On leaving academia for the alt-academy

On leaving academia for the alt-academy

The reason that I rarely write good blog posts is that it takes me so long. I dump hasty thoughts and stories into a file, play with them and connect them to other ideas, and work them over until they’re ready. Reframing sentences. Erasing this one, and turning that. Working out the circles of thought, composing a picture from folded edges and crumpled corners.

And it’s exhausting and deeply satisfying, the same way that good art is tiring: brushing shades of sunset into a painting, adding the deep hue of a summer afternoon, the breeze fluttering pastures of pale-green ryegrass and fescue, layering upon layer.

That’s how I write, at my best. Slow food, slow art. But then I find that so much never gets out there. It lies around waiting to be finished, and instead I post scattered pictures, recipes, and narratives, as filler.

So maybe what I need is more sketches: short, little editing. More ideas on display alongside the more polished works.


To try something brief: I’ve been following the #alt-ac and #post-ac movement for a while.

This is a movement among current and former grad students to “get out” and find other work. The main reason being that the economic structure of grad school (& higher ed) is shifting. More and more grad students are working long years for little reward, ending up as impoverished temporary professors (adjuncts) with little prospects for the future.

Well, I’ve just been reading Rebecca Schumann’s blog at http://pankisseskafka.com and I love her style, attitude, and clarity. You can find a lot more, of course, at PhD to Life, How to Leave Academia, 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School, and #alt-ac.

So these are the articles I read with interest. I left the PhD track early, because I couldn’t see jobs on the horizon. I have friends with PhDs and no work, who’ve started into entry-level again after years of accumulating debt and knowledge.

And yet I find myself looking over my shoulder. The things I miss about grad school:

1. The prestige of being on the way to professorhood (whether or not one actually arrives); the respect accorded to someone researching Important Things.

2. Space to think, to question, to be analytical, and to seek a wide view of the world. Wide reading. Attempts at writing.

3. Being included in conversations among academics. Being listened to, and learning how to listen at a deeper level. Engaging, sometimes fascinating conversations with others who have accumulated knowledge and insight into how the world moves.

4. Through anthropology, means to travel and explore communities in depth: not just a tourist vacation or expat life in the capital, but living in rural areas with average people, and learning from them.

5. The chance to write, to take pictures, to record stories and viewpoints about the world so that people can see more than just me.

So the alt-ac stuff saddens me, but also gives perspective on the moment: more and more friends going into masters and PhDs. MA/MBA/PhD/law degree as prerequisite to a possible life — if you’re lucky. But also: grad students are also cheap labor for universities, interns for nonprofits, and temps & independent contractors at businesses. The shift from our grandparents’ steady benefits, to our parents’ boom and bust years, to ourselves.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t go back for a PhD, just that I’d go carefully, with a steady source of income or career development on the side.

And overall, I find the alt-ac conversation positive (if depressing for individual academics) because it focuses our attention on the shift: the college, grad school & career stories that worked for the prior generation may not work for us.

The research and society challenge now, I suppose, is to find and articulate a new direction for both professionals and labor in the 21st century.

Sources: CC images kindly shared by Ted Major (laptop) and CIFOR (research). 

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