Although there were many straws on the camel’s back by the time it broke with regard to academia (I will not begin to list the discouraging, disrespectful, condescending, limiting, frustrating comments from more than one faculty member at UVA, including my would-be dissertation director, regarding my ideas, projects, interests, and teaching– thank god for the few faculty who thought I might be relatively intelligent and worthy of their attention), I think one of the first things that really turned me off was attending the MLA. Thus, I fiercely encourage all those in pursuit of a Ph.D. to avoid the MLA until they actually have a job interview there. If you go before your job interview, and especially if you go while your friends are interviewing, you might get a taste of how dire the academic job market actually is. And you will know that, even with publications and teaching experience and invited lectures and post-docs and interpersonal skills and awards and a good academic pedigree, your chances of getting a job of any kind are very low. Luckily, there’s always adjunct comp! — Which you will probably end up teaching even if you worked your ass off creating a beautiful and jam-packed c.v.
Along with the stressful environment of the MLA, I watched a very intelligent friend of mine– one of the smartest people in the Poetics Program, to my mind– get shuffled off to a 4-4 non-tenure-track gig, comp-based, in the middle of nowhere. Having already sacrificed one relationship to Academia, I did not like the idea of having to follow Academia around to crappy jobs in out-of-the-way places. I did not like watching this person get treated that way. I heard horror stories from everyone, though– years of applying with no results; moving cross-country every other year to follow the available jobs; never having time (with these 4-4 schedules and the plethora of committees and red tape) to finish one’s first book and thus having a bugger of a time getting promoted despite one’s intelligence and abilities. I found the idea of devoting 3-4 years of my life to researching and writing a dissertation while living on graduate student income, only to be shuttled off to East Nowhere University and get paid the same salary as an entry-level position (in a city of my choosing) to be very unappetizing. I gave up emotionally long before I physically dropped out.
Now I am applying for jobs, and although I’ve had a few medium-wage jobs since leaving UVA, it’s hard to find a salaried position at which I might be able to utilize some of my skills. I didn’t really realize that I had a skill set until I began applying for jobs. For one, I speak English. I can answer the phone, type (82 wpm!), write, edit, maintain websites (as long as they aren’t terribly advanced), serve customers, research, etc. Who knew that these qualified as “skills”? I never really thought about them. I thought skills were like, whether you’d had a book published by the time you had your Ph.D. in hand (by the age of 30). I thought “time management” meant trying to teach, fulfill degree requirements, prep papers for conferences and journals, maintain a creative career, and run a press at the same time (not to mention all the people who do these things and have families!). I don’t really know what to think about this other world. It’s kind of a culture shock.
It’s hard to find a job out here in the Real World– I mean a job that might hold my interest and pay well enough for me to stop looking for other jobs. But I don’t think it’s any harder than finding a job in Academia, and my starting salary will probably be the same or better. I might have ended up in exactly this same place 4 years from now, but with a Ph.D. and a (useless) dissertation. And with my M.A. and teaching experience, I can still get those adjunct comp jobs– in a city that I actually want to live in. I might change my mind after working in the Real World for awhile and I might choose to go back to school for a marketable degree like an MLS. But as cruel at the Real World’s job market is, it feels like a huge relief to not be facing the tortures of the Academic job market.