Alt-Ac Forever

I just graduated from a PhD program in the humanities (woohoo!) and I actually have a job, but I really don’t want it. Before you roll your eyes, since I know no one has a job in this economy, let me tell you that it’s a 1-year appointment in the department I just graduated from, it pays a scant $14k for two semesters, and it requires developing a new course. The new course I’m kinda ok with, since I like learning new things. But the rest of it feels like I’m right back in grad school. And I took this job on the condition that I apply for academic jobs, but I don’t want to be in academia, I don’t have publications, I’ve never been to a national conference, and holy hell I’m 35 and I care more about getting out of poverty than I do about getting an academic gig. I feel stuck.

The rational person in me says to keep the job while looking for a new one, so to offset the crappy wages I’m starting a small business (I design sewing patterns), and I teach dance lessons for some extra cash too, but it’s not much. But am I shooting myself in the foot here? How can I start a full-time gig in, say, October when I still have to finish out the semester? And, again, I just don’t want anything to do with academia anymore.

I think I need some help working through the pros and cons of what to do with the next few months.

Whoa!! This is such an interesting question (to me). You don’t expand on it in your letter, but I’m going to assume that you got the PhD basically for fun–either that, or you went into it thinking you wanted to be a professor and then during the grueling course of things you changed your mind but went ahead and finished it out, which is a common trajectory. Either way, there’s no reason you should stay in your current teaching position OR apply for any other academic jobs, since that’s not what you want to do with your life! Your current teaching position is totally a stop-gap, as you know–it’s to your department’s credit that they are able to make temporary gigs like this available to their recent graduates; my Ph.D. institution does the same thing and it’s really humane and also helpful to recent Ph.D.s who DO want to go on to full-time careers in academia, because it gives them teaching experience etc. But you don’t want an academic career, so what’s the point killing yourself teaching for a measly below-poverty-line wage?? The fact that so many adjunct faculty slave away for these kinds of wages is of course immoral and everyone who works in academic administration ought to be thrown into prison (perhaps a slight overstatement; I mostly mean provosts, assistant vice provosts, executive liaisons to the deputy executive vice chair committee on provost management, and everyone at the business school), but leaving that aside, even in the best case scenario, teaching for 14k a year should best be thought of as an unpaid internship that gets you into an industry. An industry you don’t want to enter!

So, in my opinion, you can make 14k a year doing WAY less work than you are currently doing, which would in turn open up more time in your life for seeking out jobs you do actually want. And that is what I would spend the next couple of months doing, if I were you: wrapping my head around the idea of quitting and patching together some other, easier, funner gigs. Get some dumb part time job doing data entry or yard work, and then in your free time, instead of planning a syllabus (!!!! LORD), you can work on your small business plan!

As for leaving a teaching job in media res, as it were, I have a few thoughts/options (not sure if this is part of what you’re worrying about, but just in case):
– the school year hasn’t started yet! Is this a 1/1 appointment for fall/spring of next year? If so, they still have AMPLE time to fill those slots if you quit now, no big deal!
– even if you’d already started teaching, you can still quit mid-semester. A friend of mine just did this and it was fine! People have lives that change abruptly! I think it is weirder if you are, like, tenured or tenure-track, with a full-time load, and you suddenly quit in November or something, but even so, this is America, and you can quit a job whenever the hell you want!
– you could also split the difference, teach the fall semester, collect your cold hard 7k, and give notice at christmas, working hard all fall to get yourself set up for your transition out of academia.

I’m wondering if maybe you are just looking for some spiritual encouragement, in which case, consider yourself encouraged! Academia is so fucking brutal. SO BRUTAL. It is so epically hard to get a “real” job (lol we all know adjuncts work like dogs but those aren’t “real” jobs), and then even if you do land a real job, this whole second level of horror starts involving the desperate and even humiliating scramble to get tenure. And all this heartache and flop sweat for what?? Like, best case scenario in the humanities, if you’re at a swanky private school, like 80k maybe? Unless you win a MacArthur, which, who are we kidding? And sure, I realize even so that that is a lot of money, but these people work tech bro hours and are compensated at a fraction of the rate! WHAT is the point of doing it half-heartedly?? The only reason to even dip your toe in the whole mess is that you love it, you love the teaching, or you love pontificating in academic essay form, or you for some reason love attending national conferences and playing drinking games around how many times someone uses the word “praxis.”

You don’t want this job, and you don’t want the kinds of jobs that it MIGHT one day lead to IF YOU ARE FANTASTICALLY LUCKY. So fuck it! You should quit and go do something else that you enjoy more, like building up your sewing pattern business, or picking up more dance lessons (that sounds FUN AS HELL to me, but my body doesn’t really work that well anymore so I might be romanticizing physical labor). Even if you spent your time doing something you DIDN’T enjoy more, I still think it would be preferable, just because of how much mental space teaching takes up. When I try to imagine what I would even do with my time if I weren’t teaching or writing constantly, I literally can’t. LITERALLY. That seems crazy to me. So, imagine the kind of previously unheard-of mental rooms that will open up when those tasks are simply ended, for you! It sounds exciting and liberating. My old man just quit academia, officially, and immediately got really into birding. He’s been getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going on birding walks with old retired forestry rangers. He’s getting back into sound design. He’s been cooking elaborate soups, and sleeping like a baby. It seems great to me–and that’s just from quitting his dissertation! he’s still teaching! Imagine if he quit BOTH?! You’ll be a queen!!!!!!!!!!!! A queen with a Ph.D., which they can never take away from you!

I know we live in a brutal neoliberal hellscape but still, an educated reasonably privileged person ought to be able to scrape together enough cash to live, right? It’s been awhile since I was in this position so I apologize if I am out of touch but here are some things I romanticize in my mind when I imagine not getting tenure and having to start a new life:
– learn to bartend and get a bartending job at some Ye Olde Local Watering Hole; become a great favorite of the regulars there and they will reward you with gifts and affection. My brother is a bartender at a total shithole on the beach in Santa Monica and one of his regulars gave him a CAR. He also met Bob Odenkirk
– put up fliers around town offering general yard work for 12 bucks an hour or something. Weeding, watering, turning over compost, mowing, nothing fancy. A friend of mine did this and within a year she was weirdly making a living wage. It was the 90s, but still, this seems amazing to me.
– if you are in the right kind of field, you can make a killing tutoring little rich assholes, for the SAT or even just in middle school; their parents will pay you handsomely, give you snacks, and treat you with respect, at least in the experience of this one friend of mine who did this for awhile
– do you have a wealthy patron who could do something like pay for you to get yoga certified? I say this only because you’re a dance instructor so this seems up your alley. I imagine teaching yoga classes to be fun and lucrative but again I have no personal knowledge of this field.
– Do you live in a place that has an organization to help local small business owners get off the ground? I live in a tiny economically troubled town in rural new england and there is a place like that here, and it seems great. Recently a local pickle maker won an award and it turned out the business model had been developed with the help of this organization. Anyway you might see if there are organizations that can help you design a business model and shit like that!
– go on an adventure and teach english in a foreign country for a year. Everyone I know who has done this has said it’s a brutal slog but also a wild adventure. Write a blog while you are there
– try to get in at the post office! one of my ultimate fantasies, except I can’t walk long distances anymore. They have a brutal entrance policy–it’s like you have to just be on call for a year before you can even apply to be full time or something–but man, doesn’t mailman seem like such a great job? I love walking around neighborhoods, meeting all the weirdos. This is probably a way too unrealistic and overly personal-to-me suggestion, I’m sorry
– or similar!

These are also primarily suggestions from the late 90s/early 2000s, which was the last time I was on the market for weird part-time jobs, but I have to believe that, depending on where you live, there are still viable ways to put together a part-time situation that will barely cover your expenses while you get your business off the ground OR open yourself up to the universe to see if another job comes along that you like more. Obviously this entails living very cheaply, but you are already doing that! I guess my ultimate point is–it’s not like in quitting this job you’re walking away from 100k a year and a company car. You know? You’re already below the poverty line; might as well quit and find some other way to make poverty-level wages but without having to put in as many hours.

Was this helpful? Do any readers have a better idea?

Good luck!! Think of it as exciting! Your life is about to head off on a new path and that is thrilling.

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