HTD: On Opting Out of the Tenure Track Search

The last 15 months have been almost dizzying. In that period, my wife gave birth to our second child; we moved twice and bought a house; I wrote the bulk of my dissertation, defended it, and graduated; and orchestrated a career change. It’s that last I’d like to reflect on here. Deciding to forego the tenure track job search was both painful and liberating; before too much time passes, I want to capture my thoughts.

Like many PhD candidates in the final year of their program, I was torn between two conflicting goals: applying to as many postdocs/teaching jobs as possible, and actually finishing the dissertation. The latter necessarily took precedence– I decided not to teach at all so I could finish, which meant that we were now paying the university a couple of thousand dollars a term for tuition. We were both committed to me finishing. I did apply to a few posts, and put considerable effort into both, but, as I fully expected, neither worked out. When 2019 rolled around, I saw only two academic options: 1) trying to string together a few adjunct posts in the DC area; 2) trying to find a 1–2 year appointment somewhere else in the country. Neither, as you can imagine, sounded particularly appealing. Things at this point came into much clearer focus.

The key question that emerged was this: do I have a strong enough sense of vocation to the academy to justify all the suffering that a tenure-track job search will cause for both me and my family? (Spoiler alert: no!). Throughout my time at Catholic, I felt strongly that what I was doing was worthwhile, regardless of what came next. It was a marvelous investment in both my mind and my soul, and shaped me in ways for which I’ll always be grateful. I embarked on this journey so that I could make meaningful contributions to the scholarship on early Christianity. Yet I began to see that the tenure-track path was not the only, nor necessarily the best path for what I’d set out to do. Though I’d begun with the expectation of eventually being a professor, it was the intellectual work of research that drew me, not teaching in a college setting. All I needed for research was a good library, and then time and space to think and write. The tenure track search promised neither time nor space, and much pain besides.

There were, of course, other reasons for foregoing the tenure track search. My wife, sister and I wanted to stay in the Washington DC area. After 7 years here, we’d developed friendships, particularly at church, that we were loath to give up. For cultural, educational, and demographic reasons we thought it a good place to raise our kids; and my wife loved her job and didn’t want to leave it. So too, my mother wanted to move to be close to us, but couldn’t really do that until we’d committed to being a particular place for a long time. It seemed to me much wiser to put relationships with friends and family before a particular job, because I knew I could find meaningful employment in a variety of settings, not just in the academy. I saw in fact that working outside the academy might give me the stability I need to pursue meaningful research projects in the time I’m not working.

This shift in perspective was easier for me than it would be for most: I had a skill (software development) that is both remunerative and in high-demand (my undergraduate degree is in Computer Science, and I worked at IBM in college as a Software Developer). It was, to use that word again, dizzying to go from a situation in where dozens or hundreds of highly qualified people would apply for a single position (the academy) to a context in which recruiters were calling and sending me e-mails regularly, even though I hadn’t worked as a software developer in 7 years. It wasn’t a cake walk by any means: I had to spend focused time getting caught up technically. But within a couple of months I was earning money as a developer. I started doing some freelance work over the summer, building a book search facility for a small press (https://buzzellbooks.fifthpress.org). In July, I started working in the Division of IT at University of Maryland, College Park as a software developer. Being on staff with a large university means, inter alia, full library privileges, for which I’m enormously thankful. It’s certainly been a challenge to remain connected to intellectual life, but it continues. I’m working slowly on a book proposal; this week I give a research presentation related to my dissertation work; and in January, I’ll present at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies, the national academic organization for Classical Literature.

When I talk to friends still in graduate school, many tell me, “I wish I also had those technical skills!” The implication is that such a transition is impossible for them because they weren’t programmers in a previous life. It certainly was an enormous advantage for me that I had that prior experience. But my ability to write software was actually integrally connected with my ability to read classical languages (code is language, after all). So I’m convinced that nearly anyone smart enough to be in a PhD program that requires foreign language is also smart enough to learn to write software; it’s just a matter of time and opportunity. It’s also important that the intangible skills gained in a PhD (dedication to a long-term project, time management, self-motivation, analysis, writing…) are all extremely valuable in the marketplace; it does, however, require creative reconfiguration of how you see both yourself and present yourself to potential employers. The jump was easier for me than it would be for most (which is not to say it wasn’t painful and stressful). But above all, people in PhD programs (and those adjuncting afterwards) need to realize that they have autonomy. My last few years would have been considerably less stressful had I realized that sooner.

The change has certainly been painful, as all change is. We grow attached to our visions of the future; I’d imagined I’d end up teaching in some small liberal arts college in some small town. Visiting such places does make me yearn sometimes for a different modus vivendi. Friends and professors have been supportive by and large, but there’s certainly disappointment too– “o we’d hoped you would be the one to land that tenure track job!” And yet when I see how beautifully things have worked out, I’m overwhelmed by the mercy of the One who orchestrates all things with more intricate care than I could fathom.

What about research? One of the things I learned in my last year was that I could only do serious research for about 20 hours a week. I saw that even with 10 hours a week, I’d be able to make legitimate progress on research goals (articles, translations, etc.) During my final year, I had also gotten in the habit of getting up early before my kids got up to work for 60–90 minutes. I’ve maintained that practice since starting work as a developer. So there’s consistent time built into my schedule to do things not related to my full-time job (as it happens, I’ve been using that time to freelance lately). Not being under the eye of a hiring committee also affords me greater flexibility in the types of intellectual work I do. I can work on translations or editions instead of articles and monographs, for instance, or submit my work only to presses/journals that support open access. I’ll also have space to engage in digital humanities endeavors that wouldn’t necessarily map well onto a traditional publication. So I’m excited about the possibilities for my research. We’ll see what comes of it.

One thought on “HTD: On Opting Out of the Tenure Track Search

  1. Thank you Alex for your dedication. In the past I had hoped to major in comparative semitics and sadly found that there were few or no jobs waiting after I completed my degree. So I went into digital media instead and then moved again into a different vocation that has great benefits and a generous pension. My present job doesn’t tax my mind and my after work time allows me to read and translate ancient texts, think, collaborate, improve and expand a website, and think more again. I really like this dual life.

    I look forward to reading and keeping up with all your discoveries. All the best.

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