Thoughts on life after the PhD
The short of it is that I’m back in academia, as those who know me already know.
As I’ve chronicled here on this blog, I entered a PhD program in 2006 and completed it in 2012. In 2011, for a lot of reasons, I decided to take a non-academic job. At that point I had pretty much accepted that my chances of landing a tenure-track position in the U.S. were very remote, and that my only option for university teaching in the U.S. was to become an adjunct, which I really didn’t want to do.
By early 2014 I had made peace with the idea that academic doors were likely closed to me. No one goes away and comes back, unless they’re already an established academic rock star. I had continued to keep in touch with various academic communities, but my publication list was still small (no access to JSTOR and other online journal databases, no real time to do concentrated research). I missed academic life, but I just didn’t think there was a way back in without making huge sacrifices when it came to my salary, my living / working conditions, and my relationship with my partner.
At the same time, by the end of 2013 I had realized that I was ready to leave my non-academic job (as an editor / educational consultant / teacher / curriculum developer / goofy prop maker for a company that sells ESL educational materials for children). It wasn’t that I hated it, I just wasn’t particularly passionate about making things for children (I’d originally been hired to make things for adult learners). I was also a bit weary of corporate life and all the restrictions that working for a Japanese company imposed on my free time.
And then in early May a friend sent me a job ad for a position at a Japanese university.
My first instinct was to ignore it, simply because my impression was that jobs for native English speakers at Japanese universities aren’t always that desirable. They tend to be short-term contracts or part-time gigs. You may be told that you’ll be teaching literature or film, but in reality you’re teaching conversational English to students whose English levels are fairly low. Many positions require some kind of TEFL or other teaching certificate, or a Master’s degree, but many don’t require a PhD.
When I looked more closely at this job ad, though, it seemed a little different. The university in question was a prestigious one. The contract was for three years and the position was full-time. The responsibilities included teaching literature (again, I was skeptical on that one, but also hopeful).
I did a bit of digging and found a friend of a friend who actually worked for the same university. We met up and he gave me a very positive impression of the working environment. (I was really, really grateful to have the insider knowledge, because it can be tough to get a real sense of what a particular university’s working environment is like.)
I brushed off my dossier and sent it in at the end of May. I was interviewed two weeks later, and by late July it was confirmed that I had the job. I started teaching at the university on October 6.
This, for me, is one of the most unbelievable aspects of this whole process–how fast it was. In the U.S. it might have taken me a year from application to hiring. I’m certainly not complaining–I think that aspect of the U.S. hiring process is ridiculous–but it’s been a bit dizzying.
A week in and there are so many thoughts running through my head, some negative, mostly positive. I’m just going to go into list mode at this point.
1. I didn’t suffer a lot to get this job, which makes me feel like I don’t deserve it. I’ve heard so many stories of academics slaving away as adjuncts and spending years on the job market with no results that the idea that I could just get a job, in a way similar to the way that non-academics get jobs, blows my mind. And makes impostor syndrome rear its ugly head to try to convince me that there must be some mistake.
2. My value as a human being is based on more than my scholarly output. Ugh, inferiority complexes. I’m already falling back into that spiral of shame and self-doubt that plagued me as a grad student, the one that goes “I need to publish,” “Before I publish I need to read and research and come up with meaningful arguments,” “But there’s so much to read and I don’t have time and my Japanese isn’t good enough,” “But if I don’t publish a lot and very soon everyone will see me as a hack or a dilettante and no one will respect me,” “But I don’t know where to begin and instead of beginning which is scary I’m just going to curl up in a little ball and pretend that publishing isn’t important.” Thankfully I’m a little older now and a little less likely to be consumed by these feelings, but they’re still there, and they’re still scary.
3. Am I a hypocrite? I’ve spent the last four+ years being very critical of academia, so it’s bizarre to step back into this world. For the record, I’m still critical of many aspects of academia. I think the practice of predominantly using part-time lecturers with no benefits or job security to teach university courses in the U.S. is deplorable. I’m deeply disturbed by the corporatization of higher education. I’m saddened by the pressure on professors to inflate grades or assign lighter reading loads and the general decline of academic rigor.
But I still love teaching and the opportunity to pursue research that is meaningful to me. And this job allows me to do that in a (so far) positive and nurturing work environment. Which seemed far too good an opportunity to pass up.
4. I need to manage my time better. I’m teaching eight classes, which isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. The classes only meet once a week (for an hour and a half). I have three sections of one class and two of another. For the two-section class a lot of the work has already been done for me–there’s a textbook, worksheets, and a final exam that’s being created right now. One of my other classes is essentially a thesis writing seminar where the students bring in their work and we all discuss it. So basically my weekly schedule includes 12 hours of actual teaching, minimal planning for 2 classes, and more heavy-duty planning for 3 classes. There’s also much less grading than in a typical U.S. undergrad course.
Still, I’m really, really busy. Everyone says this is normal for the first semester, which makes sense. And I also have a ton of other stuff to do right now, like filling out endless paperwork and getting my office set up and figuring out how to use the university’s myriad online systems. Hoping that things are a little calmer next semester–but then I might have to do more committee work.
5. I’m happy that my colleagues are happy. Everyone I’ve met and spent time with so far has been lovely. And while I obviously don’t know them incredibly well, our conversations about the university and life in general are not characterized by bitching or eye-rolling. Some of them (both tenured and non) have also been at the university for more than ten years, which is a good sign.
6. Let me not go blind. I’m always disgusted by rebuttals to any critique of the U.S. university system that essentially boil down to “I didn’t have any problems getting a tenure-track job, so all you adjuncts are just lazy, whiny, and entitled.” Or “I haven’t personally witnessed the kind of abuse or suffering that you’ve described, therefor you must be exaggerating or making it up.” Please, please, let me never fall into this trap. I know that I am qualified for my job and that I will do well in it, but I am also really, really lucky. I was in the right place at the right time and I was a good fit. Let me never acquire that smug tone that those who have had some success so often use toward those who’ve struggled more.
7. Come to Japan! University teaching jobs for native English speakers in Japan vary considerably when it comes to working conditions, salary, course load, and the kinds of course you’re actually able to teach. In general, though, the situation here seems to be MUCH better than the lot of the average adjunct professor in the U.S. And universities all over Japan suddenly seem to be hiring a lot more foreign faculty, maybe at least in part because of the 2020 Olympics.
Obviously I realize that not everyone can just uproot and move halfway across the world. But if you’re looking for a way to teach, do research, and be paid a living wage, you might consider extending your job search to Tokyo.
It’s only been a week, but I feel great. Overwhelmed, elated, scared, supported, uncertain, confident, sometimes all at once. I think it’s a good place to be.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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