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.