November 07, 2003

"Life After Academe"

But, by far, the best thing about my new job is that I can be myself. I no longer play the part of the perennial job seeker who, low on confidence, weighs how much a certain choice will help or hinder the search for employment.

I've begun to remember who I am -- not the various versions of myself that I presented to prospective employers, but the real me. I don't think I realized until this past year just how taxing the job market has been on me, and I warn even the most self-assured and resilient individuals to watch out for the toll it can take. The life I have found after academe is truly my own, and friends tell me that I have never looked better.

-- Emily Peters, "Back to High School"

After five demoralizing years on the academic job market, Emily Peters was offered a position "as a teacher and department chairwoman" at a private high school, "which meant a teaching load of three courses each semester, some administrative responsibilities, and a starting salary higher than many of my professorial friends." She accepted the job and now reports that she's never been happier. "Sure, there's life after high school," she writes, "but I'm here to tell you there's life after academe."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 7, 2003 10:05 PM

I wish I could go back to high school. I went to a small private high school and I miss it now that I am in college.

Posted by: Laura in DC at November 8, 2003 12:36 AM

Okay, I'm glad people write these sorts of articles, and I hope they make a difference, but a few things really gnaw at me.

- The tone of evangelical surprise. If people with advanced training in the humanities are supposed to be studying, and imparting, fundamental lessons about life, history, human nature, and the state of the world, why are so many of them shocked to find that there are worthwhile life experiences *other* than being a professional, full-time scholar on a college campus? That columns such as this one are still presented as minor revelations in the academic world's most widely circulated general news source suggests a depressing lack of imagination among our society's aspiring humanities scholars.

- "How could I live in a town with a Ponderosa?" Gosh, condescend much?

- Why must "Emily Peters" remain anonymous when she's essentially left the field? If she's feeling settled in her new gig, why does she feel the need to go back to the Chronicle and perform a victory dance that's only diminished by her sheepish anonymity? (And yes, I know, she discusses her academic job search, and someone who knows someone who knows someone might be able to recognize the doofuses at the Midwestern university she mentions...but is that so bad? Might academics not behave better--whether they're making hiring decisions or contemplating indulging in more of the blatantly unethical behavior that pervades academia--if there's a chance the larger world is keeping an eye on them, or if there's a chance that people they've wronged will storm off and write an unflattering column?)

On the other hand, three cheers for "Peters" for confronting one of the most difficult challenges of her life--and making the right decision. I hope her new life presents delightful surprises at every turn; she's very likely earned them.

Posted by: J.V.C. at November 8, 2003 12:46 AM

I've got a couple thoughts as I read this, other than this blog seems more like an addiction ...

First, one thing that amazed me about humanities PhDs is how interesting much of their research is. Not that it raises to the pull some other fields have for me (I've actually bought the "D"s in the ABD from the library when they went on sale), but some of it really is interesting. I've always wondered if there was anyway to get more of it out in public for other people to enjoy.

Second, in The Chronicle, it is obvious that many writers write for effect (the cheap shot about a town with a Ponderosa in it -- what, she couldn't take living in NYC or Los Angeles or Seattle?) without thought for what they are really saying. A triumph of momentary form over substance and the very thing that causes so many people to despise lawyers and academics.

Third, the narrowness of peoples lives. J.V.C. puts it well in remarking that the people in academia are often so shallow that they fail to recognize that there is valid and meaningful life in what they claim to be studying.

I think, of course, that much of that can be related to the fact that the writers are the modern form of a cloistered monk, and young, and that makes all the difference.

Posted by: Steve at November 8, 2003 07:17 AM

Nothing snobbish about shrinking at the sight of a Ponderosa on the horizon. I think I know the sort of town she has in mind - mid-size American settlement --think Bowling Green Ohio or Oneonta New York -- pretty far from a city, and decidedly depressing culturally. What's wrong with saying this? Like that guy in the other post saying he's going to a production of a Shakespeare play - other posters gave him hell for that, as if going to a play makes you a filthy elitist... You don't have to apologize for preferring a culturally rich place to a place where Ponderosas set the mood, or for preferring a Shakespeare play to COPS.

Posted by: manon at November 8, 2003 08:38 AM

I've wondered why more PhDs in the humanities don't consider teaching at elite private high schools. The quality of students is often quite high and the support and life-style can be very good compared to the life of an adjunct.

Just wondering.

Posted by: Ted at November 8, 2003 10:35 AM

Well, I've been saying that a BIG part of this whole thing is class, and the cognitive dissonance that comes when high-class humanities-PhD-type people are only making about $30,000/ year. An alternative way of looking at it is on the hoary "cleric / laity" axis -- the clerisy are not necessarily wealthier and more powerful than the laity -- in fact, usually much less so -- but just finer and wiser people.

When I encounter academic snobbery I dislike it a lot, especially when it comes from tenured burn-outs and their concubines or gigolos, but on the other hand i hate it worse spending time with people for whom TV is the main source of information and culture. I don't think people should bend over too far backwards in becoming democratic, etc. After all, we do have something that others don't.

Historically the anti-elitist schtick was pioneeered by new leftists like Tom Hayden (the second Mr. Jane Fonda, after some French guy and before Ted Turner) ca. 1962. It was especially directed against establishment Democrats, and was gleefully picked up by Republican no-nothings, for whom it was a cheap, easy point to score against liberals. But Republicans are competely happy to gloat about their wealth and exercise the power it gives them. It's only the educated, cultured elitists they despise.

In my case, I can effortlessly defuse the initial elitist charge by referencing my economic and employment history, but this gains me nothing, since to them I then just become an embittered, low-rent loser.

A lot of the problem does come, IMHO, from the attempt of various cultural warriors to use the university as a base of operations. University politics hasn't made many inroads outside the university enclaves, and a lot of it is easy to poke fun at (or get mad at).

I understand that rejected cultural minorities often are a powerful progressive element, etc., etc., but not all of them do (there are lots of minorities more or less by definition, otherwise they'd be majorities), and I have grave doubts about the academic left.

Posted by: zizka at November 8, 2003 10:58 AM

After years of fruitless tenure track job searching, I got a job at a private girls school. It is the best academic environment I have ever worked in. My department is incredible, my new classroom which I move into in January will be completely wired with smart boards etc., the school is 25 percent minority and 20 percent of students receive financial aid. My only complaint is I am finding it very hard to continue my research (despite my school's encouragement) because I lack access to a good library and the high school ILL system sucks. Thank god for JSTOR, who have begun reaching out to HS. I'll just say this to finish off, I learned more history in my first year then I did in 10 years of my PhD. program.

Posted by: David Salmanson at November 8, 2003 11:38 AM

The private high school option has always presented itself as a (potentially) appealing one. The difficulty, though, is that what to many (including me) seems to be at once an attractive and available career option turns out to be as closed, if not in some cases even more closed, than the traditional tenure track route.

I would love to hear about the experiences of posters #3 and #7, because I and many of my friends who have sought to go this route have been effectively blocked. My understanding is that much of the private school hiring in the US is handled by two head hunting firms in NYC, but it has also been explained to me that they tend to take a pass on Ph.D.'s. The reasons vary: institutional politics, general prejudice, over-qualification/credentialing which, given institutional structures, would require a different pay scale, etc., etc., etc.

Posted by: Chris at November 8, 2003 12:54 PM

When reading:

"I've wondered why more PhDs in the humanities don't consider teaching at elite private high schools." ... Posted by Ted at November 8, 2003 10:35 AM

I remembered a column in the Wall Street Journal about twenty years ago that pointed out that the high school teachers near Brynn Mawr made more than the profs did. I found it fascinating that high school paid better.

Even more so, when I was doing a survey of what happens to graduates of the bottom 50% of law schools (tier 3 and 4) when I found out that teaching high school pays better than more than more than half of the starting jobs in law.

Private High Schools have disciplined students anxious to learn and to prepare, School of Rock aside. I've a friend teaching at one now.

My only question is whether there are enough of them to absorb all of the potential academics.

Posted by: Steve at November 8, 2003 01:42 PM

And my only question would be whether the many Ph.D.'s in the humanities who've been reading, studying, and writing only the most obscure, barbarously phrased theory would be able/willing to impart the actual knowledge that good secondary schools will demand. ...Otherwise, I'd have to say that from my perspective as a tenured professor I would not want the hours (classroom, office, social) that I suspect a private school (or private college for that matter - I teach at an urban university) would ask of me.

Posted by: manon at November 8, 2003 05:22 PM

What an encouraging article (and subsequent discussion here - thanks IA)! I'll definitely have a looksy around the internet, and wherever else, to see what I can find about PhDs teaching at private high schools. Anyone know of a good starting place, perchance?

Also, I'm curious if anyone knows whether private high schools consider hiring ABDs (or those with only MA/MS degrees) and, if so, whether the pay is significantly lower than for one possessing a PhD? (Or put more bluntly, "Should I finish my dissertation or not?!" ;-)

Thanks again IA et al - this has indeed been an encouragement to hear!

Posted by: Random_History_Grad_Student at November 9, 2003 01:16 AM

One reason why PhD's might not take high school jobs at private schools comes down to money. Many schools offer much less than 30 grand per year. Many independent schools might not want to pay a new teacher with a doctorate much money. Benefits can be terrible, too.

In post 6, zizka reminds me of a common academic problem - the dreaded tenure burn-out with the gigolos. I hate when they flash their cash and multiple partners by ordering cases of Moet and caviar at conferences, then jump in their Hummer limos to the after-party of yet another Vin Diesel movie opening.

Posted by: better left nameless at November 9, 2003 07:34 AM

People laugh at the gigolo problem until it hits them personally. People can be so hard-hearted.

Random History GS -- DON'T get your PhD. Many schools feel obligated to pay PhD's more, and for that reason won't hire them at all. Catch-22. When someone steps down like that and is overqualified, the employer often doubts that they'll be happy.

I'm pretty sure I'm right, but get a second opinion -- maybe someone else will pitch in.

Posted by: zizka at November 9, 2003 10:41 AM

Random History GS,

I don't have the answer. I do personally know a couple of people with MAs who teach at private high schools. But they were hired 5-6 years ago. With the surplus of PhDs now circulating outside the academy, the high schools may be able to demand more (the logic of credentialling). On the other hand, maybe they don't want more, or at least, want less of one thing and more of another: perhaps an MA with teaching experience is what they're after. I also recently met a history PhD (just for the record: got her degree from a very elite school, had a famed advisor, etc etc) who finally gave up on the academic job market and took a job at an elite high school. Could she have landed that job without the PhD? I have no idea.

In other words, it's worth doing some research.

On the question of whether or not to finish the dissertation...well, since you asked, I would say that, among other things, it depends on where you are in the process. If you've just finished your coursework/comps and haven't yet started on the dissertation and are already looking for an exit, then you might want to think seriously about moving on. On the other hand, if you're close to finishing (say, within the next year), why not complete the degree? It's a tough call. I know people who abandoned the PhD after spending what they now regret as too many years in grad school refusing to read the writing on the wall. They wish they had known when to cut their losses. On the other hand, I also know people who decided an academic job wasn't what they wanted, or (more commonly) realized that the job prospects in their own specialties were utterly dismal and that they needed to start looking for other options, but who don't regret finishing the PhD -- in these cases, they made the decision to leave the academy when they were well advanced in the dissertation stage, and figured it was worth it in the long run to complete the degree.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 9, 2003 11:05 AM

I have a hunch that just as community colleges are increasingly willing to hire PhDs (in part since they're available, why not?), the same dynamic will be taking place in better private schools. With tuition that can be higher than $10,000 a year, hiring PhDs may provide them with a measure of prestige that can serve as a competitive advantage as they compete for students.

Posted by: CCProf at November 9, 2003 06:50 PM

Ted, in my case it is because teaching was the least enjoyable aspect of being an academic. Teaching in a high school setting, too, would seem to exaggerate all the aspects I found most frustrating, anyway -- such as students attending the class simply because they were required to, rather than because they were truly interested in the subject.

Regarding the Chronicle article, I find it somewhat amusing that the author assumes that leaving academia is in itself a way to avoid having to cast and recast yourself in order to find employment. Try being a temp sometime, or explaining to a potential employer why you have all these skills and credentials but absolutely no experience. The number of "hats" I've worn in order to try to market myself just keeps growing -- and so far none of them are ones I want to wear long term.

Posted by: Rana at November 10, 2003 01:26 AM

Here's my question: why are we encouraging PhDs to teach at private high schools? What about our nation's public schools? I'm a BIG fan of public schools and find it rather depressing to see this emphasis on private schools. Is everyone buying into the idea that private schools are better? That the students are better? That the teachers are better? Call me crazy but I disagree. I also find it worrisome and sad that so many academics (who are, I presume, more often on the left than the right) buy into the idea that private schools are naturally better and that our public schools should not have PhDs. Private schools actually may pay LESS than many public schools; additionally (and I realize this may be a stretch because of the finanicial aspect) but: inner-city and rural public schools REALLY need good teachers---teachers who can inspire students and encourage them to achieve at a high standard. Why not do a Teach for America thing for PhDs?

Posted by: Hana at November 10, 2003 10:15 AM

Hana -

The resistance will come from most public school districts more than desperate ABDs.

Most public school systems do not want to pay PhD's high salaries, and (rightfully, I think) union leaders probably wouldn't be keen on allowing people with doctorates in the humanities and no secondary experience to be paid the same as newly-certified people with BAs. my mother, a former special education teacher in k-6 schools, had a pay hike once she received her MA and took courses above it. by bringing in PhD's and offering them beginning salaries, you open the door to undermining the salaries of other teachers by sapping the dollar value of higher degrees. maybe in the inner cities this doesn't matter, considering the shortages, but it will matter outside of them.

another practical problem lies in certification. there is a lot of retraining involved, and it can take over a year to do it. can ABDs and newly-minted and unemployed PhD's afford yet another year of low (or no) salaries and perhaps more student loan debt?

i think you are onto a good idea, hana, but it isn't just the proles without job prospects that will need to adjust.

Posted by: better left nameless at November 10, 2003 11:38 AM


The main reason people are talking about private schools is that a teaching certificate is not required as it is in many/most public school districts.

Posted by: Ted at November 10, 2003 11:47 AM

Better Left Nameless: Yes, there is the credentialing aspect of this but from what I have been reading it seems as tho' there is a a slight shift away from this (more and more school districts are saying that their ideal is to hire someone with a concentration in a specific area as opposed to Education majors). So, I agree it will probably be very difficult but I think in some school districts (those in desparate need of teachers and those like Westchester schools etc.) which may be more open-minded abt hiring PhDs.

I went to high school in the early 1980s---I went to a public school (which was very racially mixed etc.). We actually had several PhDs (altho' I'll point out they weren't always the best or the most challenging teachers---don't why but it's true!). My school (which many whites were afraid to attend) offered Latin (not offered at a single private school in the area) as well as German, French, Italian, Spanish and Hebrew (most of the white kids were Jewish and there was a teacher who could and did teach Hebrew). My school also had tons of AP classes (not offered at the time in many private schools) and it routinely sent kids to great colleges. I guess this is why I find this emphasis on private schools very troubling. These schools do not necessarily provide a better education (some provide an inferior one, I'd say).

So, while I understand the credentialing aspect can block PhDs and while I understand that funding issues may also prevent some schools from hiring (more expensive) PhDs, I don't think this is true across the board. In view of the fact that the private school game is controlled by specific hiring organizations and can be very tightly controlled (I have some friends who have managed to break into this but I also know others who can't get past these gatekeepers), why not explore public schools as well?

Posted by: Hana at November 10, 2003 12:11 PM


I am actually in the middle of this process right now. I have two Master's degrees (one in Education), yet I have more than once come up against a brick wall re the public school credentialing/certification atmosphere.

While in a far northern blizzard prone US state I was told that my degrees were not "good enough", and that I would have to re-do them to qualify for teaching. (My first two "not good enough" degrees are from a highly competitive big-10 research inst.).

Now, finally back in my home state after 12 years, I have found that some states (including this one) are slowly approving "alternative certification programs" for those with applicable experience.

So, the path is widening into the public schools - but there is no welcome committee waiting with outstretched arms.

Sure, public school high school Biology teachers don't make a fortune - but $35K to start is much more than I am making as an adjunct.

Posted by: Ellie at November 10, 2003 12:53 PM

To the poster who asked me to relate my experiences in how I got a job at a private school:

My job was advertised in the local paper. They went through three rounds of Carney Sandoz people before they got to me. Another friend of mine, ABD in English, got a job at the same school through Carney Sandoz.

My starting pay was 32,000 with TIA-CREFF 5 percent match after the first year (goes up to 10 when I hit a certain age), really good health benefits, dental, and a tuition waver.

In Philly, there is no alternative cert program and quite frankly, I was done with school and had no desire to take more courses. Plus, because of the union contract, no school district would touch me anyway. The MA plus twenty scam is alive and well.

Do not go into high school teaching if you do not like teaching, this may seem obvious but you would be surprised how many folks miss the point. Yes the hours are long and they expect a lot of you but I am given tremendous freedom to choose my textbooks, teach how I want etc. (Manon, what do you do with your time?)

More later, gotta go teach.

Posted by: David Salamanson at November 11, 2003 10:54 AM

Got 10 minutes before my next class and I'll use them on how to land the job.

1. Make sure your essay or cover letter talks about how much you love teaching, use examples.

2. Mention that one of the aspects you find rewarding about teaching is building relationships with students that allows you to see them grow over time. (in other words you don't like "one and done"s)

3. Do not talk about your research.

4. Realize that no matter how many teaching awards you won, you still probably do not know all that much about teaching. Be willing to admit this and indicate that you want to learn from peers and respect their experience.

5. When they ask you "What do you think the biggest difference will be" the answer is "providing structure."

Better Upper Schools sometimes advertise on H-Net. If you are geographically bound, write department chairs directly. It is generally easier to get a middle school job first but that is radically different. Upper School was a shock but there is no way I could have done middle school.

Consider moving somewhere with a well-developed private school tradition and low cost of living. Philly, for example, has a low cost of living and lots of "independent schools" (the rhetoric is important.) NY has lots of private schools, but the higher pay does not cover the much higher cost of living.

One correction, Philly does have accelerated cert program but NOT for humanities. They are only hiring in math and science.

Posted by: David Salmanson at November 11, 2003 12:26 PM

David S.
Thanks very much for this. Very useful.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 11, 2003 12:52 PM


Family experience would push me strongly towards private schools. I both come from and married into education families: mother, both inlaws, wife, sister-in-law have all taught in K-12, as well as an aunt, two uncles, and multiple cousins. Five of the six from the older generation are "career" teachers with 20+ years of experience. The only ones who work in the public schools and are not counting minutes until retirement are the ones teaching at bush schools in Alaskan backcountry villages. In my state things are particularly bad, due to "teacher accountability" laws that punish public-school teachers who choose to work in low-performing schools. Those who have worked in charter schools (as close as any of us come to private) have been contrastingly happy there.

Posted by: ABD Instructor at November 11, 2003 05:02 PM