Yet Another “I Left Academia” Story

This essay was originally published on a blog I no longer keep. It appeared on January 6, 2015.

When 2014 began, my professional life looked very different than it does now at the beginning of 2015. In January last year, I was working as a lecturer in English at the University of Newcastle (the one in Australia, not the one in the UK). I was writing an academic book. I was preparing for an incredibly busy teaching semester. And I was optimistic about staying an academic and succeeding at being one for the rest of my working life. It was shortly after this period that something happened, dislodging me from the professional trajectory I had been hell-bent on pursuing.

I’ve been mysterious about the particularities on this blog (though when people have asked me directly about it, I haven’t held back any details). And I’m sure that the mystery of it all has been further heightened by the fact that I keep saying I will write about it while not writing about it at all. I haven’t meant to tease; it’s just that before this, I felt I was unable to write about it without descending into bitterness, pettiness, incoherence, or blind anger. Also, there’s the matter of perspective: when one has just emerged from what one experiences as a crisis, every small detail, every sensation, every wrinkle and fold of recent horribleness seems overwhelmingly important and in need of recounting. It is only well after, once the wounds are healing and the memory is more distant, that one can write in a more detached way about the pain. Don’t get me wrong: detachment does not make the recounting of an event any more or any less true. But a detached telling is less painful, I think, both for the recounter and recountee.

And so now, with the pain dulled by time, I can sum up in one sentence what, several months before, would have taken several incoherent paragraphs to relate: I applied for a job I thought I had a good chance of getting and lost it to someone else.

Admittedly, it’s not quite that simple, even if that is what it boils down to. I’ll go into a few specifics: In 2011, I was hired at Newcastle as a lecturer in English on a one-year contract. I was doing a good job and they still needed the extra person, so they extended my contract by another year. Then the English & Writing Discipline (“discipline” being roughly equivalent to “department” at other universities) put in a bid to create a new continuing (read “tenure track”) English Lecturer position and I was strongly encouraged to apply for it. I think I can say that I was informally considered the inside candidate for the job, and many of my colleagues expressed the belief that this extra process was merely a formality, since they were really impressed by my work (both in teaching and research) and liked me and wanted to keep me around. I applied for the job. I made it to the final interview stage. And then they hired someone else. Someone else who deserved the position wholly (it’s the story of the humanities academic job market: too many qualified people, too few jobs), but someone else nonetheless. And I was humiliated and crushed. That’s all there is to it. If you’re still curious, the rest of this post relates my thoughts on the whole ordeal. But if this has sated your curiosity and you’re not interested in reading yet another tortured reflection on the whole “academic” thing (there are many of them circulating the web nowadays), then it’s all right: you can stop reading here.

The entire experience was especially mortifying for two reasons. First, I’d compromised myself morally. I had strong ethical qualms about being the inside candidate from the start (even if it did turn out that I wasn’t the inside candidate at all). Although the head of school and the discipline convener (read: department head) had been cautious in not making any promises, in the lead up to the application due date, they said they were very happy with my work thus far and seemed to be providing genuine encouragement and support regarding my prospects. Many of my colleagues, both tenure-track and adjunct, believed circumstances were very much in my favor and expressed optimism. I couldn’t help but feel optimistic myself, and as a result, rather happy. Finally, I thought to myself, all the late hours and weekends of writing and research and teaching and grading and tedious course-administration will be rewarded. Finally all the toil will bear fruit. Finally, my longstanding dream of being a tenure-track academic will become reality. But I also felt dirty. This was wrong. All wrong. I’d been on the outside before: I’d applied for jobs and been disappointed and heard rumors of a mysterious “inside candidate” who had it in the bag all along and wasted everyone else’s time. I thought guiltily about the other applicants who would painstakingly craft the wording of each paragraph in their cover letters, who would spend hours researching the university and the English & Writing Discipline on the web in order to throw in that important and personalized detail that might impress the selection committee, who would send the application off and feel a little shiver of hope run up their spines – I have a good shot at this! I put my heart and soul into this application! This is the one! I can feel it! – all the while not realizing that there was already someone (me!) who had it sewn up all along.

I’d been there. But to my shame, I played along anyway because that other part of me – the part desperate to see a dream deferred fulfilled – crowed over the fact that, for once, the odds were in my favor, that I was the one who would finally have the unfair advantage over everyone else. The end result, ironically, was that I compromised myself by participating in what I still believe was a not entirely open job search, but without reaping the material benefits of doing so (perhaps this was only fair). And to those still on the market, I can only offer an inadequate apology for doing so.

The second reason why the whole experience was so mortifying had to do with consenting to go along with my exploitation in the lead-up to applying for the job. Since starting the position, my teaching load had increased considerably, though by increments. I agreed to a rather heavy teaching load for what would turn out to be my final semester (January to May 2014) because I thought that being accommodating would give me a better chance of getting the job I was applying for. (My contract did not specify a certain number of courses or students; rather, “workload” was calculated by a point system which the administration admitted was flawed in its method of calculation, but which nevertheless was used because there was no other system in place yet.) The result: in my last semester, I taught 12 hours of class per week for the first 5 weeks of the semester and 10 hours of class per week for the last 7 weeks. I taught and graded the essays of 196 students total (though, thankfully, partway through the semester I was given some assistance with grading the introductory English essays). I would have had to design and teach an online version of the introductory English course I was assigned as well, but even my hunger for the possible job couldn’t make me risk my sanity, even when a senior colleague acting as the deputy head of teaching and learning at the time urged me multiple times during a discipline-wide meeting to take on the responsibility, and even when she approached me in the hallway after the meeting, urging me to reconsider and to take into account the fact that it would reflect favorably on me as an applicant applying for the job.

In hindsight, I wish I had set even clearer boundaries. But the fact I was applying for the job clouded my judgment: even though I thought I was the inside candidate, I didn’t want to risk it. Better safe than sorry. And I hoped that even though I refused to create and teach the online version of the course, that my willingness to teach all the rest of it would be enough. But then, when the news hit, I had to keep calm and carry on working there for a whole semester knowing that I wouldn’t be there the semester after. In some ways, I think it actually had a positive impact on my teaching. My students rallied around me and were incredibly supportive and kind. And I was able to teach with vulnerability and honesty and openness and humanness because I knew it was my last semester teaching (ever) and, with ambition shattered, all I had left to keep me going was the desire that my students, my lovely human students, get something meaningful out of the literature we were reading. (Though you should have seen me try to lead the discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” the week after I’d been told I didn’t get the job. I had to apologize for being a bit of a wreck: The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Things got better from there.) In any case, I felt foolish for not putting my foot down when it came to taking on such a heavy teaching load. (Though I do know that such teaching loads, and heavier, are the norm for many, many academics…too many.)

So the upshot of all this is that I have made the decision to leave academia. I will not say that academia is terrible and unjust because it isn’t for everybody, though it certainly is broken. (This is more than apparent, and the number of commentaries being penned about its brokenness is disturbingly high.) Nor will I counsel everyone to leave academia because I am genuinely happy for those who are willing to pursue it, who succeed at it, who simply like doing it, and who still do it even if their working conditions are sub-par because they genuinely love it at its kernel. I also realize that, for those who do well, it affords the opportunity for a potentially wonderful and rewarding and enriching life. But after the entire debacle related above, I decided, for the following reasons (many of which you’ll have heard before), that it was best for me to leave:

1.  My life as an academic was not the life I thought I would have as an academic. I was overworked and felt pressured to publish and teach in quantities that compromised the quality of my work.

2. Related to number 1: my brain was so tired. So tired of working at full tilt all the time. This was also affecting the quality of my writing and my teaching.

3. I was tired of doing adjunct lecturing. And I was unwilling to apply for jobs elsewhere and live apart from my spouse (who has done a much better job of being a successful academic and is working at the University of Sydney).

4. I was tired of being treated poorly despite my abilities and having no job security.

What am I doing now? If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’ve been taking a few months to recuperate and slowly transition into writing, editing, and publishing, which is not exactly busting with jobs and money ripe for the picking either. Still, I love words so much, I want to give it a shot. I’ve just finished the first draft of the manuscript for my second novel (the first is still under representation with my literary agent). I’ve taken on freelance editing jobs. I volunteer as an editor at Asymptote and Inside Indonesia. And over the next few months, I’ll be scheduling informational interviews with people in the publishing industry. ( So if you happen to have any leads for good people to talk to, in Sydney or Australia especially, but elsewhere as well, let me know in the comments section for this post!)

I should acknowledge that having the time to undertake this transition is only something I can do because I am in the privileged position of being able to rely on financial support from my spouse. I think I must acknowledge this, as I realize that there are many who cling to the hem of humanities academia because they need to make rent every month and/or have a family to support and really do not have the time or funds to stop working as an academic so they can find themselves in a more fulfilling career. I know that this was pretty much the situation of two non-tenure-track colleagues whom I worked alongside at the University of Newcastle. About this, I don’t know what to say except I wish it were not so, and I know that saying this is utterly inadequate.

A few days ago, when my spouse and I were visiting my in-laws, I had dinner with a former teacher of mine. He taught me in my undergraduate days in Massachusetts at the liberal arts college I attended, and I learned a lot from him. In fact, it was he who inspired me to pursue graduate studies with a mind to becoming a college professor just like him. I did not realize at the time that he was not only in a non-tenure-track position, but also that his working circumstances were less than ideal at the institution he worked for and I was a student at, how hard it must have been for him, and how professional he was in not letting this affect his teaching of us. He now teaches at a different institution. He’s still non-tenure-track, but his position is much better: he says he has decent job security despite not being tenured or tenure-track, that he has say over what he teaches and how, and that his working conditions are good. I recounted to him what I’d just been through. And he recalled a conversation he had with one of his colleagues many years back (who turned out to be the lovely non-tenure-track professoressa who taught my beginning Italian class) – how she told him that both of them were complicit in their own exploitation. I think perhaps it might make sense to add a fifth reason to the list above on why I’ve decided to leave academia. Again, it’s not true for everyone, but I don’t want to be complicit with a system that pressures people into being complicit in their own undoing. I’m probably idealistic. I’ll probably find out that this is exactly what happens in the editing and publishing world as well, not to mention the world as a whole. But I want to say no just this once, just at this point in time, and believe it might mean something. So I will.