Tag Archives: the academy

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On graduate school orientation

A colleague suggested that I write a series of reflections of what I would say to my younger academic self. Hindsight, of course, allows me to tailor advice knowing what the outcome will be, but these reflections also allow me to think about my journey to academic to something else in a way that I haven’t before. Here’s my first in the series, Notes to a Younger Self, which starts at almost the beginning as it should.

On graduate school orientation

You are going to cry after graduate school orientation. You are going to cry A LOT. This is okay. After all, this is the first time you been gathered together with all the other smart kids. You are used to being one of the only smart kids in the classes at your big state university. Now, you are confronted with all the other students who are also used to being the only smart kids.

This is what I know about you, Kelly. You feel outgunned. You want to panic. I need you to take a deep breath.

Just breathe and listen.

I know what you are doing right now. You are looking around the seminar room at all those students sitting around the gray, awkward table. You listen attentively as they describe their training and their summer adventures. You are waiting for the inevitable moment when you have to explain why you should be here too. You don’t feel like you belong. You begin to question your decision to go to graduate school. You are pretty sure that you will fail melodramatically.

I know what you are thinking. All these students seem smarter, more eloquent, better trained, and more ready than you. Many of them described European vacations, summer research, and other things that seem forever out of your reach. I know one guy will tell the group that he got married and his truck got struck by lighting. I know that you’ll be hesitant to note that you’ve been married a mere eight months. What you don’t know is that this guy is a member of your cohort, and he’ll become a dear friend. His humor offers you brief respite. Continue reading

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The Impermanent Adjunct

This piece appeared at Chronicle Vitae on February 26, 2014.

As my year off moves by slowly, I often wonder how I arrived at the situation I am in. Was there a pivotal moment that set me on this path? When did I begin to doubt that I would ever fit neatly within the academy? When did quitting become an inevitability rather than a possibility? There’s one answer to all these questions: when I became a contingent laborer.

I never planned to have a temporary job. I fell into one, as people often do. While finishing my dissertation out of residence, I started adjuncting. I moved with my husband to a place 23 hours from home for his paid internship (which eventually turned into a paid postdoc). I was lonely and isolated. My cohort was far away, as were my other friends and family. I missed teaching—in my graduate program, we taught early and often—and I craved familiarity. Adjuncting put me back in the classroom, and it was (supposedly) a way to avoid the dreaded gap on my CV.

I ended up adjuncting at a community college and a university simultaneously. At the university, the pay per course was about $1,500, with a promise of $1,800 when I finished my Ph.D. At the community college, the pay was less, and I had no control over curriculum or books. This 20th-century Americanist ended up teaching Early World Civilizations.

Most fall and spring semesters, I taught two courses for the community college and one for the university. In my second-to-last semester, I taught a total of five classes between three campuses. I had agreed to teach only four courses, but at the forceful cajoling of an administrator, I took over one more.

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2013: Year in Review

2013 was more eventful than other years. I won the Chancellor’s Award in Teaching Excellence, and then, I quit my job as a lecturer. My family moved to my home state of Florida. We bought a house. The Zombies Are Coming! was published in July (Listen to me talk zombies with Carol Howard Merritt and Derrick Weston of God Complex Radio.)

In August, my big girl started voluntary pre-Kindergarten. In September, I had a healthy baby boy. Just two days ago, I celebrated twelve years of marriage with my husband.

It was a big year.

I also started writing more, including a column for Chronicle Vitae. Here’s the list of my pieces that were published in 2013. I’m proud of all of them because they signal a move to try new things and maybe start a new career. I’ve listed them in chronological order.

1. Evil Religion? Then & Now, The Christian Century, May. It was sixth most read post for this column.

2. Can Brad Pitt save us from the (secular) apocalypse? Then & Now, The Christian Century, July. Pitt’s manscarf cannot distract from the reliance on yet another white savior.

3. Walking Dead and Zombie Ethics, Religion Dispatches, October. We save the world, bullet by bullet, and we feel fine.

4.  After Halloween, more zombies, Then & Now, The Christian Century, November. The zombies, they won’t go away, which is good for me but bad for the rest of you.

5. The zombie preppers among us, Washington Post’s On Faith, October. Some people believe that the zombie apocalypse could really happen, and I document zombie preppers.

6. My Post-Academic Grace Period, Chronicle Vitae, November. This is, hands down, my most important piece of the year followed closely by Not A “Real” Academic.

7. How to (Not) Avoid the Job Market, Chronicle Vitae, December. Ever wonder what the job market does to someone psychologically? I explain.

8. The Creepy Surveillance of Elf on the Shelf, Religion Dispatches, December. This was the funnest piece to write. Elves, even creepy ones, were a nice distraction from zombies.

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How to (Not) Avoid the Job Market

This post originally appeared at Chronicle Vitae on December 11th.

When I decided to take a year away from academia, one of my goals was to avoid the job market. For six years, fall was a time of anticipation and dread as I waited to see what jobs would be available. How many jobs this year? How many could I apply for? What were the application requirements? How would I balance teaching, research, and job applications? How much would I despise myself after I had all the rejections in hand?

I hated job season, but I couldn’t really hate it either. The drudgery of compiling applications, and the critical self-scrutiny that accompanied it, were tiresome, but applying was the only way to get an elusive tenure-track job. Thus, I prepared for the market by crafting (and recrafting) research and teaching statements, updating my CV, and writing letters for each position. These tasks took much time and effort.

Yet the most painful part of the process was asking recommenders for letters year after year. I tried to act confident and self-assured when I politely requested letters again and graciously accepted their assurances that this year (unlike other years) would be my year. I even garnered enough optimism to halfway believe them. That optimism required equal parts hope and delusion, and to muster those simultaneously took exhaustive amounts of mental and physical energy, without which I might not have applied to any jobs. With them, I faced sleepless nights and gut-wrenching anxiety. Hope and delusion pulled me through multiple job cycles. This cycle, however, was different because I was not “on the market.” I’d opted out.

When this fall rolled around, I felt no trepidation. I had no need to gird my optimism and stave off my anxiety. I did not have to look obsessively at the American Academy of Religion’s jobs site to see which new jobs were posted. I did not frantically search the H-Net job guide for some position that might be a good fit. I did not need to strategize with mentors about how best to showcase my talents to search committees.

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Grace Period

In May, I quit my job and moved to Florida. Both decisions might seem big (they were), but they were remarkably easy. My lecturer gig paid little, the teaching load was heavy, and my department was dysfunctional. Leaving behind students, friends, and colleagues was hard. Watching my daughter mourn the loss of her friends was harder.

The move to Florida was unexpected. Out of the blue, my husband was offered a new job with a tech company, which allowed him to telecommute. To my surprise, he took the job, and we decided to move to Florida to be closer to our families. We both walked away from academia, the careers we trained for. That surprised us both. He might go back. I find myself more ambivalent.

Except, I didn’t walk away. Not really. Instead, I embraced a safer option, a year hiatus from the academy. Reassess and figure things out, I tell myself, decide whether to stay or not. Delay the inevitable is probably more likely. It is more like a grace period (maybe). Am I going to pay my “debt” to my academic training? Or am I going to do something, anything, else? What I know is that now have time to breathe, to reflect, to dream, to recreate, and to mourn. I can decide if there is anything that I will miss about academic life. I can decide to take the parts I like (research and writing) and apply them to other careers. I can decide to walk away. The choice, for once, rests on my shoulders.

After six years on the job market, I found myself burned out. I’ve had conference interviews and campus visits. I’ve been a second choice for tenure track jobs multiple times. I applied for jobs while teaching three and four classes a semester. And I finished my first book, wrote articles and book reviews, received a contract for a new book, edited a journal, organized panels, and experimented with an ebook. The harder I worked, I thought naively, the more likely I was to get a job. Optimism is hard habit to kick.

During this past spring semester, something broke. My tireless drive to research and write dissipated. The latest round of rejections hit harder than previous rounds, and I was tired. Why make myself get up extra early to write if there was no tenure track job for me? Why spend the time researching when I would rather spend time with my daughter? Why kill myself for a job opportunity that would never materialize? I found that I couldn’t do the work I used to love. My motivation stalled. Something broke, and it seemed irreparable. This was compounded by my increasing frustration with my job as a lecturer. I liked my students, I enjoyed teaching, and I despised the undervaluing of teaching by my department head. I disliked the hierarchy of talents, in which tenure track and tenured faculty were valued more than those of us who just taught. Being a lecturer meant that my publications could be brushed aside, and that my experience and opinions mattered less. Frustrating doesn’t quite cover it.

The desire to throw up my hands and walk away chased me through the day. There must be more to academic life than this. I hoped for something that would make my training and efforts redeemable, and I struggled to find it. Why should I stay? That thought is a dangerous one. Once it roots, nothing makes it disappear. It remains and confronts. It pounces me in Florida now as I try to figure out what I am going to do next.

I mourn what my career could have been, and I struggle to redefine who I am now. Doubt, my old friend, bubbles to the surface as I ponder what I could do alongside what it is possible to do. The grace period is simultaneously too long and too short. Is it a transition? A reevaluation? A transformation? Is this a shedding of one vision of self to become a better version? Is it a loss of dreams? Is it a moment to dwell in the liminal?

Most days, it is hard to tell. But, I find myself mourning less as days go by. The loss of what could have been is less suffocating and distracting. A transition feels manageable and desirable. The possibilities for what could be are more and more exciting. I might not be an academic after my grace period, and that’s okay. I am more than my training. And so are all of you. It is best to never forget that.

This piece now appears at Chronicle Vitae.