Everyone needs a Plan B
If you’re on the job market you need to have a Plan B and, whether you’re a grad student or a post-doc, be steadily working towards it. Not only is the job market tough but being a tenure-track assistant professor (which sounds like a great job) actually turns out not to be for everyone. Let me tell you a little bit about how I came to my own exit strategy.
Earlier this month I had a video interview with the Chronicle. This was part of an ongoing series they’re hosting on the many different ways of being an adjunct. There’s the adjunct who commutes to multiple positions, the adjunct who is on food stamps, the adjunct who made it to TT. Me? I’m the adjunct who is getting out of the game.
In retrospect it might have been a wiser move, from a TT point of view, to skip being an adjunct altogether. In order to be competitive for a TT job you need peer-reviewed publications, a funding portfolio, and an active research project. Being an adjunct doesn’t help you do any of those things.
After my dissertation defense in 2009, my advisor asked me what I wanted to do next. I told her that it was just dawning on me that I could do anything I wanted. Maybe not become a poet or a body builder, but I did have a PhD from one of the best public universities in the country. You would think that should count for something! Turns out it does, just not in academia.
I started working on my Plan B in 2010. I had just lost my job as an instructor at a small liberal arts college as the state budget contracted in the recession. That year I was out of work for nine months and, as I watched my wife struggle with the many responsibilities of assistant professor hell, I reevaluated whether a TT job was right for me.
I was motivated by the website http://versatilephd.com/ and a book, So What are You Going to do With That? (which came with this sound advice: Q. Should I go to law school? A. Only if you really want to be a lawyer). I thought about the things I was good at and I how I could use those skills to get an actually existing job in the place where I was living. Preferably one that would fit my personality and wouldn’t suck my soul.
I’m good at teaching anthropology, but at adjunct rates that only pays about $3000 for a course and it’s a job with no future. If you’re good at it you can stay there indefinitely, but you’re not going to work your way up into a higher paying position (see paragraph 3 above). This can be problematic for a young person with three children. The job does have limited responsibilities and is fairly easy, so it does have that going for it.
Here are some of the different career paths I considered:
TEACH CC. I checked out some full-time community college jobs at my local CC. They had a sociology dept with anthro courses and a history dept with Native American courses, but for accreditation purposes they were only hiring people with sociology or history degrees. Minimum is 18 graduate credit hours to be qualified. I’ve got one Soc course from my grad student days, that means I’d have to take five more while I was an adjunct and then I could call myself a sociologist. Grad students: pay attention to this as you choose your course loads! Maybe think about picking up a Masters in something else along the way. As a CC instructor carrying a 5-5 teaching load plus tons of student advising comes standard, teaching summers may be required too.
TEACH HS. Next I scoped the job ads at the local school districts. A graduate education counts towards your years of seniority for pay purposes, so with a doctorate I would get paid at the same rate as some with ten years of teaching experience. However social studies teachers are not in high demand, foreign language, math, and science is what’s needed. I could probably muster Spanish fluency if I put some effort into it and I would find great personal satisfaction in that too. Depending on how desperate your school district is this may require some formal retraining, or maybe not. Definitely requires putting up with teenagers for 8 hours a day, but then you can take the summers off for reals.
UNIVERSITY ADMIN. Profs are always bitching about how university administration keeps growing while departments stay the same. So why not jump ship and play for the other team? One way you can make this transition is to look for Assistant Dean level positions, these are typically for unglamorous jobs like Summer School or Continuing Education. Or college admissions/ recruiting is another place to start. Unlike adjuncting this is a field where you can move up through effort and hard work. Some of these jobs require a Master in Higher Ed Admin or Counseling, which are 36 credit hours. Soul sucking and tie wearing may be required.
NON-PROFIT/ LOCAL GOV’T. What better place for a dedicated person to make a difference in the world than by working in the non-profit field! There’s a great diversity of different organizations to work for, particularly if you look to small, local groups. Same thing goes for working for the city. However if you’re looking to get out of the academic life because of the long hours and low pay you won’t find anything different here. Some of these jobs may require a Master of Public Administration. On the plus side it’s not difficult to find MPA programs that provide funding. You can usually get one in 36 credit hours.
LIBRARIES. There are three tracks to a career in libraries, you have your public libraries, university libraries, and “other” including things like managing archives (digital or analog) or working for a law firm. I was immediately attracted to university libraries: you get to use your mind, work with faculty and students on research, but there’s no grading (unless you’re a teaching librarian that is). Librarians care about qualitative research, Open Access, and blogging. However, librarians endure precarious budgets and are frequently the target of cuts. Much of the field is becoming para-professional. The better library jobs require a Master of Information and Library Science, which take 36 credit hours to earn.
From this list I narrowed it down to becoming a HS Spanish teacher or a university librarian because both of those skills would make me a better anthropologist. If I chose to pursue either of these careers but then came back to academic anthropology I would be in a stronger position than when I left. One of my buddies left the TT rat race to be a general contractor and paint houses. He’s very happy and making better money, but if he goes back to academics that won’t have advanced him in the way that picking up a language or a Masters would.
I talked to friends who were librarians and high school teachers. Ultimately I opted for libraries because despite the risks I saw the greatest potential there for someone with a doctorate.
To learn more about professional librarians I started volunteering for my local public library and now I serve as chair of the Board of Trustees. This has, overall, been the best move in getting my foot in the proverbial door because it’s given me opportunities to see what the work is like and actually do some too. You also get to network with professionals.
After you spend some time brainstorming and researching your Plan B my advice is to find a way to volunteer in your second field while you adjunct.