A Sort of Homecoming, Part II 

Part II
Last week, I shared some thoughts and memories about conference life before I made the trip.

It was…fine. I saw some old friends I didn’t expect to see, and it felt a bit like a vacation. (First time away from my son in 13 months….) No one made any critical or tone-deaf comments about me missing academia or being ready to go back to adjuncting, and I saw only kindness, no cruelty. A retired professor whom I like and respect tremendously said I seem a lot more happy, confident, and loose since he last saw me. I agreed: I’m all those things, plus more optimistic and fulfilled about my current career.

I used to get back from a scholarly conference in a flurry of excitement about new ideas, plans for collaborating with new colleagues, notes and papers filled with good things, and hopes to catch up on teaching or writing work…along with some concern about the debt I’d accrued as an unfunded adjunct. The pay-to-play system became unsustainable for me.

This time, things were different. I enjoyed being an observer–outlier among established and hopeful academics. There was no pressure to sit through panels so Professor Big Deal would see me, hear my compelling question, and remember me when I applied for a job. I didn’t have to fake being busy or otherwise occupied to miss an undesirable panel. I had fun and felt relaxed the whole time. On the middle day, I relaxed, had lunch with a Twitter friend, and went to a comic book store before attending an art show the conference had organized.

The interactive portion of my talk went well. I essentially did the Q&A portion in the middle, but I reversed the flow: I Q’d and they A’d. I asked them to share what’s next in researching and teaching Faulkner and Hemingway, as well as what their professional experiences have been in teaching writers whose reputations very much proceed them. (Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.)  To those who had read my book I asked what they felt was left out, underanalyzed, or questionable. “I can take it,” I assured them, “Say whatever you want.”

Younger and older scholars enjoyed the interactive interlude, and 10-11 people shared their ideas for new research and teaching approaches. Afterwards, a new assistant professor thanked me for doing it because “People don’t always ask what us younger scholars are doing.” There was a nice mix of older and younger scholars, MA students, undergraduates, and the general public there. About 120 people total…and hopefully some good book sales afterwards.

On the last day of the conference, I arranged an open discussion with graduate students, adjuncts, and anyone else interested in talking about academic and alt-/post-ac careers. Six people showed up: 2 older adjuncts, 3 graduate students, and 1 undergraduate who was thinking about whether to pursue a PhD in English. I directed them to this piece I wrote May for the Beyond the Professoriate conference Jennifer Polk and Maren Wood created. It was a good, eye-opening conversation. One of the graduate students didn’t know if she had the energy or desire to go for a PhD after finishing her MA; she was grateful I helped validate her feeling that she didn’t have to keep going and force it. We discussed academia, adjuncting, different career options, social media, networking, and which kinds of academics to ignore and which to heed when seeking career advice. I tried to give them the kinds of frank, open advice I never got when I was a graduate student and fresh adjunct. Part of my post-ac role is helping younger scholars and adjuncts avoid the traps I fell into: e.g., hanging on to the hope that a department will promote you, adding labor to gain experience and favors to boost your CV, or taking job advice from someone who hasn’t been on the market in 10+ years. I’d love to see more academic conferences devote time and resources to sessions on professional development, networking, and career options. Who’s willing to make this happen—regularly and meaningfully? Scholars in various fields have to take initiative to educate and support each other at such professional meetings.

It was a great experience to visit academia for a few days but have a definite exit time. I have no idea when I’ll go to another scholarly conference. Maybe never. I’ve been invited to others, but there’s been no professional reason (or funding) for me to go. Some former colleagues have meant well when inviting me to attend or participate in a conference, but “It’d be nice to see you” isn’t enough of a reason to travel across the country, spend money needlessly, and disrupt our childcare routine. Some academics—particularly those who’ve had FT jobs for over a decade—might never understand my decision to leave academia permanently. The most awkward response I got to my career change was from the Dean who attended my talk. “Hmmm, interesting…” was all he could say.

Hmmm, interesting indeed.

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A Sort of Homecoming, Part I

Part I

Later this week, I’ll be attending an academic conference for the first time in 2+ years. Since then, I’ve left academia for a career as a freelance editor and post-ac consultant. I’ll be giving the keynote at a conference at Southeast Missouri State University on a subject I wrote the book on—literally. Last year, a friend from Faulkner studies messaged me to say one of his colleagues had eyed me to give the keynote at a Faulkner–Hemingway conference. After verifying that the organizer didn’t care that I’m no longer an academic, I agreed. I had nothing to lose and—for once—full funding to make the trip. It sounded like a good way to network. It also sounded like a nice change of pace.

In the past, conferences meant financial and professional anxiety. How could I afford to go with little (or no) funding? Would this talk/roundtable/panel/whatever help me break out of the adjunct ranks? How would it look on my CV? Would I get one of those rambling “questions” during the Q & A? Would I make some strong connections and network my way to a full-time professorship? How much debt was worth it for this?

Now, though, things have changed. Because I’m a stay-at-home dad, my biggest concern for the conference was how we’d handle childcare. (It’s handled. Thanks, mom & dad.) I’m looking forward to the conference as a chance to share what I know and meet potential editing clients. Always Be Connecting, after all.

I’m also expecting to—big gasp—have fun. I enjoyed writing the keynote because there’s no pressure or worry about offending someone who might be on a hiring committee some day, or whose work I didn’t mention <eyeroll>. I enjoyed showing off what I know about the writers, as well as not having the pressure to give one of those State Of The Field talks. It’s not my job anymore to (try to) take a field in new directions. 

I based the talk on one I gave in 2012, but I added an interactive section in the middle asking the audience to share what’s next in the field. I’m also asking the audience about their teaching, researching, and larger professional experiences with Faulkner and Hemingway. We’ve all experienced those long-winded, self-indulgent keynotes, and I wasn’t about to subject my audience to 45 minutes of something they can read in my book. I know it can be hard for academics—especially younger ones—to jump into a discussion and admit their struggles, concerns, or lack of knowledge. I’m curious to see how this goes…and whether the audience will jump in as eagerly as I want them to.

Like all conference-going academics, I’ve seen my fair share of kindness and cruelty when scholars get together. At my second conference (July 1999) a senior scholar bought me a glass of wine and genuinely asked about my research. A few years later, another senior scholar in the same subfield about threw a hissy fit when a graduate student didn’t reference his book in an MLA talk. His comment during the Q & A was awkward, cruel, and forgettable. I’ll never forget either instance. Nor will I forget all the rambling, pay-attention-to-me “questions” from many other scholars.

I’m eager to see what happens when I go. I won’t quite be the fox in the henhouse, but I’ll definitely be the outlier among established, emerging, and hopeful academics. If anything, I’m an independent scholar, and those aren’t always welcomed as eagerly at conferences as affiliated or pedigreed ones. Selfishly, I want some new editing clients. Ethically, I’ll do whatever I can to show graduate students and adjuncts that there are other career options besides academia.

Time will tell. Next stop, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. 

Beyond the Professoriate, 5/7/16

Freelancing and Entrepreneurship

Beyond the Professoriate, 5/7/16

***

To answer those of you who mentioned in the survey that you wanted to know whether there’s life outside academia, here’s my answer: yes. Resoundingly, confidently: yes. A very good life, in fact.

I left academia in 2014 after 15 years teaching literature and first-year writing. I had a lot to say about adjuncting and why I left. I knew I’d never go back to academia, so I wanted to speak for myself and the other adjuncts who couldn’t be as blunt or critical. I’d been an adjunct too long to ever be anything but an adjunct, and I was done with the dead-endedness and false hope. For anyone still in academia and searching for full-time jobs, be careful about adjuncting or stringing together post-docs or visiting positions: often, the longer you do these, the less hireable you are for full-time positions. Academia typically doesn’t reward experience for those in precarious positions. Don’t expect it to reward all those years you’ve taught or publications you’ve done. 

Professionally and personally, it’s been a productive two years for me. The biggest change I’ve seen since switching careers is that I’m rewarded for my growing experience as a freelance editor and consultant—both financially (in terms of what I can charge my clients) and professionally (in terms of the respect and appreciation I get from them). Some other refreshing changes I’ve experienced in the private sector are:

  • Attitudes toward collaboration;
  • More room to negotiate pay and other working conditions;
  • A healthier attitude toward self-care and taking breaks;
  • Shorter (much shorter) résumés and cover letters;
  • Less emphasis on academic credentials or where one went to school;
  • Much less siloing into specific disciplines;
  • More emphasis on clear, direct, and purposeful writing.

I draw on my skills as a researcher, writer, and teacher all the time—sometimes in unexpected ways. My teaching experience has helped me on some developmental editing projects for graduate students: we worked through several versions of a thesis or article. I’ve also been chosen to edit some business, religious history, and government documents specifically because I was an educated non-specialist, and the clients wanted an objective look at the writing. If, like I did when I left, you’re trying to establish yourself as a freelance editor, remember that “editing” entails different kinds of work (not just correcting grammar) and that your current academic interests might influence but won’t necessarily determine your worth as a freelancer.

I’ll talk about three main areas that will help you get started (or learn more about) freelancing as an alt-ac or post-ac: transitioning, connecting, and working.

Transitioning

  • Before searching and applying for jobs, self-reflect on your skills as a researcher and teacher. If, like me, you’ve taught a lot of writing in your courses, then you have experience reading, commenting on, and developing others’ work—sometimes hundreds or thousands of pages of it. The specific research you’ve done shows more generally that you can plan, study, synthesize, and present different kinds of information to an informed audience. Your teaching in your discipline shows that you can communicate information to a “fresh” or uninformed audience. The trick is to distill what you can do and transfer from your academic training into a new profession.  
  • Find clear and concrete language to articulate these skills—that is, don’t write or speak like an academic in your cover letters and interviews. Hiring managers and others will likely find it offputting, to say the least. Defy the stereotype of the stuffy, awkward, and self-important academic; don’t reinforce it.  
  • Expect to draw on different aspects of your teaching and research experience. You might never write or talk about the specific thing you’ve written articles and papers on, but you’ll definitely use those researching, writing, revising, and presentation skills.
  • Have a positive career change story, as Jennifer Polk, Chris Humphrey, and others have said. In an interview, you’ll be asked in some way why you’re leaving an academic career. Your answer should be honest but constructive. I was asked this a few times, and I kept things positive: I told the interviewers that I’d always been a strong editor, and I wanted to use my skills in a field with more career potential than academia was offering me. I then pivoted to the transferable skills I’d gained as a professor and researcher. Try to keep this part concise and direct, and then pivot back to the job you’re being interviewed for.
  • There are times and places—such as Twitter or private conversations—for the more real, no-holds-barred version of why you’re leaving academia. This can be very fulfilling and cathartic, as many of us can attest.
  • Don’t worry about the haters or others still in academia. If they don’t respect or support your career decisions, they’re not worth your professional time. Some—especially those who haven’t had been on the job hunt for many years—might not be able to wrap their heads around you leaving what, to them, is a “calling.” A mentor who shuts you out because you’ve left the profession is no mentor you need in your life. To speak bluntly, this is their problem, not yours. They’ll come around or they won’t, and some might always be a little awkward around you. Always do what works best for you.

Connecting

  • If you’re on Twitter, use it regularly. If you’re not, get on Twitter follow folks like Jennifer, Maren, and my fellow panelists and me, and begin expanding your digital identity. When you’re there, learn to both listen and self-promote. Follow useful hashtags (#WithAPhD, #Postac, #Freelancing, #FreelanceLife), and don’t be afraid to share your story or availability as a freelancer. I’ve gotten a few jobs and many connections from Twitter.
  • While you’re tweeting, learn from people like us, as well as others you meet in person or online. Typically, the post-ac and alt-ac communities are very open and engaging. Want to know something? Ask.
  • Use your network to find freelance gigs or other kinds of employment. The more that people know what you’re doing, the more likely you are to get gigs through word-of-mouth. You can be as public or as private as you’re comfortable being, but let people know about your new career path. I regularly tell clients to email colleagues, professors, mentors, and peers in their field to update them on a potential career change: some might be willing to help or steer you some business to begin boosting your résumé. I’ve gotten several editing jobs this way, simply because my academic colleagues needed manuscripts or articles edited.
  • Talk to people in the industries you’re eyeing for jobs. Whenever possible, get some informational interviews with friends or their colleagues to learn about the field. Ask your circle if they know anyone and could set up something. Informational interviews can be very useful to (1) teach you some things about the industry and (2) give an experienced professional the chance to speak frankly to you about your strengths and weaknesses in breaking in.
    • I had an informational interview with a long-time acquisitions editor at a scholarly press. He spoke bluntly about the current state of academic publishing, the ins and outs of the job, and how I might succeed and struggle as an editor. He said things he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say in a formal interview, which was helpful for both of us.
  • Get several sets of eyes on your résumé or cover letter, preferably from at least one person with hiring experience. Use your network. Remember, also, that non-academic cover letters are typically short and direct: you’ll talk more fully about your experience, qualifications, and other things in an interview. This will be refreshing, too: résumés are not exhaustive lists of publications and teaching like CVs are.
  • You don’t necessarily have to sever all academic ties if you go post-ac. Although I’m now only involved in academic publishing as an editor, some alt- and post-acs continue to research and present as independent scholars. Be aware, though, that time spent doing unpaid scholarly research and writing might be time not spent making connections or money as a freelancer. With very few exceptions, I won’t writing anything for publication unless I’m paid for the work. Your time has value; budget it accordingly.

Working

  • Remember that you don’t have to wait until you’re either hired full time or finally leave academia to start freelancing. Start ASAP. If a non-academic career seems both increasingly likely and increasingly desirable, make some transitions now. Instead of working on another article or book review that you hope will make you more marketable for a professorship, spend the time boosting your freelancing credentials, or even taking on a handful of small projects to get you started.
    • Remember, though, to be patient and understand that your career change might need some baby steps before you’re full time. Every individual freelancing project you do now becomes another line of experience on your résumé.
  • Be careful about overdoing the freelance gigs, especially lower-paying ones. Think of this as the equivalent of stringing together several contingent teaching positions: lots of work for little pay. Don’t undervalue yourself, and don’t be afraid to renegotiate—or even turn down—a low-paying gig.
  • Regarding salary negotiation: academia has trained us to just accept the pay we’re offered for a course or whatever; you don’t always have to do that outside academia. It’s a fine art, though, so talk to people who’ve done it successfully. Your time and experience are valuable.
  • If you’ll be freelancing, make sure you have policies, and get your clients to accept them before you do any work. The high points your policies should cover are:
    • how much and when you’ll be paid (try to get a portion up front);
    • the turnaround time you’ll need to finish a project;
    • the client’s responsibilities for getting you materials on time—as well as any late or rush charges if they don’t;
    • the quality of work you require to write, edit, or proofread (that is, clients must send you clean work that’s ready for you—not a messy or incomplete version);
    • the number of versions or drafts you’ll look at before charging more money;
    • this one’s important: exactly what work your fee covers (so you can avoid clients adding tasks piecemeal—and expecting the extra work to be free).
  • Don’t be afraid to tell clients that that you won’t start or continue the work until they meet your standards. Before I start a project, I email the clients with the project scope so (1) they can see and acknowledge it and (2) it’s in writing in case there’s confusion about something down the road.
  • Figure out how you work best, and budget your projects accordingly. Having a lot of different projects at once might seem like a fine or lucrative idea, but you might not be able to do your best work if you’re spread too thinly.
  • Ask your current clients to act as references. Always offer new (or potential) clients the chance to talk with recent ones, so they can see how qualified and efficient you are. Referrals are big for freelancers, especially in the early stages.

***

Remember: there’s a good life waiting for you outside academia.

Someone else asked in the survey about how to extinguish the inner struggle or disappointment of not becoming a professor. To this, I’d tell you to look at what’s still happening to higher ed in America and Canada: increasing adjunctification, assaults on tenure and academic freedom, neoliberal and corporate “rebranding” <shudder> of education, increasing austerity measures, legislative interference, and corruption. If your only academic future is adjuncting or a series of post-docs or VAPs in a broken system, you’re doing yourself a favor by leaving.

As a freelancer, entrepreneur, or something else in a non-academic setting, you’ll be in a field with more growth potential, emotional healthiness, and room for negotiation. You’ll also be rewarded for your experience, which will be a refreshing change in the new life you’ll certainly have outside academia.

 

Cotton Anniversary 

It’s not the shiniest or sexiest anniversary—I’ll have to wait a few decades for that—but mid-May marks two years since the end of my career as a professor. The best & most memorable part was something a student said as I collected final assignments for my Gatsby writing course:

Well have, like, a nice life, I guess.

I laughed when she said it, and I laugh when I remember it. I probably always will. Good one, Jordan.

Here’s some of the nice life I’ve been having since submitting my final final grades in May 2014:

Freelance copy editing or proofreading fiction & nonfiction manuscripts, articles, Master’s theses, dissertations, proposals, résumés, et al. (Need me to edit something of yours? Let’s talk.);

Being rewarded for my experience—and paid accordingly (still a novel concept for someone who spent 15 years in academia);

Consulting and writing for alt- and post-acs for The Professor Is In (Need that me? Let’s talk.);

Supporting adjuncts via PrecariCorps, which I co-founded with Bri Bolin & Kat Jacobsen. We do what we can (based on donations) to support adjuncts needing money for professional or personal expenses;

Encouraging every new PhD & grad student I meet to explore career options beyond academia;  

Sharing whatever knowledge and experience I can to help others change careers like I did;

Running guest posts here (Want to do one? Let’s talk.);

Joining folks like Nyasha Junior and Rae Marie in preaching the importance of self-care in academia;

Reading…for pleasure (it’s fun);

Trying to find a home for this screenplay adaptation of Melville I wrote;

Being invited to give a keynote on a subject I wrote the book on—literally.

One more Big Life Change has happened since I last graded something: I became a parent. Among other things, it’s meant:

being a work-at-home dad to an 8-month-old boy who keeps me moving 9-10 hours a day; 

learning how to edit and write things (such as this blog post) in short bursts…sometimes with an active baby on my lap;

bragging about my son whenever, wherever, and to whomever I can.

***

With apologies for any humblebragging, here’s what I haven’t been doing in the past 2 years:

Hitting reset every academic year on the same dead-end contingent position;

Seeing my PhD grow more “stale” & “past due” <eyeroll> as I reach another anniversary of my defense (8/1/05);

Feeling an odd satisfaction in writing “was a professor” on a few academic writing projects still in production; 

Hearing well-meaning but somewhat out-of-touch colleagues telling me to “just hang in there,” “keep trying for more jobs,” or “apply for the tenure-track lines we expect to be offering soon” (this doesn’t help); 

Being not-so-subtly badge-checked at conferences;

Seeing those teaching positions vacated by Baby Boomer retirements filled by more & more adjuncts;

Wondering why I was a good enough professor to be perpetually renewed for a one-year gig…without being the right “fit” for a full-time position; 

Being a road scholar and trying to survive on an adjunct’s, er, salary <eyeroll>;

Wondering why I kept tormenting myself with false hope & blind optimism that a given year would be The Year.

There’s a lot more (of course) that I haven’t been doing, but I’ll leave that for my tweeting and occasional Storify-worthy rants.

As for what’s next….I don’t know. I’m taking things as they come.

As a parent, I’ll keep learning to roll with it as my son grows up. As a freelancer, I’ll keep copy editing or proofreading whatever my clients need done. As an activist, I’ll be hoping PrecariCorps can get steady donations to help all adjuncts who contact us. And, as a post-ac, I’ll keep watching the calendar for when my anniversary of leaving academia is something more memorable or scintillating than cotton.

Unless I want to start marketing t-shirts for post-acs. That might make my new life even nicer.

lousy-tshirt