Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Bridging Academia

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When I left academia two years ago, I definitely had some guilt about letting my Ph.D. “go to waste.” To make things worse, I’m a dual-degree holder — as a law professor, I also had a J.D. And since I wasn’t leaving academia to go into law practice (at least not full time), it was hard not to feel that, in quitting my teaching position, I was dumping nearly a decade of education down the plumbing.

Not a day goes by that I don’t see my decision to leave higher education as the right one. No more trying to overlook the antics of a two-tiered system in which tenured and tenure-track folks (not me) are compensated well, while non-tenure-track folks (hey, that’s me) are not, even though the latter do most of the teaching. No more worrying about whether one bad course evaluation would get me fired. No more worrying about job security, period. I have different worries now, but they aren’t tied to the frustrating realities of academic life.

But what about all of those years that I spent training for an academic career? I trained my mind to work in a certain way. I trained myself to have certain skills. I worked hard to develop a CV. And then I threw it away. Or did I?

The beginning of the end. I began this Freelance Academic series back when I was contemplating leaving my contingent faculty job. I wrote a five-point manifesto to guide my new career path. When things got confusing, the manifesto made things easier. I set myself five principles:

  • Get paid for your work.
  • Live in a place you love with the people you love.
  • Stop applying to academic jobs.
  • Remember that you are not alone.
  • When you find yourself being lured back to your department for a temporary gig, remember: They’re never going to let you in the club.

In retrospect, writing that manifesto was the beginning of the end of my traditional academic career. Sure, I told myself that if the “perfect” tenure-track job just happened to fall in my lap, I wouldn’t turn it down. But we all know that perfect tenure-track jobs do not magically manifest in people’s laps. They don’t magically manifest at all. You can debate whether academia is a lottery, a merit system, a nepotism system, or a combination of all three, but what it isn’t is generous. At least not these days.

So I wrote my manifesto, and I backed away, building a new career with each backward step.

Adjacent to academia Then one day recently, I realized I wasn’t backing away from something any more. I was moving forward, with academia firmly in the rear-view mirror. After 11 years of teaching, I’ve finally disentangled myself from that world.

Now I work for me. I own a company, one that’s incorporated, and I make a living doing what I do. (I wrote about the day-to-day reality of doing what I love in a previous column.)

But as I sat down to write the next installment of this column, I faced a bit of an identity crisis. Although I love writing these columns, and the topic is meaningful to me, I wondered: Can I still call myself a “freelance academic”? Sure, I teach the occasional continuing-education course at the local university, but I’m not in academia. Not anymore. What does it mean to be a freelance academic when you’re no longer an academic?

Political scientist and academic-Twitter advocate Raul Pacheco-Vega recently referred to my role as "adjacent-to-academia,” and I think that description fits best. I've realized that thinking of myself as “adjacent” has also helped me realize that my years in academia weren’t wasted at all.

Bridging academia. Turns out a postacademic can serve as a bridge between the academy and the nonacademic world — and in a great many ways.

The most obvious way, for me, is the work I do regularly: writing for popular audiences to help create understanding of ideas that are often locked away in the ivory tower. Researchers in higher education create so much knowledge, yet so much of it never reaches audiences outside of academia’s narrow silos. Lots of scholars have started sharing their own work and that of others for readers of popular media outlets. I urge everyone to give it a try. Here’s a column a wrote on how academics can do work as public intellectuals.

Jennifer Polk, and others like her, serve as career coaches for former academics looking to transition out of academia. For those making such a career switch, having a coach — a bridge-keeper, if you will — can be crucial to making that transition successfully.

There are many other ways to bridge academia — as a freelance editor, as an admissions coach, as a textbook author, and more. If you’ve left higher education with your training in your back pocket, you haven’t thrown anything away. You’ve prepared yourself well for a life of your own design. More on that next time.

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