Thoughts on Academia and the Tenure Track: 3 years Later

A little over three years ago, in May 2019, I graduated with my PhD in Ancient Greek and Latin from Catholic University of America. At that point I had already decided to earn my bread as a software developer instead of pursuing tenure track positions or visiting professorships. I intended to keep publishing research as an independent scholar, a plan I laid out in October, 2019. What I have since discovered, not entirely to my surprise, is that meaningful research output is difficult to sustain without a community of learning and the professional incentives provided by tenure. Over the past year I’ve finally let my research plans go dormant and I’ve happily released the guilt of “not writing.”

I had high hopes when graduating that I’d be able to make meaningful research contributions even without an academic affiliation. I’d done the time-math and knew it would be possible even with a full time job. I had some clear next steps to work on, and planned to attend conferences so that I could stay connected with the Classics and Patristics research communities to which I belonged. My plans worked out to a degree. I presented a paper at my alma mater on early Christian poetic aesthetics; I attended the yearly conference of the Society for Classical Studies in 2020 and presented a paper just a few months before COVID shut the world down; and I was able to publish a text crucial appendix of my dissertation as a peer reviewed article. These were all efforts, however, that derived from work completed during my time in graduate school. I never moved beyond dissertation-adjacent work.

It might seem that time was the main impediment. After all, I have young children. I also miscalculated how much I’d need to work to offset the additional cost of childcare and the need to make up for my final year of graduate school (during my final year I was making no income and we had to dip heavily into savings). An entry-level software developer’s salary of $75k / year seems like a fortune after being in a humanities PhD program, but much of this went to childcare and other expenses that come with being in a high cost of living city like Washington DC. Around the time of that first blogpost my wife told me that I’d need to keep up the 5-10 hrs of freelancing a week if we were to stop treading water financially. Naturally instead of poring over ancient tomes of poetry I honed my craft as a software developer. And with 2 young children in the home, it was not as though I could easily pursue scholarship and on top of two jobs, unless I wanted to shoulder my wife with a load of extra childcare. So my well-remunerated labor (software) naturally took precedence over a (serious) hobby.

Yet the time problem eventually resolved itself, so I can’t really attribute the failure to launch a research career to time. When our third child, Maximus, was born, I was given 20 weeks of parental leave, fully paid, to be with my family. Moreover, we continued to pay for childcare for the older kids for almost half of that, which meant that I had 1-2 hours most days to work on something intellectually stimulating while Max slept in the wrap. I went into this period with several ideas for research projects, but found that what I really wanted to do was learn new programming languages, not deal with the externalities of peer review or book publishing. This was quite illuminating to me and it finally helped me realize that, at least in this phase of my life, I simply do not want to publish scholarly writing and that’s okay. Academic publishing is a rigorous, often frustrating, process. Academics put up with it because it does tend to make the work better and because they don’t really have a choice: peer-reviewed publications are the currency of an academic career. But frankly neither the esteem of my niche of the Classics world nor the personal satisfaction of placing an article were worth the months of unpaid effort that would be required. I still read ancient Greek for pleasure on almost a daily basis, but I have no active writing projects and have no desire to contrive any.

It’s not surprising that my desires would be shaped by my communities. It’s the same phenomenon that makes religious beliefs much stickier for members of a resilient church or synagogue. My desire to create scholarly articles was nascent as an undergraduate, but only grew once I joined a community where that was prized. On graduation I joined a different community that values other outputs (technical projects, software architectural designs, etc). And far from boring or monotonous projects, I’ve found creating software to be both intellectually stimulating and impactful. On one side, while freelancing with Crosscut I’ve helped build software that health campaign planners in low and middle income countries use to create better, more equitable health campaign plans. And in my full time work at the Washington Post, I’ve contributed to systems that help power thousands of websites and are used by millions of end users around the world. So though I’m not publishing peer reviewed papers, I have no lack of intellectually demanding work ready to hand.

All our efforts are ultimately a “chasing after the wind” and “there is a time for all things.” As the seasons pass I may eventually find myself wanting to return to teaching literature or producing research. These are beautiful and worthwhile human endeavors. But even if I never do, my time in the gauntlet of a PhD program was not wasted. I’m a better human being because I spent seven years attending closely to some of the most lovely literature that humanity has ever created. For that I will be ever grateful.

Evagrius, On Prayer 34–37


Do not fall into doubt when you do not immediately receive from God your request. He wants to bless you still further as you persevere with him in prayer. After all, what could be more exalted than conversing with God and exerting oneself for intimacy with him?


Undistracted prayer is the mind’s highest mental activity.


Prayer is the mind’s ascent toward God.


If you desire to carry out your prayer, reject all things so that you may inherit the all.

Evagrius, On Prayer 31–33


Do not go on praying that your own desires come to pass, since they do not cohere perfectly with the desire of God. Instead, pray persistently as you have learned, “thy will be done in me.” In every endeavor, pray this way, so that his will would be done. After all, he desires what is good and beneficial for your soul. But quite often you do not pursue this.


Often after praying I would ask for what I thought good to come to pass and would persist irrationally in this request, thereby doing violence to the will of God and refusing to yield to it so that he would carry out what he knows to be best. Indeed, when I got what I asked for, I was extremely bitter that I hadn’t been asking for his will instead, for the matter does not work out like I’d supposed.


What is good besides God? So let us entrust all our affairs to him and they will go well. After all, he who is entirely good is also the giver of good gifts.

HTD: Time/Project Management (Pt. 1)

Ah, there’s nothing like finally making the time to write a post on time management. Improving my ability to manage my time was certainly one of the most important skills I gained from the dissertation project. Good time planning is a meta-skill: it fosters flourishing across the different parts of your life. In this post I discuss some of the big picture challenges of the dissertation and argue that time management’s biggest boon is not the increased productivity, but its potential to free you from one of the most pernicious aspects of PhD life: the anxiety spiral about never having done enough. In another post, I’ll dive into more specific approaches I found helpful and talk about planning individual days. My thinking on all this in deeply indebted to Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, which you should go buy immediately if you haven’t read it. It’s both extremely practical and rooted in a philosophically rich vision of the good life.

What’s so hard about a dissertation anyway?

The dissertation was unlike anything else I had done in graduate school (my program didn’t include an MA thesis). It’s a long-term project with few, if any external deadlines. You receive infrequent input from outside sources. Moreover, the “finished dissertation” is a rather abstract and nebulous: it’s difficult to say when any given chapter, much less the whole is “ready.” The combination of large-scale and ill-defined final product is a project manager’s worst nightmare (you are essentially your own project manager while doing your dissertation). Compare coursework, where you typically see a professor several times a week, often have graded assignments other than a final paper, and usually have clear parameters about page-length and topic. In short, my strategies for doing course work well did not work well for getting a dissertation done. It wasn’t enough simply to do the reading, read a couple of books, read some articles, and assemble something near the end of the semester. Even comprehensive exams, which for me required months of study, were much more clearly defined tasks. I could simply ask how many questions I had prepared or how much of the primary reading list I had gotten through. By contrast, with a dissertation you always feel the pressure to read that one more book, or that one more article in German, because you’re supposed to be the “expert.” This quickly leads even sanguine types to a persistent anxiety and frustration, because you never feel like you’ve done enough. Frankly, I think getting free of this anxiety spiral is much more important than the actual productivity you get from good time management, because the phenomenon this anxiety spiral persists even when you are objectively productive. There were lots of days I put in significant time, made respectable progress based on external metrics (pages read, words drafted, etc.), and still felt spent and hopeless at the end because there was still more to do (one of the reasons rest is so vital). Flourishing as a person is vastly more important than your objective output. Careful time planning not only makes your work time more efficient and productive, but also makes your off-time more restful and nourishing.

Managing Expectations

Time management, or life really, is about expectation management. A good process for time management should allow you to make reasonable estimations about what you can accomplish in a certain time period with the resources at your disposal. This usually requires a few things. I’ll list them here and expand below:

  • Dedicated time to plan and reflect.
  • Clear estimates for how long it will take to perform tasks.
  • A clear schedule for when and where you’ll be working on the task.
  • Deadlines that influence your behavior

Time for Planning and Reflection

You probably only need 5–10 minutes at the beginning of the day to plan, and maybe 20–30 minutes at the end of a week to reflect on how things went the past week. It’s easy for planning to get put off in favor of some more “productive” task like reading an article or reading a primary source, but I try to keep myself from falling into that trap. Regular planning, however brief, is vital not because you need to keep to your plans meticulously, but planning brings awareness into a process that often proceeds without any consciousness at all. Reflection on how things have gone helps you re-calibrate your expectations on how long things will take. This reflection allows you to say things like, “Oh, I didn’t read quite as much as I wanted to this week, but that’s because I took that one morning off to go to the zoo with my kids. That trade off is worth it to me.”

Clear Time Estimates for Common Tasks

Some research tasks are fairly predictable and you should have concrete numbers for. How long does it take you to read a page of academic prose in English? How about in German? French? Questions like that are vital but it took a surprisingly long time before I had explicit answers. I found, for instance, that in an hour I could normally read about 60 pages of academic prose in English. I read German, French, or Italian at about half the rate. I know that I can read 250–300 lines of Homer in an hour, or normally between 1500 and 2500 words of Greek prose an hour, depending on the difficulty of the author and how much sleep and coffee I’ve had. This means that when I was deciding between reading an entire book or just selecting the chapters I needed, I could see immediately that a 500 page book in English would require 8–9 hours of time, while selecting, say, the most relevant chapter or two may only require 1–2. Or, when I was selecting which primary sources to deal with, I knew that reading ps.-Basil’s De vera virginitate in Greek would take about 10 hours. Other tasks are a little bit more variable, like drafting new material are more variable, but even here you you should track your progress and make educated guesses. During periods when I was writing new material I’d typically shoot for 1,000–1,500 words a day. Sometimes I’d get there, other times not. Perhaps the most difficult task to estimate time for is editing. Proofreading for style is different than incorporating suggestions from an advisor or friend, for instance. Ballpark figures are still useful though, because you don’t want to obsess to the point where you refuse to move on to the next chapter. So you probably want to a deadline (I’m sending this to my advisor in two weeks) and then work backward from that to fit in however much editing is possible.

A Clear Schedule

Because of family responsibilities, I normally had about 15–20 hours a week that I could spend on the dissertation. Setting a normal work schedule allows you to project into the future. You don’t have to have the exact same schedule each week, but by the beginning of the week you should be able to say something like, “I’m going to work from 8–11 MWF and 2–4 on T/Th). For those, like me, who have kids, your work time is set by how much childcare you can afford or when your spouse or a family member can watch the kids. Arranging childcare is a pain, but on the flip side, it helps you focus, since there’s a dollar amount attached to the time you’re working.

As for location, it’s often helpful to have a space devoted to work (a study at home, a certain part or desk at the library). Our brains associate locations with task, so it’s easy to get into a flow state if you’re working in a spot that you’ve learned to associate with productive work. More important, however, is that the spot be free of distraction. For me, this meant the library was a much better space than the graduate student office in our department, and a home office was better still.

Deadlines that Influence your Behavior

Working backward from a deadline is actually one of the most important things you can do with a dissertation, because there’s always more that you could read or incorporate into any given chapter. You want both large scale deadlines (I’m going to defend in April, 2019) but you want them at a smaller scale too (I’m going to finish the reading and research phase of this chapter by the end of the month, or I’m going to turn this chapter in by the end of the Summer). Once you’ve set a deadline, you can figure out how many hours that translates into (a month was typically 60–80 work hours for me). Then you figure out how much you can read and write within that time. You’ll inevitably have to make some compromises, but you’ll be conscious of the trade-offs: “I didn’t read those articles because I thought it was more important that I read Gregory of Nyssa’s De virginitate in Greek” or “I cut that section from my chapter because it would have required 40 hours of reading that I don’t have time for now. I’ll save that for a future article instead.”

Hacking the Dissertation 1: Narrative Overview

Intro to Series

With graduation now a month in the past, I’d like to inaugurate a series called “Hacking the Dissertation.” This is primarily an avenue for me to reflect on the various aspects of writing a dissertation. The task of research is deeply satisfying but can also prove isolating; self-reflection is vital if one wishes to grow, rather than wither, under the stress. Hopefully these reflections will prove useful also to others.

The series will range from the intensely practical (how I managed my time, what a typical day looked like) to the personal and spiritual (on finding work and meaning outside the tenure track search). What I say will be most relevant to those like me, who are students of ancient literature, but plenty of it should be useful for those working in other fields.

In this post, I’ll talk a little bit about why I did a PhD in the first place, what I did for my dissertation, and what my timeline was like.

Why and where did I do a PhD?

As I now transition back into the world of software development, I’ve asked myself often the past few months why I embarked on this project. I spent seven years of my life doing something not particularly remunerative. I even knew going in that it may not lead a job as a professor. So, why did I do it in the first place?

As best as I can reconstruct my thinking from 8+ years ago, I was led to graduate school because I was fascinated by the world of early Christianity. Like, fascinated enough to teach myself Greek and Latin. Fascinated enough to read scholarly books and articles while doing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science (I may well have used downtime while working at IBM to prop open a Greek Grammar…). By the time I was finishing my undergraduate work, I knew I wanted to study the languages and literatures of the early Christian church intensely, and eventually contribute to the scholarly conversation on these texts. This was the time of my life to do that: I didn’t have to go into debt for the degree, and I knew I could always return to software development if I wished. And though I am an autodidact, I knew no level of self-study would lead to the sort of mastery of languages, history, and theology that one needs to contribute to scholarly discussions on early Christianity. My wife was extremely supportive, and, fortunately, wanted to work in the technology sector, so we had a stable income throughout the whole process.

I ended up doing an MA and PhD in Greek and Latin at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. It took seven years: I began in August 2012 and finished in May, 2019. Intellectually, one could scarcely ask for a better place for my interests. I’m by disposition a philologist, one who loves language and literature. CUA is one of the few places in North America where you can study ancient Christianity in what is essentially a Classics department. I received excellent training in both classical and early Christian authors. CUA was both nurturing and demanding: the program asked an enormous amount of us intellectually, but the faculty and other students were extremely supportive throughout.

My Timeline

Years 1–3 were devoted to coursework (for both degrees) and MA comps (I had translation and essay exams in both classical Greek and classical Latin). During my fourth year I did my PhD comps (minor field: Ovid, major field: Gregory of Nazianzus). During the fifth year, I got my proposal written and approved, and then wrote over the course of year 6 and 7. So I became ABD (all but dissertation) in April 2017 and defended two years later in April, 2019.

I had five body chapters plus an introduction:

  • first chapter: submitted September, 2017
  • second chapter: submitted August, 2018
  • third chapter: submitted September, 2018
  • fourth chapter: submitted December, 2018
  • fifth chapter: submitted January, 2019
  • intro and final manuscript: February, 2019
  • edits: March, 2019
  • defense: April, 2019

Along the way, there were a number of personal milestones.

  • my son was born in February, 2016 (right as I was finishing my PhD comps)
  • In July, 2018 we both moved to a new house and had our second child, a daughter

My wife took several months off of work when each was born; otherwise I was the primary caregiver during the day (yes, there will be a post on childcare!).

My Dissertation

I’m particularly interested in how early Christians appropriated the classical literary inheritance of Greece and Rome, and I’ve an inordinate fondness for classical poetry. This led me to the poetry of Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330–390 AD), who was one of the first Christian poets writing in Greek to leave a significant amount of verse (over an Iliad’s worth).

The entire dissertation can be found here:

The abstract:

In this study, I analyze the poetics of Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 330–390 AD), who was one of the first Christian poets writing in Greek to leave an extensive corpus of poetry (about 17,000 lines). Gregory work is striking not only for its breadth but also for its wide variety of themes and metrical schemes. As my focal point, I have chosen Gregory’s reception and adaptation of the poetry and poetics of Callimachus of Cyrene (ca. 290–230 BC). Callimachus was the first poet in the western tradition to enunciate an aesthetic and came to typify for subsequent authors an approach to poetry that privileged finely-wrought, compressed, and erudite compositions. I argue that for Gregory, Callimachus’ works are more than simply one more source to exploit for nice turns of phrase; rather, Callimachus pervasively shapes Gregory’s entire approach to poetic composition. This is seen not only in Gregory’s allusions to Callimachean works, which are numerous and occur quite frequently in programmatic contexts, but also in features of Gregory’s work like poikilia (variety) and a strong authorial persona that have their best precedent in Callimachus’ variegated oeuvre.

In chapter one, I survey Callimachus’ reception in the second and third centuries AD. By examining the three most extensive works of hexametric didactic extant from this period (Dionysius’ Periegesis, Oppian’s Halieutica, and ps.-Oppian’s Cynegetica), I argue that Callimachus is a uniquely useful influence for probing how later poets create their poetic personae and enunciate their own aesthetic. Chapters 2–5 treat Gregory’s poetry. I have organized them around four traits that scholars have consistently associated with Callimachean poetry: originality, fineness (leptotēs), erudition, and self-awareness. In chapter two, I show how Gregory adapts the untrodden path motif found in the prologue to Callimachus’ Aetia. I contend that Gregory’s formal experimentation should be regarded as a deliberate embrace of Callimachean polyeideia. Chapter three has as its subject Gregory’s poetic style. I show that for Gregory, Callimachus typifies the concise and technically capable poet, as Gregory consistently advocates for concise speech through allusions to Callimachus’ works. In the fourth chapter, I attend to Gregory’s erudition. His self-proclaimed mastery of both pagan and Christian literature is a foundational aspect of his poetic persona. Though the patent didactic intent in some of Gregory’s verse is at odds with Callimachus’ practice, I argue that when Gregory deploys erudition for polemical and cultural ends he fits neatly within the tradition of Alexandrian didactic. In chapter five, I consider Gregory’s poetic self-awareness. I argue that, following Callimachean precedent, Gregory created sequences of multiple poems thematically linked by ring-compositions and self-allusions. I conclude that Gregory edited his poems much more extensively than has previously been recognized. My work illuminates on the one hand how pervasively Callimachus shapes Gregory’s approach to poetic composition. Yet I have also identified a number of significant ways in which Gregory consciously departs from his Callimachean model.

Evagrius, On Prayer 28–30


Do not go about your prayer only by external postures. Instead, continually direct your mind with great reverence to an awareness of spiritual prayer.


Sometimes when you stand for prayer you will immediately pray well. Other times, you won’t obtain your aim even after striving hard. This is so that you will seek still further. Then, once you obtain it, you will possess this virtue as a shelter.


When an angel is present, all those that besiege us depart at once and the mind finds itself much relaxed and praying in a healthy way. But other times the normal battle takes place, and the mind fights and refuses to relax, because it is stirred up by various compulsions. And yet, when it searches further, it will find what it seeks, for to the “one who knocks vigorously, the door will be opened.”

Evagrius, On Prayer 28–30


Do not go about your prayer only by external postures. Instead, continually direct your mind with great reverence to an awareness of spiritual prayer.


Sometimes when you stand for prayer you will pray well immediately. Other times, you won’t obtain your aim even after striving hard. This is so that you will seek still further. Then, once you obtain it, you will hold this virtue inviolately.


When an angel is present, all those that besiege us depart at once and the mind finds itself much relaxed and praying in a healthy way. But sometimes the normal battle takes place, and the mind fights and refuses to relax, because it is stirred up by various compulsions. And yet, when it searches further, it will find what it seeks, for to the “one who knocks vigorously, the door will be opened.”

Evagrius, On Prayer 23–27


If you are patient, you will always pray with joy.


While you are praying as you ought, situations will come to mind where you will think that you are entirely justified in using anger. Yet quite simply, there is no justified anger against your neighbor. If you examine the situation, you’ll find that it is possible for it to be resolved well even without anger. So use every means at your disposal not to break out in anger.


See to it that while you think you are curing another you do not become incurable yourself and thereby cut off the growth of your prayer.


By being sparing with anger you will find yourself spared. You will show yourself to be prudent and will be counted among those who truly pray.


As you are defending yourself against anger, you should never give into lust. Lust provides fuel to anger, which in turn disturbs the eye of the mind and ruins the state of prayer.

Evagrius, On Prayer 20–22


If you wish to pray as you ought, do not cause grief to any soul. Otherwise you are running in vain.


He says, “Leave your gift before the altar, go, and first be reconciled to your brother.” Then when you come back you will pray without disturbance. For during prayer a grudge will mar the ruling faculty of the mind and cast a shadow over your prayers.


Those who sweep up grudges and grief for themselves while thinking that they are praying are like those who draw water into a jar with holes.