I’ve made a courageous career decision, for a PhD.
I will no longer be applying for faculty positions at a university.
While I won’t say ‘never’ – I’ve lived a long time, and know enough to know that life takes many curves and turns – but let’s say, for right now and for the near future, I’m officially stepping off the track. Hanging up my running shoes. Washing the lime dust off my hands, the frantic sweat off my body. I ran quite a few races, came in second a few times. It was a respectable career. But there are other careers that I love as much and quite probably a lot more than the academic grind.
Stopping my pursuit of a full-time tenure-track position has, I think, provided me with exactly what the tenure process was meant to do: I now have complete and total academic freedom. And isn’t that bloody ironic.
This blog post will get personal for a few paragraphs; bear with me. I started my PhD in 2006 and finished in 2010 – 4 years and 4 months, for a History PhD. In my home department, new graduate students tell me I’m a legend. I pulled it off while parenting two kids, living an hour off campus, and helping my husband run our farm business. I did my PhD because I wanted to. I’d taken almost ten years off after my MA, and I went back to it fresh, clear, and goal-oriented. I had a superb supervisor and I loved the whole process.
But I knew, right from the start, that I most likely would never receive a tenure track offer, because all of my degrees are from the same small, provincial university in the middle of western Canada. (I’m married to a farmer, remember? Place-based research. That’s my forte). There was a smidgen of hope when I finished my degree and one postdoc after another came to me – a university-based part-time postdoc first, then a prestigious SSHRC postdoc, which I’ll finish at the end of this year. It seemed like I was doing all the ‘right’ things: publishing across disciplines, publishing both books and articles, involved in grant writing, on the edge of success. Maybe, maybe, there would be a tenure track place for me.
Yet, it didn’t feel right. It was never enough, hence the second place finishes in academic job searches. In some cases, it was probably me. If, during the interview, one of the potential future colleagues made a crack about ‘truck-driving rednecks,’ I will (and did) respond: “I have a truck.” In another case, a university deliberately circumvented Canadian law (which requires Canadian citizens to receive preference in all job hires) by fudging. Whether it was ‘fit’ or real worry over my potential as an academic or ability to pull in grant money, the fact remains: I was not hired. It was particularly galling when that university’s corporate policy is unequivocal: the only reason to not hire the Canadian, even if they don’t come first in the ranking, is if they do not have the qualifications for the job, or if they refuse it. And since that same university offered me a sessional post while I was going through the job interview process, well, I have to assume I am qualified to teach and research there.
My Achilles heel is grants. I love to write, so it would seem logical that I could write stellar, persuasive grants. And I can – when I think the project is worth funding. I’ve become quite jaded about the academic grant writing process, though: who, exactly, stands to benefit from these grants? Deep down, what are their core purpose? Some grants are amazing, and should be funded, and I’m ecstatic when they are. Others? Their primary purpose seems to be to give the researchers lines on CVs. Paving the road to tenure and promotion. Money to fund graduate students and post docs to do the work. I’ve seen too many grants start as conversations between academics worrying about their grant records, and too few that start with conversations about real problems needing real solutions. Or, my preference, real stories that are wise, funny, interesting, or informative. Cut to the chase. Tell the story.
Funnily enough, for a girl who loves to write, keen readers will note that my blog has been woefully bare for the past year. Reason? Simple. I was scared. All the blog posts I wanted to write, I worried that they would be controversial, or would compromise the research that I was doing while being paid by one of these grants, or that I would reveal conclusions to the [gasp!] public rather than to the more acceptable [read: peer-reviewed] academic audience, or that I would make a spelling mistake. They happen. And they can kill your resume and your job hunt.
But no more. I declare today my first day of academic freedom – because I’m no longer looking for a tenure track job. I am a better academic — a public academic, writing history for the ones that I most want to read it — without a tenure line. I am writing my next book breathing deeply, enjoying the process, not worrying about getting or keeping a tenured job. My writing, my publishing, my future will be the better for it. I don’t have to wait for academic freedom. I’ll take that right now, thanks.