The Gang (er, me) Explores Academic Precarity

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I love working in a university. I love being surrounded by intellectually driven, curious professionals who are passionate about their projects. I like seeing young adults blossom as analytical thinkers. I like having a community of like-minded individuals who understand whatever weird niche topic I’ve decided to dive into this year. I love the freedom of the schedule, the chances to travel and talk about my work, watching students explore across multiple classes, having free access to all the best research and resources…..

So why am I pursuing opportunities outside the university?

Why branch out into consulting?

That’s a good question, and it requires some understanding of the state of academia in 2018.

For the four years I was in graduate school, I earned $14,100.00 per year. Before taxes, student fees, insurance, class materials, and general living expenses. Now I lived in a relatively low cost-of-living area, but that’s still an extremely tight budget. I was lucky enough to have a live-in partner during those years to help me cover costs. Some friends picked up odd jobs ranging from driving a cab to installing roofing to selling books – whatever helped pay the rent.

That’s not a new situation. Grad students have always been a cheap source of labor for large universities. The difference is that in generations past, an implicit understanding existed that these years were the trade-off for a future tenured professor position, in which you could earn comfortable money and benefits. Academic hazing, basically, with the assurance that the pay-off will be well worth it.

However, a tenure-track job hasn’t been the reality for most PhD graduates in maaaany years. While the number of PhDs awarded has steadily increased in the last 60 years, tenure track jobs in virtually every field are being replaced by adjunct or contingent labor. In 2014, 39% of all doctorate recipients left their graduate programs without a job commitment; in the humanities, that percentage increased to 46%.

Please note – I am not necessarily protesting this state of affairs. I went into graduate school with the understanding that the only thing a PhD guarantees you is the title of “Doctor.” Not a certain job, not a certain amount of money, not a certain amount of respect. I genuinely think that being clear-eyed about this fact is a blessing and sets me apart from some of my less-fortunate colleagues.

The fact remains that a surplus of highly qualified, equally capable PhDs are swimming around in a pool of dwindling jobs like state fair guppies fighting for a kernel of funnel cake and that is our new normal. Don’t believe me? Take it from my favorite academic/alt-ac/post-ac consulting queen, Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In:

“This job market is not ‘daunting’ or ‘uncertain’ or ‘volatile’ or other pretentious evasions… It is in a state of catastrophic 40-year-long collapse that has destroyed countless lives. And elite faculty, who by their own admission…’don’t know what the fuck we are doing,’ have failed utterly to train their students to cope with this catastrophe.”

Preach, sister.

As for me? I’ve been one of those carnival guppies in a bowl of colored water for two years and counting. I yearn for the wide-open ocean of opportunities beyond the ivy-covered, rose-colored-glasses wearing walls of academia.

Which brings us back to the beginning: why consulting? Okay, okay. An answer for you in three parts.

Professional Independence

For better or worse, completing a doctoral program drills into your brain that when the chips fall (i.e., it’s 3:00 a.m. and you have a research deadline in 4 hours and you’ve already been up for 20 hours), the only person you can count on is yourself. We spend most of our time alone, sitting in offices, trawling through books and research articles to transform them into parts and pieces of new books and articles.

I love collaborating and bouncing ideas off of my colleagues, but that basic message of “work is best when done solo” is hard to overcome. Running your own business fits well within this model. If things take off – it’s because of the work you put in. If everything tanks – no one to blame but yourself.

I won’t lie, I’m also a night owl, so being able to work at 1:00 a.m. instead of 9:00 a.m. is a huge bonus to me.

Specialized Skill Delivery

Once a teacher, always a teacher. The rush of watching someone else takes the lessons you’ve been working on together and connect the dots provides such a profound feeling of satisfaction. There are SO many parts of classroom teaching that frustrate me wildly, but reveling in the joy of coaching someone past their stage fright, or watching a speaker grow a presentation from concept to beautiful, professional execution, is always worth it. (Still not sure it could be worth it for you? Just ask me!)

Reciprocal Learning Environment

So why attend graduate school, if the answer is not a lifelong desire to be a classroom teacher? Simply put: I had questions about how people communicate (specifically, how social media changes the ways in which we communicate), and I wanted to answer them. I’m fond of asking questions and finding out how things work, or why we behave in certain ways, or how rules and traditions came to be.

Working for and with a variety of professionals fills this need for me because it allows me to do a deep-dive into their content area of expertise. Actually, before I attended graduate school, I worked as a digital content writer for an SEO company for the same reason – doing research and writing copy for dentists, bakers, skiers, small business owners, and a variety of other pros and entrepreneurs felt more like Internet Playtime than actual work.

Is now an appropriate time to insert that old saw about doing what you love and never working a day in your life? God, no. I’d never be so clichéd.

In summary, being a professor is not the only way to use your PhD! I absolutely do not regret attending graduate school. I will never believe that more individuals with advanced education, high literacy, and research and analysis skills are anything but a MASSIVE BENEFIT to society. But the work of reframing the way we think about the value and purpose of an advanced degree is on all of us – wandering/contingent academics, tenured faculty, university administrators, and curious laypersons alike.

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