On fighting the good fight and other nonsense about life in higher education and having to reinvent yourself in order to survive

IMG_1894I’m tired! Tired of explaining to folks outside of academia what life in higher ed is like for many people and what it was like for me until I left (read that as “pushed out”). I’m also tired of folks in higher ed trying to convince me that the only way to fight the good fight is to remain in a system that is unresponsive to claims of racism, sexism, and discrimination. I’m also tired of well-meaning folks in higher ed pushing this idea that going into six figure debt is worth it even if you don’t have a snow ball’s chance in hell of a) finding work in your academic field–ever, and that b) reinventing yourself through professional development (which costs money) is worth it because you can apply your skill set to something else. Poppycock!

Allow me to take these things in turn. To my first point, working in entertainment may have been a dream of mine when I was 20, but at 47 it is so far removed from what I have worked for that there are no words. Okay, there are words–many of them. Read on.

But work is work, right? Thankfully I landed in place where a network of people have offered me support and helped me get established. I know I sound ungrateful, but I am not! And let’s be honest–many of us are being forced to reinvent ourselves out of necessity rather than a desire to do so.

I’ve become quite good at shutting down conversations with folks outside of higher ed about my own situation because frankly it’s exhausting, and I don’t owe anyone my time, my good energy or an explanation. A “higher ed is a terrible place right now and I like where I am” is usually enough to satisfy people’s curiosity as I change the subject.

To my second point re: folks in higher ed trying to convince me to return because it’s my responsibility/duty or some such nonsense–I also have words for y’all. Look, I’m thrilled for anyone (especially Black people and people of color) who can navigate these institutions and manage to do so with minimal harm. For me, personally–higher ed is a space that proved to be not only unwelcoming, but aggressively harmful and destructive. Why on earth would you want anyone to remain in that space?

I get that folks want to be encouraging and supportive, but support and respect that not everybody wants to be exposed to harm on a daily basis, and that there’s no balance to strike when you have spent your good energy negotiating that space. Y’all aren’t going to pay folk doctor bills, soothe their tired souls when they need soothing, or provide material support to help folks fight the good fight–especially if that means that the fighting escalates to the level of filing complaints and calling out mutual colleagues who are shitty people. Fighting the good fight happens with the quiet support of close friends, but most folks ain’t about to risk their careers being public and vocal even for people they consider friends. Don’t believe the hype!

Is getting a Ph.D. worth going into six figure debt if you’re not going to get an academic job? I know I’m going to have folks on my shit for this one, but I don’t care. I don’t think anyone should go into six figure debt for a Ph.D. whether you get a job in higher ed or not–that shit should be FREE! Plunging yourself into what is effectively, life long (and intergenerational) debt is a shitty way to launch your career at any age no matter what field/path that you end up in.

Many moons ago I worked in student professional development, and at the time (we’re talking almost 20 years ago now) there was a shift in thinking about how best to prepare graduating students for the job market. Up until the mid-late nineties it was common practice to wait for students to reach their first semester of senior year to begin conversations about future plans, but the new thinking pushed us to begin much earlier (sophomore year). Today, as has been the case for at least ten years–freshman seminars about career planning are common place. There seems to be no such equivalent at the doctoral level because the idea is that your advisor will lay the groundwork for you through collaborations, networking, etc., and still seems to be the preferred approach even if in practice this approach is problematic AF on so many levels.

What do you do if you can’t find work in your field? A) you need to start paying attention to what is happening in higher ed long before you start thinking about where you might land after you defend your dissertation. Understand that tenure is disappearing and that securing a job–especially a multi-year full-time job is going to be extremely difficult. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult. If you’re an outspoken Black woman academic–your choices narrow considerably, but that’s another story for another post. B) don’t wait for your advisor or anyone in your department to tell you this stuff. They won’t! Okay, they might, but it’s highly unlikely so you’re better off doing your own due diligence long before those first student loan payments come due.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a proliferation of services that target already broke and distressed doctoral students that will assist you in figuring out how to move out of academia and into “the real world.” This is really going to piss off some folks, but seriously– since you were smart enough figured out the FAFSA, how to appease 4-5 committee members that your research was worthy, and you managed to survive several semesters teaching courses outside of your field of expertise with perhaps two days notice to prepare–I think–no, I know that you can figure out how to fill out an application for a job you are way overqualified for and you can write a resume for non-academic jobs.

Before I have some of you jump down my throat–I will concede that there is value in getting the support of someone who understands the non-academic job market especially if you have little or no experience looking for a job. There’s also value in sharing experiences, stories, etc., with other people who are similarly positioned. But I’ve seen (and I’m sure you have too) folks jump into the role of coaching who have little or no actual experience either in academic and non-academic job searches. Stay away from these folks. They are only looking to make money off of you because you think you can’t do this. You can!

It’s been more than a year since I have stepped foot on campus and I can honestly say that I don’t miss it. I don’t miss the politics or the harm. I don’t miss feeling exhausted. I do miss engaging with students, but not at the expense of my own well-being and health. While the path that I am on is not the one that expected to be on when I set out pursue a Ph.D., it is where I need to be right now because it has been a space where I’ve been nurtured and where I’ve had the time to heal. The journey continues.


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