How I Left the Academy: A Meditation on Personal Values Part I

How I Left the Academy: A Meditation on Personal Values Part I

Photo credit: Jessica A. Hutchins

By Jessica A. Hutchins

The individual stones paving my path away from the academy fell before me as I contemplated the lifestyle I wanted to have after graduating. Moving through my studies, I learned about the reality of academic careers. Although I believed in the mission of university education and research, I began to chafe at many of the facts of academic employment. For example:

It is not unusual for tenured professors, contract instructors, and grad students to live and work geographically apart from the people dearest to them. Geographical flexibility is a prerequisite of the job market: with few exceptions, those who wish to become tenure-track college professors must be willing to relocate anywhere that an appropriate position happens to open.

While tenure ensures life-long employment stability, the pre-tenure period can be characterized by anxiety and overwork. Junior faculty have to prove themselves in what amounts to a multi-year trial period during which they must publish research, teach full-time, serve on university committees, and uphold congenial relationships with sometimes uncongenial colleagues. It can be like a second, even more demanding version of grad school, intensified by the threat that tenure may not be granted.

Outside of classroom instruction and interactions with students, much of the labor of teaching can be repetitive, tedious, and underpaid. In conversations with my peers I came to realize that many of them see teaching as a vocation, something worth sacrificing for. It is undeniably a noble labor, but for me it would always be only one of many possible job options.

Based on my observations, I concluded that I hold the following personal values when it comes to careers and employment:

• I am a creature of the city and I do not want to live just anywhere.

• I want to live under the same roof with my spouse.

• I prefer research and writing to teaching.

• I want a work/life balance that leaves me time to indulge hobbies, travel, spend time with friends and family, get regular exercise and generally feel healthy.

• I crave stability and want to be free of anxiety.

I encountered these values in the friction between my desires and the requirements for an academic career. The conclusions came slowly and painfully, often feeling like personal failures: If others are willing to live in a different time zone or continent than their partners why could I not rise to the same challenge? It took years of repeated, fractious feelings before I realized that others may hold different values, may make different choices than I would given the same reality of the job. It was an empowering and uncomfortable discovery; empowering because I finally knew what kind of life I wanted to lead, uncomfortable because it led me away from the dream of being a professor that I had nurtured for so long and pushed me into uncharted territory.