The #Postac Prestige Trap

“She seemed surprised that I had a real job and wasn’t waiting tables or substitute teaching.”
—Comment from a postac on (somebody else’s) blog

As a substitute teacher, that one grated on me. I still haven’t decided where substitute teaching might rank on a job hierarchy relative to waiting tables—both involve low pay and getting cursed at—but their relative positions don’t matter. They are both jobs, real ones, that real people do. The condescension implicit in the notion of a “real” job is tangled in all sorts of class and educational privilege, but that doesn’t stop it from having power. A “real” job—a professional one with benefits and such—is attractive. There are material reasons for its attraction, certainly, but for people coming out of academia, the “real job” can become something more. One of the roughest things for me to deal with as I re-entered the general economy was the feeling that I was not occupying the role my education said I should. Clinging to social and cultural capital—prestige—is part of what keeps us in adjunct jobs and VAPs just so we can keep being college professors. Continuing to tie those forms of capital to our jobs and identities creates a prestige trap, one that can encourage postacs to shut doors that ought to remain open, or to avoid noticing the opportunities in the first place.

You’d like to avoid that? Here are some things to watch out for:

Ambitions and Expectations

Joining the professoriate takes ambition. Getting in position to join the professoriate takes ambition. Grad school is full of high-achieving smart people who have been told over and over again that being smart and achieving will lead to positive results. You cultivate your intelligence and strive to achieve. That’s how you win. When you get out, whether or not you’ve completed a degree, it’s tough to lose that expectation.

If you follow #postac on Twitter, you’re going to see plenty of posts from consultants and life coaches encouraging PhDs to aim high. It can get a little “rah-rah” at times, full of crowing about what kinds of jobs clients and acquaintances have held. It closely resembles the crowing about tenure-track placements and cushy fellowships…unsurprisingly, since the parties involved have similar training and acculturation.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition. There’s nothing wrong with success. If you’re new to #postac, though, don’t get hung up on snagging a job that suits your ambitions right away. Certainly don’t expect one to fall into your lap. I assumed that the first interview I got would result in a job. You know, because I was good and smart and a hard worker (also enormously overqualified). They never called me back. Being good enough and smart enough does not force society to hand you a job, which leads us to…


Yes, it has to go in quotes. Being good at stuff matters, but never as much as we’d like it to. The best do not always rise to the top. Careers are built as much on connections as on skills. No amount of skill will get you a cousin who’s besties with a prospective boss. Who you know matters as much as what you know. Add to this the orthodoxy of both computerized and human hiring processes, and it can seem that what you know has nothing at all to do with getting the job. Your merits and your employability are a Venn diagram with occasionally small overlap.

The flip side of this is important: not getting the prestige job does not mean you suck at life. The academic job market might have rejected you because your awesome article on postmodernist French cuisine was published in the wrong journal, or because the other finalist had the same advisor as the head of the hiring committee. The nonacademic job market can get nearly as arbitrary. Try to keep rejections from becoming referendums on your personal worth.

Do What You Love

For postacs, this is an especially pernicious element of the prestige trap. Most of us go to graduate school in part because we love what we study. Grad school can kill that love, or twist it into some parody of true feeling, but something of it probably remains. More importantly, it’s easy to cling to the idea of doing something you love as a job. It’s easy to expect a post-ac job to come with the same level of excitement and vocation as the professorial job you imagined or had or gave up on.

If you can swing it, great, but remember that work is work. You are trading your time and effort for money. If you need money, you can do work. An unglamorous 8-5 is fine, especially if it pays a living wage. Even better if it pays enough to keep you comfortably fed, housed, and current on your student loan payments. Waiting tables and staring down gaggles of middle schoolers might not be lovable jobs, but they come with paychecks. You do not have to do what you love, especially if somebody is asking you to do it for free. (Or nearly free, as it is for so many adjunct positions). It’s not defeatist to remind yourself that nobody likes their job all the time. If you find a job that meets your material needs, that you don’t dread going to every day, that you sometimes even enjoy? That’s not okay. That’s good. That’s more than many people have. There is more time in your day than the time you spend at work.

(Miya Tokumitsu writes compellingly about the hazards of “Do What You Love,” including the unique hold the idea has on academics at Jacobin. JC wrote a good post about first nonacademic jobs and free time here.)

The Takeaway

One point underlies all three of these: You are not defined by your job. I (and many others) have written about the ways that grad school and academia conflate identity and profession. It doesn’t have to be that way. Define yourself by your hobbies, your communities, your family…whatever you’d like. Sidestep the prestige trap not by abandoning your ambitions or talents or loves, but by getting over the idea that your job must satisfy them all. There is life beyond postac, and there’s more to it than work.



  1. Well said. Prestige is such a major (and too often unspoken ) factor in the decision to leave (or stay in) academe. We need to acknowledge it more. As for being a middle school sub – I think you are a hero! My daughter is in middle school. They are a tough and complicated bunch–trying to grow up, but still little kids in so many ways.

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