In the final part of The Professor Is In, aptly titled “Leaving the Cult,” Karen Kelsky’s most powerful higher ed career advice arrives: “It is OK to quit.”
I remember the first time I read those words, because it produced a physical response in me: I squirmed. I tensed in my chair. I was two years into my hunt for a tenure-track teaching position and desperate for answers, but that was the last message I wanted to hear.
I have been around professors my whole life. My father was a philosophy professor in Houston in the 1980s and ’90s, and the people he brought home to dinner were hilarious, gifted and weird. In college I fell hard for a physics student who eventually became a professor. Now my husband, he went on to get tenure at seemingly record speed, at the same college where I taught for a decade for a fraction of what he made. That’s where I met my best friend, a respected communications professor on campus—also tenured. I enjoyed my students and being in the classroom, but by 2019, I was becoming breathless in my pursuit to gain full citizenship in the world that had been my home since I was born.
My hunt for that tenure-track position looked like those of so many adjuncts I’ve known and read about: trying hard, getting nowhere. Despite strong student evaluations, significant teaching experience and a decent record of publication, no one seemed interested. For the dozens of applications submitted, I hadn’t received a single callback. I tried not to take it personally. Writing professorships are famously competitive. As time went on, I cast my net wider and wider—applying to every kind of institution, from major research universities to community colleges, from 5/5 loads teaching basic composition to 2/3 loads teaching nothing but creative writing.
Persist, I told myself.
And I did. During that 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 on a regular basis in my field of narrative nonfiction. But then something happened in 2021: different national newspapers picked up two of my essays. One of those essays, a reflection on women’s safety while running, produced an overwhelming response. CNN called me for an interview, which I did live from my best friend’s office, because it looked a hell of a lot more professional than my adjunct one.
Still, as my writing gathered steam, my tenure-track possibilities only seemed to further shrivel. I spent even more hours tailoring applications for committees I never heard back from, and it never failed to sting. Reading The Professor Is In was helpful, as it broke me of the habit of being meek and overly descriptive in my cover letters. But much of the other advice I received—from well-meaning colleagues and my own research—remained contradictory. Wildly so.
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 adjunct. Early in my search, I was encouraged not to apply to community college positions because I’d “never produce a book,” only to learn later that plenty of community college professors produce award-winning academic titles each year.
My search for a tenure-track teaching position felt increasingly draconian and full of trapdoors. After a presentation, a male colleague from a separate institution once pulled me aside to remind me how important it was for me as a female academic to never use phrases like “I love,” “I believe” or—god forbid—“I think.”
One afternoon on campus I ran into a recently hired, not-yet-tenured faculty member. Naturally my own job search came up.
“Hang in there,” she said. “I know how hard it is.”
I was thankful 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 weren’t a part of the institution beforehand.”
I took a deep breath. At that point, I’d been teaching part-time for over a decade. My colleagues were my closest friends, but none of them had said it quite like that, right to my face. Kelsky’s words came roaring back. When the conversation ended, I found the nearest bathroom and threw up.
Then, of course, I went and taught class.
Jumping Off a Cliff
But that did turn out to be the moment I decided I could never teach part-time again. I finished out the semester and informed my chair I would not be returning. I canceled every tenure-track job alert I’d subscribed to over the years, which felt like jumping off a cliff. As much as I had cherished the higher ed world I grew up in, as much as I had enjoyed teaching, regardless of what my best friend and husband did for their careers, the tenure track was not my professional home.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that remote work has skyrocketed, allowing millions of Americans to access meaningful employment that is not place-bound. According to some data scientists, remote work will continue to grow through 2023, eventually making up about 25 percent of our economy. After giving myself a few months to regroup psychologically, unsure of where to begin, I started looking at remote writing positions on an online job board.
At first, it felt like a new low as I took my CV and whittled it into a single page résumé, slashing entire segments of my professional experience and only choosing the best and most recent publications. But then I was surprised by how straightforward and transparent the rest of the application process usually was. Most posted positions had no cover letter requirement. That drastically cut down on the amount of time it took me to apply for each job, and within two months, I’d submitted 20 applications to an array of full-time writing jobs that included podcast research, marketing positions, scriptwriting and journalism gigs.
The job board 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 a sustainable work-life balance. Even better: employees regularly rate organizations on the board I used, and now you can also review organizations as a candidate who goes through the interview process.
Compared to the nebulous world of academe, where I relied on hearsay about any particular department, it seemed the majority of organizations posting positions on the site had already agreed to a certain amount of transparency. How refreshing, I thought. Early in my search, that empowered me to only apply to places that had numerous positive reviews and were known for treating employees well (generally, four stars or above).
Almost automatically, I started receiving interview requests from potential employers. I was not surprised—I was astonished. After years of careful tailoring and clicking “submit,” and then hearing nothing back, I couldn’t believe I was garnering even a speck of interest. Yet the interest was genuine—in one situation, for whatever reason, the employer stopped receiving my replies from my email account but found another way to follow up with me.
That summer I gave three interviews, all relatively brief (20 minutes to an hour). For the first position, I didn’t end up getting the offer, but I made the final round. My astonishment started to recede. The second interviewer offered me occasional part-time work and a chance to prove myself. Hope set in. The final interview I gave was for a medical school. They were looking for a writer for their marketing department, but despite their top-ranked status, they seemed impressed that I showed up on time over Zoom and had done research on them.
This is the economy we find ourselves in: by and large, organizations are frantic for qualified, responsible employees—and that includes the bevy of new remote opportunities out there. At the end of the interview, they requested samples of my writing. I sent them that day and, one week later, received a full-time offer with a starting salary well above what they’d originally cited.
My astonishment returned in full force. In fact, it was so surreal that, right up until my start date, I was convinced they would call back just to say psych! (Remember that word? Psych! It lived at the base of my brain for weeks.) But they didn’t. I’m now a few months into my new job, and at least so far, the reviews on the job board have been accurate. I’ve been welcomed and treated with respect. I have reasonable deadlines, a supportive boss and work regularly within a leadership team. My meetings over Zoom are short and to the point. I’m expected to meet my deadlines and manage my own time, which I do from my home office now, where my dogs also hang out.
There are definitely days that I miss the hum of campus life, which only now seems to be returning in true form after the pandemic. I miss teaching and my students. I will never have the kind of job security my husband and best friend enjoy, nor the summers off. Yet paradoxically, in this new post-pandemic jobscape, I’ve found myself back in higher ed, doing work that is both absorbing and powerful. My job is to craft language that attracts the most diverse, brightest, kindest students to an institution that will help them become tomorrow’s leading doctors and scientists.
The reality is that right now, higher education is full of adjuncts who are the exact people all kinds of organizations are searching for: someone with an advanced degree, transferable skills and an ability to sustain positive professional relationships. That’s it. If you’ve got those, it’s extremely likely you’ve got what it takes to successfully move on, maybe without even relocating. This means that my story, while certainly privileged, is not some unicorn—it’s the horse in the field. So if you’ve recognized yourself here, if you’re at your wits’ end with your tenure-track job search, give yourself credit.
Then cut yourself loose.