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.

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.