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From PhD to Life

Academia’s many worlds


I’m working on a piece for OCUFA about my reasons for not pursuing a tenure-track job. Reflecting on the topic — there’s much to unpack there! — eventually led me to think about how different people within academia actually inhabit their own unique spaces. Take a handful of tenured professors, even in the same or closely-allied disciplines, and you’ll find a handful of worlds represented. One may use her position to create community between scholars across departments, universities and countries. Another may see himself as bringing up the next generation of leaders and inculcating them in a long intellectual tradition. A third will place the highest value on contributing to practical, positive change in society by conducting rigorous empirical research. And a fourth will attempt to bridge the academic and wider worlds by writing op-eds and making media appearances. I’ll stop here, hoping my point is clear: Academia is not one thing.

Realizing these perhaps infinite possibilities within, yes, a fairly standard university/disciplinary framework changes my perspective on academia as a whole. This perspective shift also means that, given slightly different external circumstances and inner thoughts and feelings, I might well have actively pursued an academic career. It’s not that academia wasn’t for me, as I have said a great many times; rather, it wasn’t for who I was at the time when the option was open to me. (Really, the option to seek academic employment is still open to me.) Although I never directly condemned anyone for choosing a different path than I did, my own complaints about the system, all justifiable, were indirect jabs at my different-minded friends and colleagues. Now, I see that, and there’s no longer any conflict between supporting tenure seekers and being critical of structural issues. My friends in academia aren’t blind to realities or buying into a bad system. I never thought they were — not actively, anyway. They choose to make the best of a less than ideal situation, to do their work — their work — in an occasionally hostile environment. As do we all.

I won’t be on the market this fall for a postdoc, professorship, or adjunct position. If you are, I wish you the best of luck, and hope that, wherever you land and wherever you are now, you make the best of it for yourself, your family, and your community. And I leave it up to you to choose what that means for you. Cheers!

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Jillian / September 23, 2013 at 12:10

    I’m really enjoying all of your posts Jennifer! Really useful, informative and supportive.

    • Jennifer Polk / October 23, 2013 at 15:21

      Yay thanks for reading 🙂