On Friday night, I was at restaurant with a group of friends, and as it turned out, three of us (me and two other female Ph.D.s) were all in non-traditional academic jobs — and we all love our jobs. All three of us are in center-related positions with administrative and research responsibilities, and we are pretty happy. One expressed a wish that she had more time for independent research, but that is not an uncommon sentiment even in traditional academic jobs.
I thought of the our conversation when I read this piece in Inside Higher Ed:
When we were interviewing contributors for the first edition of Job Search in Academe, an editor at a respected academic journal told us apologetically that she “liked her job, she really did!” Many of the pleasures of teaching, she told us, were central to her job on the “outside”: working with writers, playing with words and layouts, engaging in meaningful conversations, working a varied schedule. The tragedy is that she felt she had to convince us of that.
Why do those of us in non-traditional academic jobs feel the need to convince others that we like our jobs, we really do? I’ll tell you why – because of the pitying looks we get from other academics when they hear what we are doing. I think these pitying looks come from two groups of people in particular.
The first group is tenure-track/tenured professors who believe that any other path is inferior, and that those of us not on that path must not have what it takes to succeed. These people are snotty elitists and there’s not much we can do about them. I don’t waste my time worrying about these people.
The group that has bothered me more in the past are the deluded grad students and post-docs who believe that 1) any other path is inferior (see above), 2) any one who takes a job off the tenure-track is “giving up,” and 3) of course they’ll succeed, their experience will be different. These are the same people who give you pitying looks if you take a tenure-track position at any institution that is not an R1 or a prestigious private SLAC.
I’ve decided not to let this group bother me any more either. They’ll learn about the real world soon enough.
And at a conference a couple of weeks ago, I felt like a shift was occurring in the academic zeitgeist. When I met new people and told them about my job, they genuinely seemed to think it sounded like a great job. Some even seemed envious. Of course, by being there and presenting results from this summer’s fieldwork, I was able to demonstrate that one could be an active researcher in a position like this, which might have helped a bit.
I don’t know if I am noticing them more or what, but it seems to me that non-traditional academic positions are becoming more common. Another friend of mine just got a position running the educational/outreach programs at a research station, which I think is a great job for her. But when she got the job offer, a whole bunch of people did the equivalent of coughing and looking away. I was one of the few to encourage her to take the job and to enjoy it. And so far she’s glad she did – especially since her other option was adjuncting in a big city and keeping her fingers crossed that one day, one of those universities in that city just might offer her a permanent position.
I don’t think of my job as “second-best,” and neither should the rest of us in so-called “alternate” careers. I get to do everything I love about academia – and I avoid many of the things I hate about it. I’d say that’s a pretty good deal.
Telling academics that you don’t want a tenure-track job is a lot like telling regular people you don’t want to have children.
Seriously. Try doing either one, and you’ll often hear the same set of responses: It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done; How can you be fulfilled if you don’t?; You’ll change your mind when you get older.
I never had any doubts about not wanting children. I did struggle quite a bit with the decision to leave the tenure-track path. My struggle was summed up very eloquently in a paragraph by Dean Dad, singled out and quoted by The Happy Scientist:
I’m convinced that one reason some people won’t let themselves let go of the dream, despite years of external signals suggesting that they should, is a sense that it would reflect a personal moral failing. They’ve identified so completely with the ‘meritocracy’ myth that they feel a real need to redeem themselves within it. It’s more than the money; other fields often pay more. Instead, they see the status of “tenured professor” as a sort of validation of everything they’ve done. Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure; lifelong “A” students, as a breed, aren’t very good at that. It’s not what they do.
Yep. That’s it.
As of next week, I will have been at my position here at the research center for 6 months. I am really and truly enjoying this job. And the paycheck. And I did a short teaching stint last month, and remembered how much I did not enjoy teaching. At this point, my doubts about leaving the traditional path are pretty much gone – it’s something I started considering long ago, back around the time I finished my Ph.D. in 2005, and the fact that I am happier now than I have ever been is very affirming. I am finally feeling secure in my choices.
Try telling that to other academics – especially grad students and postdocs who are out there on the job market. Am I threatening their choices? I never say, “Only an idiot would want that job”; I always carefully phrase it as, “It’s just not the right choice for me.” Why do they feel the need to defend their pursuit of the traditional path?
My choice to remain childfree has nothing to do with other people’s choice to reproduce – but perhaps they have deeply buried doubts about it, and my choices threaten their peace of mind. I suspect it’s the same with academics. They have their doubts too – that maybe the traditional path isn’t right for them either, but they really don’t know what else to do.
Academia may seem like a liberal haven, but it’s not progressive enough to encourage people to stray from the traditional path. To any academic who has their doubts about that path, I say: don’t let them make you feel like a failure. There is so much more out there, so many options that can make you feel happy and successful. Don’t let other people define your life.
Some of you know that I turned down a tenure-track job offer earlier this year, but you may not know why. Here’s the story.
I applied to a large number of tenure-track positions, at many types of institutions, and ended up landing four campus interviews this past spring. Since I have a pretty strong teaching record (the result of several years as an adjunct before my postdoc) and because my publication record is good but not stellar, all of these interviews were at teaching-oriented schools with ambitions for increased research but not much funding. I went into these interviews with an open mind and a desire to like these schools and see myself pursuing a career there.
The first interview was at a small branch campus of the same university where I did my postdoc (I was at the large R1 flagship campus). I liked them, they liked me. The college was small, but the science building was relatively new and had great teaching labs and other teaching resources. The startup funds were astonishingly low, but throughout the interview process the committee and I discussed ways that they could build some infrastructure that would allow me to conduct my research. The teaching load was very high – either 3 lectures per semester, or 2 lectures and 2 labs per semester, which somehow was presented as a preferred alternative to the 3/3. Even though the funds were low, and the teaching load was high – and the location was, shall we say, less than desirable – I was seriously considering it.
Two days later – on a Friday – the provost called me to offer me the job. I let it go to voicemail – that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? – and panicked for a bit. I still had three more interviews to go. I wanted to have time to see other possibilities and maybe have some negotiating room if I had other offers. But, perhaps best not to look a gift horse in the mouth, right? I called the provost back, and the job was offered to me, but with a low, non-negotiable salary, a low, non-negotiable startup, and I was told that the infrastructure that we had been talking about was NOT going to happen. Huh. Then I was told that they wanted an answer by Monday. Double huh. I asked for one to two weeks to make the decision. The provost said that s/he would talk to the search committee chair and let me know.
Sunday night, I was at the airport en route to my next interview. The provost from school #1 called back and I again let it go to voicemail. I listened to the message – to learn that they were withdrawing the offer because I asked for time to make a decision.
Seriously. All I asked for was a very short period of time, and they withdrew the offer.
I did not return that phone call. To hell with them. I went on to my remaining interviews, performed pretty well (I thought so, anyway), and did not receive any more offers. In retrospect, that’s a good thing. None of these places seemed like particularly good places to work. At all of them, the teaching load was high (usually a 3/3), the research funding was low, and the departments had ambitions, which meant that expectations were pretty damn high. At every interview, when I met with individual faculty and they told me what it was like to work there, I had a horrible, panicky, sinking feeling in my gut that told me DO NOT WORK HERE. Even though nearly all of the faculty members seemed to like their jobs and their colleges, and most of them seemed like they would be great colleagues, at some very basic level I knew that this was not the right job for me. So I went looking in a different direction – and landing my current job almost immediately. It’s a much, much better fit.
And that’s why I turned away from the tenure-track path, and don’t feel bad about it at all.
I see a lot of bloggers complaining that their students do not call them “Dr. So-and-so” and how that is disrespectful – and how it happens far more often to female faculty than it does to male faculty. Having done quite a bit of teaching myself, I understand the problem very well and sympathize.
But I would argue that it is worse when you are in an administrative position and the faculty members that you are managing assume you are staff, and address you as “Ms.” in their emails. Even when your email signature clearly points out that you have a Ph.D. When I was hired for this position, they were looking for someone who had a Ph.D. and who would continue to do active research, because they felt that it would be valuable for many of the responsibilities of this job. They are even giving me a faculty appointment in one of the departments to assist with things like getting funding. However, several of the faculty members involved in this center apparently did not get that memo, because they clearly regard me as a secretary of sorts. Which explains why they never fucking answer my emails.
I am disgruntled.
After an epic and ultimately unsatisfying (but not technically failed) tenure-track job search, I began to wonder once again what exactly it was I wanted to be when I grew up. At that moment, I saw an intriguing ad for a job as one of the directors of a well-funded and exciting research center in my field. I applied, despite my conviction that I was underqualified… and got the job. And now here I am, trying to figure out how to get things done (the 75% administrative part of my job) while not losing myself (the 25% research part of my job). So far, so good… but we’re just getting started.
Unlike the graduate school/post-doc/adjunct/tenure-track world, there isn’t much out there in the blogosphere about jobs like this one. The first time I saw the phrase “alt-ac track” was in this recent article at ProfHacker, and even in that article there’s no acknowledgment that such jobs exist in the sciences. I decided to start this blog to write about what it’s like to be in this position, and hopefully meet other people in the same kind of career. So… hello!