By Warren Hoffman
“You have an awesome job — you know that, right? I’m jealous.” Those words were uttered by a tenured professor over coffee one day, as I told him about my then-job working in theater as a literary manager and dramaturge.
Had I heard him correctly? He was the one with the swanky permanent teaching job while I couldn’t find a tenure-track gig in literature to save my life.
But despite all the romantic notions attached to “the life of the mind,” that wasn’t the first time (or the last) that I heard a tenured scholar admit to feeling envious of a career outside of academe. They always say they feel beaten down by the academic system — more specifically, by heavy teaching loads, politicized faculty meetings, and ever-expanding campus bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, drawing on my knowledge of theater, I had become the literary manager of a major U.S. regional theater — developing new works, providing research for plays, scouting new playwrights, and writing articles for the theater’s magazine that were read by hundreds of people every performance. While it wasn’t what I had imagined myself doing with a Ph.D., the theater had become my classroom, where I ran public interviews with award-winning writers and actors. I grappled with complex thematic issues and found myself in the library collecting dramaturgical research for directors.
I was, in many ways, doing what I had been trained to do. I just wasn’t doing it at a university.
I share this experience now because the contingent-faculty crisis has rightly been taking up more and more column space in an effort to get academe to sit up, take notice, and do something about the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs. Debates about the problem often lead to a lot of finger-pointing and wishful thinking that it could be resolved if only “someone” — institutions, departments, learned societies, foundations — could wave a magic wand and make more tenure-track jobs appear. It is a frustratingly complex issue.
While I, too, hope that institutions will find ways to support, retain, and even increase the number of tenure-track positions on their faculties, I’d like to pose a different question here: Why is getting a tenure-track job still seen as the only way to lead a fulfilling life of inquiry in the humanities? More to the point: What do those of us who pursue a doctorate want to do to lead fulfilling lives as scholars?
The answer, I would suggest, is not purely a thing — e.g., a tenure-track job — but rather a set of activities: the ability to teach, write, lecture, and think critically about the world around us. Those actions, while they are primarily located in the realm of higher education, are not by any means restricted to that sector.
I found that out myself more than 10 years ago when — after five years on the faculty job market, and despite having done all the “right” things such as getting a postdoc, publishing a book and articles, and teaching — I was still without a tenure-track position. Not looking to live just anywhere and also not interested in patching together a subsistence living of underpaying adjunct jobs, I decided to pivot and look for work outside of academe. The results have been exciting, rewarding, and eye-opening.
My first job, described above, led me to work in theater, applying much that I had learned to an art form I love. Instead of reading and writing about contemporary American drama in the abstract, I was actually in the room helping to create it. It was often a heady experience, to be sure. From there I served as director of arts and culture for a Jewish community center, applying my background in Jewish cultural texts to public programming for hundreds of people each year. Then a stint in community grantmaking. And now, coming full circle, I am executive director of an academic learned society that serves its members not just by advocating for their scholarship, but by helping them along their career paths in whatever varied forms that might take.
As I look back at my own unexpected career path, though, I never abandoned the activities of teaching, research, writing, and thinking critically. While academe is a place where ostensibly all of those actions coalesce, it’s not the only place where they exist. With some creativity and flexibility, each element can be interwoven with a life outside of a college campus.
At multiple jobs, I was able to negotiate, as part of my hiring package, regular time off to teach a course on a college campus. I don’t want to glorify the adjunct system, as it is definitely broken and pays far too little for the amount of work involved. However, in certain circumstances, adjuncting can be a way for Ph.D.s working outside of the ivory tower to maintain an active role as scholars and teachers. Adjunct teaching is not glamorous, but when it’s not your main source of income, it can be gratifying work. Freed from departmental politics, I was able to swoop in, teach, and leave — and I liked that. I not only got to continue honing my teaching skills and be with students in a classroom, but I also had the opportunity to develop new courses that often turned into public lecture topics.
Research and writing attract many people to academic life, but it’s possible to do that kind of work in other sectors, too.
In fact, my own writing and publishing has flourished since leaving academe. I’ve published two books, both with academic presses. The second, which was a trade crossover book about musical theater, sold out its first print run and will be republished this year in a revised second edition. This book was a joy to work on because I was able to write it for myself — not to please a tenure committee or a small group of academics. In writing it, I was able to combine a scholarly approach with a desire to share my work with a wider reading public.
It’s true that carving out time to write and do research when you have a full-time job is difficult, but it is doable. And in fairness, many faculty members with heavy teaching loads these days are equally struggling to find time to write.
The one area of research that remains problematic once you leave the academic world is using campus libraries, complete with checkout privileges and access to online databases. If institutions could find ways of supporting research access for independent scholars, this would be a tremendous boon both for them and for institutions, which, ostensibly, are invested in the production of new bodies of knowledge and scholarly output.
My work as a graduate student trained me to think critically, and while I may spend more time nowadays thinking about spreadsheets than similes, it doesn’t mean the work I do now is less gratifying. As a Ph.D. outside of academe, I still spend a great deal of time lecturing and giving public talks. Through this work, I’ve not only found attentive, engaged audiences (often more so than in an intro class), but I’m excited to share my academic knowledge with the wider public in ways that are deep and meaningful.
I know that a tenure-track job will remain the holy grail for many Ph.D.s, but with creative recalibration, you can find multiple, rewarding ways to be “an academic.” When people ask me if I still would have gone to graduate school knowing that I wouldn’t find an academic job, my answer remains a solid yes. While I might not need a doctorate for some of the jobs I’ve had, the training I received helped shape the way I view and interact with the world, and that’s something I value deeply.
Today, as the executive director of an academic learned society, I see a twofold challenge before us:
- We must advocate for tenure-track jobs and the shore up of academic employment.
- At the same time, we must validate and celebrate the vast variety of career options available outside of academe that draw on the important skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking that many of us have spent years cultivating.
Warren Hoffman is executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies.