“Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. II” By Fatimah Williams Castro

CastroNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro (@FatimahPhD) is on a mission to help academics see, explore and secure professional opportunities beyond the professoriate. She blogs at Beyond the Tenure Track, where you can also find her downloadable video guide, “How To Expand and Explore Your Options.”

Stepping Off the Tenure Track, Pt. 2

In last week’s blog post, I shared a bit about my journey considering a life and career beyond academic teaching and research. As a first-generation college student, the first in my family to earn a doctorate and a woman of color, my stepping off the tenure track could not be decoupled from community, professional and social responsibilities. I experienced the struggle that many Ph.D.s describe when they venture out into the broader world of work, attempting to refashion their selves and their careers in new and sometimes strange ways.

For me, it was worth it to make this transition so I could exercise the skills, talents and voice that make me feel most myself. As a career consultant, I work with academics who are exploring their career options by choice and by circumstance.

Still, most Ph.D.s come to the process a bit behind the job-search learning curve. That is how I came to develop resources such as the “Top 45 Nonacademic Careers” list and the online seminar and guide “30 Strategies to Launch Your Nonacademic Career Transition.”

It is not uncommon to wonder whether it is worth it to leave a career you know for one you do not, even if you feel disenchantment with where you are and are curious about where you could go.

Here are three things to consider as you contemplate your options.

First, consider what is going on in your life that is causing you to doubt an academic career. Doctoral programs span a good portion of our adult lives, taking anywhere between five and 10 (or possibly more) years to complete. During this time, your ideas about your preferred lifestyle, career and way of working may shift.

Life events may also raise questions about whether to remain in an academic career. The birth of a child. A partner’s job relocation. The desire to increase your income. An aging parent who requires your assistance. Before taking the leap, consider whether a temporary break might help you reconnect with your work as a scholar. Ask yourself: Are your degree and career trajectory still aligned with your interests and career goals?

Map out your updated career goals, interests, ideal work environment and lifestyle goals to see if the degree is still a core requirement for getting there. This process is kind of like doing a personal strategic plan.

Second, get information and take advantage of the resources available to you. Too often, graduate students and faculty members feel the nudge to explore their professional options, but the fear of even the thought of curiosity beyond the academy holds them back. They worry that they may get distracted from their primary goal of finishing the dissertation or securing tenure.

But I cannot stress this enough: exploring is not the same thing as leaving. Learn your options so you can take advantage of them should you need them or desire them.

Get as much information as you can about your interests outside academe. Conduct informational interviews and attend professional events in your area or events around your interests that have nothing to do with research and teaching. Talk with friends, former college roommates, family members and a career coach who can help you consider industries and careers of which you may not even be aware. I developed the Top 45 Nonacademic Careers resource list to familiarize graduate students and Ph.D.s with career fields and industries that have been successful transition points for academics.

You do not have to settle for any career path because supposedly “people with a degree in (fill in your discipline) do (fill in the career),” or “people your age do (fill in the career)” — or any other standard line that you may hear. But you will not have the courage and vision to see what you can do and who you can be if you do not first explore your options.

Third, reframe your definition of failure. Ask yourself these questions: What does it mean to fail? What would it look like if I failed? How would I move forward if this endeavor failed? By the time many grad students and faculty members contact me for coaching, they feel like they have given up on academe and on themselves.

Some are working through deep feelings of shame and rejection and the feeling that they have not been successful in their careers. Some have not been awarded tenure as they expected, while others have made the choice that their relationship with academe needed to end. No matter the impetus for change, they all share a lingering sense of loss and failure.

Asking the questions above help you to identify what failure is and is not. You may find that failure is really just transition. There is always a next step and a second avenue if the original idea does not result as you had hoped.

In addition to these three steps, you will want to be aware of the most common assumptions and missteps that academics make when leaving the academy. I held an online seminar on this very topic. Gathering the feedback from the 73 attendees, I developed a quick guide from the seminar called “30 Strategies to Launch Your Nonacademic Career Transition.” When you have worked so hard for your degree, you should not have to stumble around to put it to use however you need or desire.

“Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. I” By Fatimah Williams Castro

CastroNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro (@FatimahPhD) is on a mission to help academics see, explore and secure professional opportunities beyond the professoriate. She blogs at Beyond the Tenure Track, where you can also find her downloadable video guide, “How To Expand and Explore Your Options.”

Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. I

I remember when I made the decision to apply to graduate school. I was excited about the prospect of being able to dig into topics that interested me and to make a life and career out of those interests. I really wanted to examine deeply questions of race and political mobilization among Black populations in Colombia. I wanted to take an in-depth look at the relationships between constitutional laws recognizing Black populations and the diverse lived experiences of Blackness in Colombia. I marveled at the prospect of being paid to read, write and teach about topics that I was passionate about. What could be better?

Fast-forward six years. I had had a great run as a graduate student. National fellowships. International conference presentations. Publications in refereed journals. An offer for a postdoctoral fellowship at a great university located close to my family.

Yet I started to have doubts. I had a nagging feeling of unease. What if the academic path would not allow me to exercise some of the best parts of my personality and talents — at least not until after tenure, if I could bear it that long?

What If I Decided Not to Pursue an Academic Career?

I will admit that the very thought of forgoing a traditional academic career felt indulgent and selfish. I was the first person in my family to earn a doctorate. Organizations that support diverse scholars had bestowed recognition and fellowships on me. I went to a prestigious, predominantly white university as an undergraduate, so I knew just how powerful it could be as a student of color to have women and men of color as faculty members.

As I considered the cost of leaving, I consulted the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates to calculate how many doctoral degrees in the United States were conferred to African-American women my graduation year. I discovered just 4 percent were — and even fewer were awarded to Black men. Who exactly did I think I was? People were counting on me — and literally counting me — to help turn the tide on the low numbers of faculty of color and to contribute great scholarship to my field.

Ultimately, however, I stepped off the tenure track. It was not a straightforward process, but transitions rarely are. To find my first post-academic job, I struggled to determine what was best for me next.

I did not know whom to confide in about my idea to pursue a life and career beyond academic teaching and research. My dissertation advisers had invested so much time and energy in developing me as a scholar. I felt that I could not let them down, and I did not think they could help me determine what could come next for me professionally.

I talked to my college friends who had gone into public health, medicine and consulting careers. They did not understand why I felt stuck at considering and applying to new options. Unlike them, I did not see the world in terms of industries, skills and abilities. They had no clue how to help me reframe my skills and the last six years of my life into a convincing narrative and application materials that hiring managers would find valuable.

I attended workshops at my university’s career services office. I met with a campus career coach. I did my best to overlook the fact that the programming was geared toward undergraduates in their early 20s eager to find their first job, while I was in my 30s with a Ph.D., married and looking not just for a new career but for a new way of being, operating and expressing myself. Neither my friends nor campus career services understood what it meant to be an academic in search of a new space and place for myself. For better or worse, under current training models, a doctorate is not just a degree, it is also an identity.

I spent countless hours scouring large job sites like indeed.com, usajobs.gov, and idealist.org. But I did not see myself or my skills represented in the job descriptions.

My curiosities led me to professional events in such diverse fields, which, on one hand, was exciting and eye-opening, but, on the other, inefficient and costly. Each event would require me to describe myself in new ways, when ideally you want to hone a particular professional introduction that can eventually lead you to the right contacts and job opportunities. The cost of registration and travel to networking events can mount up quickly, especially with an unfocused search.

I struggled to determine what was best for me next, networked tirelessly and sat through demoralizing interviews. I did not have the information or resources to help me understand and evaluate my options. So I created them.

I desired a more streamlined, step-by-step system for the job search, as an alternative to piecing together information from disparate books, blogs and other sources. I wanted career advice customized to the particular challenges of Ph.D. job seekers who are searching for new career options by choice or by circumstance. I wanted a program that had empathy for what it means to be a person of color or first-generation graduate feeling the weight of social, professional and economic expectations during this career transition.

I took everything I learned and designed a career exploration program called Options for Success. The program allows academics to explore their career options in a safe space. There is no pressure to transition to a non-faculty career; rather, the emphasis is on information on career options and professional work environments, strategies for determining what you want in your post-academic career and life, and assessments to identify your skills and their value to employers.

Those same tools led me to interview for director-level positions with annual salaries ranging from $65,000 to $95,000 and to secure freelance contracts with nationally recognized companies and nonprofits. But I am most proud of participants in the Options for Success program who have successfully transitioned from being unemployed history, linguistics and mechanical engineering Ph.D.s to employed professionals in data science, nonprofit management and research. I strongly believe that academics have the opportunity and skills to work in diverse careers. We just need a streamlined and empathetic process to help us explore our options and to get us from point A to point B.

If you are wondering whether it makes sense to leave the academy, stay tuned for part two of this article, where I’ll share three things to consider as you prepare for your future.

Mourning My Academic Career

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. (Many of her academic publications are available through open access here). She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and at Patheos. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Feeling Like a Failure

Have you ever looked back and realized that you were grieving, but did not know it at the time?

berkeley_face

My bittersweet return to Berkeley.

A few years ago, I got my hands on a journal issue containing an article that I had published based on my dissertation research. I almost started crying; I felt like such a failure and an impostor, there was no way I could feel good about that publication. Since then, I have written more for Conditionally Accepted about how my expectations and goals around my academic career have been changing (like not working over the weekend, or becoming a sex educator [pt. 1, pt. 2, and pt. 3]). But, I still think that there is a major piece that I have missed.

Recently, I received a bunch of notifications as I logged into Facebook one morning. I had been tagged in a post by a colleague, announcing the publication of a book in which I had published a chapter. This actually caught me off guard. Since deciding go to #altac over three years ago (see pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, and pt. 4 on this), I had carefully pruned my social media presence. I unfollowed colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, keeping connections only with those whom I considered friends, or whose work I was so interested in that it did not matter whether I felt uncomfortable being reminded that I was, by necessity, backing out of the academic job market.

I spent three years applying for full-time jobs before deciding that part-time work was okay for now, and in fact, it was better: I could focus more on writing, which I had always wanted to do, and on sex education, a newfound passion and my career Plan B. Nothing to be sad about, right?

This time, however, when my Facebook notifications went nuts, I decided to dig a little deeper. I remembered how I did not have any publications appear in 2015, which felt weird given that I had made a habit of steady publishing since I was a graduate student. Now, it was 2016, and I had a chapter appearing in a book that I was unutterably proud of which to be a part. The book, about teaching fairy tales, represents something that I am passionate about on several levels: the subject of fairy tales, the importance of teaching as a way to open minds, and the focus on gender and sexuality that I brought to that course in particular.

I was so excited for this book to arrive in the mail, which happened over a week after the Facebook notifications storm. I held it, and snapped some silly selfies with it. Those went on social media, too. And all the while, I thought: why was there a noticeable gap in my publication schedule? Why did I notice in the first place? Why do I even care? I haven’t turned my back on academia forever, but let’s just say that it would take a damn near perfect job to rope me back in on a full-time level.

That’s when it hit me: of course, I would step back from publishing the things I would normally publish. For example, the rest of my dissertation chapters as articles because there is absolutely no reason for me to publish an academic book right now. I did not realize it then, but that was a sign of grief.

Signs of Grief

Of course, I would channel my energy into teaching because I love it. And, I would channel energy into my #altac/sex ed career because I love it, and it uses my current skill set and knowledge base while pushing me to expand in other ways; I can grow it into a career that pays at least some of the bills, maybe someday most or all.

Of course, I had taken a break from doing the types of things full-time academics would do. I skipped attending and presenting at the American Folklore Society meeting last year, for the first time since I gave a paper there over a decade ago as an undergraduate.

Of course, I accepted requests to do peer reviews for journals with ambivalence.

Of course, I responded to well-meaning friends who sent me job postings with terse, polite notes stating that I was not looking for full-time academic work, but thanking them thinking of me.

And, being the stubborn workaholic that I am, I only really stopped trying to do it all in 2015 (the year when I didn’t attend AFS; the year when I had no publications come out), despite ostensibly being #altac for three years now. That is how long it took for me to slowly reach the truth of the matter. I was mourning my academic career, what it could have been, and what it likely never will be.

For over a year now, the part of me that was quietly sad about the future that I thought I had warred with the part of me that is achievement-driven-no-matter-what. And finally, when I learned to let some of that need to achieve go, I was able to be quiet and calm enough to look around, notice the life I created for myself, and feel the sadness that had been present for some time.

I should note that I am not one of those people who mourn easily or quickly. In this case, it took some other life changes to jostle me into noticing how I was actually feeling, as well as the newfound ability to sit still for more than a few moments at a time (thanks, regular yoga practice!).

Why Grieve?

The dream of a tenure-track job that is normalized for many grad students is not accessible to all of us. Yet, for those of us who internalize it as ideal, reaching the point where we can shed it and aspire to other things without feeling like failures is challenging. And because we spend so long in grad school, at least five years and maybe even ten or more, it means we have spent a long time trying on these aspirations, getting used to them, planning how to achieve them. Thus, it makes sense that we would need time to step away from them and eventually mourn them.

I believe that it is normal to feel sad about unmet goals and abandoned dreams. The longer we have spent wanting something, or working toward accomplishing it, the longer we may need to unpack the grief that may quietly (or disruptively) accompany its loss. Yet this is not something that we talk openly about or even make space to discuss. Part of the cruel situation of leaving academia is that when we leave, we leave our communities. Perhaps we still count colleagues as our friends, but the impact of leaving (whether we choose to go #altac or simply “didn’t make it” full-time) is that we often have less access to the community than when we started.

As a folklorist, I know that grieving is frequently a communal process. Look at the worldwide examples of funeral customs, mourning songs, and rites of passage that accompany the end of life as well as other major life transitions. When we process major changes, we tend to do so best with the support of our community. The internet has provided a community for many #altac scholars, but we have not necessarily developed the customs or rituals to help ease the transition and validate the sad or ambivalent feelings generated by occupying a liminal space.

Even with me remaining friends with many of my colleagues, I still had trouble recognizing that I needed time, space, and support to grieve my career. I can only wonder how other scholars are handling this same transition, and hope that they are reaching out when they are able.

The Opportunity

Around the time I was pinged on Facebook regarding the publication of the new book, I received word that I would be teaching at UC Berkeley for one semester. It is not a tenure-track job; rather, it is taking over the classes of a tenured professor while he is on leave for one semester.

I did my undergrad at Berkeley. I will be teaching in the program in which I first became enamored of folklore, and where I was mentored and encouraged to pursue graduate work.

It is a bizarre, temporary little victory: I am returning to the Bay Area for 5 months, and might even make enough money to afford living there. I get to teach in my home discipline, and perhaps inspire some young adults the way I was inspired all those years ago. But best of all, I get to do so with my #altac mentality, my understanding that maybe I won’t land my perfect professor gig anytime soon, or ever, and that it is okay to have some fun along the way.

Will my time in Berkeley help me grieve, or move through the mourning process better or differently, or perhaps even complete the process? As of this writing, on the cusp of the spring semester’s start, I have no idea. If nothing else, I think the experience will help reinforce for me the reality that being #altac does not mean never getting access to prestigious, rigorous, or neat opportunities. But what I have learned recently while mourning what my career was “supposed” to be is that grief is not linear. Just as my career did not follow the track I thought it would, grieving does not follow the simple “do it and move it” pattern that I hoped it would.

***

Grieving isn’t fun, and it is even weirder when you do not know that you are doing it in the first place. But giving myself the time to grieve my academic career — even if I just thought I was doing a bad job of churning dissertation chapters into articles — turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Academia may not have made room for me, but I made room for it within myself, in a way that I can live with. That’s been worth the emotional turmoil and the wait. Hopefully I can say the same of my time in Berkeley, come full circle after all these years.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. III

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she blogs for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

As a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed, I have written about my professional journey of becoming an #altac sexuality educator. In earlier essays, I have described the impact of sexuality education on my academic career, and, in turn, the impact of my academic training on my sex ed career. In this third essay, I write about the pervasive sex negativity that I have observed in academe. The many interconnections of sexuality with life in and around universities should concern all of us, regardless of orientation, relationship status or gender identity.

Sex negativity refers to a mind-set that sex is inherently dirty, dangerous, risky, pathological or deviant. Certain kinds of sex are seen as normal and thus acceptable within the bounds of heterosexual procreative monogamy. Meanwhile, those types of sexual identities, expressions and acts that fall outside the bounds are considered deviant.

In a sex-negative society like contemporary America, sex is seen as an activity that taints the people who engage in it, resulting in stigma for people like single mothers, sex workers, nonheterosexual folks and people who participate in sexuality subcultures such as swinging, polyamory and kink. Sex negativity has consequences for things that are not strictly related to sexual acts, too; exploring a nonmainstream gender identity is also enough to get one in trouble.

Within education, sex negativity plays out in very specific — and very harmful — ways. Examples abound, like this one: a high school teacher lost her job after a student stole her phone and shared a nude picture of her that was stored on it. When I was writing for MySexProfessor.com, I had a tag just for all the sex-negative crap that kept happening in academe.

Here are some of the major manifestations of sex negativity that I have observed in academe:

  • American academe is a microcosm of the rest of America, which can be sexphobic, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic, and we can see these patterns replicated in university norms.
  • Students are regularly held to different sexual standards than instructors, with student sexuality being framed as a problem only when it is excessive or combative, and with faculty sexuality usually being treated as a problem when it is visible at all (especially for women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups).
  • The most talked about sex topic in most universities is sexual assault, and yet actual policies to prevent and prosecute sexual assault are problematic, in some cases minimal and often thoroughly enmeshed in the assumptions that accompany rape culture (e.g., victim blaming, lacking an understanding of how trauma works and so on).
  • The university allows outright censorship of sex topics, as has happened to Alice Dreger, as well as faculty members not being defended when they criticize some facet of the sex-gender system, as happened to Saida Grundy.

And that is just the highlights list. As a sexuality scholar, and as a human who (gasp!) has had some personal involvement with sexuality over the course of my adult life, I have had to tread carefully.

Our time in academe is social, and that necessitates navigating sexuality. I do not mean getting it on in the classroom or office but rather choosing which facets of one’s identity are put on display, if being closeted is even an option. If one departs from the cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla norm, then what? For instance, if in the past I have brought a male partner to departmental events, do I have to think twice before bringing a female partner?

Further, the personal and the professional blend in university settings in ways that exceed and contort a scholar’s intentions. When I teach a unit on nonmonogamy in different cultures, am I seen to be advocating for that relationship mode? If I research contemporary sexual subcultures, do I have to think about how it might harm my university’s brand if I am seen doing participant observation at a local fetish night? Surely a scholar who teaches about World War II with interview data from Third Reich leaders is not seen as advocating for Nazism, despite making students read about it and discuss it. But since the way we view sex in America is so pathological, everything about it becomes distorted.

The more time I spend being alt-ac, the less I worry about what anyone thinks of my teaching and research, though I suppose that may be a mixed blessing. If someone wants to take me to task for teaching racy material, well, that is a possibility. As an adjunct, I am extremely vulnerable when it comes to job security. But at the same time, the less that I am wrapped up in the world of full-time academe, the less I feel constrained by these arbitrary norms — by the pressure to be a heteronormative model citizen who looks presentable and does not say things that might offend students or upset the status quo.

One thing that I have learned, and am grateful to have experienced, is that the sex ed community is delightfully accepting, inclusive and sex positive in contrast to academe. I feel safe there to discuss not only whatever sex research I am into at the moment but also anything going on with my own sexuality, gender identification, relationships and so on. That is not because my sex ed colleagues have poor professional or personal boundaries, but rather because we are committed to revolutionizing boundaries that only serve to uphold hierarchies and unjust notions of appropriateness. For all that the university is supposed to be a bastion of progressive thought, free of intolerance and bigotry, I would rather have the vulnerable and more charged conversations with my sex education colleagues than with most of my academic colleagues.

Like most major life transitions, this has been a slow one at times, but ultimately it has also been quite fulfilling. My academic research skills have been a great boon in the sex ed world because, frankly, there is a lot of misinformation out there about sex. My habit of saying, “Citation please?” registers as obnoxious at times, but it helps me do my job better. I suspect that being a sexuality professional in a sexphobic culture will never be easy, but the fit with academe is, thus far, going about as well as I could have hoped.

Sex negativity in academe is, I suspect, especially hard on those of us who are not as sheltered by various facets of privilege. I am a woman who benefits from white privilege, yet as an adjunct I lack the job security of someone who is tenure track or administration. The intersection of identities already impacted more by sex negativity (such as gender and sexuality minorities) with sex negativity in academe makes for a mix of prejudices, silences and constraints. My work as a sexuality educator informs my approach to these topics now, and I would advise, as always, that people try to find the right balance of self-care and activism that lets them keep doing good work in the world.

Easier said than done, I know, but simply having this conversation is a great place to start.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. II

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she blogs for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

In Part I of this essay, I described the impact that becoming a sex educator has had on my academic career. The flip side — how I am being received as a sex educator in light of my academic background — is a slightly more complicated topic. Here I will discuss that, along with suggestions for those with scholarly training for breaking into a new field outside of traditional academe.

I have started regularly attending conferences and conventions devoted to sexuality, sex education and sex research. Some highlights include attending a Sexuality Attitude Reassessment (SAR), Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, and an AASECT Winter Institute on Trauma. I have been interviewed on a podcast, landed some paid blogging work on sites such as Kinkly.com, and have befriended dozens of people doing awesome work in sex ed and related fields. So on the networking and learning fronts, I have accomplished tons — especially as this is something I am pursuing part-time while also doing academe part-time as an adjunct.

Some of my attempts to make it as a sex educator have been less straightforwardly successful, though. I am not the only one to struggle with the transition into alt-ac life; I have read several blog posts that resonated with me, such as ones by Elizabeth Keenan and Katie Rose Guest Pryal and by Lee Skallerup. My sense is that other alt-ac folks encounter similar difficulties with adjusting to different types of workdays, dealing with expectations for what productivity looks like and what “counts” as labor, and so on. I’ll give some examples.

In my decade-plus of presenting regularly at academic conferences (two to five per year, on average), I have only had a few paper proposals rejected. And yet, in the sex ed world, I have not been able to land a single presentation. I am not sure whether I have yet to learn how to navigate the field’s social norms and language properly or if the combined approach to folklore and sexuality, which everyone seems to love when it comes up in informal conversations, just isn’t that exciting to conference organizers. At any rate, I will get that figured out eventually; it is probably just part of the normal learning curve that we all experience in entering a new field.

I suspect that some of my slowness to skyrocket to success in my new career is a result of academic hang-ups. Impostor syndrome does not do anyone any favors, but when transitioning to a new field, it can be a major factor in holding one back (e.g., “I just need to do a little more research before I’m ready to publish/present/teach”).

I realized, too, that thanks to academe, I am used to playing the long game: if I am not making a profit or an impact now, well, that’s OK, I will have years in which to change that. Sure, I could pursue more profitable gigs right now or I could continue to build my skill set and knowledge base and become incredibly bad ass at what I am doing. This approach might work fine in academe, but outside the ivory tower, it means moving at a glacial pace, which can be frustrating and, well, not very lucrative (at first).

Academics also seem to do things at not only a different pace but also according to a different mode of judging worthiness. In my experiences of grad school and beyond, I would research something, present snippets at conference, get feedback and go on to publish my research in peer-reviewed journals. In the sex ed world, it seems as though you need to have made a name for yourself by publishing or teaching on your subject matter before you are accepted to present at conferences. And if that is the way it works, that’s fine, and I will adapt to it. But I am used to demonstrating that I have done the research and am qualified to speak on a topic. It seems like a different kind of engagement to have to rely on one’s reputation to get accepted to a speaking gig.

Finally, I have struggled to move beyond what I call the “show up and be brilliant” model of academe. When you are affiliated with a university, they schedule the classes, reserve the room and handle payment (however measly it might be when you are a grad student or adjunct). You just get to do the work on your end and then show up to teach. I have gotten quite good at navigating this model.

However, outside the ivory tower, everything is a hustle. I have major introvert anxiety issues, too, so that has been hampering me when I think of a great workshop idea. Because after the idea and the planning comes having to book a venue, advertising, selling tickets, having a contingency plan if I have to cancel and so on. Perhaps that is why I have had the most success as a freelance writer. Pitching articles and blog posts to paying venues is much closer to submitting my research to journals than any of the other tasks I have pursued.

Based on these experiences, my suggestions for academics branching out into other fields are as follows:

  • Figure out what counts as legitimacy in that field: certain degrees, certification programs, publishing books and articles, work experience? Calibrate your training to those standards as much as is feasible.
  • Work to identify your hang-ups or comfortable behavior patterns based on academic enculturation. For example, if you struggle with impostor syndrome, work on that.
  • If you are used to your academic network inviting you to speak and publish and suddenly you find yourself outside that network, learn to expand your opportunities in other ways.

Decide what kind of impact you would like to make in your new field. Are you interested in using your academic credentials to transition to expert status and become a go-to for knowledge seekers in the general public, or are you more interested in helping build the field from the inside out? Are you hoping to mentor others in your position? Are you going to contribute to your new field’s knowledge base through research, publishing, presenting, teaching, marketing, brand building or some other keyword I have not thought of because I’m new to all this, too?

There Is Life (And Happiness) Outside Of The Tenure-Track

julie-shayneNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Julie Shayne is a senior lecturer in interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and affiliate associate professor of gender, women and sexuality studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies, as well as faculty associate, at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington Seattle. She was born and raised in California and seems to be living happily ever after with her family in the Pacific Northwest.

“Off Track, On Point”

I should be an advanced associate professor by now. I am not. I should serve on tenure review committees. I do not. I should have had one sabbatical at my current institution by now. I have not.

I earned my Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2000. I cannot lie; I do feel a twinge of frustration watching assistant professors whom I helped to recruit and mentor earn tenure while my position stays relatively unchanged. I have one tier above me on my track (principal lecturer), for which I recently became eligible. But after that, I hit a glass ceiling.

I certainly feel that I am long overdue for a well-earned sabbatical. And I do wish that my primary title were associate professor, not senior lecturer. I am confident that I have the academic qualifications congruent with that title: three books, decades of teaching and service, awards, yada, yada, yada. The longing for a title that equals my years and accomplishments post-Ph.D. is fleeting, especially when I reflect on why I am where I am today.

In 2006, I resigned from my tenure-track assistant professor job about a year before I submitted my tenure portfolio. Yes, I wanted tenure — who doesn’t, especially after going through the hell of the tenure track? But I wanted a happy family and personally rewarding life, as well. And being a West Coaster living in the Southeast made the nonwork happiness an unattainable reality, tenure or not. So I resigned. (I discuss that decision and move in an essay called “Mother’s Day,” which is the afterword in my newest book, Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas.)

When I resigned, I had no idea how things would work out. As a straight, white, upper-middle-class woman, I had the privilege of knowing that my family and I had my husband’s salary and health insurance to fall back on if my career move proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, I had very good timing. I showed up at the University of Washington Bothell just two years after it started admitting first-year college students (as opposed to just transfers), and the campus needed people to teach new freshman classes. I am now housed in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, a unit that encourages me to frame my research, teaching and even service in a way that prioritizes passion and social justice over the treadmill of self-doubt and limiting professional norms. (I have written about this part of the story here.)

Like many academics, I was a professional organizer before I was a professor; that is, a grassroots leftist turned institutional leftist. I became an organizer in 1984 as part of the U.S. sanctuary movement and Salvadoran solidarity movement, working with the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador. I started as an undergraduate student at University of California at Santa Barbara. But not long after getting sucked into the movement, I decided to drop out of college. (Every Jewish parent’s dream: a child who’s a college dropout, right?) I moved to Washington, D.C., ironically, to be CISPES’s full-time national student organizer. I went across the country, campus to campus, traveling with Salvadoran refugee activists, in order to inspire college students to organize on their campuses in solidarity with the Salvadoran revolution. It was a heady time, to say the least.

Health issues forced me to reroute my path, and eventually I returned to college, this time at San Francisco State University, where I earned a B.A. and M.A. in what was then called women’s studies. During my very first semester there, I decided that I wanted to be a professor. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in rooms full of leftists, mostly women, discussing things like black women, music and politics with Angela Davis (who taught at the university at the time) — and I was getting credit for it! Who would leave that reality? Plus, the institution was full of nontraditional students like myself and had great ethnic studies departments and a wonderfully diverse student body. (Very sadly, the future of ethnic studies at San Francisco State is presently under attack.) I wanted to teach at a place like that. And as many of us probably know, when we decide we want to be professors we are not thinking about writing books, academic service or moving to the middle of how-the-hell-did-I-end-up-here U.S.A.

After San Francisco State, I went back to the University of California at Santa Barbara to earn a Ph.D. in sociology. The longer I stayed in academe, the more I could feel my passion being pushed to the margins. I landed my tenure-track job and read the memo all lefty academics get: leave your politics at the door. I didn’t quite realize what was happening as it was happening, because when you’re on the tenure track, you’re not given a lot of time to stop and think, let alone second-guess any earlier decisions.

But leaving the tenure track allowed me to remember why I wanted to be a professor in the first place: to teach about and inspire social justice activism, especially feminism. The longer I teach, the more invested I become in this profession as my locale for social justice activism. In having Latinx students who have never seen their histories taught in a class, I know that fleeing the tenure track for what I originally thought were incredibly personal reasons was also my way of bringing my long-buried activist back to the surface.

And the longer I stay at an institution that lets feminists reshape old and build new degrees to center intersectional analyses, the more I am convinced that prioritizing personal quality of life is invariably connected to our political sanity. It is actually quite embarrassing that it took me so long to notice this.

Colleagues, including feminist colleagues, have invariably looked down on me for presumably prioritizing family over career. Put another way, happiness over self-implosion. In retrospect, I think others have mocked me because I haven’t played by the rigidly outlined rules, rules that say profession first, family and activism, at best, next. I don’t like those rules. I decided to be a professor to teach and do social justice activism, and I am grateful that I have accidentally figured out a way to make that a reality.

But I cannot lie: I do still wish my primary title was associate professor and that I would be submitting my dossier for promotion to full professor in a few years, as many of my grad school colleagues probably will. But not if that means exchanging the emotional and professional satisfaction that I experience in my current reality for what, in the end, is only a title.

I suppose my message here is to ask, why did we decide to become professors in the first place? Did we even know which titles and tracks existed? (I certainly didn’t; I didn’t know what tenure was until a few years into my Ph.D. program.) Are we really advancing a social justice agenda if our so-called professional pursuits are forcing us to abandon our convictions?

I am not suggesting everyone jump ship. As I said, I am very privileged to have the family resources available that allowed me to take the risk, combined with impeccably good timing. From where I sit now, I am quite confident that if I showed up unannounced at my university today, as I did eight years ago, the trajectory would be very different and far less secure.

That said, I do think it’s important for people to pause and ask themselves, “How did we end up on the path we are on, especially if it’s not where we hoped to be?” Although we do not often talk about it, the reality is that there is more than one path through academe. Despite the dominant professional narrative that suggests otherwise, all of us are not meant to be on the tenure track.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. I

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column. Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she writes for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

I wrote a series of pieces titled “I Don’t Know If I Want to Be a Professor Anymore” in the summer of 2014. In the final one, I declared my intention to continue to adjunct on a very part-time basis while expanding the rest of my career into adult sexuality education. (See also part 1, part 2 and part 3.) I feel it’s now time to reflect on how the process has been going and how that intention has impacted my time in academe.

In 2013, I was reluctant to call myself a sex educator, despite the fact that I had been writing for the sex education and research blog MySexProfessor.com for three years, and despite how knowledgeable I was becoming. By 2014, I had decided to claim the title of sex educator, realizing that there are multiple paths to this career. Working one’s way up the ranks of being a Planned Parenthood educator or a peer educator in college or a student of public health is only one path. Some of us go other academic routes or completely eschew the academy. Some of us become sex-toy mavens while working retail, while others enter the field from LGBTQ activism, body work and/or sex work.

So how does this all fit in with maintaining an academic identity? For me, it’s been an eerily good fit, although my progress on the business-building front has also been excruciatingly slow at times.

In terms of academic fit, I am fortunate in that I have some leeway in how I choose to design and teach my courses. In spring 2014, I created a course called Sex Education Across Cultures, cross-listed as an upper-division elective in anthropology and gender, women’s and sexuality studies. We learned about historical, contemporary and cross-cultural approaches to sex education — and I truly mean we. One of the reasons I wanted to teach the class was to improve my grasp of the academic study of sex education. My students seemed to have a good time of it. Like most young people I have encountered, the students were hungry for knowledge not only about sex but also about how information about sex is shaped, transmitted and prohibited.

In a subsequent class on women’s folklore, I brought in sex education topics where relevant, whether discussing how an intersectional approach to age and gender necessitates talking about sexually transmitted infections to the elderly, or how personal narratives about sexual assault can illuminate the power of silencing and shame in structuring people’s experiences of their sexuality.

One of the downsides of being an adjunct is that I am never certain how my actions are being judged, both inside and outside the classroom. So, while I continue to receive outstanding student evaluations, and my classes regularly fill up, I do not have any way of knowing whether I am too out there.

As I am a folklorist first, I believe that any aspect of people performing culture is fair game for the classroom, the monograph and everything in between. Since becoming a gender studies scholar and sex educator, I have decided that gender, sex and sexuality are such important facets of human experience that I would be doing a disservice to my students to exclude them.

Not everyone thinks this way, of course. I have taken far too many classes at the graduate and undergraduate level about culture, history or language where gender was simply excluded, and I am committed to never making that mistake.

I warned at least one of my department chairs that I was shifting my career and my research interests in this direction, in case they googled me or something like that. So far, no one at my college seems to have a problem with this transition, but then, I also haven’t done anything really newsworthy or controversial — other than blog a lot about various sexuality topics from a fairly progressive point of view.

On the research front, I’ve found it beneficial to incorporate insights from the sex ed world into my academic work. For instance, while presenting on the TV show Lost Girl and its intersections with fairy-tale materials, it has been useful to bring in concepts about bisexuality and nonmonogamy to account for how the show transforms folk narrative into pop culture. My academic colleagues do not seem too freaked out by the vocabulary and concepts that creep into in my papers, so that is a good thing.

One persistent theme has been my awareness that sex is a dicey topic in the university: on the one hand, sex sells, but on the other, it is a topic that can disturb people. As Kelly Baker points out in her essay “Silence Won’t Protect You,” “academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity and simplified messages.”

Nothing about sexuality is simple, and given my contingent status, I think it is important to be transparent about how the culturewide attitude of sex negativity impacts those of us in the university. By sex negativity, I mean the belief that sex is inherently dangerous, unhealthy and pathological, types of sex that are seen as nonnormative or deviant especially so. Additionally, the intensification of free speech concerns in contemporary academe makes my position — and those of others like me — especially precarious.

But over all, things seem to be going well on the academic front, or as well as they can be going considering that adjuncting remains an exploitative situation. I will discuss another facet of this career shift in an upcoming article. If you ever wondered what it’s like to network with sex educators, stay tuned!

Figuring Out Where You Want To Land After Graduate School

Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae.

If you’re in a doctoral program, you’re supposed to want to work at a research university. But when I was mulling my career options in graduate school, what I mostly felt was uncertain. In fact, the only thing I knew I didn’t want was a job at a research university.

My secret desire was to teach at a liberal-arts college, but I had plenty of doubts about that, fueled by my advisers’ antipathy toward the idea. Ultimately, I did “come out” of the liberal-arts closet. But it was only when I asked my professors — “How did you know where you wanted to work?” — that I realized how few of them could answer that question with certainty.

The (Myth of the) R1-Liberal Arts Dichotomy

A few years ago, when I was plotting my own future, I spent some time asking Ph.D.s what motivated them to pursue one career over others. Many fellow students, and even some of my professors, said they pursued a job at a research-intensive university (especially an R1) simply because it was the expected path, and the most valued. Sure, you might apply for positions at liberal-arts colleges — just to be safe — but that was merely a backup plan. Even if you accepted a position at a liberal-arts college, you only kept that job long enough to get the kind you really wanted (meaning one at an R1 university).

I also noticed that the distinctions people made between R1 universities and liberal-arts colleges seemed based more on limited knowledge, or even stereotypes, than on actual knowledge and experience. Many seemed to think in black-and-white terms: If you want to do research, take an R1 position; if you like teaching, work at a liberal-arts college. Indeed, when I mentioned my plan to accept the tenure-track job I’d been offered at the University of Richmond, one of my advisers responded, “But you’re good at research!”

It’s worth stating what should be obvious: Faculty at both types of institutions do research and teach classes, albeit to varying degrees. Too many academics erase the variation among Research I universities and among liberal-arts colleges — not to mention the similarities between those types of institutions. For example, research expectations have grown for faculty at liberal-arts colleges (too). However, you may face less pressure to secure a research grant if you teach at a private liberal-arts college with a sizeable endowment than if you are at a public institution strapped for funds.

Another example: While it’s true that liberal-arts faculty teach more classes than R1 faculty, we don’t necessarily teach more students. For example, I teach five classes a year, with enrollment in each course capped at about 15, 20, or 24 students. Even if I taught five classes at the cap of 24 students each, I would still only have a maximum of 120 students. Meanwhile my counterparts at a large research university — teaching three classes with at least 70 students in each — would have 210 students. Since my institution is exclusively undergraduate, I also have the good fortune (in my opinion) of not having to serve on master’s theses and dissertation committees (or help those students navigate the academic job market) but, I do serve as an honors thesis adviser for one or two undergraduates each year.

Of course faculty advisers often ignore all the other options for a faculty career, too, including community colleges, historically Black and Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges — not to mention careers outside of academia.

What If You Don’t Have A Clue?

In the spirit of sharing advice that I had to learn the hard way, I’d like to offer some tips for finding the career path that feels right to you. If you’re 100 percent certain of the path you wish to pursue, good for you! But if you’re conflicted, as I was, then testing out other options along the way is a must, and will make you a more well-rounded academic. How else are you going to make an informed decision?

During grad school — no matter what your advisers are telling you — try to pursue a variety of opportunities to gain training in research, teaching, and applied work. Serve as a research assistant and a teaching assistant (and teach your own classes if possible), but also seek out internships and opportunities to gain experience outside of your university. Take advantage of whatever pedagogical and teaching training your department and university has to offer; attend pedagogical workshops at professional meetings or other universities. While you’re at it, consider which aspects of academic work you excel at and like best. Don’t wait until you finish grad school to discover that you loathe teaching or that spending time alone in an archive gives you hives.

I highly recommend doing a research and/or teaching fellowship at an institution that is different from the one where you’re earning your Ph.D. Having that experience not only makes you a better candidate, but it’s one of the best ways to get a sense of what life’s actually like at other types of institutions.

Short of that, look for opportunities to visit different institutions — attend talks, stay with friends, or, better yet, shadow a faculty member at another campus for at least a few days. If your program or university does not have a formal shadowing program, make your own arrangements to do so.

And don’t limit your forays to academic institutions. Consider doing a summer research internship for a nonprofit or think tank.

My brief stint working at a nonprofit agency during college turned out to be less enjoyable than I’d hoped. I hated doing anything that felt like busy work (e.g., filing, copying), and I hated having a boss even more. Worse yet, the office attempted to maintain a politics-free environment, despite advocating on behalf of LGBTQ professionals. Yet that internship experience reinforced my desire to work in academia, so even a bad experience can lead to something good.

Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to work or observe faculty at a liberal-arts college before I accepted my current position at the University of Richmond. But working as a diversity fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee the summer after my third year in grad school gave me a taste of faculty life at an urban research university and a chance to teach students with different backgrounds than those at my graduate school.

Make connections with Ph.D.s on various career paths. Get to know people at academic conferences, and ask them what life is like at their institution. Talk to recent alumni of your program about their jobs and ask how they came to the path they’re on. The danger of relying exclusively on the advice of professors and students currently in your Ph.D. program is that they’re unlikely to know much about life outside a research-intensive university. (And, no, studying at a liberal-arts college is not the same as working at one.)

Do your homework. After finding that people in my Ph.D program had little useful advice about life at a liberal-arts college, I turned to the Internet for others’ reflections on careers in the liberal arts. (Later, I added my own post— along with a link to this handy chart by Terry McGlynn— to the small chorus of voices on the subject.) I also took time to read some stories of Ph.D.s who had pursued alternative careers (#altac). It was reassuring to know that the choice to work at a liberal-arts college, or a research university, or outside of academia wasn’t so obvious, and it was extremely helpful to find others had talked about it publicly.

Finally, before the time comes to apply for jobs, assess your personal needs and those of your family. If you are pursuing a faculty career, identify which attributes of a job, department, campus culture, and community you care about most — and worry about institution type later. Remember that within each of the Carnegie Classification categories, institutional culture will vary greatly. You might find a Research I university where faculty members genuinely value and reward good teaching and where the work environment is comparable to that of a liberal-arts college. Likewise, some liberal-arts colleges place a premium on strong research and scholarly productivity and will offer resources akin to those of a research university. Treat each campus visit as an opportunity to investigate if the department, institution, and city would be a good fit for you. Interview them.

And if you wind up in a position that’s not your ideal fit, remember, it’s not the end of the world. Treat it like what it is — a learning experience and a temporary chapter in your life.

Why I Quit My PhD Program: Suggestions For Improving Graduate Programs (Pt. 2)

Source: PHD Comics

Image source: PHD Comics.

This anonymous guest post is the second of a two-part essay in which the author reflects on their decision to quit their doctoral program, and offers suggestions to improve graduate education.  Be sure to check out the first part of their essay here!

Stuck In The Past (Part II)

Welcome back! In the first part of this essay, I examined three fundamental aspects of graduate education that seem flawed or lacking in my experience (comprehensive exams, funding, and teaching assistantships). However, there is another side of academic life that begins in graduate school, and if the student is not firmly grounded in these practices, their career and well-being as professionals will suffer. Professional academic work in the university is focused on research and writing, carrying equal or more weight than teaching (in too many cases) with tenure committees or administrators.

While graduate seminars hone critical reading, writing, and research skills, neither of the graduate programs I attended provided adequate guidance on other aspects of being a scholar, such as writing conference proposals and papers, and writing and submitting articles to journals for publication. In this second post, I provide some thoughts on another three issues: preparation for being a “scholar” or professional academic, interdisciplinary research, and post-PhD employment.

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Scholarly Preparation

I imagine there are many ways to address the broad notion of “scholarly preparation,” and I understand that it varies by academic discipline, as well as the size and resources of a given department.

First, departments could encourage (or require) graduate students to participate in an academic writing group. Students would bring anything from course writing assignments to pieces of a dissertation for critique. Faculty would participate on a rotating basis, participating either for a semester at a time, or on a rotating basis of one faculty member present at each meeting of the group. A third option is to have a series of workshops over the course of a couple of months. The workshop series would be held at least once per academic year, but preferably once per semester. In addition to training students how to prepare their written work for publication, students would also have the opportunity to learn how to interact in a critical-yet-respectful way with their peers.

Another approach would be to offer this topic as a course once a year and require all graduate students to take it before starting work on their dissertation. This should be a practical, hands-on course following a weekly plan similar to what Wendy Belcher suggests. The outcome should be a paper revised for submission to a journal, or a paper prepared for a conference presentation. And, in case I need to say it, this should be a course that counts towards the student’s degree, covered by tuition credits/funding, and should be taken seriously by faculty and students alike.

Faculty who are reading this may be thinking, “but I barely have enough time to eat/sleep/do research/spend time with my family as it is – I don’t need even more tasks!” I sympathize with your plight; unfortunately without addressing larger, systemic issues regarding demands on faculty time, I don’t have a recommendation that helps both grad students and faculty.

Interdisciplinarity

It is probably fair to say that the (non)availability of true interdisciplinary study on the doctoral level is a significant limitation that keeps me from pursuing another PhD program, even if I were inclined to put up with comprehensive exams, language study, limited funding, and grueling schedules. I firmly believe that methodologies and approaches beyond my “home” discipline have much to offer, especially when contemplating a project the size and length of a dissertation. Moreover, interdisciplinary study can open new avenues of research and broaden scholars’ thinking. This will also help to alleviate the hyper-specialization that has taken over many academic fields. One of the reasons I have never felt completely at home in academia is the pressure to specialize, and to identify just one (often tiny) research area.

(With that simple paragraph I worry I have given myself away, as I have rarely encountered other academics with the same feelings of being constrained.)

The “easiest” fix for this is to have established accommodations for students interested in cross-disciplinary research. This could be along the lines of allowing credits from coursework in another discipline to count towards the total number of credit hours a student needs to complete, or adjusting degree requirements on a case-by-case basis to tailor degree requirements to the student’s research needs.

Encouraging students to increasingly narrow their focus of research is interesting in the short term. But, has anyone wondered about how that affects the student’s ability to teach and craft new research projects in the long term?

The Elephant in the Room: Post-PhD Employment Opportunities

Finally, I can’t ignore the depressing statistics regarding the chances of academic employment once a student has successfully obtained a PhD. I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that this is a major reason why I am disinclined to consider another doctoral program. The financial burden of additional graduate study, and a severe lack of programs that fit my criteria are certainly primary concerns. But, the knowledge that I am unlikely to find a tenure track job on the other end makes everything else seem insignificant in comparison. Why take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a degree that won’t give you a reasonable chance of getting an academic job?

PhD program veterans like Jennifer Polk are advocating for PhDs to consider non-academic jobs as a viable career path, which has potential for disillusioned or under-employed academics. It also highlights that academics, with or without a PhD, have skills that can be applied beyond academia. This mentality should be incorporated into all graduate programs and career counseling: here’s what your degree will do for you if you stay in higher education, and here are some career paths that make use of critical thinking, researching, writing, and instruction skills. Programs are currently in the awkward spot of needing students to justify their existence, while knowing that only a small percentage of PhDs will be able to find tenured jobs. I can’t say that knowing my chances of getting hired would be 1 in 100 (to pick a number) would have discouraged me from applying to graduate school. However, I think the departments must take more responsibility for making students aware of the realities of their academic career opportunities.

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The problems that I have identified in these two posts are but a few of the challenges facing higher education right now. Large-scale solutions are required, and the suggestions I’ve offered above are patches to the existing system rather than substantial fixes to the overall problem. I’ve often wondered what my ideal PhD program would look like if I could design a model that doesn’t conform to the standard coursework-exams-dissertation template.

How would you change the PhD process if you could? What’s your ideal?

Reflections On Pursuing A Non-Traditional Academic Career

Chris WhiteDr. Christopher White is one of a growing number of academics who have pursued an alternative academic career (or “Alt-Ac“).  In this guest blog post, he reflects on the uncertainty and self-doubt, as well as the joys and triumphs, that he has experienced in defining his academic career on his own terms.  See Dr. White’s full biography at the end.

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I’m Such A Loser (But My Life Is Fucking Fantastic!)

For the past decade or so, I have spent the first weekend of every November at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS – pronounced “quad ess”), a place that has become my academic home complete with a wonderful group of friends who have become a family of sorts for me. It has become one of the most important events of the year for me because it is not only a time for me to learn about the latest work in the field, but also a time to recharge through the love and camaraderie of some of my closest friends.

In a sense, all of us “grew up” together professionally, regardless of our ages. I met most of these folks while we were in graduate school or shortly thereafter as “young professionals.” Over the years, I’ve watched these men and women transition from graduate assistants to junior faculty to settling into their tenured positions. At SSSS, we served the organization as student leaders, on various committees, and most recently we all filled or are currently filling various roles on the Board of Directors. I’m sure that we will continue to do so and will eventually move into the “elder” categories of “past presidents” and such – but let’s rush anything. We’re still relatively young… I think.

Earlier this month, we joyfully gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, spent time catching up over too many cocktails, laughed, maybe even cried, and shared out latest successes and frustrations. I felt incredibly lucky and fortunate to have been surrounded by such amazing, bright, and supportive friends, as I always do when we’re together. This year, though, I felt something else – sadness, envy, and jealousy. It bubbled up in moments when I heard about someone’s latest achievement – a published book, tenure, and new grant award. I wasn’t unhappy for them, quite the opposite. But I felt the creep of self-disappointment, self-criticism, and whole heckuva lot of self-doubt.

 “I’m a failure.”

 “I’m not as smart as these people are.”

 “I’ve accomplished so little.”

 “What have I done with my life?”

 “I shoulda, I shoulda, I shoulda…”

You see, after I completed my PhD, I made the decision not to pursue a tenure-track position in academia. I moved against the stream and chose a job, no, a career that was not “on track” with what I was supposed to do. I consciously made this decision. I wasn’t interested in the game, the scam – the seemingly never-ending treadmill of writing stuff that no one was going to read to impress the right people into giving me a permanent job with “academic freedom” – whatever the hell that really means. At least, I think I consciously made that decision.

Half-Assed Job Searches And Knowing People

The truth is that I spent a year applying for academic positions right before and after graduation. I got a few nibbles, but the big one always eluded me. I had set parameters that made it difficult for me to land the type of job that I thought I wanted. Maybe I should have followed the advice of my mentors and done more quantitative work, toned down the sexuality stuff, amped up the health education work, and applied for jobs at smaller universities in Podunk towns.

Instead, I pushed my qualitative research agenda and only applied for jobs in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. When I didn’t get the jobs that I wanted, I said, “fuck you and fuck the capitalist system of academics and research.” I was a rebel and was going to do things my way… yeah, that’s it.

Then I got a call from a “prestigious” academic in San Francisco. He’d heard about me from a grad school peer of mine. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him at his center. No academic appointment, no tenure-track, just a job. I said yes.

Let’s fast-forward about seven years. I am the director of a CDC-funded project at a youth-focused, LGBTQ organization. I’m adjunct faculty at three universities and enjoy teaching undergraduate and graduate classes. And I feel like a complete failure – at least, I did a couple of weeks ago when I returned from the SSSS conference in Omaha.

Hearing my friends’ stories about being awarded tenure or about their latest publication made me feel like a complete loser. I’m happy for them, and I want them to be successful. At the same time, with each success that I heard about, a voice in my head said, “You made the wrong decision. You are a loser.”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP! Leave me alone. Go away,” I screamed silently to that other me. The doubter. The critique.

Wait A Second…What’s That Smell?

Then something happened. I got on a plane and flew to New York City to attend a training of health teachers and Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisors and to meet with NYC Department of Education staff. I spent two days talking about the work they are doing to support not only LGBTQ-youth, but all marginalized young people, and looking for opportunities to support and grow their work. Then I went to Boston and did the same thing there. Next, I talked to some colleagues about a conference we’re organizing to work with 20+ school districts across the US to do the same. And I realized something… I’m really fucking lucky to get to be part of something so amazing, so life-changing for so many people.

So, I may not be getting that letter from the Dean saying that I’ve been awarded tenure, and I may not have my face on the back of a book jacket (yet!). But I am working on an important project, which was funded because of a proposal that I wrote. I travel around the US to major cities and talk to high-ranking school district officials about LGBTQ youth. I get the privilege of training teachers on how to make their lessons and their schools LGBTQ-inclusive and friendly. AND, I get to teach classes, and hear from students that my courses made a difference in their lives. On top of that, I make a decent living and can afford a fairly nice life. Oh my god, wait, the fuck, I AM successful – although writing that makes me feel foolish, but fuck it.

So maybe I’ve lied to myself a little bit about why I chose not to go the traditional/expected route after I finished my PhD. I still got to where I need to be… and I’m not done, yet.

If anyone reading this is questioning their decisions or considering doing something other than what they are “supposed” to do, my advice to you is to find a way to make your career what you want it to be – maybe that’s tenure, or maybe that’s hodgepodging the job you want. Whatever it is, celebrate your friends’ successes, and don’t forget to celebrate your own.

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Biography

Christopher White, PhD, is the Director of the Safe and Supportive Schools Project at Gay-Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco.  He teaches courses in health education and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, and occasionally at Widener University in Chester, PA.  His primary interests are in developing LGBTQ-inclusive sexuality education, creating supportive schools for LGBTQ students, and promoting gay and bisexual men’s sexual health and well-being. When he’s not working he can often be found “werq-ing” it on stage as his drag persona, “Crissy Fields,” or performing with the dance troupe, Sexitude, as “Daddy Sparkles.” Chris is working on becoming a BodyPump instructor, a health coach, and is an avid cyclist – he’ll be riding in his third AIDS LifeCycle (545 miles from SF to LA) in June 2015. Got a question or suggestion for Dr. White?  Drop him a line at christopherwhitephd [at] gmail [dot] com.