Why Moving on from an Academic Faculty Job is So Difficult
I quit the tenure-track academic job hunt – or maybe, it quit me. Maybe it was a mutual decision. I’m not even entirely sure anymore. It isn’t like I can sit down and have a cup of coffee with my ex, Higher Ed, and say, “so now that some time has passed, what happened?” Anyway, it didn’t work out. I guess that is all you need to know.
I am not alone. Recovering from this has been one of the hardest things that I have experienced. I feel, on the one hand, that is a dramatic reaction, because I have suffered what I would qualify as much more significant losses in my life. Yes, there was some emotional things to work through, but it is still challenging to move on to a new career.
I’ve been giving this some thought. Why can’t I bounce back? These are some explanations that have come to mind about why academic faculty seem so stymied after an ousting from the tenure track.
- Being off the tenure track means starting an entirely new career. It is not like being laid off because a company is downsizing or waiting out a bad economy to return to your field. When you cannot get a tenure-track job after years on the market or, worse yet, lose tenure when you go up for it, that is it. It is over. It is not the same as being, say an engineer, who can apply for work in the same/similar field with a competitor. It is more like being a physician who has their license revoked. If you aren’t completely in, you are completely out. Unless you are an adjunct. Maybe.
- It is like trying to switch the direction of a speeding train. Most likely, someone with a Ph.D. spent around a decade earning their degree. But it isn’t just time; it is effort: grant proposals, research, journal articles, getting teaching experience, working with luminaries, fieldwork, lab work, hours in the stacks… It takes a lot of work, energy, and sustained momentum to finish a program and graduate. The focused drive that has rewarded you to this point, something that has worked in the past, has stopped working. If you are on the Ph.D. train, someone just changed the directions abruptly.
- When you apply for industry jobs, you are competing against people who have the appropriate degrees and experience. For example, you may have a Ph.D. in history, but do not have a degree in library or museum science. You might be an exceptional researcher and capable of UX studies but have zero industry experience. This is likely not your fault, exactly, but the result of the out-dated/inexperienced mentorship that your graduate institution offered.
- Ph.D. studies are isolating. You may not have developed strong enough relationships with your cohort or developed the “real-world’ networks that help you find a job when the tenure track doesn’t work for you.
- You don’t want to waste an expensive degree or do something that isn’t a passion. To do so would mean that the aunt who kept asking “what are you going to do with THAT?” was right to challenge your judgment. If you spend all of this time, energy, and money on studying a topic, it is something that you are passionate about to the point that other professionals recognize you for your expertise. To take a job that is unrelated makes you feel defeated, causes you to question your abilities and worth, reminding you that you couldn’t cut it. It is a hard, bitter pill to swallow if you have been an overachiever all of your life to, well, not be one anymore.
- The systemic biases in academia are present in corporate jobs. Ageism, sexism, racism – all the -isms – are ubiquitous in the job market. It is likely that the Ph.D. holder unable to make it on the tenure track because they were a non-traditional student, for example, will also face similar issues in non-academic markets.
- There is no closure. Ever. A system rejected you, not a specific person or employer. You can’t go up to a luminary or someone on a hiring committee to get an understanding of what happened. Sure, they might give you feedback. It might be honest and even helpful. But chances are, while you were on the market you had a few interviews and even made a short list or two. In the Olympic-like setting of the academic job market, getting shortlisted without a job offer repeatedly is like getting a silver or bronze medal over and over. It is not the same as being fired for doing something specific or laid off because of the economy. In the end, it was because of something qualitative about you that you probably had little control over that didn’t work for the “system.” When you come to this realization, it undermines your confidence and self-worth. There is no longer any validation from colleagues or other institutions of higher ed.