“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.

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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.

PhDs Of Color, Don’t Accept The Initial Job Offer!

sylvanna_0Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Sylvanna Falcón (@profe_falcon) is an associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and affiliated faculty of feminist studies and sociology. She is the author of Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism Inside the United Nations (U. Washington Press, 2016). She has recently discovered the wonders of yoga and meditation.

You Deserve Better

Over the past few years, I have started mentoring junior scholars, primarily women of color, about how to negotiate tenure-track job offers. This kind of mentoring came about rather organically, as I do not pitch myself as some kind of expert negotiator. But over time I became increasingly passionate about helping others secure better job offers as it started to align with my politics as a brown, Latina, middle-class, antiracist, feminist sociologist.

I became deeply troubled hearing time and time again that academics of color were advised against negotiating beyond the initial offer, to just be grateful about getting a job. Sometimes that advice is coming from other academics of color! Even though resources exist online about how to negotiate job offers, too many people, and recent Ph.D.s in particular, are getting the misguided advice to accept the initial offer, even in cases when they have competing offers from different institutions.

Increasingly, negotiating an offer is seen as a risk that could end in losing the job altogether or that we are being ungracious — or worse, ungrateful. This shift is particularly salient since the Great Recession of 2008, when the academic job market radically declined. Rather than having a plethora of tenure-track jobs to which to apply, such jobs have become scarce and intensely competitive, and many of us are simply unable or unwilling to live just anywhere in the country.

I remember a time in the early 2000s, when advanced graduate student cohorts in sociology would apply for 50 or more jobs; this job mecca was not my experience at all. I went on the academic job market four times, moving from positions as a lecturer to an assistant professor at a liberal arts college on the East Coast and then to a postdoc and an assistant professorship at a research-1 institution on the West Coast.

I would like to posit that our mind-set when negotiating academic job offers has to shift from being grateful that we have received an offer to knowing that we bring value to an academic institution — even in this new job climate. This shift in mind-set directly undermines the gratitude discourse prevalent at neoliberal universities. Why should we be grateful (and hence indebted) to labor for an institution? After all, we worked hard to earn that Ph.D. and receive that offer — facts we quickly forget when we are repeatedly told that we should be relieved to be offered an academic job at all these days. That is not to deny the very real and good fortune many of us have in landing a tenure-track job when too many Ph.D.s are unemployed, in severe debt and/or living the adjunct life. It is always sobering to hear the latest statistic about only 60 percent of Ph.D.s getting tenuretrack jobs in the social sciences and humanities, yet this new normal should not somehow circumvent our legitimate desire to enter a new job feeling happy and respected.

As academic job seekers enter into the negotiation phase for a tenure-track position, I encourage them to embrace three points.

Understand the value that you bring to the institution and your future department, even if you are a newly minted Ph.D. If you accept the job offer, you plan to work at this particular academic institution for the foreseeable future. The students and your future colleagues are going to benefit from your outlook, energy, research, recent graduate school training and knowledge. You will bring renewed enthusiasm to your teaching and research. They extended the offer to you so your future colleagues see your value. Now you should, too.

The offer is yours to accept … or not. I have yet to hear firsthand of a case where someone asked for an increase in salary and it resulted in the offer getting pulled, but there are stories. You are going to hear “no” a lot in academe (so, develop thick skin now), but in order to even get to that stage, you actually have to ask for something. If the offer is not to your liking, then you can walk away. Yes, you can actually walk away! Why should you accept an offer that has not met your standards and expectations? You have a bargaining position that you need to finesse to your advantage rather than be taken advantage of.

However, you have to be an effective and strategic negotiator, meaning that you request reasonable considerations typical of that particular institutional structure. Asking for things typical of a research-1 job offer at a liberal arts institution is not in your strategic interest. It is in your interest to consult widely — online and with multiple mentors — and to give serious thought to what you need in place to excel at that particular institution.

Do not pre-emptively sabotage yourself by not asking for anything. Ignore the advice and reaction from your mentors or other supporters to just sign the initial offer. I have helped women of color negotiate increases in salaries, research funds and course releases after people they trust told them not to ask for anything. I have literally lost count of how many people of color I have helped to negotiate better packages against the advice of their academic mentors. This help has translated to larger salaries for senior positions (by $20,000), substantial increases in research funds (by $15,000) and modest increases in salaries for assistant professors (ranging from $2,000 to $5,000).

Now, you will not get everything for which you ask; negotiations means compromises. But even I have been stunned at some of the aforementioned successes when people of color get serious about negotiations. That is not because I have some inside secret or deft negotiation skills to pass on, but because, with some close mentoring, people of color began to think concretely about what they needed to thrive. The key, I believe, is that they offered an effective explanation as to why they merited these items. Your salary has a chance to increase if you can provide a clear and compelling rationale for the increase based on the value you bring, not because you have a lot of debt. This same logic applies to your research funds, summer salaries and course releases. If you ask for it, you must be able to explain why you deserve it.

With a tight and scarce job market and the trend toward neoliberalizing universities, people of color — especially women — seem scared, literally, to ask for anything beyond the initial offer. You do not want to start a new job from a place of fear or misplaced gratitude. The content of the job offer sets you on a career trajectory. Change your mind-set about the purpose of job negotiations away from indebtedness to an institution and academe. Nurture an understanding of what you need for your well-being and to thrive professionally.

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?

On The Price LGBTQ Academics Pay For Safety And Well-Being

bonnie-morrisNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Bonnie J. Morris has been half-time faculty at both George Washington University and Georgetown University for over 20 years and is the author of 15 books, including three Lambda Literary Award finalists. She is also a consultant for Disney Animation, the AP U.S. history exam and the AP unit on high school psychology.

Academe’s ‘Gay Tax’

Like all part-time or contingent faculty members, I have learned to stretch the dollars from my fluctuating salaries over the years. Like many but not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer faculty members, I am comfortably out in the classroom, my identity never a secret. And like many historians passing the age-50 mark, I sometimes enhance my lectures with personal anecdotes, reminding my students that I Was There at this or that rally or riot, this or that cultural turning point, earthquake or election. But all of those eyewitness aspects are part of a triad that I have not seen addressed when we speak about fair adjunct wages.

For years, my LGBTQ colleagues and I paid a “gay tax.” We paid higher costs in food, rent and other services because we lived and worked in America’s more expensive cities: those cities where civil rights statutes recognized our equal rights in housing, adoption, partnership and workplace arrangements. We may very well have pored over tenure-track job ads for positions offering better packages than our adjunct appointments yet found only prospects in states or cities (or at faith-based colleges) where we would never be free to be open and out, acknowledged or housed.

It’s easy to forget the legal climate of open homophobia and biphobia that prevailed so recently. My long-term renewable half-time appointment at George Washington University, for example, began in 1994 — the year when a court in Virginia cheerfully removed a child from a loving home with two moms simply because one relative complained that no child should grow up in a lesbian household. Young people wanting to learn more enlightened views on this topic in 1994 had another problem: some Northern Virginia public libraries forbade youth under the age of 18 from taking out books about bi- or homosexuality without a parent’s permission.

It would be another decade before Lawrence v. Texas overturned the state sodomy laws that declared someone like me a criminal, even a felon, in Virginia and in other states — but felon status made us less favorable in many a state university job search. In 1986, as I was taking my M.A. exam in graduate school, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick decision grimly reminded all of gay America that private, consensual lovemaking with a partner in one’s own bedroom was not protected action and could result in arrest, jail time and a sex offense record. Such a record was hardly the best résumé for a hopeful educator.

So, we avoided Virginia. We avoided Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas. We ground our teeth during the American Historical Society discussions about whether to hold annual meetings in cities that openly discriminated against LGBTQ people. We knew we were thus an inconvenience to our straight peers. Meanwhile, as America lumbered toward a greater understanding of full citizenship, we competed against all other gifted LGBTQ colleagues for that one tenure-line job in San Francisco, Ithaca or Chicago. And I continued working two or three jobs in order to live in D.C., rather than in its more affordable but LGBTQ-inhospitable southern neighbor, Virginia.

We put ourselves on the line financially and politically by insisting on ordinary quality of life up through very recent years, which the nation risks forgetting in all the focus on the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-gender marriage. It was not long ago that one of my colleagues won an academic appointment in Florida that she ultimately left, given that state’s rules against gay adoption, gay foster parenting and hospital visitation rights for same-gender couples. Even at liberal GWU, I was not immune to homophobia’s depressing tentacles. Well into this 21st century, I received threatening calls and letters due to my curriculum on gays in the military, and I watched tensely as our terrific women’s basketball team — including some lesbian players and at least one beloved transgender man — competed against Liberty University, the evangelical institution still banning LGBTQ students and faculty members.

I have lived on a budget as a gay historian in a gay neighborhood (or “gayborhood”) for 22 years, and just as we move to almost (but not quite) universal protections, I now face losing my job as LGBTQ historian altogether. This year, my women’s studies position was marked for elimination in new budget cuts, effectively gutting the LGBTQ minor that I helped create. Where my curriculum and I will go is a question in arbitration. But having been a living role model for my newly arriving students every fall — Be out! Live authentically! — I intend to go on speaking as a living relic of that recent, gay-taxed time. In looking back on how I planned my budget, I know that surviving on contingent labor pay was always linked to living freely, where possible — and required carefully weighing isolation against income.

Substitute black for LGBTQ and this story is an old one; for my ancestors it was Jew and for others, Irish or Native. We can’t always search for a job where we’re not wanted. I have personally also experienced the discomfort of teaching women’s history where women faculty members were not wanted and where the campus climate was not merely hostile but also unsafe for women students and faculty members, regardless of our personal feminist identities. Where we see a high ratio of women (and women and men of color) in the adjunct or contingent labor pool, the intersectionality of these issues is clear: Which of one’s interrogated identities benefits a college or university seeking to “diversify” yet places the applicant in a miserable situation — the unsafe and isolated exhibit A of their own identity? In a job interview, is it fair to ask how one might not merely survive but also thrive at an institution offering a salary yet lacking a community? What quality of life is an adjunct professor allowed?

Over the years, those friends who asked me, “Why don’t you have tenure?” were usually not LGBTQ. Their job-search engines did not drive with a rainbow flag flying up front. I am asking that we call attention to these stories as we talk about the “living” in the living wage agenda, for there is much to learn from everyone who paid the gay tax and, in gentrifying cities, formed the gayborhood locus that often displaced longtime residents/people of color. We are the faculty members who taught the very history we lived out. We lived it out, on part-time pay, in zip codes that were the safe zones of our time.

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.

Should You Become Chair(?)

spotlightNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Professor Plainspoken is the pen name of the writer, who has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She has published and held leadership positions here and there. Ever loyal to her institution and colleagues, she is unwilling to provide more information on her background and work. However, she is perpetually dieting and is a fan of comedian Paul Mooney.

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Once I was a faculty member who nurtured warm and fuzzy feelings for my colleagues. I spoke with them daily about things professional and personal. I knew their partners and children and socialized with them outside of faculty events. So, when asked to serve as chair of my department, I said, “Yes! Of course, I will be chair!”

Thus began my descent into the ninth circle of hell. My trust and relationships with my colleagues and my health headed for ruin, despite my pure intentions. I tragically underestimated the effect of my race, gender and age on my ability to facilitate faculty governance. Writing this bit of advice to other academics is one of the ways I found to reconcile my heart and mind with my experiences.

How did a well-seasoned, bald and jolly fat black woman academic ever happily take on the task of heading a department? I accepted the position out of a sense of duty and the prime directive to demonstrate my race’s competency and willingness to work hard. But alas, the intersectional space I occupy would make chairing a department harder than I imagined.

I had ideas to improve the departmental climate and to shepherd the junior faculty through the tenure process. More than a few made that journey during my first several years as department chair. I believed that the tenure process did not have to be a hazing ritual. If we supported candidates emotionally and professionally, it would make their lives easier. Ultimately, we all might have a healthier work environment because newly tenured faculty members could avoid that awkward period right after receiving tenure — that period, you know, when you sort of hate everybody, but you don’t know why. Everyone who came up for tenure received it, and I felt good about it.

As it turned out, warming the tenure pool up enough to stop freezing the candidates was not difficult, but other tasks proved to be my undoing. During the first year that I was chair, new orders came from on high regarding merit reviews, which prompted revisions to the tenure process. I was responsible for bringing the updates to faculty regarding the proposed changes. They were angered and upset by those changes, and they transferred that exasperation to me — plus a little extra!

In addition, I undertook a tiny revision in our curriculum, one that my colleagues said that they wanted. I reasoned that if I were to facilitate this change, they would be pleased. It was a terrible idea. Each meeting designed to work out the changes ended in raised voices and comments aimed straight at my self-esteem. There were too many changes going on at too many levels. I thought I was helping make the department better. I was too deep into the process before I realized that they did not need or want my help. Oops.

What went wrong here? Some parts of managing an academic department are like managing any workplace group, and other parts are distinct to academe. Some of my colleagues outranked me, which is awkward. Unlike corporate managers, who never have to manage the CEO, you have to figure out how to lead, or cooperate with, people who do not have to do anything you suggest. In fact, only junior colleagues are so compelled — even your equals have no incentive to cooperate. You cannot sack, suspend, sanction or slap anyone. You need their good will, respect and loyalty if you can get it. Subconsciously, it may be hard for your white faculty members to respect you or be loyal to you. They may believe that they have good will toward you, but they are probably delusional.

One way to handle a position without power is to use your analytical tools to figure out which faculty member is the most influential. You can solicit help for your tasks and projects from this faculty member, who in turn helps to sell it to colleagues.

While developing a relationship with the faction leaders in your department, stay authentic. Don’t pretend to be fond of them if you are not. You can take them to lunch or dinner as you build what is a necessary professional relationship for the good of your department, and ultimately for the good of students. As chair, I did not create any of the proposed changes on my own. They became mine when I introduced them without privately soliciting support. And so we come to the lesson for today:

Understand the nature of your position. Be careful about implementing changes of any kind during your first year. If you do, do your homework and be a smart and politically savvy chair by courting the power brokers in your department.

Every black woman occupies the intersectional space of race and gender. Think of that as the base model. For me, include the following characteristics: a strong black identity, a forthright style of communicating, extra weight, very short hair and grandmother eligibility. I could not be more of an affront to the standard for academic leadership and womankind. In all fairness, I was aware of this going in, but I believed that my colleagues respected me, were fond of me and had faith that I would do right by them. They probably felt that way before I became chair. Taking on the position meant restructuring, redirecting and reassuring colleagues that I would not become giddy with power.

There ends a key lesson in chairing from Professor Plainspoken: proficiency in politics encourages peace and prosperity for you and your colleagues.

Defining Your Academic Career On Your Own Terms

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Sophia Sen (a pseudonym) is a type I diabetic. She is also a woman of color in a doctoral program in the social sciences.

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“Externalities And External Validation”

At the end of my first year in graduate school, I had worked myself into the ground and become dangerously sick. Between proctoring an exam and giving an end-of-the-semester presentation, I cried in a study room in our department and then on the floor of a bathroom because I felt terrible.

I thought I felt sick because of how stressed the program was making me and not because my insulin pump was malfunctioning. Sometimes when my blood sugar is too low or too high for too long, I reach a mental status in which I can no longer recognize that my diabetes is making me sick. I did not realize that I should have gone to the hospital. I threw up on the bus home and had to call a nurse for emergency care.

After that scare, I decided that if I had to have external recognition to feel good about myself in this doctoral program, then I should leave. But, if I were to stay, I had to do it on my own terms. Making this decision into a practical reality is a daily struggle that I continue to fight.

Growing up, my father never let me forget that I was worthless, incompetent and stupid. Maybe in a world that did not support his claims about women, money and power, I might have found the strength to believe in my inherent worth. As a girl, I was already a disappointment. As a girl with diabetes, I was assuredly a failure. I had to prove to everyone, especially my father and the rest of my family, that not only did I deserve to exist, but that I was valuable. As long as I could ignore the violence at home, I would be accepted at my expensive prep school. As long as I could win awards at school, I would be accepted at home. Yet, conditional acceptance, like the model minority myth, assumes that you are always at risk of screwing up, or that something is wrong with you before you even started.

For those of us who have a choice, how do we choose our careers? Most of the interactions that I have had in the academy feel like secondary victimization. If I came to the program with some self-esteem, perhaps I would have risen to the challenge of critical training between graduate students and professors. However, self-esteem and body integrity are stratified privileges. The ability to take risks and never question the security of your being is taken for granted by some and a rarity for others. I was not prepared for people with power and authority to train, or rather as Michel Foucault might say, discipline me into the social sciences by telling me that my ideas were not good enough. I did not know that there could be a distinction between mental productivity and self-worth.

People look down on “me-search,” but as Patricia Hill Collins has argued in Black Feminist Thought, research that is personally and practically important to me and the communities with which I work should not be undermined by external elitist demands for greater theoretical import. The usual silences and gaps exist for a structural reason. The population I am studying almost never shows up on syllabi or in statistics, and I could list a plethora of experiences that Derald Wing Sue would code as microaggressions, honest mistakes or both. The gray area between microaggression and mistake remains an undeniable externality of the world we live in; the marginality of that correlation results in systematic harms that keep me up at night and determine my career trajectory.

I question myself every day as I reconcile with a workplace that is toxic for me and glorifies some of the worst lessons of my childhood. All I can think about and feel in my body — as my eyes fill with tears — is how I do not fit in. More important, I do not want to fit in. I am not radical enough to look down on other people because they have privilege or because they lack or do not engage in certain kinds of knowledge. I have not figured out how to convince myself that I am smart enough to be here or smarter than other people, in general. When my father treated me badly, I thought that I needed to be like him so that I would not be a victim. When my program treated me badly, I thought that if I became like the people who had power, then I would not be a victim.

Yet if you do enough internal work, at some point you realize that you need to be the person you want to be no matter what the circumstances. Because if you aren’t the victim you just might be the perpetrator, and the problem with being the perpetrator is that you are also hurting yourself.

Some people may think that disciplines that study inequality and injustice are somehow better at addressing these social problems. Yet, these disciplines are born from an unequal, unjust, racist, sexist, homophobic, all-kinds-of-messed-up world — a world with a history that does not account for externalities in its assumptions of meritocratic competition and productivity. If we listen to what this capitalist and neoliberal society tells us, anyone carrying anything that is not normative — like marital transitions, family problems, health issues, dependents or discrimination — is made to see these parts of their lives as burdens. These externalities are not burdens; they are the consistency of contemporary human life. When I listen to the internal voice that recognizes truth in these externalities and speaks back to external judgment, these externalities become the core strength and motivation for my life and its work.

My advice to graduate students who feel cumulative disadvantage weighing upon you from previous trauma, illness, poverty, discrimination and anything else that has taught you that you are only as valuable as your publications or your eloquence in academic discussions: create the opportunities and a career that you want — and on your own terms. The late activist Grace Lee Boggs said that individual struggle against institutions is not sufficient for a revolution to happen. Rather, revolutions happen when individuals struggle to transform themselves from within into more human humans.

I look to the countless other women of color who have struggled but managed to carve their niche in the system on their own terms. And, in that struggle, they have made a path for others. If you do not like the way people treat each other in your department, be the person you wish your department had.