2022: Opening Act

We’re only twelve days into 2022, and I already feel like I can say, “What a year.”

The holidays were wonderful. My father and brother stayed with us, and we had a lovely Christmas. The boys liked their gifts, and spent countless hours listening to their Pop-pop read them Spider-Man comics from the 1960s and decorating cookies with their uncle. My friend Lauren joined us for Christmas Day. Everyone went home happy and warm and fuzzy.

Right after New Year’s, we booked a month-long trip to Portugal for this summer. It took us a long time to decide whether we should do it, but NO REGRETS. We’ve got travel insurance and hopefully the pandemic will be in a downswing a few months from now.

Then it was like a train hit. Despite staying masked everywhere I went indoors and socially distanced outdoors, I got Covid-19, presumably the omicron variant. I had been to the store, some parks, and one restaurant: all masked and/or outdoor. Everyone else tested negative. I had intense fatigue and sinus congestion, but none of the scarier symptoms. Next, both kids got a horrific stomach virus: sudden and violent. It was so bad that we took them to urgent care to get a Zofran prescription. In the process, we found that one of them had a mild fever, which meant they were tested for flu and covid. And guess what? One of them was positive for neither, and the other was positive for both. Flu-rona-vomit!

Only one of two unvaccinated kids being positive seemed unlikely considering that our family had been together 24/7 for the past several weeks. Sure enough, lab testing came back showing that both kids had covid; only one had flu. That made more sense since we’ve all had our flu vaccines. My husband was still negative! We ended up with Zofran and Tamiflu and two very miserable children.

But as kids do, they bounced back within about 24 hours aside from some runny noses, and were pinballing off the walls and eating hamburgers the next day. Which was when my husband and I got the stomach virus, right on schedule. I was completely immobile with nausea for about 11 hours before my doctor finally came through with a Phenergan prescription. I spent most of the day shuffling between the couch and the kitchen, attempting to manage the kids by voice alone. My husband wasn’t hit as hard and did most of the childcare heavy lifting that day. It was bad. And I feel like we’re still not out of the woods: one of the kids’ congestion could turn into something more serious before they recover from whatever weird mix of viruses they’re fighting.

The worst part of the whole experience was the stomach-dropping feeling that no one was in charge. I don’t mean that “oh crap, I’m the adult here” feeling that every parent sometimes experiences. I’m talking about calling eight open urgent cares and having not one pick up the phone. Having a prescription called in and visiting five pharmacies an hour away before one of them actually has the medication you’ve been prescribed in stock. Knowing that you probably have covid and not being able to access a test for seventy-two hours because everything is either “closed for the weekend” (in the middle of a pandemic spike, seriously?!), or booked out into late the following week.

All I see and hear on the news is “get tested,” “be responsible,” “everyone is getting omicron, be careful,” “hospitals are full so don’t add to the burden,” etc., and yet there’s no visible effort to expand testing availability or healthcare capacity. Its disappointing at best, and when you’re in it, it’s frightening. My kids are doing fine right now, but all I can think about is what would happen if one of them suddenly worsened. It took us an entire day to get them into urgent care. Would an ER admit us? Would the hospital even have space? Would our pediatrician see a covid-positive child?

I also can’t help but think, like I have been since the pandemic began in 2020, of people less fortunate than we are. Despite getting paid year-round, my husband doesn’t officially start work until mid-January, so he has been able to care for our kids while they’re quarantined from childcare. We have two cars, so while it was a pain for us to visit several pharmacies for medicine, it wasn’t impossible. Ditto when we had to drive back and forth to urgent care three times to keep our spot in the long line. Not to mention the ~$200 we have paid out of pocket for the appointments, prescriptions, Gatorade, and food that you need to care for four sick people.

I’m not sure how much longer we can collectively “do” the pandemic like this. I can’t imagine how many people have been driven into debt, poverty, and unemployment by this situation. It feels depressing, hopeless, and above all disappointing. I can selfishly hope that my 2022 starts looking up soon, but plenty of people don’t have that hope.

tl;dr: We need to do better.

Leaving Academia 3

There’s been a big ol’ gap here since I last wrote, promising a little piece about getting your first non-academic job. That’s mainly because I’ve switched jobs myself!

I left the startup I was working for and have taken a job at NTT Data Services. This is a dream job, the kind of job I never, ever thought I would achieve, the kind of job I didn’t even think was a possibility for me three or four years ago, much less nine or ten years ago. It has amazing compensation, the kind of benefits package that most people my age don’t get anymore, responsibilities that will challenge me to grow as a professional in ways I probably still don’t foresee, coworkers who are supportive and brilliant and driven, supervisors to look up to, and the kinds of clear goals that I love to work towards. The position is technically “flex,” with some time at home and some in the Plano headquarters, but the company has delayed in-office work until at least January 2022. I have a beautiful home office setup. [Including a huge new desk that I ordered from Pottery Barn when I accepted this job. Highly recommend a big desk. I love having a full computer work station and room for my manual writing stuff.]

Just since my last post here, two more people have reached out to me asking about leaving academic and academic-adjacent jobs (working within the university and college system). I’m sure this is in part due to the big shift that I’m also a part of: workers are changing jobs a lot right now, hiring is up, and people are seeking positions that better suit their COVID-19 comfort levels and their work-from-home preferences. But I hope it’s also part of a shift in academia itself. I hope people are realizing that their skills and their work ethic can be applied in more lucrative, less abusive settings.

I won’t make this post very long, because leveraging your academic experience means something different for every kind of job you might be applying for. What you might emphasize and downplay when applying for a copywriting position is very different from what you might emphasize and downplay when applying for a position in HR. But these tips are universally applicable.

Do your research.

You’re good at research, right? Dig in and learn everything you can about the field you’re hoping to work in. Look at a lot of company websites, competitor websites, and job descriptions. Ask anyone you know who already works in the field if they can give you a quick rundown. Don’t be surprised if you feel totally lost: the way people talk about, for instance, software marketing is completely different from how people talk about teaching undergraduates.

Learn the basics of the industry, and then learn all of the slang words and acronyms that apply to the job title you’re seeking. Then take some time to learn the very basics of any platforms or softwares listed in the job descriptions you see. You don’t need to become an expert at using Excel or WordPress or Figma, but familiarity with them and the terms used when using them will help you talk about your skills and what you hope to learn next.

Aim high, but manage your expectations.

Go ahead and apply for the jobs you want, but don’t be surprised if it takes you a few positions and a few years to achieve those goals. That’s okay. You’ll probably still have better work/life balance and more income in a borderline entry-level position outside of academia than in any position within it. If you land a really desirable job right off the bat, keep in mind that those who hired you probably expect you to focus on your learning curve and get up to speed quickly. You may need to dedicate some time watching Youtube tutorials and meeting with coworkers and mentors so that you can rise to the level if your new position.

Focus on your strengths, but never tell a lie.

Emphasize how your teaching skills can easily translate into mentorship for less experienced writers, but don’t say that you have supervisory experience when you don’t. Emphasize how the dedication and focus you applied to your dissertation research and writing can easily translate into great project management skills, but don’t say that you’ve managed a corporate project when you haven’t.

You can make yourself sound like the incredible potential employee you are without misleading anyone! It can be tempting to dodge these types of questions, but being honest will only help you long-term. You don’t want to end up in a position where you’re immediately expected to display mastery of something you’re clueless about, and you also don’t want a job where there’s no room to learn. If you’re honest with your interviewers, you’ll eventually find a position you can use as a stepping stone, or a position where you can be trained and mentored and invested in. Both options are great.

Have confidence.

Don’t use self-deprecation or tell too many jokes about academia, or you’ll come off sounding bitter and hung up on your past disappointments. When I was interviewing, I was very honest about why I didn’t want to teach anymore: I wanted better work/life balance and to feel appreciated in my work. I got nothing but respect for that! Don’t put yourself down or make it sound like this career path is a disappointing second choice.

Leaving Academia 2

What It Fixes (sort of)

I’m not going to tell you that leaving academia for an industry job will solve all of your problems. No job is perfect. Any job you stick with long enough can become boring, or spring unpleasant surprises on you, or end without warning. But I did find that pursuing a career in professional writing/content management/marketing has allowed me to meet the needs that weren’t being met (and that I realized would never be met) by academia:

  • Eliminating guilt and distraction
  • Reclaiming my hobbies
  • Avoiding feelings of betrayal and disappreciation

I’ll go through these one by one and explain how my current career helps me with them.

Eliminating guilt and distraction

I’m sure this isn’t an issue for everyone, but I know for a fact that it’s pretty widespread in academia because my husband certainly deals with it. It also occurs in other fields too, but it’s less prevalent. I’m talking about the ethos of constant busyness and the inability to “turn off” your work brain. Some people like to be super busy, some people are passionate about their jobs, some people are natural workaholics, but there’s a tendency to feel compelled to behave this way in academia because it’s so competitive and because people engage in busyness Olympics. I hate that. I never want to feel like I ought to be working when I’m hanging out with my family, or for that matter even when I’m reading a novel or watching TV. I never want to feel like I “should be” thinking about a work-related problem on a Saturday. 99% of the time, you aren’t rewarded for that level of dedication anyway.

In my experience it’s much easier to disengage mentally from the kind of job I have now. I can be finished at 5pm and genuinely not give a thought to work until the next day. I’m sure that sounds like a bad thing to many people–shouldn’t I be dedicated to my work?–but I find that if I think about work 24/7, I burn out pretty fast. It’s healthier and often more productive to limit the amount of time spent concentrating on a single thing.

Reclaiming my hobbies

This is so closely related to the item above that I should probably combine them, but oh well. I love reading and writing, but when I was completely immersed in literature and writing about literature every day, it became difficult for me to find pleasure in reading and writing anymore. I’ve had so much more fun doing those things since I stopped studying them. Of course my job involves a ton of reading and writing, but in very different modes. I don’t find that reading and writing about software and technology affects my enjoyment of reading novels and writing fiction.

Avoiding feelings of betrayal and disappreciation

Academia can be awfully personal. You get attached to the people you work for and with, and forget that schools are often run like factories churning out graduates. I found that my feelings got hurt a lot in graduate school, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever admitted before. In retrospect, I think there’s often a show of forming relationships and creating friendships when the reality is that a lot of students are colleagues are just numbers. Schools are institutions just like big companies are, and I prefer institutions that don’t try to cover up their intentions or sugarcoat their processes. I’d rather know I’m just an employee than labor under the delusion that I mean more.

Depending on your job, the particular business you work for, the particular boss you have, your coworkers, etc., you can still be vulnerable to all of these issues anywhere you work. But in my experience, it’s easier to avoid them in a non-academic setting.

Up next: getting your first “real” job.

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.

Life Update, November 2020

Although it feels like the rest of Texas has “gone back to normal” in the past couple of months, we have not. I continue to work from home. My husband teaches only half of his classes in-person, and those are reduced, distanced, and masked. All performances are outdoor. Our children won’t be going back to childcare until May or June 2021–we’re lucky enough to have family to help us, and lucky enough to have kids too small for school.

It’s very difficult. Everyone is bored, everyone longs to socialize, everyone conversely longs for time when they aren’t with other people. The paradox of the pandemic, for us, is that although we’re isolated socially, we’re always with family, and that wears on you in its own way.

There was a lot of backyard water play in the summer. Halloween was actually fantastic–our neighborhood did a great job of making it safe and fun. Thanksgiving, which is tomorrow, should be nice. My father drove here from Florida after isolating for over a week (he is quite isolated anyway, but he didn’t even go on his usual weekend bike ride with his best friend). My father and brother will be here for Christmas, all without flying.

I’ve thought a lot over the past several months about how lucky we are to be financially well-off, to have a nice house with a safe yard, to live in a safe and beautiful neighborhood, to have our own transportation. All of that has enabled us not only to stay safe, but to stay relatively happy.

Now I’m going to move on to some more trivial things: what I’ve been doing for entertainment when I’m not working, parenting, or sleeping.

Doing

A few weeks ago now, I bought an exercise bike (no, not the ubiquitous Peloton). We aren’t returning to OrangeTheory any time soon, and running so regularly was starting to affect my knees. Both of my parents have had knee surgery, so I decided to back off and do what my dad did: start spinning.

I love the bike. I do a Global Cycling Network workout 5-6 days per week, weight training 1 day per week, and take 1 day off to just walk or do nothing. No knee pain and I find it easier to push myself on the bike than while running.

Watching

I’ve watched a lot of “comfort TV” recently, which for me means British detective shows like Midsomer Murders, Morse, and Cracker. But I’ve also got into Coronation Street, an excellent British soap that updates in almost real time on BritBox. Highly recommended for some engaging but easy-to-watch TV.

Because my oldest son is obsessed with bikes, we started watching the Tour de France when it began in August, and this has evolved into a near-daily habit of watching cycling. Because of the pandemic, the season was heavily condensed, so for the past few months there has nearly always been an event to watch in the mornings, or to catch up on the following morning. To my surprise, I’ve become very invested in cycling and have been following it very closely. I’ve always loved watching the Tour–since 2010 when I worked at a bike shop–but this is the first year I’ve really followed all of the road events.

Reading

In that same vein, I’ve been reading cycling books. First The Secret Race, then The First Tour de France, then Slaying the Badger, and now The Beautiful Race. All great.

I also finally read Portnoy’s Complaint.

Listening

Cycling podcasts. Food podcasts. True crime podcasts. And I’ve been rediscovering a lot of older Bob Dylan albums after listening obsessively to Rough & Rowdy Ways for a while.