The beginning of the fall semester – my first non-teaching semester in ten years – is when the post-academic life becomes a reality. It’s liberating because I was really miserable during the last few years of my academic life. I’m much happier now, even though not teaching is a little strange. It’s strange not to have to divide up my time into weirdly calibrated clumps of teaching and non-teaching days. It will be weird not to be haunted by stacks and stacks of student writing that I know I have to grade.
But not teaching is not just strange for me.
One thing I struggle with is trying to explain myself to people who are not academics and who don’t understand how the system works. I get a lot of surprised looks from friends and family when they find out that I am kissing (what appears to be) the Good Life goodbye. (For the record, a lot of academics express surprise too, for different reasons.) For example, during a recent visit with my in-laws, my mother-in-law asked, “So when do you start school?”
See, I am sure my in-laws had already been informed that I would not be returning to the hallowed halls of College Where I Used to Adjunct. But it just hadn’t sunk in yet. Or, more likely, they don’t really know what “leaving academia” means. Maybe they think it means I am changing schools or that I have decided to focus on teaching instead of research? Whatever the reason, my MIL hadn’t yet grasped that I wouldn’t be “starting school” this week like I have every other fall semester that she has known me.
I understand why it is confusing. To non-academics, it seems bizarre that I have spent years and years of my life working towards a goal, and then as soon as I achieve it (earning a PhD), I just walk away. They don’t know, of course, that I didn’t really walk away because walking away implies that there was somewhere to walk to when, in reality, the pathway forward had ended. There was no more walking to do – except in a different direction.
The surprised comments keep coming. Upon learning that I hadn’t yet found a full-time academic job, another family friend said, “So you’ll just keep looking.”
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s not going to happen.”
She looked perplexed. I’m sure she thought I was wrong, that I was giving up too easily, that if I just “kept looking” it would all work out. This is a generational misunderstanding too. This family friend is in her 60’s. When she was my age, people who earned college degrees got good jobs. And people who got PhDs! Well, those people lived in a big house and had two cars and wore tweed jackets.
How can that still not be the case?
Sometimes when I tell people that there are no jobs and that times have changed, I get the feeling that I’m doing more than just telling them about my lack of job prospects; I am challenging their view of the world, a view in which hard work pays off and people who go to school for a long, long time will be successful. Occasionally, I begin to feel that I need to challenge this view because it gives my post-academic life some kind of purpose, and it appeals to the part of me that will always be a teacher.
On the other hand, I didn’t leave academia so I could challenge others’ view of the world. Most of the time, I don’t sit around ruminating gloomily on the fact that No One Understands Me. I’m just living my life, trying to earn a living and make sense of the circumstances I am in. I don’t go around lecturing anyone who asks about the horrible thing that happened to me and to many, many deserving others. Post-academia is just where I am. It’s what happened. While it largely happened due to circumstances beyond my control, it is not a source of pride or superior knowledge or an excuse for me to teach anyone anything. Post-academia is like any other economic and career turmoil that is so terribly common these days. There’s nothing noble or enriching about it. And there’s nothing in it that will make me a better person. Psychologically, I’m better off now, but that’s not the same as redemption.