Don’t Fall Into a Pit of Angst: Writers at the Academic Job Market Crossroads

You got that right. Britney Spears won’t take $2,987 per course anymore.

Last week I had a phone call from an old friend, someone I’ve known for more than ten years. We’d talked for over an hour, and after the obligatory inquiries about each other’s jobs, partners, and families, we got down to it: she’d been on the academic job market for the second time this past winter, and nothing much had come of it. By most writers’ standards, she’s lucky: she has two coveted adjunct positions in her city, a rich network of contacts from her publications and fellowships, and both the emotional and financial support of her partner. But after years of feeling like she was on a firm path, it seemed to have been grabbed out from under her – or at the very least, she wasn’t sure how to keep moving forward.

This is the story of countless arts graduates: even if we excel in the closed laboratory of our degree programs, even if we put our work into the world and are rewarded with publication and other recognition, even if we’re offered sponsorship for some amount of time, we’re likely to encounter a crossroads – which I’m tentatively calling the MFA Day Job Crossroads, so pertinent is it to the stories of writers on this site – where we’re faced with the perfect storm that is the recovering American economy, the administration-heavy state of university spending, the adjunct crisis, and the ever-growing glut of eligible young candidates for tenure-track positions. Often, the message that heavy weather has for us is that the job we’ve been preparing to do for years just isn’t available to us right now.

Different writers (and other artists, and humanities professionals – the ways in which professionals in other fields experience this crossroads is material for another post) experience this message differently. For someone like my other friend J., who attended a top-tier university for undergrad, who has her own alumni network and maybe that of her professional parents to lean on, and who worked for a little while in a white-collar field before starting her MFA, the message hits hard, but after a few phone calls and some soul searching, she has the beginnings of a plan B. She might, like so many writers featured on this site, create her own systems for continuing to write and publish while working outside of academia, or she might stop for a while.

For a writer like O., an immigrant and first-generation college student, the news might hit harder. Since his involvement with his local spoken-word scene, and, later, a creative writing class in college, he’s seen his talent with words as a potential way to achieve a middle-class existence and to help his parents have a better life. Getting into an MFA program only made that dream feel more like a reality. The news that academe isn’t a sure thing means he has to create his own alternative, perhaps from scratch – while still, if he wants to, privileging his writing. (Note: I’m making up these “friends,” though their circumstances are drawn from a composite of real ones.)

A quick scan of the Facebook statuses of recently graduated writers I know reflects a range of existential feelings: from dread and despair to hopefulness. Almost everyone has applied to the same fellowships and jobs, with mixed results; a few lucky folks have broken the tenure-track code, but most have not. Almost all continue to write, and report their publications and other triumphs; their fellow writers celebrate these joys more or less equally. But studies show that we tend to paint a more optimistic portrait of ourselves on social media than we really feel to be true – in private conversations, we admit to feeling doubtful about our future, dreading that our best and most creative years are behind us, hoping that our parents don’t ask us about our plans, hoping no one asks us for money.

Some critics might go back to condemning the MFA as a vanity degree, or criticize the programs themselves for not providing more guidance. But I think that there’s something else going on: as a nation of artists, we may be approaching the end of a sixty-some-year period during which the university was the surest source of steady employment for makers of art with variable or very little ready market value. As a consequence, the youngest of us (or newest to the field, whatever our ages) are at a crossroads between existential angst about the worth of our work and the will to redefine the terms of our success as professional artists. Which will we choose? Will we let a network of systems fail us, or will we find a way through them?

This isn’t an easy question, and it’s even disingenuous to pose it as an either-or question. Systems fail us every day despite our determination not to let them. But we can approach the messy composite answer to this question bit by bit. When I started my first job after getting an MFA, I thought of my new life as divided sharply into 9-5 “making a living” work and post-5 pm “life-making” work, i.e. writing. But a year and a half later, the boundaries have blurred in more ways than one: I write on the subway and on my lunch break, and even jot down ideas during slow moments when I’m on the clock, because I know I’ll have a better day and face my “making a living” responsibilities more cheerfully that way. And I’ve also realized that just because I have a day job doesn’t mean I have to take everything that’s thrown in my lap at face value: I’ve found little ways to learn tools that I think will serve me well professionally in the future, started projects that use skills I developed while working with other writers and students, and found ways to use language creatively as often as possible. I can’t say I’ve landed exactly where I want to be yet, but I’ve stopped thinking of my job as merely the hours when I’m not writing.

“The will to redefine the terms of our success” isn’t meant to be a woo-woo euphemism for patting ourselves on the back just for writing every day. No – it’s a call to all disappointed, academe-oriented writers to look the university square in the face. Make a list. Make a real, honest list of what you love about being in an academic environment: is it working with undergraduates? Is it one-on-one conversations with students, or presenting to a room full of people? Is it the challenge of providing detailed feedback on student work that allows the next steps in learning? Is it the relative flexibility of your working hours? Is it collaborating and exchanging ideas with colleagues? Is it the way reading texts closely with students influences your own writing? The side projects and committees you participate in with faculty from other departments?

If you’re like the many writers who entered an MFA program taking for granted that a life in academia would be compatible with and supportive of your writing life, or that teaching was something you would learn to love, use this list to take a good, hard look. Then take that list and put it in order: what’s your favorite part of what you do? What do you wish wasn’t such a big part of your week? (Grading papers, anyone?) Now, do the most difficult thing: take that ordered list and make some phone calls. Send some emails. Read in-touch, honest career websites like Ask a Manager and Evil HR Lady and The Billfold and other stuff you never thought you would have to read. Do all this to figure out one thing: where can you find the things you love most about being at a university in another job – one that might even pay more, and leave you more hours to write, than your adjunct gigs?

Even though it feels like things suck, this is an exciting moment for artists, particularly visual artists and writers – those of us whose work isn’t necessarily time-based or capital-intensive, who don’t require millions of dollars up front or months of rehearsal time to create something. As artists, we have always figured out our own standards for a good piece of work, for success in terms of the work itself. Now it’s time for us to make choices about the other parts of our careers: we can hedge our bets and enter an adjunct market for what should be the 5-10 most interesting, fertile years of our art-making lives, the years where we learn and grow the most and change direction if we want to. Or we can look at the odds, make our lists, and walk away.

Among writers, there’s a cultural trope of love-hate for the starving artist/ adjunct existence – we talk about creative writing pedagogy and the naïve but lovable things our students say, and in our way we love the fringes of the great universities on which we develop as teachers and draw our paychecks. But just because we’ve made the choice to be artists doesn’t mean that we have to take whatever the world gives us. In a world where nothing is what we, or our teachers, could have expected, we must be unsentimental. “Kill your darlings,” goes the old saw. This must apply to the careers that keep us afloat as well as to our writing.

Whether we like it or not, today’s academic job market will create a huge cohort of professional-quality writers and artists who cannot enter that market. In fifty years, this generation of artists could be remembered as the artists who created the 21st century “blended career” – not the New York Times bestsellers or the art market’s 1%, nor merely hobbyists, but rather people who found fulfilling ways to feed themselves while reminding the world that art is not a joke.

Now, whether you’ve been disappointed by the academic job market once or four times: delete that last rejection letter. Make your lists of what you love. And turn your life into something that you, not a department budget or a semester-long contract, control.

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Our Accomplished Contributors.

This week in the skillz and accomplishments of MFA Day Job featured writers and contributors:

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teethis out from St. Martin’s Press.

Sarah Scoles has a story up at The Adirondack Review.

Nick Ripatrazone’s essay on sentiment in fiction is a great read over at The Millions.

And Wendy Fox’s story collection won the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. (Her byline and mine also appear side-by-side in The Tusculum Review this spring.)

Not bad, you lot.

Whether Students are Treated Like People in College Has Shocking Effect On Their Lives Afterward

Harvard-University-Tour

When you applied to college, did you know what the f* you were doing? Not me. I thought I might like to live in New York, where my father grew up; I sent away (ah, I date myself) for Columbia’s fancy paper application. When my parents and I visited a few colleges, I liked the combed green of Swarthmore’s campus and the uncombed hair of the wiry tour guide. Eventually, I had a list of brand-name schools, plus the university where my father taught (I could go there for free) and a school in rural Pennsylvania which would offer me a full scholarship.

Of the fancy schools, I got into one. I went there, turning down full rides at my dad’s university (too close to home) and the rural PA school (too fratty, I told myself). My father allowed me to do this, believing that the connections I would make, not to mention the quality of the education and the overall experience, would be better at the private liberal arts school I attended.

But what does it mean to have a better college experience? Yesterday’s Purdue-Gallup poll of college graduates suggests that most of the things middle- and upper-class parents and kids believe matters about college (how hard it is to get into; public or private; its size) barely matter at all. What matters – and for those of you about to click away because this isn’t about MFAs, hang in there – is how good the student’s experience is. Continue reading

The Liberal Arts: Not Just STEM’s Rumspringa

image via Vice.com

image via Vice.com

“Liberal artists” and STEM folks, the “two cultures” of our day, have been paying more attention to each other lately. Undergraduate English majors are learning to code and medical professionals are forming novel-reading groups. In the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of reporting on the intersections between the L.A. and STEM. What are the two cultures saying about each other now? And, germane to this particular public square, what cultural attitudes do they belie about what writers, artists, and others slogging in the humanities actually do?

In the Wall Street Journal, a recent “At Work” column about liberal arts majors gravitating toward training programs like the App Academy begins with the line, “If a 10-year old can become an ace web programmer, why can’t a liberal arts graduate?” Ouch. Continue reading

Just How Bad Can a Life of Adjuncting Be? Pretty Bad.

My hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, covers this very sad story of an adjunct French professor who died without health insurance or retirement benefits, and who, despite her “professor” title, lived out her last years close to the poverty line and suffering from cancer.

Worst is the information that her employer, the Catholic-affiliated Duquesne University, declined to recognize its adjuncts’ vote to join the United Steelworkers Union, begging religious exemption — while Georgetown, another Catholic university, recognized its adjuncts’ unionization, citing Catholic values of social justice. This is particularly sad in Pittsburgh, an historically strong union city (and a very Catholic one).

If this woman had held an M.F.A. rather than a Ph.D. or M.A., would we read this story differently? Does a fine arts degree somehow make us feel more licensed to look for work outside the academy than scholars? It’s worth pointing out that if someone performs well for 25 years in the private sector, they’re likely to  move up in the ranks, earn more money, and see their quality of life improve. Young professors starting out in 1969, when 78% of faculty had a chance of getting tenure, could expect the same. Margaret Mary’s quality of life, in contrast, stagnated and then took a turn for the worse, and when she was already in her eighties, a time when most people might like to be sitting on their porches enjoying their grandchildren.

As we search for and work at jobs outside the academy, let’s not forget to advocate on behalf of the nearly 50% (or, by some counts, two thirds) of university teachers who work with no chance at tenure and benefits. (Not to mention, increasingly, in climates hostile to unionization).

I Shall Have to Sew it on For You, My Little Man: The Shadow Resume

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A confession: I’m about to move halfway across the country and I don’t yet have a job offer in my new state. This is something I promised myself I would never do: I was lucky enough, for the three years between college and graduate school, never to be un- (or under-) employed. If I moved somewhere new after my M.F.A., I vowed, I would do it because exciting work, an invigorating office culture, and health insurance wooed me there.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always been the kind of person who hates to procrastinate—I never pulled an all-nighter in high school or college, and I start thinking about work assignments weeks ahead of time. But despite my early efforts to ward off the unemployment reaper, I’m still pressing “send” on application after application.

And yet. I’m not freaking out. Partly because, I’m happy to say, my paranoia has encouraged me to keep a shadow resume current during my time in grad school. Over at Slate, Adam Kotsko writes about the benefits of the shadow (I’ll stick you on with soap!) resume for Ph.D. students—in a job market where it’s tougher than ever to land an academic job, and applying for a position with an unrelated advanced degree can be a liability, it’s essential to keep track of the work you’ve done outside the academy (or even work that counts in both courts). This can feel like living a double life, but we already know what that feels like, right?

When my summer writing students asked me a couple weeks ago “which was more useful, majoring in English or Creative Writing,” I sighed and wished there were a “the liberal arts are essential to living a good and curious life, but you might want to learn how to code, too” pill I could give each of them. Why can’t we have both? Superman had a secret, less airborne life as Clark Kent—you, too, can be an Excel expert by day and keep your long, flash-fiction-filled nights a secret from hiring managers everywhere.

Activist Writers: Chanel Dubofsky on Fiction and Privilege

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The evening the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced, I thought that somehow I could not pay attention to it. That’s white privilege, in case you needed an illustration. I can turn off my computer and go down the street or to sleep and not think about it, because for me, a white skinned Jewish girl, if I don’t think too hard about it, it can actually seem like it doesn’t matter. The spoiler is, of course, that I couldn’t not think about it. I couldn’t think about anything else, and for the first time in a long time, I felt the gross creeping of white guilt, something I try not to entertain because it’s so unproductive, so paralyzing, so indulgent. But there it was. The thing about privilege is that you cannot give it away. Not really. You can pretend you don’t have it, people do that all the time. You can step aside and make a space for someone else, but you always have your privilege, regardless of whether or not you want it. There’s nothing like it in the whole world.

Writing is the thing I count on when I can’t figure out how to maneuver through the world. I usually sort through sexism, racism and other disturbing daily social phenomenon with essays, but these days my job is actually to write fiction, seeing as I’m in an MFA program.  I’ve never felt like it was harder to justify making art.  For days, it felt like the most privileged, smug thing I could possibly do. I’d written a blog post shortly before the verdict came in, about my process of writing fiction (anxiety, caffeine, procrastination, frantic typing, delirious joy, exhaustion, anxiety…), and when I looked at it later, I knew I could not possibly post it. It was irrelevant. It was nothing. It was maybe even cruel.

I’ve been thinking about endings lately-the ones that are neat and tidy and satisfying, the ones that have been earned, as well as those that are vague and sloppy and ultimately realistic. Trayvon Martin did not deserve any kind of ending at the age of seventeen. There is no age at which he could deserve the ending that he got, and yet, while so many of us are shocked and bruised by the verdict, we also know that this is the reality of living in a racist country.

Being a progressive activist means understanding that people are complicated, that we all have multiple identities that we engage with to varying degrees. It’s not like it isn’t possible to be many things at once-writers know that, maybe better than anyone else. Sherwood Anderson wrote, “The whole glory of writing lies in the fact that it forces us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.” There are entire books to be written about how to responsibly write about people who are not us without exoticizing, or stereotyping, but for the sake of this piece, I’ll just say that writing, particularly fiction, is-or should be-an exercise in empathy and ethics. For that reason, and thousands of others, it’s important. It can keep us alive.

Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published in RH Reality Check, Cosmopolitan, The Frisky, The Billfold, Lilith and The Forward, among others. She is working on her MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

This Week, Kicking off a Writer-Activist Feature

Hi everyone.

This blog strives to serve as a place for writers with day jobs to reflect on the balance between the work that earns them their living and the work that sustains their humanity, and the happy intersections between those types of work, whether they happen frequently or rarely. For every working person, work is to some extent caught up with his or her humanity: feeling useful, using one’s talents and skills, and supporting oneself or one’s family are all ways we continue to feel alive, necessary.

But for writers, work and humanity are particularly inextricable from each other: in our best writing, our job is to be brutally honest about what it means to be human, even if that means acknowledging the most painful, contradictory aspects of human behavior. To me, this also means that writers have an extra responsibility to pay attention to injustice—as Muriel Rukeyser put it, “If you refuse,/ wishing to be invisible, you choose/ Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.”

With that in mind, and as the sole person running this blog, I can’t pretend to any policy of political neutrality. In the perplexing and disturbing wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal and in memory of Trayvon Martin and other victims like him, I feel compelled to return my attention to those writers—like Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich—whose day job was activism, and for whom writing and activism were in fact joined at the hip.

On this blog, I’ll feature activist writers, living or dead, starting this week—if you know of a living writer who would like to be interviewed, or if you’d like to recommend that I profile a famous writer-activist who’s no longer living, send their names my way.

Creative Writing and the Humanities of the Future


Just because MFA Day Job wants to highlight writers who work outside of academia doesn’t mean that the academy isn’t in our peripheral vision. A recent Harvard University report, as summarized by The Chronicle of Higher Education, weighs in on the declining numbers of humanities majors in universities, and what humanists might do to improve those numbers. Among the recommendations: don’t avoid conversations about employment with humanities students, and refocus classes on student skills rather than on getting through a falsely exhaustive canon of works. As a former undergraduate who would have been happy to major in 19th century novels and popcorn (both for their own sake), I’m still happy to see the report supporting the educational philosophy that made this website seem like a good idea:

The report rightly rejects the claim that the humanities are worth studying for their own sake, with no regard for vocational opportunities. It is indeed disconcerting when tenured faculty members, enjoying a job security found nowhere else in the work force, urge students, undergraduate or graduate, not to worry about finding employment. The point is not to turn humanities education into a vocational-training program but to recognize that the competencies acquired in the study of the humanities are transferable to a wide range of careers. Humanists should embrace that argument.

Continue reading

The Question of Placement

My own definition of placement is hard to state as a number and of little use except perhaps to others who teach young artists: How many of our students are still making art—and making it well and ideally to the notice of others—10 years out?

This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education is a couple of years old, but Elise Blackwell nicely sums up the quandary that I’m most interested in–how does an MFA program resolve its academic standing (which involves answering questions about placement rates of program graduates) with its status as a program for artists, people who might not measure their own success by academia’s metrics?