It’s Not Me, Tenure Track. It’s You.

It’s not me, tenure track. It’s you.

I’m hoping to break into the field of academic administration at a higher education institution in Kentucky by the end of the year. I enjoyed the work I did with veteran, non-traditional, and students with disabilities at Eastern Kentucky University from 2010-2014. Teaching students how to navigate course and curriculum requirements, plugging them into university resources, and working with staff and faculty to ensure students are successful is important work. I was able to help young people at that crucial point in their lives—when they finally answer the question, “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” It was something at which I excelled, and now that I have earned a PhD, I am even better equipped for the job.

However, I’m noticing a lot puzzled looks and dissonance when I tell people I’m not planning on going onto the tenure track market for English Professors. To be sure, my professional development as a doctoral student was focused on teaching. But I was looking outside of the tenure track long before I passed my qualification exams and before I started my dissertation in 2015. As the rumors increased of former graduates languishing on the job market, accepting positions with the hope of “trading up” to a better job in a few years, or trying to piece together a poverty-level wage using multiple adjunct positions, I decided that I would finish my degree, but then I would go in a different direction.

There were more than rumors. Syndi Dunn, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, recognizes that tenure track positions are few and the line starts behind the Ivy Leaguers:

If you go to one of the top six English programs, like those at the University of California at Berkeley or the University of Pennsylvania, you’ve got a roughly 54-percent chance of winding up in a tenure-track job.”

Likewise, The Modern Language Association reports,

We are faced with an unsustainable reality: a median time to degree of around nine years for language and literature doctoral recipients and a long-term academic job market that provides tenure-track employment for only around sixty percent of doctorate recipients. We as members of the scholarly community must insist on maintaining excellence in our research and teaching by recognizing the wide range of intellectual paths through which we produce new knowledge. We must also validate the wide range of career possibilities that doctoral students can pursue.

Importantly, these 50-60% figures apply only to job candidates willing to move wherever the market takes them. I’m in a relationship and my partner has a great job. We have three dogs, a cat, and we can stand on our back porch and see nothing but nature. I live an hour away from my family. I don’t really want to move at this point in my life. Shame on me, I know.

The chances of a tenure track job opening in this particular state, in this particular region, and within my particular specialization of 20th Century American Literature are next to zero. I’ve known this for several years. I’ve been told that you have to be “competitive” to succeed on the tenure track. However, I’m starting to take this piece of advice as an insult, as though I am being told, “Either you succeed on the tenure track or you don’t have what it takes.” I taught my students to recognize this line of reasoning as the “either-or fallacy.” Besides, I have accumulated evidence to the contrary. As a graduate student, I published more than a dozen scholarly articles, several in top journals. I gave close to fifty presentations and invited guest lectures. I built a Minor and Certificate Program in Veterans Studies that was the first of its kind. I’ve led a non-profit and served as Editor-in-Chief on eight edited collections of writing and research.  I never made less than an A as a graduate student (and only two B’s as an undergraduate). My CV is ten pages long and I haven’t even fully begun my career.

I’m not bragging. I’m competitive. I have what it takes, tenure track. You just don’t have what it takes retain my services.

I like working in higher education. But the truth is I don’t want to be an English Professor. Most of the Assistant Professor positions I looked at involved teaching three to four classes a semester. I spent about 25 hours a week prepping and teaching two classes while working on my doctorate. Double that for a four class load. Then add the hours needed to present research at conferences, publish articles, serve on committees, advise students, and write your first academic book for tenure. Sure, I’d be doing a lot of the writing, grading, and preparing for class from the comfort of my home, but only because I’d be doing it in my “off” hours. I suppose outsiders think of “the life of the mind” and see a professor with yellow elbow patches sitting under a tree on campus, reading a book of poetry, trying to think of just the right way to present it to his or her class the next day. In reality, “the life of the mind,” as it exists in 2017, is one spent worrying about not doing enough. Tenure lines are constantly being cut, workloads are constantly being increased, and scholarship is being replaced by professional CV builders. I’ve yet to meet a professor who has time to sit and read poetry under a tree.  

As I’ve begun networking colleagues have forwarded me adjunct openings, but my reply has always been the same, “Adjunct work was great when I was a grad student in need of experience. And I would definitely be interested in it to develop as a professional and stay sharp. But now that I’ve got my degree I want to be considered full-time talent.” Again, shame on me. I’ve seen too many people—burdened by student debt, trying to start a family, hoping for a full-time position to open—passed over because they’re already doing the same job they’d be doing on the tenure track for a fraction of the pay.

Adjunct positions are something I will consider only after I have secured a full-time job. At present, I consider them exploitation, pure and simple. In “The Great Shame of Our Profession” Kevin Birmingham writes,

Tenured faculty represent only 17 percent of college instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest-growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled. And the so-called part-time designation is misleading because most of them are piecing together teaching jobs at multiple institutions simultaneously. A 2014 congressional report suggests that 89 percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; 13 percent work at four or more. The need for several appointments becomes obvious when we realize how little any one of them pays. In 2013, The Chronicle began collecting data on salary and benefits from adjuncts across the country. An English-department adjunct at Berkeley, for example, received $6,500 to teach a full-semester course. It’s easy to lose sight of all the people struggling beneath the data points. $7,000 at Duke. $6,000 at Columbia. $5,950 at the University of Iowa … These are the high numbers. According to the 2014 congressional report, adjuncts’ median pay per course is $2,700. An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year ‘the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718’ from a single employer.’

If I were the parent of a college-aged student, or if I truly cared about how my tuition dollars were being invested in that student’s future, I would be deeply concerned about the fact that my child’s instructors were making less than $17,000 a year.  

This problem is larger than people realize. In 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor at Duquesne University, died from cardiac arrest at the age of 83. The article, “Death of an Adjunct,” written by Daniel Kovalik and published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, detailed how Vojtko struggled to make ends meet, living in near homelessness until her teaching contract was unceremoniously cancelled. The article created a furor among academic communities as it made its rounds. And though other articles, such as L. V. Anderson’s “Death of a Professor,” complicated this narrative, most readers tend to agree that something is amiss with any institution which preaches equality and social conscientiousness while failing to pay a great deal of its workers a living wage.

This brings me to another reason why I am not interested in becoming an Assistant Professor of English: the feeling of complicity. I am a first generation college student, and I paid for my education using the benefits I earned while serving in the U.S. Army. I have known poverty. I have known hardship. If I were to accept a tenure track job teaching two classes a semester tomorrow, I would find it incredibly disconcerting to remain silent while colleagues were forced to teach six classes at three different schools to make ends meet. Yet, full-time professors across the country remain silent year after year. Talks of unionization are quickly quashed. And a peculiar brand of elitism thrives, creating a profession toward which young humanities majors aspire, rarely acquire, and one which persists in the immoral combination of saddling students with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and few job prospects. It’s not that I lack competitiveness. It’s that I don’t want to be complicit.

Alas, there are better options, as Elizabeth Segran writes, “Adjuncts have every reason to be angry: Apart from their abysmal pay, they are often treated as second-class citizens by their departments and colleagues. But their fate is not the only option for those who do not land tenure-track positions.” No, this particular piece of writing isn’t of the “take this job and shove it” variety. I’ve always done my job professionally and met every obligation set forth by my employers to the best of my abilities. And my writing is not quite in the vein of the new literary genre that Megan Garber calls “Quit Lit.” I prefer to think of my decision to pursue a new career path as “Completed Lit,” meaning I’ve achieved my goals and now I am looking for a new challenge. This is a story about a recent graduate, one who woke up every day and worked toward the goal of earning a PhD for ten years, one who gained invaluable experience in writing, research, teaching, and critical thinking, and one who looks to the horizon of the tenure track profession laid out before him and simply doesn’t think it is all that it is cracked up to be.  

Work / life balance is something that is important to me moving forward. I majored in English to become a better writer, to study theory and understand something about how the world works. As an English Professor, I could only see myself without time to write, isolated from the world by the demands of my profession, and beyond the classroom, without much of an opportunity to engage with the world and create change. 

I’m inspired today by articles such as Gwendolyn Bradley’s “The ‘other’ life on campus, or how to become an academic administrator,” in which the author writes,

“Administrative jobs also offer certain continuities with graduate student life: involvement with students, being a part of higher education, belonging to a campus community with its intellectual events and library resources, being in a familiar, noncorporate environment. Some administrative jobs involve working directly with graduate students or teaching assistants.”

Bradley’s article describes former PhD students who find meaning working with students, who experience camaraderie in achieving collective goals with their co-workers, who earn comparable pay to tenure track professors with significantly less posturing and worrying about the length of a CV. These individuals might even have time to sit under a tree and read poetry.

By contrast, Google the words “English PhD.” At the time of this writing, the top search result is an article titled, “Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life.” The article goes through a number of stereotypes found in English Departments and proceeds to make the point that none of them knew what they were getting into. I’m mostly interested in the piece because it has climbed to the top of Google’s search rankings, meaning that a lot of English majors are worried about their futures and uncertain about the skills they possess.

Meanwhile, George Anders writes for Forbes,

Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.  Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant.

Meanwhile, Mark Edmundson writes for The Washington Post,

We offer tools of thought. We teach our students to understand and analyze complex ideas. We help them develop powers of expression, written and verbal. The lengthy essays we assign enhance their capacity to do independent work. At our best, we teach them how to reason — and reasoning undergirds every successful professional project.

I don’t think the problem is with the education graduates from PhD programs are receiving. Typically, I share an anecdote about my first semester of graduate school in a Modern Literary Theory course, one in which I was assigned a reading by the deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida. I’d never heard of “literary theory,” and though the words on the page were in English, I couldn’t understand them. I thought about dropping out. I thought I just wasn’t smart enough for grad school. Five years later I was in the last course I took as a graduate student, Interdisciplinary Social Theory, and on the syllabus was a piece by Derrida. We were given a choice of authors we could present to the class along with an essay and I chose Derrida to see how far I’d come. Not only did I understand the words on the page, I was competent enough to critique his work and assess its quality when compared to other theorists. In short, I grew as a thinker from the time I started graduate school until the time I finished. 

It’s not that the coursework isn’t practical or rigorous. Instead, I think the problem resides in an increasingly corporatized institution of higher education and with graduates unsure about how to package their skills and talents for professions beyond the tenure track. And, in some cases, the problem with the humanities job market can be found in the culture of elitism which shames students for daring to do something other than what their professors and mentors chose to do with their lives.

I’ve had some great mentors over the years. Several of them are helping now while I search for a job in academic administration. Still, I’ve grown accustomed to receiving that look of puzzlement when I tell people—both inside and outside of the academy—that the tenure track just isn’t for me. I predict that there will need to be a culture change in order for this predicament to end. However, I fear that as federal and state governments slash humanities budgets and push for the supremacy of STEM, humanities professors will only grow more entrenched; they will posture as subject matter experts who can never be replaced; they will cling to their tenure because it affords them status and privilege. That’s what the looks are really about. Shame on me, but shame on anyone who would dare walk away from elbow patches and privilege.

Here are some things I learned while pursuing a PhD:

  • How to write professionally for any given audience or occasion.
  • How to orally communicate complicated information interpersonally and to large groups.
  • How to situate quantitative and qualitative data historically, culturally, and socially in order to prove and disprove prevailing theories about the world we live in.
  • How to take a group of 20-30 young minds, develop a learning curriculum to fit their needs, and evaluate and monitor their progression toward externally established learning goals over the course of three to four months.
  • How to recognize and advocate for diversity in the workplace and within my home community.
  • How to adapt to new challenges and persevere during ten years of rigorous education and professional development.

Here are some things I will need to learn over the next few months during my job search:

  • How to convince employers that my skills transcend the tenure track.
  • How to express my gratitude for the opportunities afforded to me by my mentors and the departments in which I have studied while also remaining true to myself and critical of the shortcomings I have discovered within the profession.
  • How to sidestep the views many people have of PhD graduates as elitists. 
  • How to convince interviewers that I will be equally dedicated (and perhaps more motivated) within an administrative role than in a teaching role. 

I’m ready to rediscover meaning in my work and cut my teeth as a professional in a new career. I’m not suited for the tenure track. But I will bring all of the talents and expertise gained by those who are prepared for the tenure track to my next position. I will live the “life of the mind.” I will continue writing and thinking and growing. I will do it in my own way.


Sources / Further Reading

Why major in humanities? Not just for a good job — for a good life,” by Mark Edmundson

That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,” by George Anders

The ‘other’ life on campus, or how to become an academic administrator,” by Gwendolyn Bradley

The Rise of ‘Quit Lit,’” by Megan Garber

The Great Shame of Our Profession,” by Kevin Birmingham

Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life,” by Anonymous

Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature,” by The Modern Language Association

What Can You Do With a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?” by Elizabeth Segran

Death of a Professor,” by L. V. Anderson

Death of an Adjunct,” by Daniel Kovalik