‘What’s Next for You?’

A Ph.D. decides to leave behind both academe 
and its self-defeating notions of success

Brian Taylor

April 07, 2014

This semester I’m teaching a course at Macalester College called "Imagine Otherwise: Alternative Visions of Love, Family, and Nation." Most of my students are seniors, many of whom explained that they were drawn to the course because their future after graduation is unclear and precarious. They hoped that learning about artists who have taken unusual paths would ease their own anxiety, and that being introduced to role models who lived courageous lives would give them the courage to do the same.

As the professor in the room, I never would have imagined that I would feel just like my seniors: scared, clueless, and hungry for role models who live bravely. Like my students, I have no idea what I’m going to be doing after May.

"What’s next for you?" I ask my seniors. None of them are sure. "Things are still up in the air," they tell me.

While May signals graduation and the end of their four-year college careers, May signals unemployment for me. Since I received my Ph.D., in 2010, I have worked as an adjunct professor at three academic institutions.

Let’s be blunt: From the perspective of academe, I am a failure. At the major research university where I earned my doctorate, the path that was set before me was long established and assumed. I would get my degree, land a tenure-track job, and turn my dissertation into a book, which would then win me tenure. It was a formula that served not only my committee members well but also their professors and the professors that came before them. I assumed I would follow in their footsteps.

However, the carrot that is the tenure-track position has eluded me. And it isn’t because I haven’t tried. I’ve been on the academic job market since 2008. I’ve been close to getting several tenure-track positions but, for various reasons, offers never materialized. At one university, the funding for the position was pulled. At another, the ego of the administration seems to have gotten in the way. The hiring committee had submitted two names to the provost. My name was listed second. The committee’s first choice declined the offer. Instead of then offering the job to me, the provost deemed the university’s search a failure, and its hiring committee started the process all over again the following year.

In 2011, I landed a tenure-track position at a local community college. However, the campus environment and the workload (teaching five writing-intensive courses each semester) wreaked havoc on my body and spirit. So I quit that job, cobbled together freelance work and adjunct teaching gigs, and worked on completing my book. I’m sure some readers will criticize me for being too choosy in a dire job market. But I thought that the community-college job should go to someone who actually wanted it, rather than someone who knew it was a bad fit for her after only a year.

When I graduated, in 2010, I saw myself with a bright future in scholarship. My dissertation was a national finalist for best dissertation in the interdisciplinary field of American studies. I was already in conversation with two editors who represented the top academic presses in my field. If people had told me that I’d be making poverty-level wages after graduation and be unemployed four years later, I would have thought they were crazy.

But that’s exactly how things turned out—for me and for a lot of people who entered the job market in 2008, during the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

My book, From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption, was released in March by the University of Minnesota Press. In a different era, the book would mean that I might soon be celebrating my promotion to tenured associate professor somewhere. Instead, I’m facing unemployment in two months.

Coming to terms with the shape that my career has taken has been painful. It’s been even more difficult trying to avoid internalizing a sense of failure. In a society that socializes us to believe in the myth of meritocracy, it’s all too easy to see my stalled career as indicative of some flaw in myself. "There must be something wrong with me," is the conclusion I drew when things didn’t go according to plan.

For a while, I tried to make myself feel better by acknowledging the larger structural forces at play. Loved ones reminded me that I had started my search when the job market bottomed out. And when the market started to come back, it took the shape of a bottleneck: Too many assistant professors, A.B.D.’s, and the recently graduated were all applying for too few positions.

But recognizing those market realities didn’t make me feel better, because I knew people landing tenure-track positions. "Why them and not me?" was the refrain in my head for years. Eventually I realized that this way of thinking was crushing my spirit, and I began to apply to my own situation the critical-thinking skills I had developed during graduate school.

I began to see that my feelings of failure came from a belief system that was created by others. Society was telling me what was important and what success looked like. (In my case, it looked like a tenure-track job.) I was measuring my success on the basis of someone else’s standards instead of my own, which is the opposite of what I advise my students. Both inside and outside the classroom, I encourage students to determine for themselves what’s important in their own lives. I also remind them that they are both judge and jury—they get to decide whether or not they’ve been successful, according to their own criteria. I needed to take my own advice.

I recently heard Deepak Chopra say there is wisdom in uncertainty. That goes against the grain of conventional thinking. It certainly goes against everything that academe has taught me. But I think he’s right, because being uncertain makes you open. Uncertainty leads you to question assumptions and expectations. It forces you to let go of prescribed answers to old questions and instead ask new questions: What does it mean to be successful? Where does my idea of success come from? Who said that being successful has to follow a particular path?

The uncertainty of the job market has helped me construct my own definition of success, which focuses on my own feelings rather than a prescribed image or set of concrete, tangible markers (like a tenure-track job). I am successful in some task or job when I feel authentic, validated, affirmed, supported, balanced, energized, and joyful.

Redefining success as a set of feelings has given me the courage to stop chasing the carrot and let go of academe.

This is not about admitting defeat or giving up. This is about setting my own standards of evaluation, based on my core beliefs and values rather than on the beliefs and values of an academic culture that judges as failures any Ph.D.’s who are contingent faculty members or who leave academe.

With that new definition of success in hand, I found a whole new world of possible career tracks opened up to me. As Audre Lorde so wisely warns, if I don’t define myself for myself, I will be "crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive." I no longer want to be eaten alive by academe.

Knowing that my time at Macalester College is winding down, my students ask with curiosity, "What’s next for you? Have you found another job yet?" In the past, questions like that would trigger a sense of embarrassment, shame, and guilt. Not this time around. I’m still nervous and uncertain about the future, but I answer with a tone of hopeful expectation because I have reinterpreted my impending unemployment as an opportunity to explore alternative paths rather than seeing it as a closed door.

"No, I haven’t yet," I reply, "but I’m excited to see what new opportunities come my way and how the next stage of my life unfolds."

They nod with a knowingness that comes from feeling a similar mix of anxiety, hope, and eagerness for the future.

SooJin Pate is a visiting assistant professor of American studies at Macalester College. She earned a Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Minnesota.