jobs

Everything’s Coming Up Milhouse

Saturday, I finished the first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. There’s another post percolating about finishing a novel draft versus finishing the dissertation draft (a descendant of the NaNo vs. Diss post). For now, I’ll leave it at “feels pretty good.” That capped off a week in which I finally got a job, the weather was moderate, and my son finally began to settle in to his new school. As a bonus, I discovered that the pan-Asian place up the street is good enough to go back to repeatedly. It was the best week I’ve had in a long time.

It was also a long time coming. It’s only been a fortnight since I was stuck wondering just how long I’d be waiting. It felt like ages since I’d left academia, and a long time since I’d started applying for teaching jobs (even though it had been about five weeks). My wheels were spinning and spinning and it did not seem as if I had gone anywhere. Then I suddenly got some traction and everything moved quickly.

Over and over for the last few years, I heard variations on “Keep working. If you do, something good will happen.” Eventually. I understand why I heard it: there really isn’t much you can say to a person who is stuck in limbo. Keep working. Something will give. Don’t reconsider your past choices, reconsider your current options. True and true and yet absolutely unsatisfying when you are in the middle of nothing.

I would love to be able to turn to the postacs who read this blog and say “look, something good really will happen!” I can’t bring myself to be quite that valedictory. This is not to say that finally starting a new career is like the actual Simpsons moment that led to the title (in which Milhouse is super-excited that the flood pants he’d just complained about are keeping his cuffs “bone dry” while his room floods). It’s a significant step…and an exhausting one. The reward for working is more work. In my case, it’s work that I love despite the commute, despite eighth-graders who will erupt into conversation quite literally whenever I stop to take a breath. It’s good.

From here at what feels like the other end of the tunnel, I would not say “keep working and something good will happen.” That’s too close to the adjunct treadmill for my comfort. I will say two things. The first is this: ask yourself what you can do right now to get yourself moving in the direction you want to go. And the second: surround yourself with people who will support you.

As much as I fumbled with that first bit of advice, I have been incredibly lucky with the second. For the last few years, I’ve been surrounded by friends and family who said the things I needed to hear (whether I wanted to hear them or not) without judging me. I have, like so many happily married people, the absolute best spouse on the planet. Without her, I couldn’t have drafted a novel or completed my teaching certification or done a hundred of the other things that have gotten me to this point. She is awesome and I hope all of you find somebody you like as much as I like her.

My mom and my brother heard more of my complaints than anybody else, and they never hung up on me. They were my best cheerleaders.

My in-laws help me forget all of the things I dislike about Texas. They’re that good. From watching the kids to playing RPGs, from coming over for dinner to helping us move into the new house, they have been a constant and welcome presence for the last fourteen months.

Last but not least, thanks to my kids. You might not ever read this, but you’ve kept me going.

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Hired!

Today, almost two years since I started looking for full-time work, I found some. I’ll be teaching 8th grade English at a charter school starting Monday morning.

“Two years” is a long time, but it’s not as though I spent 100 weeks constantly pushing out applications. No, the first stage of the job hunt was job-hunt academic style: compiling ridiculous portfolios, forking over money to Interfolio to manage and send the documents, then sitting on my hands for months waiting for any hint of broken silence. (And looking at the job wiki to discover when candidates had been invited to interview and the silence was meaningful rather than negligent.)

I took some time off from job hunting, too, once my spouse and I decided to move the family down to Texas. I was recovering from my decision to leave and taking care of the kids full time. There was no reason (I thought) to begin looking for a job 1200 miles away. I had not even decided what kind of jobs to look for. Soon enough, I was busy with the move.

Once we got to Texas, I started hunting work in earnest. Despite an initially rosy job outlook for my significant other, neither of us had landed steady employment in our first six post-move weeks. My spouse started doing some face-painting gigs, and I started substitute teaching. Reluctantly. We needed the money. My daughter was in pre-K, home at 10:45 in the morning. We could call on relatives to help out watching her (and my son when he got home around 3), but for a long while parental responsibilities kept me from subbing every day, especially once my spouse found a full-time job.

I kept applying for jobs in that stretch. Technical writing. Copywriting. Advertising. Intro-level design jobs. Proofreading. Editorial. One coordinator position that I particularly wanted that was nearly identical to the one I’d had between my master’s and doctorate. I got zilch. As with the academic searches, the “answer” was almost always silence. The few actual rejection notices I got were HR boilerplate. The situation was disheartening (and I commented/complained about it regularly here on Walking Ledges).

In March, I got my first long-term sub assignment. It was at a pretty “easy” school with a reasonable socio-economic mix of students. Some were startlingly wealthy, but the school stopped short of being a suburban island. Getting to teach, to have some control over the lessons and deliver content rather than worksheets…that was good. Combined with the fact that I had finally realized I needed more (or different) qualifications on my resumé, my experiences as a long term sub were enough to push me into an alternative certification program that I had rejected when first looking for work.

At the beginning of the summer, everything looked rosy. We bought a house. I was certain that I’d get a job before the school year started. When that didn’t happen, I started to worry. I was, this week, ready to go back to substitute teaching and stoically get through another year deferring the full-time work I’d been seeking for so long. I was pondering supplemental entrepreneurialism. Then I got an interview invitation. I was invited back to do a teaching demonstration. Twenty minutes after I wrapped up a short lesson on predictions and expository writing, I had a job offer.

A year ago, I would have been skeptical if you’d told me what I’d be doing now. Two years ago, in the final throes of my dissertation and before I’d discovered how chilly the job market is, I wouldn’t have believed you at all. I did not spend most of a decade studying music so I could  teach 13 year olds about expository writing. Here’s the thing, though: that time is already spent.

I could cling to that investment and try to fit life to a Procrustean bed. I tried that for a while…and it only made me miserable and angry. I’ve come as close I’ll ever be to being a professor. I try not to spend too much time on regrets. I got to spend a lot of time with my kids. I completed a doctorate. It’s time for the next thing.

It is exciting and it is daunting and everything that a new opportunity should be. It’s not perfect, but it is in so many respects a first job. Those aren’t perfect. This one is Pretty Good. If there’s anything I’ve learned in getting through and out of grad school, it’s that you take Pretty Good when you can get it. Even if it takes two years.

——

Full-time employment will mean some changes here at Walking Ledges. The three posts I’ve managed each week for the last month will drop back down to two. Nicking from Novels will run on Mondays. The other post of the week—on writing, postac, teaching, or maybe even music—will come out Wednesday or Thursday. I am not abandoning my writing. I’m doing NaNo this year and should have my first novel drafted by the end of this weekend. This is still the place to come if you want a first crack at my writing. With fewer blog posts, I plan to post short updates via Facebook  and Twitter . Feel free to follow me there if you’re keen on the latest news of me.

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…

“Meritocracy”

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.

The 962nd Cut, and Signs of Regrowth

Yesterday I had a screening interview and took some tests on vocabulary, grammar and proofreading. It seems possible I’ll have a job, of a sort, next week or not too long thereafter.

Leaving academia is like pulling off a bandaid. I suppose it’s possible to do it with a quick rip—if the right opportunity presents itself and you know just what you want. For me, the bandaid’s coming off slowly. It started slipping with applications for tenure track jobs. It began to rip when the rejection letters arrived. Moving to a place just to live there, not because of a job? That was another tug.

Simply applying for nonacademic jobs hasn’t affected me all that much (though it’s not especially entertaining going through the standard early-career professional pains of  “four+ years of experience required”). I’ve had more practice than I like hurling cover letters and my resume out into the void. Getting to an interview, though, taking concrete steps to start a new job…that was an unexpectedly sharp yank on the bandaid.

This prospective job isn’t glamorous. It is vaguely in my new field (words). The pay is worse, on an hourly basis, than most adjunct jobs. On the other hand, I’ll be getting paid for all the hours I work, rather than 20% of them. I’ll only have to go to one site. When I leave work, it will stay there. It’s just not the kind of thing I imagined doing at any point during graduate school. Even though I made plenty of noises about plans B when the job market came up, I’d always imagined something more than contract-to-hire proofreading. Funny how they don’t invite those folks to the “nonacademic careers” panels at the big conferences, huh?

By most of society’s metrics, I’m taking a step down. That is not fun, even though my reasons are good. PhDs aren’t “supposed” to schlepp, even if they’re schlepping words. Years of studying discourse provide me many ways to talk about that step down, about social constructs and material circumstances, about freedom and necessity…but they don’t really change my feelings. I get by by reminding myself that this is a step. It’s motion. I’m not sure yet whether it’s progress, but I’ve been in a holding pattern for a long, long time.

Even holding patterns yield occasional surprises. The most recent surprise for me is that I’m feeling the urge to write music again—snatches of melody, bits of orchestration. Aside from some occasional pieces and a handful of incomplete songs, I haven’t composed anything since leaving Ohio. I thought that part of me had withered, killed by seven years of too much scholastic sun and not enough artistic water. It must have had deeper roots than I thought.

I think that when I get a paycheck, I’ll invest in some nice manuscript paper.