THE BLOG
01/28/2014 10:38 am ET | Updated Mar 30, 2014

How I Escaped From Academia (and How You Can Too)

I still remember my first interview for a non-academic job about 10 years ago, shortly after receiving my PhD in American and Jewish literature. "Don't you want to teach? You seem rather overqualified for this position," said the interviewer at a Jewish nonprofit in New York. "Well, I'm proud of the work that I've done, but I'm looking for something outside the academic world," I responded. Ok, truth be told, I was lying. I was broke and I needed the nonprofit job, but as a newly-minted PhD, I was still in search of the holy grail: a tenure-track teaching gig. In my mind, this other job would just be a holdover until my "real career" began. After all, I didn't spend all those years reading obscure articles and studying literary theory just to give up right away.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I didn't get the job. Or any other non-academic job for that matter as my PhD seemed to work against me at every turn. Then luck (or so I thought) struck: two classes adjuncting at Hunter College. Sure, the pay was terrible, but it would look great on my c.v. and with a book under contract, I was convinced that a full-time gig couldn't be far off. Unfortunately, financially speaking, adjuncting wasn't cutting it either. I became an SAT tutor and a licensed New York City tour guide. I even cater waitered. All without health insurance, just scraping by in the Big Apple.

My story might have ended there like that of James D. Hoff. Indeed, there have been many articles rightly bemoaning the difficulties of PhD graduates in finding full-time tenure-track appointments, but I feel that I'm one of the lucky ones, not because I got an academic job, but because I got out of the higher ed "rat race" altogether. I found inventive and meaningful ways to put my PhD to work and not only earn a living, but thrive.

After a couple of years in New York struggling to pay rent, I got a call from Philadelphia Theatre Company, which was looking for a new literary manager. Having interned with the company before grad school, I had stayed friendly with my boss and just as I was at my wit's end, here was a job (and with benefits too!) I still hadn't given up the dream of teaching full time and as part of my job negotiation with the theater company, I arranged to take two afternoons off a week to adjunct. At the same time, a new world had suddenly opened up to me. Having spent five years studying American drama (among other subjects), here I was getting to create new American theater alongside some of U.S.'s greatest playwrights including Terrence McNally and Chris Durang. I was interviewing folks like David Henry Hwang, Lynn Nottage, and William Finn whose work inspired and moved me. Screw writing papers about playwrights, I was working alongside them.

And yet, I still felt something like a failure. One grad advisor said to me, "Well, if you really want to be a professor, you'll apply to every single job out there, no matter where it is. You'll do a couple of years at some third-rate school in the boonies and then move on to a better gig." Except that isn't the way things work anymore. Today, there are so few jobs, you're lucky to get a tenure position at Third-Rate State U., and if you do, there's no guarantee you'll ever leave. I had no desire to teach in rural Alabama or nowhere Indiana; I wanted to live in a big city and have a life, even if that life meant I wouldn't be in academia.

I stayed with the theater company for three years, all while teaching, and while things were good, I decided I needed a new challenge. I found it at the Gershman Y, Philadelphia's JCC where I became the director of arts and culture. Having focused on Jewish literature and culture in grad school, this job seemed tailor-made for me, enabling me to use my academic knowledge to create exciting Jewish cultural programs. I got to engage with musicians, artists and writers, and curate programs that touched people everyday, not just those in the "ivory tower" where bickering and linguistic showboating seemed to be the order of the day.

Oddly enough, when I would run into academic colleagues and tell them about my newfound career, they almost all, to my amazement, expressed jealousy. "What you're doing sounds so interesting," and "I hate the politics of academia," they bemoaned. Suddenly I was the one with the plum job. Several years went by and despite enjoying teaching, the JCC made me a financial offer that allowed me to give up teaching for good. Still, I was able to keep a foot in academia: I was invited to join a Jewish studies research group and, on the side, I finished a manuscript for a new book on musical theater (being published this month). Rather than having the pressure of tenure hanging over my head, I was able to write for the sheer pleasure.

Today, I'm still working in the Jewish world, developing programs where I actually feel that I'm making a difference (rather than giving papers at conferences to audiences of 5 people, which I've done). Sure, I don't get to say that I lead the "glamorous" life of a college professor, but last I checked, such lives don't really exist anymore. Oh, and one more thing, while I'm not about to retire anytime soon, I can say that what I've earned in the nonprofit world is definitely on par with if not more than what the average tenure-track assistant professor makes. Not bad in my book.

So, if you're reading this and feeling trapped and want to know how to get out of academia yourself, here are some tips:

1) Let go of any guilt or remorse (either self-imposed or inflicted by others) about leaving academia. There's a big world out there and there are more options than teaching.
2) Look at what you're working on academically and ask yourself, "Are there ways to translate this to other fields?" From historical organizations to foundations to arts nonprofits, there are many places where a PhD background in the humanities could be useful. You may have to work a bit harder for that first gig which could mean volunteering for an organization in your desired field or, depending on your age, even interning.
3) You don't have to leave the academic world forever. If you like to teach, many jobs nowadays have some flexibility to them and it's not out of the question for you to adjunct on the side as part of your full-time gig. Ditto for writing. Sure, it's hard without the support of an institution, but it's doable. (Actually, a perk of teaching even one class a semester is the library privileges you get.)

The academic market isn't going to get better anytime soon, so if you're fed up with being an adjunct, it's probably time to read the writing on the wall and start planning your exit strategy today.