the perfect job: life after academe

If you’re leaving academe feeling despair because you’ve missed out on the “perfect job,” never fear. Of course you know this, but I’ll tell you anyway: there is no perfect job. Even today’s professoriate suffers a variety of hardships: bigger classes, fewer raises, increased pressure to publish, a customer-oriented culture that emphasizes entertainment over education, and the biggie for me: the moral quandary of working side-by-side with an ever-growing force of underpaid contingent laborers.

Still. Perfect job or not, leaving academe is hard. Figuring out next steps can be even more daunting.

More than likely, the job you do right after quitting academe will not be the one you want to do forever (mine wasn’t). Perhaps you take it because you have to pay the bills now. Or perhaps it’s the only thing that comes along. Or perhaps it falls into your lap and you don’t know what else to do (me).

Whatever the reason, just remember first, that nothing is permanent and second, that your work doesn’t define you. The culture of academe suggests the opposite, heaping judgment on those who work outside the academy, but once you get away, the echo of those voices will quiet.

Looking back, I can see that each of my jobs has brought together a different balance of the same four things: financial need, ability, interest and time. As these factors have changed over the years, so has my work.

Here’s what that has looked like:

After graduating from college with a B.B.A in marketing, I needed to make enough money to buy a car and move out of my parents’ house. I also wanted to show just how high a woman could climb on the corporate ladder: to the top. Then I discovered the mind-numbing tedium of corporate life. With so little invested in the purpose of my work, I found the days soul-suckingly empty.

After four years in an otherwise good job (great boss, good pay, challenging tasks), I couldn’t take the boredom anymore. In pursuit of something more creative and less bound by the mandate I spend eight consecutive hours behind a desk, I quit and enrolled in an M.A. program. I thought perhaps I’d get a writing job, or teach. While in school, I supplemented my husband’s income by working a variety of jobs: part-time nanny, full-time office manager, full-time marketing assistant. Instead of the upward mobility I’d originally sought, these jobs offered a low-stress 40-hour week that left me with time and energy for my studies.

During the M.A., academic work seduced me into striving for a professorship. Where money had been a driving factor behind my corporate job, in academia I saw an opportunity to do intellectual and creative work, earn respectable pay, and work varied hours. Also, where corporations promise upward mobility and increased salaries, universities promise prestige. I can’t say I wasn’t enticed by that.

By the time I started the Ph.D., I had a 6-week old baby. I quit the office manager job to attend graduate school full-time and stay home with my son. After a year, I got funding and worked as a TA making $12,500/year. Because we could scrape by with that and my husband’s salary, I was lucky to graduate with minimal debt.

When I graduated, my kids were 7 and 3. I was exhausted, and we were broke. Of course, the only job I could get was an adjunct job paying $2,500/class. I took it because I felt I had to teach while on the market for a tenure track job. As a parent, childcare becomes a major work priority. Since the adjunct pay was so low, I couldn’t afford to hire a childcare provider, so I only taught one class per semester.

After three failed years on the market, I decided to quit for several reasons: 1) The adjunct work was unsustainable: I couldn’t parent, publish, present, network, write job letters and teach all at the same time—especially without funds for childcare; 2) I saw quitting as a form of protest. I did not want to be part of the adjunct problem. 3) Between parenting and academe, I’d had no life for years. I was tired; 4) Both of my kids had special education needs that required extra attention and patience, but all my time with them felt stressed and rushed; 5) Our growing family had gotten more expensive—I needed to make more money.

Also, my daughter became ill about this time, requiring I be more available at home. After so many years of putting career before family, my priorities changed again. I turned the tables and put career last, becoming a tutor for students with dyslexia.

One year, I taught college students about intertextuality in African American literature. The next I taught 7-year-olds how to spell “cat.” On the university’s prestige-o-meter, I’d fallen far. But I didn’t have time to care.

Tutoring was a flexible job that paid me the most money for the least amount of time. With just a 10 hour work week, I earned $2,000 per month. That’s almost as much as I made in an entire semester teaching one class at the university. When I upped my hours to 14 per week, I made over $30,000 per year for part-time hours.

Even better, I was deeply invested in my students and in literacy (a subject not unconnected to my training in literature). I was good at it. I worked in and out of my home, made my own schedule, and had no additional grading/prepping. For a time, the work was intellectual. I attended conferences, learned about the brain, opened my eyes about education in a way that all my own formal education had ironically never done. I didn’t expect it to hold me forever, but in the moment, it was the perfect job.

This brings me to last year. As of then, I’d been tutoring for nearly a decade. My daughter was much healthier and on the brink of middle school. The memoir I’d been writing off and on for years still languished on the back burner. Despite a good hourly wage, my part-time hours limited my overall income while cost of living had increased dramatically. Intellectually, I knew tutoring full-time would be tedious, so I decided it was time to refocus on my career.

Figuring out my next step over the past year has been another difficult transition. After much soul-searching, I finally decided that, in addition to the need to increase my income, my main priority is still: time.

When I started out in business, I was very ambitious. I never set out to get rich, but I did set out to make something very respectable of myself: the status of a corporate executive, the prestige of a university professor.

But tutoring young people in this most basic skill of literacy has humbled me. I didn’t get famous or rich. I didn’t make a bold feminist statement about women and work. I didn’t impress anyone with my credentials. Instead, I made a fair wage while truly changing the lives of my students in great leaps and bounds. And while I did that, I settled into a simpler life.

Between my work in special education and my daughter’s food allergies/sensitivities, I’ve learned a lot about the ills of processed food and big agriculture. Consequently, we are locavores. Since I make my own schedule, I can shop at farmers’ markets, cook fresh food, put my hands in the dirt of my garden, avoid traffic and save gas by riding my bike for short errands like the grocery store and the bank. I can meditate after lunch—sometimes. There is a rhythm to this life that I can only call spiritual. A nine-to-five schedule would disrupt that. It’s not that I don’t want to work a 40-hour week, it’s just that I want to pick which eight hours of the day to work (I work best late at night). This need goes all the way back to my dissatisfaction with my first corporate job, so I feel like it’s important to listen to it—if I can.

Consequently, in this next leg of my work life, I’ve decided to supplement my tutoring by increasing the freelance writer/editor work I’ve been doing in bits and pieces for years. If I can do that from home, I can manage my own time. So far, I have several regular clients, so it looks very promising.

I remember one of my advisors discussing her past work as a “copyeditor.” She practically spat the words when she said them. I shared her judgment at the time. How ridiculous that seems to me now. My intellectual life lives on not only in my continued interest in literature, but in my interest in food, the environment, education and the brain—and in the kind of writing/editing I’m qualified to do. It’s my life that defines me, not my job. As a “copyeditor” (no spitting), I hope to fit my job around my life and interests, which at 47, have grown more important to me than professional status or prestige.

That is the plan, for now.

My point in detailing this zigzagging career path is to show how career aspirations and employment needs/opportunities can change over time. While some of these transitions have been extremely difficult for me, all of my jobs have enhanced my understanding of myself and the world around me. All have been steps to the next thing.

If the transition from academe finds you adjuncting, waitressing, pushing papers in a job you hate, or if you’re otherwise unhappily employed, know it is just one step on the path—not an endpoint. While there may be no overall perfect job, the one that pays the bills today, or keeps you from sitting home feeling lost, may be the perfect job for now.

So, if you’re on this post-ac path with me, the best advice I can give is to forget the judgments of academe, do what makes sense for you now, and see where it leads.

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