Ejected From the Game

Jennifer Moon shares her reflections on quit lit and the academic draft -- and how she has no regrets about leaving higher ed after gaining her Ph.D.

June 13, 2018
 
 
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“I got a Ph.D. in history because I wanted to be a historian,” writes Erin Bartram, whose “quit-lit” blog post about confronting the individual and collective grief associated with leaving academe and its community of scholars went viral a few months ago. So did I.

I earned my degree in history -- and left academe -- more than 20 years ago. With the exception of occasional contemplations of “What if?” usually followed soon by feelings of “So glad I didn’t,” I haven’t looked back. Not for a moment, however, have I ever regretted getting a Ph.D.

No one’s experience in higher education is the same, as is no one’s experience in leaving it. The details of my own story are not particularly interesting or relevant. Regardless of how or why I left academe, or what I have done since in my day job, I still think of myself as a historian. It is who I am, no matter what I write as my occupation on my tax return.

The flurry of commentary that Bartram’s story sparked left me thinking about the expectations of the people who pursue Ph.D.s, myself included, and the nature of academe. Anyone who has endured graduate school knows the intensity and the camaraderie that it entails. To leave colleagues and undone work behind does engender some grief. Boxes of dissertation notes that, to this day, gather dust in my closet because they represent too much work to discard testify to that fact.

But is academe really a “community” of scholars? Or is it business? I’d argue it’s both. Therein lies a problem. Confused perceptions of what it is as opposed to what we’d like it to be -- and how it operates in both worlds at once -- generate unrealistic expectations among everyone involved and a misplaced sense of responsibility.

Pursuing a Ph.D. with the hope or expectation that it will translate into a career as a tenured professor is perhaps not unlike a high school basketball player who shoots hoops day and night, gets a college scholarship, and is the pride of the collegiate coaching staff. For whatever reason, maybe that highly dedicated, talented player doesn’t go pro.

How to explain that? Both the Ph.D. student and the basketball player put in extraordinary amounts of time in pursuit of their chosen profession. What they do defines them. They both have a community of colleagues and advisers, or teammates and coaches, to support and mentor them. And these days, the odds of them achieving their goal are pretty much the same.

In the end, sometimes for random reasons, some people’s particular dreams are realized and others’ aren’t. Ultimately, there are more talented players than spots on the roster. There are stars to be considered, with only so much room under the salary cap. Last season, the forward left as a free agent, and that position needs to be filled.

For the sake of self-preservation, students need to be aware of how, when and why this enterprise in which they are engaged is a community or a business. When is it one and not the other? Because some of the hand-wringing in quit- or driven out-lit commentary about lost opportunity and wasted potential suggests a sense of privileged entitlement. If you view an end to your hopes or expectations through the lens of community, it’s understandable that you might feel rejection. But through the lens of business? The roster has a spot that requires somebody who can shoot from the outside and defend in the paint.

This is not to equate the life of the mind with a franchise basketball team. But let’s face it: in today’s United States, they operate on many of the same principles. The stars are in the spotlight. The players on the bench, lucky enough to get a spot on the roster, await their chance to play, hoping for the day when maybe they get a starting position on another team. Bench players move from team to team in search of opportunity. Some eventually decide to coach or move to the front office. It’s less collegial community and more hard-nosed business. Regardless, the fans keep filling the seats each year, and a steady stream of college recruits occupies the scouting staff.

This is also not to suggest that academic departments should get off the hook for their recruiting, advising and hiring decisions. If academics truly want more community and less business, they need to be honest with prospective and current students about the odds and financial risks and should reform practices accordingly. They need to take a long, close look at how academe devalues and exploits its recruits and bench players. They must do a better job of advising all students about a life within and outside academe. If academic departments -- and ineffective career services offices -- can’t do it, they need to invest in those who can.

Even the term “quit-lit,” used to describe the genre, exemplifies this confusion. Is it a community or a business? Criticisms of the people who willfully leave academe -- a.k.a. the “community of scholars” -- suggest betrayal. Those who are cast aside are left with feelings of grief and anger. In any other industry, leaving one job for another is not a betrayal. It’s a career change. In any other industry, someone who is unable to remain in the chosen occupation to which they have dedicated their life is a displaced worker. Whatever the case, we all must move on.

I was just as guilty of ignoring that distinction as anyone else. I, too, had dreams of an office with floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with books, of spending my days with colleagues and students with little awareness of the business of higher education. In my subsequent disillusionment, I turned my back on academe entirely. I didn’t pick up a history book for 15 years. In an industry in which you can apply for a job only once a year, and the chances of securing an academic position diminish with each passing year, I had no delusions about my chances of returning one day.

Did I leave academe, or did it leave me? I got a Ph.D. to become a professional historian, but I never held an academic position after earning it. I went on the job market my last year in grad school, had some interviews and probably could have found a position doing something somewhere. But after one year on the job market, I decided I wasn’t willing to do anything anywhere and opted for the path of the displaced worker. I decided to go where I most wanted to be -- which, in my case, was the Pacific Northwest. Swallowing my pride and sense of entitlement, I worked temp jobs that first year to pay the bills while doing volunteer research and writing projects and talking to as many people as I could until opportunities for a new direction appeared.

In recent years, I’ve started reading history books again. I recently was asked if I regretted leaving academe. The answer is no. I had the great privilege of pursuing one passion for a good portion of my life. I didn’t write the book, but I found a way to touch lives in other ways.

No, I don’t need a Ph.D. to do what I do now. But getting a Ph.D. enriched my life. I am a better thinker, analyst, strategist and communicator because of that experience. I have an understanding of the world -- why and how things are the way they are -- that other people lack. I use that knowledge every day to, I hope, change the way people think -- which, in a way, was my goal all along.

Bio

Jennifer Moon earned her Ph.D. in early American history in 1995. After completing her degree, she transitioned into a career in public policy, research and evaluation, and program management. Today, she works in communications and public relations for a community health center and maintains a vicarious connection to the historical profession.

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