leaving academia

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.

Good Wil Wheaton

I struggled with many questions. Was I ready to admit defeat? Was I ready to admit that I’d given it my best shot, but I really was a washed up has-been? Was I willing to say out loud that I was . . . That Guy?
—Wil Wheaton. Just a Geek (Kindle Locations 3050-3052)

That passage comes near the end of Wheaton’s Just a Geek, as he ponders accepting the infomercial job that would, he believed, kill the acting career he’d been chasing since childhood. He needs the money. His family needs the money. That struggle—between dreams and realities—is the constant, beautiful thread through Wheaton’s book. A mixture of reflections and selections from the original wilwheaton.net, Just a Geek is a Bildungsroman without the “roman,” a story about a grownup working hard at growing. Wheaton’s got a remarkable ability to take his raw early blog posts and turn them into the foundation for a compelling narrative of what Neil Gaiman calls “creat[ing] his own second act.”

I have a lot of future blog posts penciled in about my favorite writers, about what they’ve meant to me and why I admire their writing and storytelling. Wil Wheaton is not exactly one of my favorite writers, but I don’t think I’d be doing this blog without Just a Geek. I stumbled across it in a Humble Bundle shortly after I received my last batch of rejection letters for academic jobs. It was the first book in the bundle I read, and I devoured it in one of those clock-defying binges word-lovers know well.

The book works for many reasons, but I think the vital one is Wheaton’s ability to get through the heaviest moments with a light touch that isn’t simply crying coming back around to laughter. There’s funny throughout the book, don’t get me wrong. But when Wheaton (I’m still too much an academic to call him ‘Wil’) talks about the bad times, he doesn’t let himself become self-indulgent. He’s unflinchingly self-critical and leavens stories of his past self-indulgence with gentle self-mockery. He lets us know how bad things were without just telling us how bad things were. All of this is a fancy way of saying that I liked the book as a book, even if it fell my way because Wheaton has carved himself out a space as a geek culture hero.

I’m posting about it, though, because it’s as close as anything is ever likely to get to the intersection of my two previous posts. I didn’t have anything like Stand by Me or Star Trek: The Next Generation in my background to “live up to” or “grow beyond,” but I did have 30 years of people telling me I was awesome and could be whatever I wanted to be. I was really good at school. I paid attention to my work and, whether in front of a keyboard or a classroom full of undergrads, I believed I belonged. I had a long way to go, but I knew my craft and consistently worked to improve it. I was supposed to be serious business.

Of course, all of my friends were also serious business. The bigger problem was that institutions of higher learning were even more serious about conducting a certain kind of business. They didn’t want me for that one. As with Wheaton’s string of unsuccessful auditions, good work was an imperfect defense against rejection. After my lightning read through Just a Geek, one of the anecdotes that stuck with me was Wheaton’s story of meeting Sean Astin at an audition. They’d been friends but fallen out of touch, and they happily caught up with each other in the waiting room. And they were competing for the same job. Neither of them got it. Welcome to every academic conference in the fall hiring season. No matter how happy you are to see your friends, you’re all on the hustle to meet the right people, try and be memorable (good memorable!) to anybody who might be on a hiring committee or a reviewer for a journal. There’s no more money in being an underemployed academic than an underemployed actor.

Wheaton took the infomercial job. He put his family ahead of the ambitions that had led him to quit TNG in the first place. That dream had stalled out, and he had others that were going somewhere. Slowly, through his writing, he was finding other ways to be the person he wanted to be. And as this was happening, he was also finally coming to terms with what TNG meant to him. He allowed himself to be comfortable with it, to take joy in the friends he’d made and the work he’d done. He let himself geek out about the things he wanted to geek out about. That’s worked pretty well for him—in the nine years since Just a Geek came out, he’s been featured everywhere from The Big Bang Theory to The Guild to more webcomics than I can count. He’s become that guy, but not the one he dreaded when he pondered that infomercial.

I knew him as that guy when I read Just a Geek, but it didn’t matter as much as it should have. It was easy to put Wheaton’s subsequent success aside and see the reality of his struggles. That is why the book means something to me, something important. I don’t feel like my struggles are so different as I let go of something I’ve wanted for years to keep my family fed and housed, to do the things I feel I should be doing. I didn’t need Wil Wheaton’s permission to do this, and there isn’t anything in Just a Geek that says “go out and make art.” It isn’t a self-consciously “inspirational” book, which is what makes it inspiring.

Trouble shared is trouble diminished. Reading about Wil’s struggles (and here I’ll break tone and go to the first name), knowing what he’s accomplished since—it made the darkness a little less dark. So thank you, Wil Wheaton, for writing a book that’s meaningful for me, for coming to peace with Star Trek, for sending Aeofel into a pit of acid in the name of role-playing. Thank you.

You can keep up to date on Wil Wheaton’s geek career at http://wilwheaton.net. If you’re interested in his more formal writing, you can find his digital works—including Just a Geek—at http://wilwheatonbooks.com/. Go check it out. 

Of Dreams, Carrots, and Towers

If it wasn’t for disappointment/I wouldn’t have any appointments
—They Might Be Giants, “Snowball in Hell”

Sometimes I miss being asked about my research. Not many people have asked since I defended my dissertation and earned the right to start signing my e-mails with “Dr.” The reason I don’t get asked very often is tied to another question: “did you apply for {insert tenure-track musicology job}?” Last year, the answer to that second question was almost always “yes,” with the exception of a few searches whose early deadlines I missed. This year, my answer will be “no.” When I was finishing my undergraduate work, I thought that professors had the best job ever: flexible schedules, the chance to work with smart young people, the vague but appealing “life of the mind.” I went to a small, selective liberal arts college and my idea of “adjunct faculty” began and ended with the applied instrumental teachers who held down performing jobs and usually had studios at several of the local colleges.

Ten years later, I know a hell of a lot more about adjunct faculty. I’ve been one of the now-ubiquitous adjuncts. Most of the academic workforce in higher education operates off the tenure track. Even so, the tenure-track job I dreamed about when I began graduate school is still dangled before graduate students and contingent faculty like the carrot before the donkey. With a little luck, the right shift in the winds, and a precisely-timed lunge, the donkey can snatch the carrot. The smartest, hardest-working donkeys have a slightly better chance at the carrot than the rest, but only slightly. You have to be a pretty smart, hard-working donkey to get through a doctoral program in the first place.

The chase for the carrot goes on. My friends and I compare notes on which programs write the most respectful rejection letters. We do our best to cheer each other’s successes. With conferences and publications, that’s easy. As a generation of scholars, I think we’re doing fascinating, worthwhile work. When it comes to jobs, though, it’s harder to be earnestly enthusiastic about friends’ success. The odds are good that you applied for the same position, the same fellowship, the same grant. When that happens, you have to be a better person than I am to avoid shading happiness at a friend’s success with hints of jealousy and disappointment. Living in academia is like living in a small town: everybody knows everybody, and even friends step on each other’s toes for want of space to move.

I was more desperate to get out of the actual small town I grew up in than to get out of this metaphorical small town of academia. Like a small town, academia can be comfortable, familiar. My dream lived there. I walked around Minneapolis feeling dissatisfied that my coursework was filled with Continental theorists. I would, I was sure, develop ideas that could elbow their way into the western body of thought alongside Deleuze and Bourdieu and Adorno. I’d use my work in comparative studies to beef up my credentials for musicology positions. I’d make time in my schedule for my kids, even if it meant staying up late and getting up early.

Eventually, nobody had to dangle a carrot in front of me, because I’d made my own carrot, held the stick in my own hands. Although it was much more miserable, it wasn’t that different from my teenage internet romance, where I’d been in love with the idea of being in love rather than with the person I was exchanging letters and books and cassettes with. As I trudged through my dissertation, I had to sell myself on the idea of being done with my dissertation. I finished it in part to spite my only intermittently-supportive institution, in part because I’d already sunk years into my PhD, and in part because I’d sold myself on that idea of being done. Being done would make everything better.

Being done did not make everything better.

I graduated in December. Because of some quirks of academic scheduling and a particularly odd adjunct position I’d taken, I wasn’t teaching in the spring. I took care of my daughter and sat on my hands and waited for something, anything, to come back from the applications I’d spent October and November sending all over the country. I was miserable. I had begun to understand some of the consequences of my mutually laissez-faire relationship with my advisor. My CV was far too thin to insulate me from the chilly job market. I told myself that I’d chase the one-year positions that begin to be announced in the spring. I told myself that I’d get an interview invitation any day now…

…I told myself that I was worthless, that I’d thrown away seven years of my life chasing a degree that was going to get me something between jack and squat. After a decade in graduate school, I was somehow even less employable than I would have been straight out of undergrad. I’d made my wife work full time through our kids’ preschool years, made her live 1200 miles from her family. I was convinced I was failing my family. Late one night it got so bad that I cried for an hour, great wracking sobs that I couldn’t stop. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been alone. My wife helped me get through that night, and the days that came after.

In March, I went to a conference, hoping it might renew my enthusiasm (and because I had a paper to present). I heard more interesting papers than I’d heard at any previous conference. The society members were supportive. They understood my research and some were excited about the way it fit in with their own work. It was the best conference experience I’d ever had. A week later, I was more convinced than ever that leaving academia was the right next step for me. My peers at the conference were all gunning for the same jobs I was. None of us were optimistic about our immediate futures. The early career professionals committee meeting was filled with too-familiar laments, even though my fellow scholars were excited by and committed to their work.

I admire and respect my friends who are staying inside. They are doing fantastic things in the classroom and in their research. I wish they didn’t have to fight the system so hard to do them. It is inspiring to me that they can draw so much strength from the love of their work, even when they’re shoved on yet another committee or have their course load jerked around for the umpteenth time. I’ve realized I don’t love the work enough to put up with all the rest of it.

Giving up a dream is hard. It’s hard even when you know that giving it up is the right thing to do. It’s hard even when you know the dream isn’t really your dream anymore. Graduate school gets inside you like any other sixty or seventy-hour-a-week job does. It becomes a huge part of who you are. It had become a part of me that I didn’t like, but I couldn’t just cut it away. There are parts of academic life that I enjoy, parts that I’m good at. Ultimately, though, they’re not enough. The calculus of happiness is all wrong. (The financial calculus isn’t any better.) When I was busy sliding down the post-defense slope, none of the things that slowed me down came from the work I had done or thought I wanted to do. That dream of my favorite professor’s life was the thing pulling me down, even though it had shrunk from teaching at my ideal program to teaching anywhere with a reasonable salary and benefits. To get out of my hole, I had to let that dream go.

It would be a better story if this revelation had come in a cinematic beam of light, or while playing with my kids, or while noodling around on the piano. It has been slower than that, an ongoing process without any narrative tidiness. I want to make my life with my words, which is good. Writing is satisfying, and it feels right to me in ways that academic work never quite has. Starting over was, I think, the right choice. But it is still starting over. I apply for entry-level positions while keeping my eyes open for those elusive jobs outside academia where my degrees might help. The doubts don’t go away.

I’ve got dreams to chase again, though, and I like my new doubts better than my old certainties.