Sunday, 8 October 2017

Why I left academia, Part 2, or: Adjuncting might just kill your soul and/or career

Since the end of my graduate career, I had been applying for full-time tenure-track (Assistant professor) positions at schools in any town in which I thought my husband might agree to move. We both surf (or, at least we did before kids; I can barely claim this anymore), and aren’t particularly willing to give up the possibility of surfing, so this limits the options a lot. The other problem I found was that my undergraduate and graduate training were both interdisciplinary, so I didn’t fit well into traditional departmental boxes. For every application, I tried to re-cast myself as a Biologist by focusing on the biological aspects of my research (namely, coral bleaching and calcification mechanisms), or as a Geologist by not mentioning these things and focusing on my Geochemistry and Paleoclimate research, depending on the department to which I was applying. I apparently did a poor job of this, because beyond a few phone and Skype interviews, and hearing a few times that I’d made the “long short list” (i.e. a list of maybe 20-30 people narrowed down from the hundreds of applications), I failed to make it to the coveted on-campus interview (typically ~3 candidates at that stage). 
Hanging in our alley
So, upon returning to San Diego after my postdoc, with no tenure-track job offer in sight, I settled with adjuncting at USD (and later that year added another class at UCSD to augment my paltry income). We also moved into a particularly depressing living situation: we rented a studio built in a converted garage, which opened directly onto parking spaces in an alley way. It was relatively close to the beach, and I could walk with Ryder to the library and market – convenient, because we only had one car at the time which my husband typically took to work. But it was a particularly jarring step down from our 2-bedroom apartment in Australia that had a large balcony and overlooked the beach. I immediately realized I might have made a grave mistake returning to San Diego: land of horrendous traffic and now devoid of most of my friends, who had moved elsewhere after grad school.
My time adjuncting at USD was overall enjoyable; the students were excellent and kind, the colleagues I got to interact with were lovely, and the campus is incredibly beautiful. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have more time to devote to building more relationships with the faculty there. I often wonder if this would have made a difference – over the span of a few years, I officially applied for 3 advertised positions there, but I didn’t make it to the final interview. This irked me, because I thought that I was a great fit for the department - an interdisciplinary marine science group. 
But to make matters worse, when it came time to sort someone out to fill in for my colleague’s sabbatical at USD, I was not offered a full-time visiting fill-in position, as I had hoped/planned for. Instead, the administration offered that I could continue to adjunct. 
As an adjunct, I was paid the equivalent of minimum wage when the prep, grading, and office hours were taken into account. Though I had decently affordable childcare that I paid for hourly (a very rare situation!), I kept my son in care the absolute minimum amount of time I could get away with and still get my paid teaching work done, so that at the end of the month I would be able to contribute perhaps $100 to the family finances. My husband’s salary was small for the high cost of living in San Diego, and he was grant-funded, so that income could theoretically dry up at any moment. In September that year, we had decided to invest our savings and buy a (practically condemned) house to try to build eventual equity. With the house payments, and other expenses, our bills were not insignificant, and I was constantly stressed about money. 
Learning some practical skills
I had some colleagues who had made adjuncting work – but they either had a partner with a high-paying job and thus mainly adjuncted for the good of it, or they taught approximately 8 classes at 5 different schools and spent all of their time driving around the county to teach, while receiving no benefits at any of the jobs. These options didn’t do it for me, so I continued to look for other full-time jobs. The lack of reasonable pay as an adjunct was the major reason I wasn’t more involved at USD, and didn’t take the time to network there – potentially shattering my chances of landing an elusive tenure-track job there.
During that year, after returning to California, I started applying for any job I thought I might reasonably be able to perform and might theoretically enjoy. This included science writing jobs, science outreach jobs, science policy jobs, environmental consulting jobs, and probably other jobs I am forgetting. My time was limited, since I was mostly a stay-at-home mom, with short excursions to campus for my teaching and office hours and a bit of prep (plus a house to construct in the evenings). If my son didn’t nap well a particular day, my valuable work/job application time was shot. I started waking up at 5 am to quietly work in the dark before the boys got up, and try to eek more time out of the day. 
While I felt guilty about not having more time to devote to my colleagues at USD, and not having enough time to devote to putting together good job applications (I think I submitted an overly-honest one in which I fessed up to writing it at like 11 pm post-kid-bed-time-and-class-prep and knowing it sucked, but promising that I would be a great employee…*Newsflash* this did not sell well!), I was also exhausted and generally sucked at parenting as well. 
On my days home, I never wanted to take Ryder on big excursions that might mean I wouldn’t be home for my nap time work time, and I found that I wasn’t very creative or tolerant of the monotony of staying at home with my toddler. I didn’t have the energy or brain power to devote to ecstatic and thoughtful parenting, because I was constantly stressed about my career and jealous of my friends excelling in their careers that had not stalled, as well as super lonely. Sometimes I went to the park with Ryder and would see groups of mom-friends having a lovely time; then I would have to leave so I didn't break down sobbing weirdly.

Even when I did try and search books and the internet for clever ideas to create crafts or sensory activities for my son, they generally only entertained him for about 5 minutes and I’d be stuck wondering what to do with the other 8 hours until my husband came home. 
I admit that I was the mom at the playground pushing her son on a swing and responding to work emails on my phone with one hand, or simply reading the news or Facebook for some semblance of a connection to other adult humans. During this time of stressing about money, feeling like a failure at mothering and at teaching and job applications, I was also still trying to continue my academic research career in some form, because I thought that having gaps in my publishing timeline would make me less competitive for that elusive tenure-track job that I so desired. This meant continuing to pursue collaborations and funding, and to attempt to complete work and publish. 

But, of course it could be worse, right? I could have been adjuncting and turning tricks on the side to make ends meet?! Or I could have not had the privilege of having an education, and no outlook for a well-paying job. I shouldn't complain, really, but it's one of my favorite past-times.


  1. Have you thought about writing as a career, Jess?

    1. For a little bit! I even wrote a whole book...but it's still just sitting on my hard-drive after initial attempts at publication failed. :)

    2. ooh, did you look at self-publishing directly on amazon?