208: You Are Being Sold a Lie: How to Plan for a Career Outside Academia (Replay)

In this episode, Dra. Yvette discusses the topic of the adjunctification of academia as well as how and why it’s important to plan for a career outside academia. Believe it or not, you likely have had a professor who earns wages that are below the poverty line, relies on public assistance, and/or  struggles to meet their basic needs. If you are being trained to become a tenure-track professor, the grim reality is that there’s a good chance you won’t land a t-t job, not because you’re not competitive or qualified, but rather because there just aren’t enough jobs. Tune in to this episode to learn a few ways to keep your career options open as you navigate grad school.

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Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu
Hi everyone. This is Dra. Yvette coming to you with another solo podcast episode. Today's topic is on how to plan for a career outside academia. I've been debating whether or not to also call it you are being sold a lie, how to plan for a career outside academia. This subject, what I'm going to be covering today, which is talking a little bit more about academic career pathways, and the academic apprenticeship model of training you to become a tenure track professor, and the rise of adjuncts or what some call the adjunctification of academia, and unfair labor pricing practices that exists in colleges all over the country.

This is a grim episode, but it's also very real situation that's happening. I think it's important for my listeners, most of whom I know- y'all are young or early in your careers. You are an undergrad transitioning between undergrad and debating and going to grad school, or you're currently in grad school and trying to finish up. It's important for you to know what's going on. Now if what I say doesn't sound 100% clear, I'll just preface this episode by saying that I am right now recovering from a migraine.

There are days that I wake up -well, every day I wake up feeling sick just from my chronic illness. But there are days that I wake up and I've got a debilitating migraine so bad that I'm practically throwing up from the pain and the nausea. Light hurts, sound hurts, everything hurts. It's hard to get up and get ready. I take medication. I do all the things that have been recommended by doctors and specialists. And yet there are days that it just doesn't fully go away. This happens to be one of those days where my migraine is starting to go away, but it's still kind of lingering. It makes it hard sometimes to 100% be as articulate as I typically am.

I'm not always the most articulate just to say that, because I don't write scripts for my episodes. I like to speak off the cuff. That is my preferred style of podcasting. Sometimes I make a little bit more sense than others. But let's get started with the topic. You are being sold a lie. Why am I saying that? I think that that line, that phrase, some of us have heard it before and it applies across a lot of different things- whether it's something that you were taught growing up as a child. Like for me, when I was a child, I was taught that going to college was the solution to everything, was my way out of poverty. It would provide me with opportunities for advancement, and that that was what you did. You went to college, and then from there, you got a good job. Then from there, you bought your home and lived a happy life. You live happily ever after. That was what I was taught.

I didn't even know exactly what college was. I didn't know how to get in. But it was just this big, big dream. Then when I got to college, and I found out about undergraduate research, and I was admitted into one of the many pipeline programs to help folks go into academic careers, I was told that I would be a shoo in and get a tenure track job. And eventually, after seven years or so, write my book, advance, get tenure, have job security for the rest of my life and continue to study and teach and research- all the things that I love. That sounded really great.

Unfortunately, though, that was not the case, and continues to not be the case. Whereas perhaps at one point, you could have expected to get a tenure track job and receive tenure and advance in your career. That was the expectation after getting a PhD. Nowadays, that's not reflective of the job market. So what's going on? What has been going on for a while now- and now I wish I would have pulled up the stats about when this stuff started. I wouldn't be surprised if it was in the 90s and early 2000s that this got started. It's the rise of adjuncts, the rise of adjunct professors- contingent, part time professors. Now you could associate them as the gig employees of the university.

Currently, at least from 2020, it says that nearly- how many? Nearly 80% of faculty members were tenured or tenure track in 1969. I did pull up a number. This is from a study that was done in 2019, from an article that I found on the Atlantic that I'll make sure to include in my show notes. So 80% of faculty members were tenured or tenure track- this is in 1969. Then by 2019, three quarters of faculty are non tenured. This doesn't exactly say whether or not they're adjuncts, whether or not they're lecturers, or they're on the tenure track. But that's a lot of people that do not have job security. And I wouldn't be surprised if two thirds or three fourths of professors in 2021 are lecturers or adjunct professors or part time employees, and definitely not tenured.

So of those adjunct professors, what's going on with them? Generally speaking, adjunct professors make below the poverty line in terms of the money that they get paid for the work that they do. In another article from Inside Higher Ed, from a study that was done- let me pull it up. Give me a second. From the American Federation of Teachers- this was from 2020. An article written in 2020 was saying that nearly a third of adjuncts surveyed for this report that's cited in this Inside Higher Ed article- so nearly a third of adjuncts that they studied, that they surveyed, earn less than $25,000 a year. And that continues to be true. That's true among my friends, and my colleagues, and folks I know in my network who are adjunct professors. That is about what they make, and that's across the board, regardless of cost of living. Regardless of if you live in California, New York, or Ohio, Nevada, it's the same- which means that if you are making that much in a higher cost of living area, you're probably needing to rely on public assistance. That's nearly a third.

The other third makes less than $50,000 a year. Now $50,000 - and that's less. It may seem like a lot. But once you take out your benefits, taxes, and account for cost of living again, it's not much at all. Another thing that came up this morning- because I was planning on recording this episode, and then I got a little bit delayed because I didn't feel well. Then a friend of mine sent me an article that came out in the LA Times this morning- just perfect timing. I guess it was meant to be, because I was supposed to record it earlier and then I didn't. Then I waited and this article came up. So there's another article from the LA Times- and this one I'll just mention the title of it, because I know this individual who wrote the article. I don't know her personally. Hopefully I can have this person on the podcast.

But this article is by Diane Nevarez.. It says UC churns through a quarter of its lecturers a year: why I was forced to move on. This one just came out November 9th. By the time you listen to this podcast episode, you're gonna say, okay, it came out yesterday. You might want to read it if you're interested. Again, I'll put it in my show notes. So in this article, the author is referring to the circumstances that led to her leaving her position as a lecturer at UC- I believe it's UC Irvine. And then goes on to discuss the ways that the UC Union currently is fighting to represent thousands of lecturers across the UC system.

They're fighting for basic things - what should be basic rights. They're fighting for fair compensation. They're fighting for reasonable workloads. They're fighting for pathways for promotion for folks who are non tenured employees, non tenured professors, adjunct professors, lecturers at universities in the UC system. And there were two quotes that are hers that really kind of stayed with me that I want to share right now. One of them is her referring to lecturers and adjunct professors, and she says, "We stand on perpetually shaky ground, burdened by unpaid work, salaries too low to afford to live in the communities where we teach, and always wondering if we'll still have a job next year."

That could not be more telling of the situation and the circumstances that a lot of folks who get PhDs find themselves in. They think, I'm just going to adjunct for one year, so that I can be on the job market another year, so that I can eventually land that tenure track job. Then another year passes, and another year passes. Then all of a sudden, they realize, oh my goodness. I'm five years out, and I'm still making $25,000 a year. And when you think about all of the income that is lost- not just because of low wages and low salaries, but also because that means you haven't had opportunities to put money in your retirement accounts. If you think about- if you're someone who's young, the income that's lost from the moment that you've got your adjunct job to the moment that you might potentially retire- let's say it's age 65. And you do the math of the compound interest.

I'm saying this, because one of my friends recently did this, and did the math, because there was a cut to the match that's provided by her employer. So she did the math. And she's like, they think that is just an X percentage that they're cutting from us. But when you do the math and the compound interest, and we take into account that I'm in my 30s. By that time I'm in my 60s, if I continued to put in and save into her retirement accounts, she's losing close to $100,000. That's $100,000 that she'll never get back. That's the same thing that's true for any young professional.

If you think about all the time that you're potentially losing, all the money you're potentially losing, because you're in a position where you're not getting paid your worth. You're not getting paid equitable increases. You have no pathway for promotion. They just expect you to stay in one place forever. So you're making the same amount, which means that you're making less every year because you need to account for inflation and prices of everything going up. So you make the same, you're actually losing money. You're not getting paid equitable merit increases. That's if you have a salary job. Now if you're an adjunct professor, the circumstance might be as bad as you don't even know if you're going to have classes the following quarter, the following semester, the following term.

Some folks are employed on a quarter by quarter or semester by semester basis. Some folks are employed by multiple universities, not just one. So all of a sudden they're handling hundreds if not thousands of students that they're teaching each semester. And then those students going to them, telling them, I look up to you. You're the first POC that I've had. You're the first woman of color. You're the first Black woman. You're the first Latina. You're the first the first Muslim. Whatever it is, whatever those identities are that we just don't see enough in academia. They're going to you and seeing you as a role model, and wanting to be just like you.

Then behind closed doors, you can barely pay your bills. You can barely pay your rent. You commute a really long time. You're living with your parents. You're working multiple jobs. This is not what I want from my listeners, from my femtees, from my friends, from my community. I may not be saying that this as clearly as I hope, as I know that I could, because I'm not feeling that great. But I also think that this message is important, no matter how I say it, and that someone needs to tell you this. Because odds are, your professors are so overworked that they don't have the time to tell you about it. Odds are that if you're in programs that are preparing you to become a professor, they might not want to tell you this because they don't want to discourage you.

And right now I'm not- the conversation that I'm having right now is not to discourage you. It's to make you aware. The more you are informed, the better your decisions will be for your own long term career and life. So that's a situation that you're going to find yourself in. I don't anticipate it's going to get any better by the time that you graduate from your graduate program. It's important for you to know so that you can make an informed decision when you do graduate with your masters, with your PhD. And someone asks you, offers you the position of being an adjunct professor, of being a lecturer, of being a part time contingent employee of the university with little to no benefits. You want to think strategically if this is really going to be useful for you.

And if not, what are your other options? The other part of the title of today's episode is how to plan for a career outside academia. This is what I wish that we had had more classes on in grad school. I wish we had more of this in our professional development workshops, because everything that I was ever taught for professional development was how to apply to fellowships, how to publish, how to prepare a job talk. And everything was for an R1 tenure track position. How many of us actually got those jobs? Very few. How many of us are actually in tenure track or are tenured? Very, very few- only a small fraction of us. And there's nothing wrong with us. There's nothing wrong with you if you don't become a professor. It's a systemic issue.

I want to leave you with some suggestions for what you can do if you are pursuing a PhD, if you are still interested in applying to grad school, if you are trying to finish your dissertation, and you're thinking about this as- wow, this is such a grim reality. What am I supposed to do now? You can plan for having options. That's the best advice I can give you. And when you plan for options, it's completely up to you to decide whether or not to disclose this information to others in your program, and with whom you feel safe enough to disclose it. Because I'm going to be honest. Some people might treat you differently or might not support you to the best of their capacity if they find out that you no longer want to become a professor. It's unfortunate, but it happens and I want you to be aware of that. You get to decide whether or not you're going to pursue and prepare for other options and do it publicly, or do it kind of on your own and only sharing it within safe spaces or with people that you deem safe for you to share this information.

So what's one thing you can do to keep your options open? I think it's a good idea to set up a LinkedIn account. Why am I referring to LinkedIn? Because in the world outside of academia, there is a social networking site called LinkedIn where a lot of folks with jobs outside of higher ed to hang out. That's where a lot of folks who are recruiting for jobs outside of higher ed hang out to. So LinkedIn is a great place for networking. It's a great place for finding jobs. There are actually settings on LinkedIn for you to share whether or not you're open to work. Then they'll send you suggestions for the types of jobs that might be good for you, that are open for you to apply to.

There are settings where you can look up different companies and individuals at different companies and find out - so who has a similar background as me? Who went to the same undergrad as me? Who had a similar major as me and landed this job with this company, or at this nonprofit, or got this internship? I suggest kind of messing around a little bit more with LinkedIn, setting up your professional LinkedIn resume, and starting to connect with people. And it's not unusual, it's not strange to send connections with people that you're interested in their career path. It's also not unusual to reach out to folks who are in jobs that you're interested in and have a couple of informational interviews.

You can do this at any time on your own. You don't have to tell anybody about it. Nobody else needs to know. Now in the world of zoom, it's kind of nice that you can have these meetings with people all over the country. It doesn't have to be in person. And take notes, ask them, how did they land their position? How did they prepare for it? What kind of pivots did they make? What kind of skill sets did they gain? All of that will help you position yourself to become more competitive for the job market outside of academia.

The great thing about networking, too, is not just that you'll learn and gain really valuable advice from people. But then you're extending your network so that if they know that you are interested in jobs, if they remember you, they're gonna send you job ads, or they're gonna refer you to speak to someone else who might have an opening. It's just good to get in the practice of trying to network, getting out of your comfort zone, and reaching out to people. It doesn't hurt to ask for 15, 20, 30 minutes of their time for an informational interview.

I get them all the time. I would get them in my previous jobs too, people randomly reaching out to me to meet with me for an informational interview. And of course, I almost always say yes. If I say no, I reschedule. It's usually because of a conflict. Most people, especially if they're in positions that you're interested in and if they're doing work where they're helping others, I can't imagine them saying no. And if they do say no, then don't take it personally. Maybe something's going on for them, and this is not a good time. Try someone else. So the first suggestion when it comes to keeping your options - career options- open, and preparing or planning for a career outside academia is to set up a LinkedIn account and start to use that resource.

Another related suggestion is to join online communities. What do I mean by that? There are groups, there are Reddits, there are Facebook groups, all for people who have left higher education. There are groups for folks who have left Student Affairs, for folks who have left academia and professor jobs. And sometimes it can be a little bit triggering to be in some of these spaces, because folks have dealt with a lot of trauma and have dealt with a lot of toxicity, and perhaps even worse situations than you encountered. But I think it's worthwhile to be in these spaces, because a lot of times they share really valuable career advice, job application advice, job ads. There are folks in there who have transitioned out, who have a similar background as you. You can reach out to them you can connect.

In a similar vein as joining LinkedIn and networking, the same can be said about joining certain groups, whether it's via Facebook, whether it's via - I don't use Reddit. But whatever social media platform that you use- there's a lot of conversations going on Clubhouse. I'm new to it, but learning. There's also a lot going on on academic Twitter. I'm also new to it, and also learning. In fact, one of my former students is going to teach me a little bit more about how to get better at using Twitter. I'm so excited to meet with him. But yes. Just open yourself up to learning from others, connecting, using websites and apps that you previously probably didn't use, al with the intention of learning, and networking and community building. All of this is going to help you again, keep your options open.

Now, the third thing I want to recommend while you're still a student is to apply for jobs- if you have the capacity to do it, to apply for part time jobs that are out alt ac or higher ed adjacent Why do I say that? Because that's just another options. Just like learning about jobs outside of academia is another option, getting a job that's within academia, that's not necessarily a professor position, might be a good option for you. It might or might not. It really just depends. But it's good to gain that work experience. Why? Because you'll learn what it's like to be part of an office setting, to serve others, to do programming, curriculum development, public speaking, creating workshops. All of that is going to be really good professional work experience for you.

An extra kind of pro tip that I would offer you is if you are in one of those positions as an undergrad or as a grad student, and you have a supervisor who's in a position that maybe you might be interested in securing in the future, I would recommend advocating for yourself and specifically asking for professional development opportunities. You could potentially even ask your manager to get trained on things that they do. Maybe they are the ones that manage budgets, or they're supervising others, or they're the ones creating the curriculum. If you can ask them- once every term, having a session with them where it's a skill sharing session, and they're teaching you how they do something, or you can assist them and one of the many tasks that they work on, all with the effort of you learning this new skill. I don't see why not. If your manager is someone that is invested in you as an individual and cares about you and your own growth, professional growth, I don't see why they would say no.

Obviously, there might be boundaries. There might be somethings where they're like, I don't feel comfortable sharing this part of the job with you. But there's always a way to kind of reach a compromise for them to help you and teach you and train you. I know that's something that I would constantly offer the folks that I supervised in the past. I would ask them, if there's anything, anything you'd like to learn, anything you'd like to create, anything you'd like to develop, anything you want me to share, I was all ears open and willing to train them, to teach them. That way, that was another thing to add to their resume, to their CV for future jobs. Actually, one thing that we did do was we started to include grad students in the committee, like the review committees, and to interview students- all of that. So reviewing applications, interviewing folks, very, very good work experience for you if you can get that.

Now, another thing that I want to offer as a suggestion- and again, if you have the capacity to do this. This can happen both while you're a student or after you've graduated. Consider applying for internships and/or signing up for volunteer opportunities in your industry of interest. I say if you have the capacity, because it does take time, and because some of these opportunities are both paid and unpaid. If you ask to volunteer somewhere, the expectation is that you're providing your time to assist them and the compensation is not financial. The cmpensation is the experience of being there, helping them, and possibly learning a thing or two while you're there. Internships, sometimes they're paid. Sometimes they're unpaid. And even if they're paid, sometimes the hourly wage isn't that great. But again, you're there not necessarily for the money, but for the experience and for the skills and for the references, the connections that you're making with people there.

You might not have the capacity to do this. Maybe you can't take on an extra thing that's unpaid because you have bills to pay. But just know that this is an option. I have a friend who is current volunteering two hours a week at a nonprofit. It's two hours. It seems completely doable for her and her schedule. And it's going to provide her with really excellent experience to learn from the head of that nonprofit, how to run a nonprofit. So don't ever think that just because you're no longer a student, or just because you don't have the capacity to take on another kind of part time job or full time job that you can't do something else to prepare for jobs outside of academia. There are a ton of people who would be more than glad to have you on as a volunteer to teach you their skills and ways in exchange for you helping them with their work. In fact, I'm happy to take volunteers for Grad School Femtoring. I'll offer some femtoring in exchange for a skill sharing. So don't take that out off of your options. You can always volunteer or apply for internships.

Or create your own internship- go out and pitch yourself to someone. Say, hi, I'm interested in XY and Z. I know there might not be any openings right now. But I'm happy to be an intern in exchange for learning X, Y, and Z. I have heard of people doing that. In fact, I would help students do that, and create their own summer research internships. Reach out to professors, send a pitch, and then say, I'm not asking you for any money. In fact, my program is going to sponsor me, so you don't have to pay a single dime and I will help you with your research. Similarly, you can pitch yourself for a volunteer and internship opportunity. Again, it might not be paid, but you know it's going to be a finite period of time. It's only going to be a certain number of hours that you agree to doing it, and that you're gonna get something out of it- if it's that skill set, it's that connection, it's that reference from the person that you worked with.

The last thing I'm going to say in terms of how to prepare for a career outside of academia is to always, always, always- even if you're pretty set on becoming a researcher, full time researcher, and a tenure track professor, even if everything's looking great, you're getting all the fellowships, you're publishing, everything. You are just 100% committed to this. I just want you to no matter what, always keep your options open. Please, please, please think about this seriously, and think about me. Hopefully you have my voice in the back of your head. Keep your options open. You never know what will happen. No matter what happens, it's not your fault. The state of academic jobs is pretty grim. There aren't enough jobs for everyone. You could be amazing. And there's just one year you're on the job market, and there's no jobs for you, no jobs in your specialization. And that's just random. That can't even be predicted from time to time. So keep your options open.

Another thing I want to say is be okay with having your first job after undergrad or after grad school not be the perfect job for you. Sometimes we also get sold this other lie that we have to do what we love for a living, and that we have to do what we love and then it won't feel like a job. Trust me, no matter what, even if you do what you love, there are things, there are parts of it that will always feel like a job. But it's important to be okay with landing jobs that are stepping stone jobs. Maybe it's not the perfect job, but it's gonna help you in the way to get to the next job that's going to be better, that hopefully maybe close to your ideal kind of perfect job.

Let me give you an example of that. Maybe you are a recent PhD graduate and you didn't secure a tenure track job. You've been adjuncting, and you're thinking, debating on getting a full time job. But you know you really want to become a director or an assistant director of a program at a university, or of a nonprofit, or you want to become a CEO of your own company. You know you're there. Mentally you're there. You're like I got my PhD. What did I spend all this time and money for? It took me six, eight years to get this. Yes, you might feel like you're ready. But if you don't have the connections and the networks, you might not land that first perfect job. But maybe you can land that stepping stone job.

What is the stepping stone job? You can land a job as an advisor, as a coordinator, as an assistant director. What other jobs? I'm trying to think of job titles that are adjacent to the titles that I just mentioned right now. As someone who does community outreach, or someone who's helping with marketing, or someone who's helping with user experience. Maybe you land a job in ed tech, or maybe even your first job os an internship and you're an assistant. Maybe you're a virtual assistant or an assistant to someone who's starting a company. Don't kind of dismiss that. That is excellent, excellent learning experience.

Again, you have to measure what you can and can't accept when it comes to your salary. But if you've already been accustomed to making poverty line salary as a graduate student, and similar as an adjunct professor, most likely, a lot of jobs out there- including jobs actually like working in retail or working in the food industry- might make the same or possibly even more than what you're used to making. So I just want to kind of like put that out there. Have that information on your mind, that you might be getting trained for research position, you might be getting trained to become a tenured professor. And there's a good chance that it might not work out even if you do everything perfectly.

I don't think it's okay for you to not have someone tell you that it's okay to have other options, so that when the time comes, if you do have to consider them, you know what to do, and you feel a little bit more empowered. I know I do, because I know I can pivot at any point in time. I was able to take the courageous step of leaving my former position to do this, what I'm doing now. And if in a year, two years, three years, if this doesn't work out, I know that I can again, pivot. I can again land another job, because I'll just follow my own advice. It's in following my own advice that I've gotten this far, and that I continue to be able to provide for myself and my family in some way, shape or form. You know, I hope for the best for you and for your circumstances. I hope that you will kind of take my advice, take it to heart and always keep your options open. Thank you so much for listening, and I will talk to you all later.

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