One of the hardest things about pursuing academic work is that you have to give up control over where you live. This is something everyone learns when they’re considering graduate school, but it doesn’t really sink in until you see friends go through the process or you yourself get a call inviting you to move to some far-flung place. To be sure, this can work out pretty well. I have friends who’ve ended up in Athens, Berlin, and L.A.–all fantastic places they would never have lived if academic work hadn’t led them there. But others are not so lucky. Academic jobs are extremely scarce, so most people apply to everything and go wherever they get an offer. I wasn’t immune to this reflex myself. Even though I knew I wanted to be in a city, I pursued many jobs in rural and suburban areas as a matter of course (though I confess two years ago I opted not to apply for one because the school was an hour and a half away from the nearest interstate). To people outside academia this might seem crazy, but within higher education it’s simply par for the course. Market forces and a culture that values the tenure-track above all else encourage most to take whatever they can get–family, friends, and competitive compensation be damned.
This situation leads to a lot of unhappy marriages. City people end up in the country, country people end up in the suburbs–and most find themselves far away from the places they know and the support systems they rely on. The effect this can have on people of all academic ranks is profound. Tenure-track professors at least theoretically commit to an institution for life, and the tight market means they might never get an opportunity to relocate once they’ve settled in. Contingent faculty face a different sort of dilemma. Their job may just be temporary, but if they can’t secure a new one before their contract ends, they may find themselves stranded in a place they hate without the money to move back to wherever they consider home.
But again, this is part of the deal that thousands of professors take every year in order to do what they love. The question I’m interested in today is what happens when people in these situations decide to move on. Most go into academic work expecting their love can sustain them through a life-long career, but academia’s costs often prove too high and its perks too meager. Those who find themselves in large metro areas and are happy with that location undoubtedly have it easiest: opportunities in cities tend to be plentiful and diverse, so a little hustle, ingenuity, and perseverance can lead to non-academic work fairly quickly. But what if you want to be somewhere else? Picking a place to move before you have a job is a terrifying prospect, and obviously carries risk. At the very least, those in or near cities can explore options and network locally to learn about new careers, even as they target opportunities in another area. But what if you’re in a small town and your employer is literally the only show in town? Informational interviews are great, but they can only work if there are people around to conduct them with! Being caught in this situation complicates the equation, and unfortunately seems to be a common outcome for many academics: while the sample size is admittedly small, a majority of people who have reached out to me about my earlier blog posts fall into this camp.
I’d suggest a crucial first step in this process–whether you’re a grad student, a tenured professor, or something in between–is to figure out where you think you want to be for the next few years. Maybe that’s with family, maybe it’s in a city, or maybe it’s in another small town. It doesn’t really matter. The important thing is to free yourself from the habit of thought that says “I don’t get to choose where I live.” This simple act will allow you to regain a sense of agency and help you appreciate that you do, in fact, have a some control over this particular problem. More importantly, doing this can help precipitate a realignment of your priorities and clarify your possible courses of action.
This was at least my experience when Mallory and I decided we wanted to stay in New Orleans. In a matter of weeks, our conversations went from “what jobs are available” to “how good would a job have to be for us to leave.” Soon we realized it wasn’t worth it for either of us to apply to any tenure-track jobs at all. This determination also helped limit the areas in which I could look for work. Sectors like management consulting that are a common off-ramp for academics in the north-east have little presence here owing to the city’s small size. Work in that area is still possible, but it’s much harder to come by. On the other hand, there are countless foundations and charitable organizations–many formed in the aftermath of Katrina–that are active throughout the region. High school teaching jobs for Latin are also plentiful owing to the large Catholic population, and work in college administration can be found at our five or so local colleges. And while we may be a small city, we’re still a city. That means there are LOTS of of government positions that are open to anybody who can meet minimum qualifications and pass a civil service exam. Is any of these things what I expected to do with my doctorate when I entered grad school in 2007? Of course not. But each one of them offers stimulating and meaningful work that supports the local community–the three big check-marks that led me to academia in the first place.
My point in relating all of this is that your ability to imagine what you might do outside of academia is going to depend on where you think you’re going to be when you make that change. Using location as a way to frame your thoughts can be a helpful way to get things started, and it can lead you to consider opportunities that you might otherwise have overlooked. But do keep in mind that your first choice in all of this might not be your last! If you find that there really isn’t anything for you do to in the place you want to be–no matter how much you love it–it might be necessary to look further afield.
Let me end with one final piece of advice, which is one that I think is also useful for those of you who are still seeking academic work. It’s high time people stop applying for jobs in places they aren’t willing to work or don’t think they’d have a reasonable chance of being happy. There’s very little to gain from putting yourself in that position, but quite a lot you could potentially lose.