Leaving Academia 1

Every year, in the spring, friends and acquaintances start asking me about “leaving academia.” For some of them this means quitting their academic program before it’s complete. For others it means ending their pursuit of an academic job. For a few others it means leaving an academic job they’ve already achieved. It comes up in March, April, and May because this is “job season,” when applications and processed, interviews are conducted, and offers are made (or not made).

I’ve met with several people every year since 2016 about this. Most of them want to hear how my life is different from the life of someone working in academia. Some of them want advice, which I’m happy to give with the caveat that my experience is very limited–I’ve never worked a full-time academic job, and I’ve only worked in what we call “industry” for 6 years, and in only a couple of roles. But I thought I’d cover some of the questions I usually get here on my blog, where they can be referred to by anyone at any time.

Let me clarify my own background, because my experience won’t be useful to everyone who is thinking about this issue. I started graduate school for English in 2011, and got my MA (2013) and PhD (2017) both from the University of Texas at Austin. For most of grad school, I worked as a TA and then as an Assistant Instructor, but in 2015 I moved out of state. That summer I did a paid research fellowship in California, and then returned to Utah with my husband, who had started his first academic job. I spent the fall of 2015 working on my dissertation, but I hated having it as my only project–I wanted to be busier. So in December 2015, I started working as a Senior Copywriter for a retail business. In May 2016, I moved on to become a Content Manager at a large software corporation, where I was part of a big multinational marketing team. I had my first child in January 2017, got my doctorate in December 2017, and had my second child in November 2018, while working for that same company.

In August 2019, we moved back to Texas so that my husband could start working at a school that suited him better, and I started looking for more challenging jobs. That search led me to start as Content Manager for a smaller post-startup software business in March 2020, a job I’m still doing. Because this business is much smaller, I have more responsibilities and face more challenges, and I like that.

The biggest questions I get are, “Why didn’t you want to teach?,” “How is industry better than academia?,” and “How did you first get a job outside of academia?” These, especially the first two, are really difficult to answer independently of each other, so I’m going to group my writing in my own way here.

Just keep in mind that my experience isn’t universal. Not everyone faces the same challenges in academia. Many people face a hell of a lot more. If you’re in a different field, a lot of this won’t apply. If you don’t want children, a lot of this won’t apply.

The Problems

I started seeing three big issues with an academic career. There are more, and different people encounter different problems, but these were mine.

The first one is that academia is incredibly competitive. This is true of all fields, but English is really alarming. By the time I reached the dissertation stage, I felt pretty hopeless about getting the kind of job I wanted, or any job at all, and being married threw another wrench into any potential plans: you have to find a school that will hire both of you. This feeling of hopelessness is what first made me wonder if I should stick with the teaching trajectory.

The second one is that academia doesn’t pay very well. Even a tenure track job doesn’t provide enough money to support an entire family (in my opinion, anyway), and if you end up forced to adjunct, you often don’t even have health insurance coverage. I started to see academia as exploitative. And I’m a very privileged person who didn’t even go into debt for school!

Finally, there was a more amorphous problem: I noticed that the students who ended up with the kinds of tenure track jobs everyone dreams about were either 1) male, or 2) almost entirely dedicated to their careers.

This is because achieving a TT job requires most of your time and energy. I knew plenty of men who were able to devote this kind of time and energy to their academic careers, but they tended to have wives who managed the vast majority of the rest of their lives. If they had children, they inevitably had partners who managed the family, often by bringing in most of the income at the same time. Women who were on track to achieve their dream jobs usually didn’t have families. I know many people will bristle at these old-fashioned-sounding descriptions, but they’re completely true in my experience.

I personally could feel my career coming to a crossroads as I advanced to the dissertation stage. I could increase the amount of time and energy I put into school and power myself onto the job market. I could maintain my current level of effort and simply see what happened. Or I could maintain my current level of effort and experiment with a job outside of academia. I chose the third option.

To be totally transparent, my husband’s job played a role in this, too. He was already a TT professor. He didn’t want to pursue a different career. I didn’t see a way for us both to succeed in academia while also having a family, and once I realized that I really did want children, I knew I needed to at least try a different path.

So you can see why that third problem is so complex. I felt like I was failing as a feminist when I admitted that I needed to do something “easier,” and when I saw that even relationships that seemed equal from the outside weren’t. I felt like a failure as an academic when I admitted that I wasn’t “passionate enough” about my subject to suffer for it, and when I admitted that I wanted to be financially rewarded for my work. I felt like I “should” be happy teaching at a high school or a community college, and at the same time I felt like I “should” have the drive to compete for top jobs.

For a long time, I felt very conflicted about my career path. I spent a lot of time ruminating about what was important to me, who I wanted to be, and what would help me achieve the life I wanted. The realization I had that helped me move on was: My job doesn’t have to be my life. I didn’t want a job that was my life. I didn’t want to identify as my job title, I didn’t want to be thinking about work when I went to bed at night, I didn’t want to work more than 40 hours a week, and I didn’t want to feel unappreciated in my career.

Dinner Diaries: April 2, 2021

Vietnamese chicken skewers

Some of our favorite meals recently:

  • Marinated and broiled chicken skewers with rice noodles and quick-pickled vegetables
  • Falafel with hummus and vegetables
  • Breakfast tacos
  • Cheeseburger macaroni
  • Halloumi and eggs with pita bread
  • Shrimp and vegetable pilaf

There have been some major flops that the boys didn’t eat at all, like a roasted vegetable salad with feta cheese and a chicken curry that turned out much too spicy for them to eat. Overall, it’s been a lot of fun cooking together and planning dinners that the kids can help make.

My father-in-law is arriving mid-April to help us take care of the kids while my mother returns to Florida. My parents will be visiting together later in the summer, which I’m really excited about. And the boys return to daycare in June. It feels like so much activity after an entire year of…same-ness.

Spring in Dallas is gorgeous. Primroses are blooming everywhere, our canna lilies are coming up in huge clusters, and I’ve planted serrano peppers, basil, tomatoes, watermelons, hibiscus, hydrangea, azalea, and a bunch of elephant ear and calladium bulbs. If we’re lucky, the yard will be looking extra gorgeous in a couple of months.

Dinner Diaries: March 8, 2021

Bread for the bread-obsessed kids.

Our weekend routine now involves making loaves of bread. I’ve been using this really easy recipe that makes two loaves, and they turn out perfectly every time. My kids can power through both loaves in 48 hours if they’re not rationed.

The past two weeks were good dinner weeks. One of my favorites was when I made shwarma marinated chicken roasted with chickpeas and onions, and stuffed it into pitas with yogurt, feta cheese, and cucumber. I also made Ina Garten’s Israeli couscous salad with tuna, a red pepper pesto pasta dish, and Madhur Jaffrey red lentils. Now it’s Alex’s turn and I’m looking forward to marinated shrimp, Vietnamese chicken skewers, and arepas with cheese and plantains.

News has seemed especially gloomy to me lately. I hope we reach some kind of pandemic turning point soon, because the tedium is real. At the same time, my own family will reach a turning point regardless in June, when the kids go back to preschool. It’s exciting, but it will also be scary if we still haven’t been vaccinated by then. If we have, things will “go back to normal” for us, although probably a normal without indoor dining, dates at bars, unnecessary shopping trips, etc. The kids’ social circle will be confined to their preschool friends, and I imagine we’ll either still not socialize in person, or only socialize with other fully vaccinated adults (assuming we’re in that category by then).

Most of all, I’m tired of thinking about all of this. I want this layer of concern removed. I now understand why people get “pandemic burnout” and stop trying to protect themselves. It’s just like compassion fatigue! There’s only so much you can care.

On a positive note, things here remain okay. Lots of outdoor time. Lots of cooking projects. Lots of yard work. It’s almost spring, and soon we’ll be able to see which plants were killed in The Big Freeze and which will be back.

The Long View

First of all, if you’ve read the book I referenced and think that it’s full of crap, I can only speak for the first 5-6 chapters, the ones relevant to my own and my kids’ lives. I didn’t read past that because we don’t play video games and will never allow them in our house, my kids are not in public school yet, and my kids don’t watch TV. At the moment I’m much more concerned with the prevalence of tablets and smartphones, and with the tendency for parents to give them to younger and younger children, than I am with television or video games. They’re just not parts of our lives yet.

I know there’s been a significant backlash to this book, and to every one like it ever published. “They said TV would rot your brain 60 years ago, and we’re fine.” “Millennials have grown up on the Internet, and we’re fine.” “Calling smartphones ‘heroin’ is just an attempt to scare parents.”

Are you fine, though? Think back to 2008 or 2009. You almost definitely didn’t have a smartphone. If we’re peers, you were probably in college. Now think about how long you typically spent reading at that time. How long could you sit and write? How long could you concentrate on a lab experiment, a classroom discussion, a conversation with a friend, or a sunset? What did you “do” when you were walking to class, waiting in line, or cooking dinner? And what did you “do” when you were stopped at a red light, laying in bed at night, or (for real) sitting on the toilet? 

You didn’t reach for a phone. My point is that, if you’re like me, the internet has wriggled its tentacles into all of those little empty spaces, displacing time we used to spend listening to music, reading a book, chatting, or just staring into space daydreaming, planning, fantasizing, and thinking. Given an empty few minutes, I find myself scrolling Facebook, skimming the news, jumping through online articles, or virtually window-shopping for crap I don’t need. My mental stamina has plunged to almost nil. I find myself feeling “bored” more than I used to, and instead of using my brain to deal with that boredom, I use a screen. Instead of taking up that space with my own thoughts, I use content generated by other people (and companies). The way that my brain works has changed. 

Are these changes inherently bad? Maybe not for you personally. But they make me very, very uncomfortable. I feel dissatisfied with myself. The first time you realize that you just started looking at Instagram while sitting outside watching your kids play is a sobering moment. Do I need to be staring at my children all of the time? No, of course not! But I could be setting a better example by opening a book, or enjoying genuine mental relaxation by just letting my mind wander. The constant flow of novel content is not actually relaxing, and you know that perfectly well from how you feel after laying in bed with your phone before trying to sleep. 

So are books like this one an attempt to scare you? Yes, because many of us need to be scared. Think about how much your brain changed just since having access to the internet. Now think about how much more it has changed since the internet came to live in your pocket. Now think about kids who are handed devices when they’re 12, 8, 5, even in toddlerhood and infancy. Their brains don’t get the chance to develop normally in the first place. Think about how much they’ll struggle to concentrate on anything–and that’s leaving aside how they will (because they definitely will) struggle with age-inappropriate content and social media. 

I am not the most uptight parent, but screen time is where I’ve drawn an absolutely immovable line that won’t budge until my children are adults. My kids do not get “iPad time.” They aren’t allowed to touch our phones. They won’t get smartphones while they live in our home. They’ve never seen a movie. They don’t know what “Paw Patrol” or “PJ Masks” are. And I’m glad. In ten or fifteen years (in fact, probably in one or two years), it won’t matter whether they’ve seen “Frozen” or know who Big Bird is. It will matter what they were doing instead.

“Our job as parents is to have the long view, because children don’t.”

This is where other parents always get mad at me. I had written several paragraphs about why and how you should make and keep your kids screen-free, but I deleted them, because I don’t think I personally can change anyone’s mind about this. Suffice it to say that if you feel harshly judged and cruelly targeted by someone saying kids shouldn’t spend time on screens, then you definitely need to read more on this topic.

Many, many reviews of this and other books repeatedly use the phrase “fear-mongering.” Even if that were true, and the consequences of screen use and overuse aren’t actually very dire… what about that gets people so riled up? Is there something bad or harmful about not using screens? The answer to that question is an emphatic no, so I don’t understand why efforts to curb screen usage, especially in children, make some people so frothily angry. Scratch that, I do know why. There are three big reasons:

  1. Money. If you do work that profits from people overusing screens, then of course you don’t want to reverse that trend.
  2. Selfishness. You like to diddle your phone and you don’t want anyone batting it out of your hand. Or, you like having your kid(s) “occupied” on screens and don’t want anyone making you do more hands-on parenting.
  3. Guilt. You know it’s a problem and the natural human response to being told we are wrong is to get mad.

So go ahead and call it fear-mongering if that comforts you, but you’re only harming yourself and your family by pretending that screen-time is healthy.

I’m trying HARD to change how I use the internet and in particular my phone. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about switching away from a smartphone, but I am too worried about running into major hurdles because of how app-centric our lives have become. I need an app to sign my kids in to school. I need an app to pick up my groceries. I even need an app to turn off my debit card if it gets stolen! At this late date, I don’t think going “dumbphone” is practicable. But I am determined to use my phone as little as possible. I’ve removed all ways to listen and read on it. I’ve removed all apps that steal my time. I’ve turned off all notifications and set a long daily Do Not Disturb time with a text auto-reply.

I wish that I could completely opt out, but it feels impossible, so willpower is the only tool we’ve got.

Here are things I’ve been reading and listening to:

Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Irresistible by Adam Alter

The Ezra Klein Show: this episode & this episode

Jaron Lanier speaking here

And countless other interviews with and articles about authors, thinkers, and “eccentrics” who shun overuse of the internet. I accessed everything above for free.

Dinner Diaries: February 11, 2021

A successful challah.

Last weekend I made another challah, this time using the New York Times recipe and a mix of half all-purpose and half bread flour. It was so good! Perfect texture and flavor. The only issue was that I did a four-strand braid and the sections were too thick, so I’ll try the traditional six-strand braid next time.

It has been very cold here this week–unusually cold–and on Monday the temperature is going to dip to about 0. The high that day will only be 12! And it’s likely to snow. I’ve brought in all of our potted plants, and we’ve been dripping the faucets at night. The bird bath is frozen solid.

Although I like cold weather, but this is really frigid and wet and gray, and it’s making the week drag by very slowly. We had this weather in Utah for sure, but the snow made it look and feel much nicer. I picked up fire logs and Negroni ingredients for the weekend, but it feels like Friday evening is still days away.

Our dinner adventures are still going well. Tonight is broccoli, potato, and cheddar cheese soup with toast. Earlier in the week we had yakisoba noodles with greens and chicken, breakfast tacos, and black beans and rice with plantains. Tomorrow night we’re getting takeout, some sort of seafood–I really want po’ boys or fried shrimp platters or something like that.

I think that the COVID-19 monotony is getting to me again. I’ve gone through phases of feeling totally fine, and feeling bored out of my mind, and feeling desperate for this mess to “be over,” and feeling perfectly cozy with my family at home. In the peaks and troughs, this week is definitely a trough.