Back to High School

November 07, 2003

As the academic job season picks up again, my Ph.D. friends have begun to dust off their CV's and polish their cover letters. For the second year in a row, I won't be joining them. After five unsuccessful years on the market, I decided in the spring of 2002 to accept a teaching position at a small private high school.

I write this column for those of you starting another job season who have doubts about just how much more you can take. Sure, there's life after high school, but I'm here to tell you there's life after academe.

In my last year on the job market, I had three interviews at my discipline's national conference. They were all with major research universities that boasted light teaching loads (two courses a semester), generous leave time, and plentiful research support. So, when one of them invited me for an on-campus interview in February, I headed off with my polished job talk in one hand and my clever anecdotes for dinnertime conversation in the other.

The trip was an emotional roller-coaster ride from start to finish. Those metaphorical dips and curves began when my connecting flight was canceled because of ice storms, and I had to take a bus from the major airport to the small Midwestern town where the university is located. It was from that bus that I had my first view of the town. Bear with me as I try to explain my frame of mind as I gazed out the window and watched the passing landscape. With each mile, the world outside seemed to get darker and colder; we were traveling to the middle of nowhere. Adjectives like "bleak" and "desolate" came to mind. As we approached the town, more houses sprung up on the flat landscape, and then I saw it out of the right-hand window. I gasped as I read the sign: Ponderosa Steakhouse.

It's hard to fully explain the force of this sighting. For me, the restaurant produced flashbacks of long summer car trips to visit relatives. I remembered with horror the requisite meal at the Ponderosa. My cheeks felt flush as I relived my teenage embarrassment, watching my grandmother load up her plate during trip after trip to the all-you-can-eat salad bar, and then asking me to get her a doggy bag to take home her untouched entree. I shivered. How could I live in a town with a Ponderosa? When I checked into my hotel, I called my loved ones. It took every word of encouragement they could muster to persuade me not to run screaming back to the airport.

By the next morning, I was transformed. It was a lovely day. The campus looked like something out of an admissions brochure with its venerable buildings and snow-covered trees. Eager, wide-eyed students, bundled in overcoats and fuzzy scarves, hurried to class. I beamed. I could be part of this fine institution of higher learning, I thought hopefully.

My breakfast companions -- two professors from the hiring department -- proved friendly and interesting. They seemed engaged with my work, and our conversation confirmed my belief that this would be an intellectually rigorous and stimulating place. Nevertheless, I couldn't shake the feeling that I would never be happy there. Nor could I figure out what on earth my spouse would do in this small town -- wait tables at the Ponderosa?

I tried to turn those negative feelings into positive actions. My trip to the Midwest had made me realize that I was simply not being realistic about my prospects in academe. It's not that I thought I could never land a job -- I imagined I could if I stuck it out. But what kind of job? And where?

After years of job hunting, I wasn't willing to settle for a high teaching load, mediocre students, or an undesirable location. I had come to love the great Western metropolis in which I lived, and I knew in my heart that I wasn't willing to move across the country -- even for a job at the very prestigious university I had visited. Having such firm restrictions on my search just wasn't practical in a tight job market.

Before heading out to my campus interview, I had already sent out résumés to a number of private schools and nonprofit institutions in and around the city where I live. I had cast a wide net across related professions, including teaching high school, editing an academic journal, doing research for a political-action group, and working in college admissions. I figured that any interviews I landed would be part informational, part real job-seeking. Upon my return from the Midwest, I began to make follow-up calls and and was happy to secure interviews at a couple of prestigious secondary schools. I was so busy I hardly noticed that the Midwestern university had still not called with either a job offer or a rejection.

I found the interview process at the secondary schools to be a refreshing change. I didn't have to attend some stuffy conference but rather, went right to the campus visits.

When I visited the school where I now work, I could feel the fit from the moment I arrived. I meshed with the faculty members in my department (70 percent of them Ph.D.'s, by the way), I found the administrators supportive and interesting, and I thought the students were insightful and mature. After two campus visits, including a sample class I taught, I was hooked. And, thankfully, so were they.

The headmaster offered me a position as a teacher and department chairwoman, which meant a teaching load of three courses each semester, some administrative responsibilities, and a starting salary higher than many of my professorial friends.

After receiving this offer I called the Midwestern university to find out if the department had made a decision. The head of the search committee informed me that it had decided not to hire any of the candidates. Apparently, the department vote was split between me and one other scholar. It had been a tie. I just had to laugh. This ending reinforced for me the truly bizarre nature of the academic job search.

The next day I called and accepted the job at the secondary school. Finally, I could settle down for a while. My husband and I bought our first house, and he let out a big sigh of relief, happy to no longer be in a state of perpetual limbo.

My first year at my new job went pretty smoothly, and I have found that teaching 11th-graders at my private school is not all that different from teaching college freshmen. The students I teach come well-prepared -- they are generally strong writers with keen analytical abilities, and they are amazingly hard workers. But they are also witty and gregarious, much more so than their college counterparts, who tend to be exhausted from the lack of sleep that characterizes dorm life. I am still getting used to seeing my classes every day and being on campus five days a week, but the school is flexible enough to allow for an occasional long lunch or early afternoon departure. I've even found time to keep working on my research -- something the administration has supported from the beginning.

But, by far, the best thing about my new job is that I can be myself. I no longer play the part of the perennial job seeker who, low on confidence, weighs how much a certain choice will help or hinder the search for employment.

I've begun to remember who I am -- not the various versions of myself that I presented to prospective employers, but the real me. I don't think I realized until this past year just how taxing the job market has been on me, and I warn even the most self-assured and resilient individuals to watch out for the toll it can take. The life I have found after academe is truly my own, and friends tell me that I have never looked better.

Emily Peters is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the humanities who teaches at a private high school in the West.