the system that helped produce me: You could have done more to prepare me for leaving, and I wish you had.