Strong stuff: Cardozo writes, “For many if not most, being an adjunct is the professional equivalent of domestic abuse, PTSD and Stockholm syndrome rolled into a single despairing plight that has only one feasible resolution: as with any dysfunctional relationship, at some point you must first DECIDE to go, then GO.  The terrible thing is that we lack the professional equivalent of transition shelters.  However, The Professor is providing one kind of safe space with the Alt/Post-Ac Initiative, and I mention others below. ”


by Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

I began my visit to The Professor’s virtual office with a post on the problems of tenurecentrism, followed by musings on freeing the academic elephant from its limited range of motion.  Here I recount my own journey off, on, and all around The Track in hopes it might generate some transferable insights.

Not everything begins with a strategic plan; being open to what the universe sends is another option (read: you can thrive despite being clueless and indecisive). My first job after getting my B.A. in English from Haverford College was in the Harvard Office of Career Services—an administrative assistant position landed by filling out a generic application at the U’s HR department. I soon learned the ropes of counseling Arts and Sciences under/grads interested in a range of professions, a hilarious irony considering I had never had a fulltime job before, let alone a career.  But I loved that generalist work and was promoted in a few years to an actual counseling position.  This encouragement, along with constant exposure to other kinds of employers, only reinforced my sense that I belonged in higher education.

So I then obtained my M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration, Planning and Policy at Harvard and went on to hold multiple dean’s roles in academic and student affairs at Mount Holyoke College before completing my Ph.D. in English/American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2005. Pursuing my Ph.D. was the most downwardly-mobile decision I have ever made.  I have no doubt that, had I not embarked on the doctoral path, I’d still be a dean somewhere with a more advanced title and exponentially higher salary.  But I have no real regrets since it engendered diverse experiences that now leave me feeling pregnant with possibility.

Speaking of being pregnant, I got on the PhD track not only out of intellectual interest but also because my dean’s job didn’t comport well with infant parenting (it required carrying a beeper and working on site many evenings and weekends, and my partner had an all-consuming legal job).  Although counter-intuitive, having kids in grad school may be the “best” time to have them, considering the terrifying alternative of raising young kids while on the job market/tenure track.  The paradox of modern parenting (one of few major vocations that can still be practiced without a license) and the academy’s perennial “baby penalty” are huge topics in themselves, as suggested by Mary Ann Mason and an abundance of other literature (e.g. Mothers in Academia or Mama PhD book and blog ).  The larger problem, of course, is the normalization of a medieval model of being “married to the institution”: an ethos of overwork, insufficient boundaries, and narrow notions of “excellence” and “productivity” that advantages the subset that complies most fully while leaving those with different values and significant personal or civic responsibilities (not just mothers) at a distinct disadvantage.

As a doctoral student-parent with prior work experience, however, I was saved from the worst of disciplinary indoctrination.  I always knew there were other lives, other options.  Not only did having kids connect me to the wider community in different ways, but professionally I had already consorted with administrators and others who weren’t faculty, i.e. “Those of Whom We Do Not Speak” (cf. Night Shyalaman’s The Village, a great allegory for escaping any ideological enclosure).

Many of us are prevented by disciplinary myopia from seeing alternatives in our larger environments.  Do you have a genuine interest in career exploration or do you feel about the faculty role as you might about a soul mate – that there is only one profession for you, for better or worse till death do you part?  As Miya Tokumitsu has brilliantly noted, academics are fairly crippled by an overwhelming sense of vocation, making us ripe for the exploitation we are experiencing en masse.  Combined with the hair shirt of academic discipline and attendant loss of self-esteem, it becomes nigh impossible to understand:  you can be happy in other jobs.  There are other contexts where one teaches, writes, researches, or works with young people; there also jobs where you might enjoy doing none of these things!  Someone else will love you.  More precisely, someone will love you, elsewhere.

I spent a decade floating around the Five College Consortium of Western Massachusetts as a “visiting” professor due to the two-body problem that circumscribed where I could apply (my partner is a partner in a small law firm – a hard-won situation difficult to replicate across state lines). Most of my contracts were decent fulltime and multi-year gigs with benefits, not per course adjunct arrangements.  That is as good as it gets, but still temporary. Eventually I tired of being a perpetual applicant.

Here’s the thing, adjuncts:  your chances of “converting” to a secure academic job decrease with every semester—they almost NEVER hire the devil they know.  As a woman of color (diversity hire potential!) with exceptional teaching evaluations on five elite campuses, respectable publications, prior administrative experience, an admiring network of students and colleagues as well as a proven commitment to the geographic area, I had the tantalizing delusion that I would be an exception to this grim rule. NOPE.  Way later than I should have, I decided to seek work that promised advancement or at least a longer shelf life.  If you need stronger medicine here, try Rebecca Schuman’s Thesis Hatement.

For many if not most, being an adjunct is the professional equivalent of domestic abuse, PTSD and Stockholm syndrome rolled into a single despairing plight that has only one feasible resolution: as with any dysfunctional relationship, at some point you must first DECIDE to go, then GO.  The terrible thing is that we lack the professional equivalent of transition shelters.  However, The Professor is providing one kind of safe space with the Alt/Post-Ac Initiative, and I mention others below.

I was better treated than most working off the tenure track and had a safety net in my partner; I know that I cannot imagine the worst of what some of my adjunct colleagues are experiencing. Yet anyone who is untenured (including TT faculty) ultimately confronts the same dynamic:  at some point we have to decide whether our circumstances are worth hanging on to, or else pursue a change.  To achieve the latter, we cannot identify as helpless victims, engage in crippling rationalizations, or indulge in wishful thinking. You can’t control what others do, but you CAN decide what YOU will do.

In 2012, I decided to end my role as a faculty “Kelly girl” and went on a broader Alt/Post-Ac search. That was a nerve-wracking but hopeful time with plenty of ups, downs, and interesting nibbles.  Networking (more on that in a future post) and applying for a wide range of jobs was a laboratory on how to (re)present myself.  I learned to fashion strikingly different versions of a cover letter and resume, all of which drew selectively from my background in accordance with new position requirements but still made sense on their own terms (more on this “Art of Translation” in a future post).  Ultimately, I took a job as Director of a new Career Discovery Program at Williams College.

Once again, I discovered that I. LOVE. CAREER. COUNSELING.  It felt great to use my emotional intelligence freely, to teach without grading, and to “punch out” so a weekend was … a weekend! Ironically, while I joked to students (by way of alerting them to the uncertainties of the academic market) that I had come full circle and returned to the job I held when I was 24, this new role actually threw the value of my academic training into full relief, since 1) as an interdisciplinary thinker and researcher, I could engage credibly with people from a wide range of fields, 2) career counseling is advising and teaching by other means and 3) it enabled a key “bridging” function that allowed me to evaluate the core academic mission from the vantage point of student exit.

Essentially, career counseling invites backwards design; it asks us to evaluate a college education by considering what graduates go on to do and become, as well as what the world needs now (FYI, it’s still love, sweet love).  The tired dichotomy between liberal and vocational education is not only false but unproductive:  we need to talk about applied liberal learning.  Surprisingly, then, I found real intellectual challenge in college career counseling (even if the field itself doesn’t always elicit such conversations).

Similarly, thinking about the full range of careers for PhDs gives us a very different view of the doctoral mission, as suggested by the Woodrow Wilson and Carnegie foundations or The Versatile PhD (press your institution or scholarly association into membership – there are no individual subscriptions). These sites remind you, as I did in “Demystifying the Dissertation,” that your career angst is NOT an individual problem but an institutionally and socially constructed one. Unfortunately, most doctoral faculty members have worked primarily in academe, so they are not well-situated to advise students on a range of career options, or even on academic missions and cultures beyond their own R1 environments.

In any case, my return to career counseling was “Alt-Ac” in the best sense of work that was varied, stimulating and made good use of my academic training even though a Ph.D. was not required – an important reminder that you may need to move “over or down” in order to move out and (hopefully, eventually) up.  While you may not have an alternative career field to return to as I did, I assure you that the skills you’ve gained from academic training ARE highly transferable, not only within Higher Ed but to myriad outside organizations that will value your capacity to think, research, write, and/or teach. There are also jobs that look nothing like academic life, but which may nonetheless be a great fit (your capacity for making a more radical transition depends on your willingness to discover or claim new aspects that academic work may have suppressed). Either way, to convince others of your fit for Alt/Post-Ac work, you first have to believe it yourself.  We’ll talk about how to stoke the fires of that belief next time.

There’s an unexpected twist to my story that may offer strange hope to any academic debating (cue up the Clash): should I stay or should I go?  Just months in to my new career counseling job, I saw an unusual tenure-track job listing in Interdisciplinary Studies, with responsibility to also coordinate the Women’s and Leadership Studies minors, at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA)—one of few public SLACS in the country.  Had the institutional culture at Williams seemed more embracing of change, I might have envisioned a future there.  But since I was unsure whether the Career Center and College would transform as I hoped, I threw in for the position at MCLA, a more humble yet evolving institution.

Gentle reader, eight years after getting my PhD and a few years after I had stopped applying for TT jobs, I got on The Track for the first time at the tender age of 48 (confirming academe as the true location of the Fountain of Youth –where professors can be “Assistants” at any age, even permanently!).  Because MCLA is committed to experiential learning, my career counseling background was seen as value added rather than as evidence that I wasn’t scholarly enough. In addition, Interdisciplinary Studies promised a capacious home for my diverse teaching and scholarly engagements (21 discrete course preps thus far).  So, a la The Sopranos, “just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!”  I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this.  Did I get scared, and veer from my true North Star just because my trainer tugged my chain again, or might this actually be the long-sought professional home that can make room for my varied interests, including career counseling and being a singer-songwriter?  Time will tell.

Meanwhile, what can I tell you?  I applied for exactly one tenure track job last year and I got it.  I’m batting a thousand!  Seriously, I’m not suggesting that my situation is replicable or that you should put all your eggs in one basket.  Rather, I’m saying that you might need to ditch the basket.  That’s what I did, never imagining that my exit off the track would lead to an on-ramp back.  Like my unplanned start in career counseling, it’s a reminder that we don’t control the universe – all we CAN control is the decision to put ourselves out there, and to respond when opportunity knocks.

If my story is helpful, it won’t be because my path is representative, but because it speaks to the value of setting new possibilities in motion by making an affirmative decision to quit, which as The Professor assures us, is always OK.  If you are in adjunct hell or any another soul-crushing academic situation, success is defined as any job that effectively relocates you. Don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself by waiting for a perfect match (as in love, rebound relationships are par for the course).  Just know that breaking free is the first step in a journey of a thousand unpredictable but potentially wondrous miles.

In my case, there’s been another benefit.  My faculty career already died (or so I thought), so I don’t operate from the fearful outlook that being on the tenure track engenders in many.  I don’t feel like a hapless damsel trussed to The Track (hence my decision to blog under my own name).  It’s not that I’m immune to professional worry, but when such moments arise I remind myself that I left the faculty once before and can do so again.  They can’t kill you twice.

While my pre-doctoral path may have made me less vulnerable to the stultifying resignation engendered by disciplinary socialization, you can still deploy your inherent brute strength to free yourself from the academic stake that tethers you in place.  As discussed in my last post, change begins in the mind.  What new possibilities will you begin to imagine today?

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