Jailbreaking My Academic Career

The life, times, and travels of one alternative-academic PhD

I finished my PhD, in English, in December of 2012. It’s been a rough year.

This piece, however, is not of the “just don’t go” variety—as in, just don't go to graduate school in the first place, and, if you make it through graduate school, just don't go into academia. This piece is about breaking out once you’re in.

While this is not a “just don’t go” piece, the “just don’t go” conversation is lively and polemical and key to imagining an alternative career path. Most recently, Sarah Kendzior on Al Jazeera English, Rebecca Schuman and Katie Roiphe in Slate, and Tressie McMillan Cottom on her blog have, respectively, explained the current state of academia for new PhDs; laid bare injured, exiled souls; defended the graduate school experience; and contended that blanket “just don’t go” advice ignores racial disparities.

Briefly, the problem behind the conversation is this: In an already volatile higher-ed employment market, the crash of 2008 wiped out 40% of university teaching jobs. Adjunct faculty numbers are at a record high. 76% of university teaching jobs are now adjunct positions, which carry no stability, no benefits, low pay, lower respect, and little chance of mobility. When tenured professors do retire, it is less and less likely that they will be replaced with tenure-track hires. MOOCs and other technology-assisted phenomena, such as software that grades student writing, are radically changing the landscape of higher education. We do not know what college will look like in ten years.

The university is becoming, with a few lucky exceptions, a de facto exploitative labor market. Yet the "total culture" of academia labels those PhDs who choose not to participate as outsiders and failures.

Job market aside, a PhD is a depleting experience. I've written elsewhere about the odd cocktail of exhilaration and exhaustion that attends the process. So, as people like to ask me, what now?

I would not say that I made my decision to “just go” to graduate school under average circumstances. When PhD acceptances and fellowship offers went out, I lay, sweating, in a one-room bungalow in Thailand with a fractured vertebra.

I had taken off for Southeast Asia the previous August, with a teaching job in Malaysia to fund a year of travel. I jumped a Singapore-bound bus one weekend to take the GRE Literature exam. I returned there—Singapore is clean and safe, with minimal distractions and great public transportation—at the end of the semester and holed up in a gaming cave-cum-internet cafe to complete graduate school applications. When the tsunami hit Thailand in December of 2004, I had just traveled north across the Thai border and was relaxing into backpacker mode.

A week or two after the tsunami, I arrived at the Tsunami Volunteer Center (TVC) in Khao Lak, a beach community a few hours from Phuket. I joined a long-term project, re-building a nearby village called Tap Tawan, and stayed. In early April, on the morning of the Buddhist 100 days celebration for the dead, the railing of my bungalow's balcony broke, and I fell backwards eight feet down, flat on my back.

I decided this past September, a few months before I was set to file my dissertation, not to go on the academic job market—at least not in the traditional way, which is to apply for every single job in your field and for some jobs that are not in your field, sending messages in bottles from a desolate island of unemployment. I cherry-picked a few from the abysmal job list, less because I wanted those jobs than because I wanted the experience of applying for them.

The job market is a rite of passage for aspiring academics. I needed to obsess over writing samples and statements of teaching philosophy, to groan over the language of the abstract and job letter and other documents that exist only in such a weighty, persnickety way inside academia.

But I couldn't imagine myself in any of the jobs I was supposed to want.

A year or two ago, I realized that I did not self-identify as a teacher. I found teaching fulfilling, and, if student gratitude and evaluations are to be trusted, I was an effective teacher. When I thought about my occupation, however, my mind reverted to “writer.” Working with words is intensely difficult—anyone who tells you otherwise is probably not very good at it—and that difficulty for me is analogous to an endorphin rush. All of which is a complicated way of saying that, while teaching is enjoyable, writing makes me happy.

Teaching begets teaching. Most universities do not offer alternative career counseling for graduate students, and PhDs often believe they are not qualified to do anything except teach at the college level, so everyone adjuncts. To afford their lives on adjunct pay, many simultaneously tutor or teach test prep. This work is safe, sanctioned by academic culture as appropriate for young scholars trying to break into a tenure-track job.

I knew the perils of the academic job market. I had friends and colleagues embroiled in it. I also knew that, once finished with the PhD, I was expected to adjunct or take a postdoc and hold on tight through the requisite three or four job market cycles required to get a job or to give up. Each cycle is an academic year.

I knew all of this, and it terrified me. In the final year of my PhD, with a fellowship from a university in London that made it financially feasible not to teach, I began casting around for freelance writing work. I wrote my dissertation in the mornings and afternoons and took on paid work in the evenings. Some of it paid poorly and some, in the end, not at all; initially, billing intimidated me. I made huge mistakes (pro tip: contracts are your best friend) and learned from them. Freelance gigs became longer term consulting gigs. Work follows work.

The world is smarter than academics are trained to believe. In my best moments in private industry so far, the work is stimulating, challenging, intense. It is akin to the best parts of academic life: the moment that you bust through a knotty argument in a chapter or talk, the collegial swelling as strong minds come together at a conference.

There is some tedium everywhere. I don't miss grading papers, scribbling thoughtful end comments and marginal notes on seventy-six essays, straining to remember that the students who wrote them are individuals and not automated fallacy generators. Similarly, I don't enjoy now the work that involves, say, enumerating directions for the lowest common denominator of user experience.

I do enjoy a sense of possibility and a newfound ownership of my work, unchained from a rigid belief in what makes a career. On that note, in a few days, I leave on a trip to India. Not because, what now? but because the timing is right. Because I can finally kind of afford it. Because a carefully cultivated taste for adventure carried me through the painstaking process of jailbreaking my academic career.

It’s been, undoubtedly, a rough year. When it's a choice, rough can be exhilarating: I do not regret how difficult the PhD was in every way. And, while breaking from academia feels like the death of someone close to you, the recompense comes in realizing that not knowing what will happen means anything can happen.