The End or the Beginning: Reflecting on my Year Outside the Academy

Tomorrow marks one year since I conferred my Ph.D., and as a result, I can’t help but reflect on my relationship to academia.

For one whole year, I have not done anything characteristically academic. I have not taught. I have not attended conferences. I have not set foot on campus, any campus at all. I haven’t cracked open an academic book. I have written, and I have performed, but in ways not funded or otherwise supported by academic institutions.

Seeing the waves of hoods and smiles, as so many friends sashay across the stage, I feel so far removed from the educational system. I miss my friends, and I miss being part of a learning community.

I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with the academy. When I embarked on a master’s, and even at the top of my Ph.D. I maintained that I was not pursuing a career as a professor. “I’m an artist,” I would say, “I study in pursuit of my art.” One May, at our big year-end party, I was voted Most Likely to Shun Academia, and it made sense. But then, after a while, playing Professor began to feel good. I became accustomed to the hustle, the cycles, the carousel of new faces, and let me be honest, the status. I liked being in the front the classroom and daydreamed about when I could add “Dr.” to the front of my chalkboard name.

In so many ways, I loved graduate school. I loved sitting in rapt attention, pencil ready, at the feet of someone I admired, opening my mind with all my will to absorb the information set before me. I loved buying new school supplies. I enjoyed being on a new side of the arts (university fine arts funding), bringing in artists, and reviewing proposals, and even sitting at the head of the table. I loved wearing tights and dresses and carrying messenger bags. I loved learning. I loved reading difficult material. I loved critiquing social structures. I loved writing. I loved being asked to create. I loved being surrounded by other people who were also seeking big, and not exactly practical, goals.

I did not like, and I am still recovering from, The Stress. The self-doubt. The terribly long hours. The ceaseless and unnerving perception that I wasn’t doing enough, that I’d never complete it all, that nothing was ever good enough. My dismay in the face of my inabilities: my inability to finish all the reading, to get a piece published, to think of something groundbreaking to say. The anxiety, the panic, the dread of being asked to produce something critical and cautious, but brazen and new; sensitive but holds-no-punches; honest, though-provoking, timely, well-read, and above all relevant to the on-going conversation. Not to mention, the deep irrational terror that I wouldn’t be able to survive outside of academia. The interminable consternation that I would never be hired at a university, but was simultaneously (by virtue of my over-education) unemployable anywhere else.

Verbalizing these anxieties now, I feel my heart rate rise. (And thanks to the cyborg gadget on my wrist, I can confirm that it’s true.)

To every friend I know who is currently under the weight of that struggle, I want to grab you by the shoulders and tell you, “IT’S OK! I swear to you with every atom in my body that everything will be just fine. If you finish your degree and you don’t know where you are going next, it’s OK. If you have run out of funding and you’re not quite finished, or if you have to move on for other reasons and you’re not quite finished, or you’re just stuck and feel like you may never finish: I promise, I promise that it’s all OK. You are going to walk through the door, and you are going to survive. You are going to find work. You are not unemployable. Statistically speaking, you are very, very employable. You are whip smart, you are resourceful, you often work yourself to the bone, and whether or not you can see it now, you’ve amassed a bag of tricks that is going to serve you in all sorts of ways. Your student loans won’t be that big of a deal. You are going to land on your feet.”

I wish I could go back in time and tell this to myself in a way that I would believe it. I wish I could do it over again with more presence and more gratitude and less worry.

In my weaker moments, I can’t stop the young grad student in my head from answering back. I can’t prevent her from snapping, “But I actually want to be a professor. I want to use my degree. I don’t want to be a stay-at-home mom who calls herself a writer.” And even though I don’t imagine her launching this cold-cutting label at me, it sits there, in the subtext: “You are a failure.”

So what happened? I spent a year obsessively applying for jobs, and not really writing, and did not get even one interview. Then I got pregnant. Then I decided that finishing the degree was more important than finding a job, so I tabled the job hunt and wrote like the dickens. Then I had a baby and decided not to return to the job market for a while. I still have not returned to it.

I know I’m not a failure. Like, I said, I am still recovering. And in the wake of berating myself, I become angry. I feel resentment rise up to replace the self-doubt, because it is not irrational to feel that extraordinary fear.

As a Ph.D student, you get to experience professorship. You get to teach. You get to do research. You get to feel like you have a real grown-up job in every sense (save for the paycheck). Then, after a few years getting used to the experience, getting better, getting comfortable, and beginning to produce quality work, you find yourself being spit out on the other side. My family used to consistently ask me, “Why don’t you just get a job at SIU? You really seem to like it there.” Because if I had been working a low-level position anywhere else—Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods, McDonald’s—for seven years (as I was at SIU), and dare I say, working my ass off, I’d be entitled to some kind of advancement. But that just isn’t the way it works in the academy. A tenure-track job opening at SIU would be like a purple unicorn, and even if it revealed itself with magical sparkle the year I was graduating, they would never have hired me. Only after I spent some time shuttling myself around the country to obscure place after obscure place to teach god-knows-what to god-knows-who (for god-knows-how much), and worked my fingers off writing and publishing for no pay, would I then maybe (and only maybe) be seen as potentially employable by my own alma-mater.

There are not nearly enough tenure-track university jobs to accommodate the number of Ph.D.s seeking them. The job search is brutal. Every application is a massive dossier. The decks are stacked against you. The struggle is real.

And this little game of professorial dress-up played by Ph.D. students the world wide, it isn’t merely professional training. Ph.D. students are cheap labor for universities. Kelly Baker writes, “Graduate programs admit students to fit the labor demands on their campus.”

Baker (drawing on research by Marc Bousquet) explains that “new Ph.D. holders are not ‘products’ of our training, but ‘byproducts’ of academia. Graduate students and ‘non-degreed flex workers’ exist mostly to serve the university’s labor demands. They generate cheap labor. Then they get replaced.”

It isn’t simply that there are not enough jobs. It isn’t simply that we are over-producing Ph.D.s. In part, there are not enough jobs because cheap labor is being produced by Ph.D. students. As a result, “The doctorate becomes not the beginning of an academic career, but the end of one. Ph.D. holders, Bousquet explains, are ‘the actual shit of the system— being churned inexorably outside: not merely disposable labor but labor that must be disposed of for the system to work.’”

When I think about academia, when I try to untangle whether or not I will go back, I feel both enmity and pride, both relief from stress and a lurking anxiety, both an absence of community and an abundance of freedom.

“But you didn’t try hard enough to get an academic job!” cries the idealist grad student.

“You didn’t want a job like that anyway!” cries the artist.

“You’re just not good enough!” cries the impostor syndrome.

“It’s a fucked up system and there was no way you could succeed!” cries the revolutionary.

“You’re better off without the stress!” cries the mother.

“If you don’t become a professor, you wasted an obscene amount of time and money!” cries the fallacy of sunk costs.

“Don’t you miss the ritual, the people, the highs and the lows?” cries the culture of academia.

“Be gentle with yourself,” whispers the future. “There is never only one way.”

Today, I finally hung my diploma on the wall. As I pierced my wall with the tip of a nail, I knew (in a visceral way) that I will always exist in relation to my education. As I straightened the frame, I remembered that I am forever shaped by my teachers and what they taught me. When I took a step back to take in this symbol of my achievement, I could feel that my degree–my big, if impractical, accomplishment–is mine to hold. Despite the debt, despite the dearth of job prospects, it brings with it a privilege (for me as well as my daughter) that we never tasted before. Ten years spent studying philosophy and art, writing and creating, has made me a better person. I’m nostalgic about it all even as I’m a bit bitter, but I am never sorry I went.



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