The other day, a friend of mine posted this article about why people with PhDs don’t just leave the soul-sucking, sub-living wage world of the adjunct. It’s a brief piece, one focused mostly on the short notice adjuncts have when taking jobs and the feelings of obligation to their students (and sometimes institutions) that prevent them from abandoning a course mid-semester. What’s missing from the article is just how hard it is to quit.
Quitting is tough because all through grad school, we get a variation on the Game of Thrones truism: “You win or you die.” As long as you can stake a valid claim to be a player in the game—even if you’re more Karstark than Stark—you’re not dead. Leaving is failing, even if failing in this case means “failing to be exploited by a system that simultaneously turns your hope and your desperation against you.” Who sets out to fail? We wanted to be professors because we had professors we loved, because we love teaching and/or our fields. For an adjunct, quitting academia is like breaking up with a fiance/e who keeps refusing to set a wedding date (or just keeps pushing it back). Even if your friends are all telling you to break it off already, your emotional investment keeps you plugging away, dreaming about flowers and centerpieces and organ preludes.*
The other bit that makes quitting tough? What else are we going to do when we’re out? No matter how many odd jobs we’ve held during or interspersed with our studies, it’s hard to build a foundation for an alternative career while trying to build the foundation for the one you expect to be your lifelong occupation. Even if you smuggle the education section to the bottom of your resume, you’ve still got that “PhD” stuck there, begging for explanation. In my case, where I’ve even gotten to the interview stage, it’s usually the first or second thing to come up. An enormous amount of education, a small amount of relevant experience…this is not a formula for an easy job hunt. Given the choice between months of unemployment—remember that adjuncts typically don’t get unemployment insurance—and a crappy job, most of us will stick with a crappy job.
Academic conferences these days usually feature a panel on “non-academic” employment. I’ve stopped attending these. They’re a useless gesture, tending to highlight a small klatsch of of folks with PhDs who have carved out lives outside the professoriate. Just, you know, not very far outside the professoriate. (The organizers are no doubt limited by the need to draw panelists from within the professional society…or actually pay presenters for their time.) I went to one of these panels a year ago in which half the speakers worked for universities. One of them even still taught courses every other semester or so. (The other half of the panel? Somebody who worked for a foundation and somebody who worked for an early music publisher.) This was the precious outside I was so interested in? Never mind that the panelists had taken spectacularly idiosyncratic paths to reach their current positions, most of which seemed to involve knowing somebody who’d been able to offer them a job at the right time. The tl;dr version of these panels boils down to “Look, here are some people who did it! You can, too! If you want to, you crazy person.” Who, precisely, is that supposed to help? And how?
As for me, I’m still working on carving that idiosyncratic path, hoping that I can either strike up an acquaintance with the right somebody or get my foot in the right door to get out of this application-rejection cycle. Just remember that no matter how stupid it might seem to stay on the Academy’s Skid Row, leaving can feel just as stupid.
*Aside: my partner and I had an extended discussion about wedding music well before we even considered getting married to each other.