Why I left Academia after my PhD

As I ambled along the path of scholarship in a very open-minded college, I consulted trusted advisors and decided that graduate school was a smart next step. I was a nontraditional student and I received my bachelors at an unconventional college, so I wasn’t necessarily the best prepared graduate student. But I knew how to think and process information and I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind in class. Grad school was difficult and challenging, but I rarely doubted my ability to succeed.

However, I was unsure what would come next. In the social sciences, it is common to apply for tenure track (TT) professorships right out of university. As the jobs become scarcer and the demand for positions continues apace, the next step has become more varied. Some scholars obtain positions as post-doc researchers and may do a few of those while continuing to publish and look for a TT spot. Others will find a visiting assistant professor (VAP) job and that will sustain them until they get on the TT. Still others will end up cobbling some adjunct teaching positions together, possibly at multiple schools.

Postdocs, Visiting Assistant Professorships, and Adjunct Faculty Positions

While working these positions, the young doctors will continue to conduct research, publish, and apply for academic positions-both TT jobs and additional temporary positions to keep them afloat. VAPs and postdocs often have to move to a different state for their new jobs, and those jobs seem to typically last 1-3 years. If a person has to go through a few of these temporary positions before landing a tenure-track gig, cross country moves could be fairly disruptive. The disruption is especially true if the job seeker has a partner who will be looking for work at each stop or children who are in school.

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For adjunct positions, scholars often stay near the location they were living when they wrote their dissertation. In that way, adjunct teaching can be more stable than relocating for a VAP or a postdoc. However, the job itself is far less stable. VAPs and postdocs are salaried and their workload expectations are fairly well laid out.

For adjuncts, teaching positions are determined term-by-term and they are only paid for classes they teach. If they were offered a class but not enough students sign up, the class may be canceled at the last minute and the teacher will not be compensated. If their class has enough people but there is a tenured or tenure track faculty member whose class is canceled due to low enrollment, the faculty member will be assigned the adjunct’s class and the adjunct will not be compensated. Adjuncts are paid per course and the per course rate is quite low. Unlike the other two temporary positions, adjuncts are not compensated for research time, nor are they reimbursed if they travel to conferences to network and present their scholarship. They are often not provided with health care, retirement benefits, vacation pay, or even their own office space.

My approach

I really loved teaching and I like the idea of having research that makes an impact. Since the beginning, I saw two tracks as a possibility: academic tenure track or non-academic. If I went non-academic, I was most interested in government work. I had some government experience and like the structure and the ability to make policy changes. I dabbled in the job market for each but ultimately chose government work.

Although I did apply for some tenure track positions, I ultimately did not go in that direction for a few reasons:

  • I wanted to choose where I live. I have lived all over the United States. In 2003, we very deliberately chose to move to the Pacific Northwest and it was one of the best decisions we ever made. We fit here so well. Even in the PNW, there are only a few specific areas I would like to live. Academia does not give you the luxury of geographic choice.
  • As an incredibly social person, the months of writing my dissertation in solitude were very difficult for me. Although I need solitude to do deep writing, I didn’t want to commit to a lifetime of it.
  • I am terrible at imposing structure on myself. I need some kind of outside accountability. Not too much, but enough. Besides tenure deadlines, there are few research deadlines. Everything can be pushed back or declined. The thing that is salient is the teaching schedule. Teaching is my passion, and I feel the burden of student expectations and academic calendar restrictions, so the research schedule always played second fiddle because they were *my* projects and I can move my own stuff back. I hated this and didn’t want to live that way.
  • I am also terrible at creating time boundaries, so spending hours and hours and hours on class prep was normal. So was grading and researching well into nights and weekends. I wanted a job I could leave at the end of the day. Academia is NEVER done. There is always something else to be working on. Actually, multiple “somethings”.
  • The hoops and politics of academia are ever growing. I don’t like hoops and politics. Of course, joke is on me, now I am in government. Which is all hoops and politics!
  • I didn’t want to uproot my kids again. They had moved twice in their K-12 schooling. I didn’t want to do it again. Especially if it would be a VAP or post doc, which would mean moving and moving again. So in the end, I decided that I would at least stay in the current area until all the kids were out of high school. Of course, after getting a taste of the non-academic world, I think I don’t think I will be chasing a tenure track job across the country even after they have all graduated.
  • After 8 years of opportunity costs, making below minimum wage as a graduate student, I was not willing to give academia more of my earning years until I landed a tenure track job that paid a decent wage.
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Those are my primary reasons for leaving academia. In my next post, I will show you what my job search looked like. I applied to all types of jobs and I will walk you through my thought process and the logistics of the different job searches.

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