I wanted one, too. Badly. In fact, in 2010, I wrote an article for The Chronicle called “Message in a Bottle” in which I likened a Ph.D. sending out countless applications for tenure-track jobs to a castaway on a remote island, tossing messages out to sea in hopes of being rescued. But then, miraculously, three years later, I was offered a tenure-track job, and took it.
Exactly one year after accepting the position, I resigned from my first — and very likely, last — tenure-track job and eagerly coordinated my family’s return to Colorado. Here’s what I learned in the process, some of which I hope will be helpful to those currently in the depressing throes of bottled message tossing.
Loss of perspective. Being on the academic job market year after year — in my case, five years — means getting whatever employment you can along the way while holding out hope for a tenure-track position that may or may not come through. It’s akin to skiing downhill with no idea of how you’re going to stop at the bottom without crashing into a bunch of people. Weird analogy, maybe, but what I mean is that battling it out on the academic market year after year builds such a momentum, and you become so singularly focused on getting the job, that you lose all perspective. You don’t think about what it will actually be like when you do get it, and whether it will in fact satisfy your career needs and desires, not to mention be in the best interest of other people in your life like a partner and dependents. The pursuit itself is so all-consuming that it takes on a dangerous life of its own, everything else be damned.
Loss of geographic freedom. Many of us imagine faculty life to be far more flexible than a 9-to-5 job. However, both the pursuit and the attainment of a tenure-track job are associated with the loss of a whole host of personal freedoms. And the biggest one is: You don’t get to choose where you want to live; you have to move to wherever the job is. Only a tiny percentage of academics get a job where they want to live. Most end up taking a job wherever it’s offered and chances are you don’t have family, friends, or social/historical/cultural reasons for being in that locale. You will have to start over. And your significant other, if you have one, will have to be on board with a move. Your spouse might leave a position he loves and has worked hard to attain, and have to take a new job in a new city for half the salary he’s accustomed to (yes, that happened to us).
Loss of writing freedom. When you’re on the tenure track, you are not completely free to write whatever you want. OK, technically you are — but really, you’re not. My Ph.D. is in philosophy but I’ve always considered myself more a writer than a philosopher and my publications include all sorts of weird and interesting (to me, at least) things that I wanted to write about. For example, I co-edited a book on Transformers (yes, the robot race from outer space). That’s the sort of thing that just doesn’t get much street cred with tenure committees, even though everyone knows Transformers are cool — just ask my 5-year-old. I often heard fellow academics talk about which publications “count” toward tenure. Balderdash! When you’re not worried about getting tenure, you can write about anything you want, and everything you write counts.
The salary stinks. Adjuncts may read that and roll their eyes. I get it, I really do. One year I taught five courses at three different universities for a grand total of $15,000. And I’ll never do that again. But even tenure-track salaries kind of stink — not compared with adjunct salaries obviously but compared with starting salaries for other professions that require graduate degrees. For a Ph.D. in the humanities, a starting salary of, say, $55,000 isn’t all that much after deducting taxes and mandatory health care, living expenses, and daycare. And things can get even dicier if your spouse’s job in your new locale only pulls in half what it used to. Incremental raises for faculty members tend to be small, are sometimes put on hold, and might not be worth the effort if you have to “make a case” for yourself every year (e.g., “I taught six courses with glowing evals from my students, published two papers in good journals, designed a new course for the university, served on two committees, and started a student group, so I really deserve that additional $2,000 a year.”)
There are other options! People would say that to me when I was on the faculty market, and I just didn’t hear them. But it is so true. In my post-resignation soul-searching, I realized that I had to start identifying with my skills and strengths rather than with the narrow identity and job title of “assistant professor of philosophy.” All of us have skills honed in academe — coupled with personal experiences and insights — that can help guide us to a different yet equally fulfilling and potentially more lucrative career. It is not an easy process, but then again, if you’ve survived the academic market long enough to have your own war stories, you can do anything (a la Friedrich Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger”). A Vitae essay by Katie Rose Guest Pryal — called “Leaving a Legacy Off the Tenure Track” — is an inspiring thread of a larger discussion on finding meaning beyond that singular tenure-track goal.
An academic job will never be perfect, just as no job will ever be perfect. It’s been a long two years since I resigned from my tenure-track position, filled with lots of reflection and confusion. I am now working as a writing consultant for a university research center and am moving toward a time in my life that feels like the most exciting and fulfilling, career-wise. I’m writing like crazy, exploring local teaching options, and talking to everyone I can about this crazy process of figuring out what’s next.
And guess what? Doors are opening. I’ll never have to leave a geographical location that I love — unless I want to. My husband is once again making the salary he deserves. And I have a much healthier perspective on academe and my place in it. I sincerely wish the same for readers of this article.