Building a Secondary Career

March 19, 1999

Last December I spoke against the "alternative careers" program proposed by Elaine Showalter, former president of the Modern Language Association (See "Graduate Students Win Concessions") And I still think the first priority of a leading professional association in the humanities should be changing a system that exploits a third of its members rather than enabling the perpetuation of that system, claiming that they are powerless against the forces of the so-called marketplace.

Since then, I have partially revised my opinion. Perhaps the notion of a secondary career -- as opposed to an alternative career -- has some radical potential. Rather than an unanticipated job that must be accepted when one's academic hopes are shattered, a secondary career is one that is developed during graduate school as a means of guaranteeing one's independence from the uncertainties of the academic job system. Rather than quietly opening the field for a new crop of exploited apprentices, a secondary career allows one to remain a scholar and a teacher on one's own terms.

Until we -- the graduate, part-time, and adjunct workers -- control the agenda of the larger professional organizations (using their influence to censure or praise institutional practices and convert part-time into full-time positions), the only real power we have is to refuse to be exploited. We must withhold our labor, both collectively and as individuals.

All too often, instead of standing up for ourselves as a group, we have competed more aggressively against each other (see a letter to the editor). This has created the paradox of some of the most talented and educated people in our society working under conditions that -- in a tight labor market -- have vanished even from the fast-food industry.

I expect to finish my doctorate this spring, and my prospects for full-time academic work -- like most Ph.D's -- are somewhat limited. Instead of moving my family across the country following underpaid post-docs and part-time gigs from year to year, I have interviewed for about 30 business positions in strategy consulting, public relations, journalism, technical writing, and publishing.

Fortunately, over the last eight years I have taken courses, volunteered, and worked in numerous positions that enable me to present myself as a legitimate candidate in any of these fields.

I am amazed repeatedly at the warmth and courtesy of the business world today compared with the coldness and disdain shown by academic search committees who receive as many as 800 applications for a single low-paying assistant professorship. While businesses are selling themselves to potential employees, the ruthlessness of the new academic job system has inflated the ego of many a scholarly nebbish to elephantine proportions. Mystified by pseudo-religious rituals and titles, academe in the nineties has become capitalism at its ugliest extreme.

Until significant reforms can be achieved, I have a few suggestions that will enable you -- particularly if you are just beginning graduate school -- to avoid the desperation that inevitably results from too great a dependency on an unreliable academic job system:

  • Pursue an academic career as if you were trying to become a novelist, actor, painter, broadcaster, or professional athlete. Regard it as an avocation; do not depend on it for your livelihood or your identity. Do not trust the optimistic projections of any professional organization.
  • Give up the pretense that the business world is corrupt and the academic world is pure. Both are shades of gray, the darkness of which varies from position to position and in relation to the values of the individual who is employed.
  • If you do not have one already, build a secondary career that complements your academic expertise. Right now, computer training is particularly useful, as is secondary school certification. If you can afford it, spend at least one summer as an intern in a non-academic field. Or volunteer for positions (such as labor organizer) that offer a lot of responsibility very quickly.
  • Finish your doctoral program as soon as you can. Accept teaching fellowships for experience rather than for money. In many cases you will earn more and build more valuable skills working in your secondary career than serving in yet another teaching fellowship.
  • Achieve a position in which you can support yourself without having to accept any academic job that comes along. Refuse anything less than a reasonable wage and benefits based on your education, experience, and the level of the institution.
  • Use the security provided by your secondary career to allow you to become intellectually and professionally honest. Use the democratizing power of the Internet to circumvent the hierarchical structures of academe. It is better to be a notorious Young Turk than an obscure sycophant.

Last fall I wrote that a graduate student's life is filled with feelings of "inadequacy and dread". Knowing that I will probably find some kind of agreeable employment -- that my whole livelihood does not depend on the MLA -- has rehabilitated my battered self-esteem and my hope for the future. It has also freed me to write articles and give speeches that express what I really think instead of what I hope others will like. Far more than in the universities, independence of thought and creativity flourish among the growing ranks of unaffiliated scholars, whose work has more potential to shape public discourse than the internecine struggles of an ever-shrinking academic elite.

Bill Pannapacker, a graduate student at Harvard University, welcomes letters and can be contacted through his Web site at