In the last part of The teacher is insideAptly titled “Leaving the Cult,” Karen Kelsky’s most powerful career advice arrives: “It’s OK to quit.”
I remember the first time I read those words because it produced a physical reaction in me: I squirmed. I stiffened in my chair. I had been looking for a tenure-track teaching position for two years and was desperate for answers, but this was the last message I wanted to hear.
I have worked with teachers all my life. My dad was a philosophy professor in Houston in the 1980s and 1990s, and the people he brought home to dinner were hilarious, talented, and weird. In college, I fell in love with a physics student who eventually became a teacher. Now, my husband, he got tenure at seemingly record speed, at the same college I taught for a decade for a fraction of what he was making. It was there that I met my best friend, a well-respected on-campus communications professor and tenured professor. I enjoyed my students and being in class, but in 2019 I was becoming breathless in my quest to achieve full citizenship in the world that had been my home since birth.
My search for that tenure-track job was like that of so many assistants I’ve known and read about: trying hard, getting nowhere. Despite strong student reviews, significant teaching experience, and a decent publication record, no one seemed interested. For the dozens of applications submitted, I had not received a single reminder. I tried not to take it personally. Writing chairs are notoriously competitive. Over time, I have expanded my network ever wider, applying to all types of institutions, from major research universities to community colleges, from 5/5 loads teaching basic composition to 2 loads /3 only teaching creative writing.
PersistI said to myself.
And I did. During this time, a reputable university press published my first book. The reviews were positive. I gave author interviews, readings and conference presentations and continued to publish regularly in my field of narrative non-fiction. But something happened in 2021: different national newspapers picked up two of my essays. One such essay, a reflection on women’s safety while running, elicited an overwhelming response. CNN called me for an interview, which I did live from my best friend’s office, because it sounded much more professional than my assistant’s.
Yet as my writing grew, my possibilities for tenure only seemed to shrink further. I’ve spent even more hours designing nominations for committees I’ve never heard of, and it never failed to sting. While reading The teacher is inside was helpful, as it got me out of the habit of being soft and overly descriptive in my cover letters. But most of the other advice I’ve received — from well-meaning colleagues and from my own research — has remained contradictory. So savagely.
I was told to teach more to prove that I could handle a full-time load. Then I was told to teach less to avoid looking like a lifelong helper. Early in my research, I was encouraged not to apply for community college positions because I would never “produce a book”, only to learn later that many community college professors produce award-winning academic titles every year.
My search for a tenure-track teaching position seemed increasingly drastic and full of pitfalls. After a presentation, a male colleague from a separate institution once pulled me aside to remind me of how important it was for me as an academic never to use expressions such as “I like “, “I believe” or, God forbid, “I think.”
One afternoon on campus, I bumped into a newly hired and not yet tenured faculty member. Naturally, my own job search imposed itself.
“Hang on,” she said. “I know how difficult it is.”
I was grateful for her empathy, but then she said something else.
“You know,” she told me, “it’s only after you become full-time that you realize how much you were not part of the institution beforehand.
I took a deep breath. At that time, I had been teaching part-time for over a decade. My colleagues were my closest friends, but none of them said it quite like that, in front of me. Kelsky’s words came roaring back. At the end of the conversation, I found the nearest bathroom and threw up.
Then, of course, I went to teach.
jump off a cliff
But that turned out to be the moment I decided I could never teach part-time again. I finished the semester and informed my president that I would not be returning. I canceled every tenure-track job alert I had subscribed to over the years, which felt like I was jumping off a cliff. As much as I had cherished the world of higher education I grew up in, as much as I had enjoyed teaching, regardless of what my best friend and my husband had done for their careers, the path to tenure was not not my professional home.
A silver lining of the pandemic is that remote work has skyrocketed, giving millions of Americans access to meaningful employment that isn’t tied to location. According to some data scientists, remote work will continue to grow through 2023, eventually accounting for around 25% of our economy. After giving myself a few months to psychologically pull myself together, not knowing where to start, I started looking for remote writing positions on an online job board.
At first it felt like a new low as I took my resume and whittled it down to a single page, slashing entire segments of my work experience and choosing only the best and most recent posts. But then I was surprised by how simple and transparent the rest of the application process was. Most job postings did not require a cover letter. This drastically reduced the time it took me to apply for each job, and within two months I submitted 20 applications for a range of full-time writing jobs that included researching podcasts, marketing positions, screenwriting and journalism gigs. .
The job site also made it easy for users to set parameters in their search. For me, that meant filtering around basic boundaries that respected my years of experience, desired salary, and need for sustainable work-life balance. Even better: employees regularly rate organizations on the board I used, and now you can also rate organizations as a candidate going through the interview process.
Compared to the nebulous world of academia, where I relied on hearsay about a particular department, it seemed that the majority of organizations posting positions on the site had already agreed to some degree of transparency. How refreshing, I thought. Early in my search, this allowed me to only apply to places that had many positive reviews and were known to treat employees well (usually four stars or more).
Almost automatically, I started getting interview requests from potential employers. I wasn’t surprised, I was amazed. After years of careful adaptation and clicks on submit and then hearing nothing, I couldn’t believe I was getting even a little bit of interest. Still, the interest was real – in one situation, for some reason, the employer stopped receiving my replies from my email account, but found another way to track me.
That summer, I gave three interviews, all relatively short (20 minutes to an hour). For the first position, I didn’t end up getting the offer, but I made the final round. My amazement began to fade. The second interviewer offered me a casual part-time job and a chance to prove myself. Hope has settled. The last interview I gave was for medical school. They were looking for a copywriter for their marketing department, but despite their high profile status, they seemed impressed that I showed up on Zoom on time and researched them.
This is the economy we find ourselves in: overall, organizations are frantic for skilled and responsible employees, and that includes the slew of new remote opportunities. At the end of the interview, they asked for samples of my writings. I emailed them that day and a week later received a full-time offer with a starting salary well above what they originally quoted.
My astonishment returned in force. In fact, it was so surreal that, until my start date, I was convinced they’d call back just to say shrink! (Do you remember that word? Psycho! It lived at the base of my brain for weeks.) But they didn’t. I have now been in my new job for a few months, and at least so far the reviews on the job site have been accurate. I was welcomed and treated with respect. I have reasonable deadlines, a boss who supports me and I regularly work within a management team. My Zoom meetings are short and to the point. I’m expected to meet my deadlines and manage my time, which I now do from my home office, where my dogs also hang out.
There are definitely days when I miss the buzz of campus life, which doesn’t seem to return in its real form until after the pandemic. I miss teaching and my students. I will never have the kind of job security that my husband and best friend enjoy, nor the summer holidays. Yet, paradoxically, in this new post-pandemic work landscape, I found myself in higher education, doing work that was both absorbing and powerful. My job is to craft a language that attracts the most diverse, brightest, and kindest students to an institution that will help them become the best doctors and scientists of tomorrow.
The reality is that higher education today is full of assistants who are exactly the people all kinds of organizations are looking for: someone with an advanced degree, transferable skills and an ability to nurture positive professionals. That’s it. If you have, chances are you have what it takes to successfully move on, perhaps even without moving. This means that my story, although privileged, is not a unicorn, it is the horse in the meadow. So if you recognized yourself here, if you’re at your wit’s end with your tenure-track job search, give yourself some credit.
So let go.