Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Why I Left

Well, I didn’t leave. Not a hundred percent. But I’ve decided not to take what is usually considered the next logical step in the PhD trajectory: seeking an academic job.

In the end, my decision is less an indictment of a failed system (though I’ve still got plenty of problems with the system) and more a realization that academia just wasn’t a good fit for me. It’s a shame that it took me seven years of grad school to figure that out, but what can you do.

Anyone who’s read this blog–particularly the “grad life” sections–won’t be too surprised at my decision to forgo a traditional academic job search and essentially abandon the dream of a full-time professorship. I’ve been dancing around this decision for the past two years, and in the end it took just a couple of mildly cataclysmic events to turn the dance into a purposeful march.

I suppose the first nail in the coffin came back in early March, with the news that my dissertation advisor didn’t get tenure. Of course I’d known that this was a possibility, but it affected me in ways that I couldn’t have predicted. I was angry–at the opacity of the tenure review process, at what I saw as an unfair and arbitrary decision with no real hope for appeal, at a decision that I suspected had more to do with economics than anything else. I’d been told for so long that the tenure-track job was the golden egg of university jobs, that it was the one thing that I should sacrifice and work myself to death for. I saw an ugly truth up close: that a tenure-track job really isn’t the security blanket it’s made out to be, and that even incredibly qualified, hard-working people can be told after five years that they’ve got just a few months to start all over again. It got me thinking.

Oh, and then there was this earthquake.

For the record, my real “this might not be for me” moment came three days before the quake, when I heard about my advisor’s tenure rejection. For a lot of reasons I started thinking that I wanted to stay in Japan longer, and that looking for a job here might make more sense than looking for one in L.A. I was contacting old friends and even filling out job applications in the days leading up to the quake.

But being shaken like a wooden roller coaster and watching a wall of water swallow whole cities for several days can do things to you.

In my case, it made me realize a few basic things:

1. I’m not willing to make the sacrifices that academia will require of me in order to be successful. Specifically, I’m not willing to move to an unfamiliar city for an indefinite period of time, make a very meager salary in the hopes that I will eventually earn a living wage, and juggle publications / conference presentations / committee duties / teaching / general keeping up with the hourly developments in my field in order to stay on top. Maybe if I were ten years younger–or even five years younger–I’d be up for it. But at thirty-four I’m not.

2. My research won’t get me a good job. No, this is not one of those impostor syndrome-induced “I’m just not good enough” whinges. I think I’m a good writer and a good researcher. I think my research is interesting. But it’s not groundbreaking or paradigm-shifting. It doesn’t make use of enough original Japanese source materials. It isn’t part of a field / specialization that’s in high demand. I know everyone says that the dissertation isn’t supposed to be your greatest piece of work, but if you want to compete in the current job market, it had better be pretty damn good. Mine just isn’t quite of that caliber. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating or falsely modest, I just know what my work is and what it isn’t.

3. I really don’t do well with long-term solo projects without clearly defined goals or deadlines. I’m eternally grateful for this fellowship year, for the opportunity I’ve had purely to write and think and get paid for it. This is what most scholars dream of. But I’m also grateful for what it’s taught me–that I don’t do well in this kind of situation. I need structure and routine. I need short-term projects, preferably collaborative ones with lots of opportunities for feedback. Naturally I’d get a lot of that in an academic job–I’d be teaching, for one thing, which would force a lot of structure into my life. But I’d still be expected to conduct a lot of solo research and to produce articles / books on my subject matter, which would involve a lot of time alone at my computer sifting through endless reams of philosophical thought and trying to make sense of it. Sometimes I love this–love the challenge it gives my brain, love debating with others about it. But it does not work as a full-time job for me.

4. My Japanese isn’t good enough. I’ve been studying the language for 10+ years. I got really good at it. But I never got to a near-native level, which is really the level I need to be at to be successful in my field. I could never read literary theory in Japanese. I could read novels, but I felt like a high school student struggling through their first Shakespeare play. If I were really driven, I could have devoted grueling hours, weeks, months, and years to achieving a near-native level of Japanese ability. But I didn’t have it in me. I had gotten to a point where I found little to no joy in language learning, where learning new vocabulary and grammar and trying to make sense of journal articles just made me want to cry in frustration. I was tired of being miserable in my attempt to achieve something that just didn’t seem achievable in my lifetime.

5. The dream I have allowed to die was never really alive to begin with. My academic dream was always fairly simple–to live in a city that I liked, make a living wage, and teach classes that interested me. Sadly, present-day academia makes this almost impossible. Full-time positions in my field (modern Japanese literature and film) are becoming rarer and rarer. Hundreds of applicants–really good applicants, not just hundreds of random people–apply for a single job. And when they do get that dream job, they may discover that the salary isn’t enough to live on and the workload is overwhelming.

Of course some people–including, I hope, many of my friends and colleagues–will achieve their dreams of a fulfilling career in academia.  With determination, persistence, and a dogged focus on my goal, I could probably achieve that dream as well.  But I just didn’t have the drive. For me the dream I wanted was too slippery, with too much potential for disappointment. The benefits didn’t outweigh the potential costs.


I don’t plan on changing the name of this blog to “Adventures in (Post) Gradland”any time soon (I’ll hopefully still be a grad student until spring 2012, when I plan to defend my dissertation). I want to remain an active thinker and writer, to keep up with scholarship in the fields that interest me. I want to keep the door open, though academia has a history of slamming that door pretty quickly once you venture outside of it.

Strangely, I feel more excited about writing my dissertation now–maybe because, while it still has to adhere to certain departmental rules, I don’t feel that hypothetical hiring committee staring over my shoulder anymore.  I also love the idea of watching movies and reading books because I *want* to, not out of a desperate need to keep up with all the developments in my field.

More updates and thoughts on leaving academia to come. In the meantime, I’m going to make myself a Nutella milkshake.


5 comments on “Why I Left

  1. K
    May 9, 2011

    This all makes perfect sense–I’m sure you’ll find another career to pursue, other goals to achieve. Good of you to post this publicly, btw, since so many people who make these decisions and think these thoughts are sort of compelled to keep quiet about it due to the risks of not being taken seriously, having their advisors lose interest in them, etc. Always refreshing to see some candor around these topics.

  2. toranosuke
    May 9, 2011

    As I come up towards finishing my MA and contemplating going on to the PhD, I have been really wavering on the question of whether this is the path I want.

    I think my academic dream is very similar to yours – “to live in a city that I liked, make a living wage, and teach classes that interested me.” I see in academia the opportunity to avoid the standard mainstream corporate rat race, the paperwork, the deskwork, and to, essentially, make a living doing things I enjoy, make a living doing things related to Japanese history and culture. I saw in academia the possibility of doing the kind of research *I* want to do, to teach the courses I want to, to maybe get involved in some other projects such as organizing exhibitions and to have summers off.

    But, after three years of grad school (I’m right now finishing the second year of a second Masters), I just don’t know that I can push through another 7-8 years, doing the kind of research *they* want me to do, and living up to others’ expectations.

    I haven’t made any kind of decisions yet, and may yet apply for the PhD. But, I’ve begun thinking about it. Thank you so much for your willingness to share. There are so many questions and aspects of this that I might not have thought of, might not have known of, otherwise… And, at the very least, it is refreshing and reassuring in a way to know that I am not alone in questioning this path.

  3. Caroline Roberts
    May 10, 2011

    Wow! Congratulations on your post-academia. And, while you say that you are not a victim of Impostor Syndrome, do your best to keep it at bay. Impostor Syndrome stalks academics and post-academics in particular, and it can turn up at the most unlikely of times.

    I’m sorry that your advisor didn’t get tenure. That’s a major flaw of the academic structure. Advisors come and go, but success is often founded on sticking with one advisor from start to finish … and possibly through your first few jobs, too. If the Tower fixed that or wasn’t so obsessed with people having one advisor, then that would help people finish, if not get a job.

    Regardless, I have no doubt that you will be successful at whatever you do. This blog is great, and you can write anywhere. Good luck!

  4. gradland
    May 11, 2011

    Thanks K–figure I don’t have much to protect at this point, though I still mostly leave my name out of this blog. Toranosuke, just be sure that you do a *lot* of homework on the current state of higher education (and the job market) before you decide to go for the PhD. And sadly, yet another reason not to do it is that these days an academic career is *full* of corporate rat-racing, deskwork, and paperwork–the idea that a university job is inherently different from a corporate job is swiftly losing ground as universities start acting more and more like major corporations.

    Caroline, I miss, you and Arnold provided me with so much helpful insight (and humor when I felt like tearing my hair out). Will keep writing here, though–and might eventually change the blog name to “Adventures in Postacademia” or something like that.

  5. David Milliken
    September 30, 2011

    At 31 when I bilged out of Ph.D, school, my stepmother advised me to trim my wicks and get going. She reminded me that Alexander at that age sat down and cried because he had no more worlds to conquer and she told me Jesus had finished his mission at the same age. I should have told her I was not envious of Jesus’ fate. Somehow the model of Alexander the Great did nothing for me — kinda irrelevant I thought. Alexander had a skill set and ambition I never had. One thing I have learned is the weakness of analogy. You obviously have what it takes to get the damn degree. I have a young nephew with a Ph.D. in some sort of cancer research. He has decided to be a stay-at-home dad. I think it’s because he loves Seattle. Once that’s done he’ll never get back into the University. He said the idea of being an assistant professor at 51 didn’t turn him on. For a moment I thought these were stupid criteria, but I begin to think you thirty-somethings are just going to come out all right. You really seem to know yourselves and that is a very good thing. I hope you are equally good at dealing with regret. I just wish it didn’t take us all so long to learn our lessons. If there is a constant in this world it is the library full of books. There are rewards in PR, I discovered; little money and shaky job security, but what’s new. I wish you the very best.


    The Tortoise

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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life is the best place for your personal blog or business site.

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