The Altac Chronicles, Episode 2: Flexibility

Cross-posted from my blog Words Are My Game

…doubt can feel like an admission of error — and the stakes of such error can be too high to countenance. (Having spent ten years preparing for a career, for instance, experiencing doubt about the choice not only feels like failure, but like a failure so long-term that it raises the possibility that one can have wasted one’s life tout court.)

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Doubts”

My first post in this new…um…series…was a snapshot into how I was feeling when the news that we were officially moving to Texas sunk in. I had been thinking about this moment last weekend when I finally sat down and starting filling out job applications. I had been procrastinating on this, as you can imagine, but now that I have done one application things are moving.

This morning (April 3rd), after I chatted on Twitter for a while, I hopped in the shower, late as I was for work. Somehow, it occurred to me while in the shower that one of the big themes in yesterday’s post was flexibility, but I hadn’t really explored it. I focused on giving you a narrative picture of that day, but I didn’t delve into the issue–or should I say, the idea–of flexibility and alternative academic careers.

Here are my tweets from this morning:

The always-insightful Jo Van Every reminded me:

Now that I’ve had some time to think about this some more, I need to revise that part about “job security a la tenure track.” (Oh Twitter and your 140 characters…) It sounds like I’m saying that tenure track jobs offer job security, which is not what I was going for. I am aware that tenure track as path to job security is an illusion. Also, I’m not arguing here that altac means no job security whereas teaching or the tenure track is. What I was trying to work through was the stability of the idea of the tenure track that kept me focused throughout graduate school for so long. I was focused on getting a PhD because I believed that was the step before getting a teaching position, and so that goals kept me focused. When I decided to pursue alternative academic jobs, I didn’t have that one job/focus to keep me moving. Instead, now I have a career that can be comprised of different jobs.

That flexibility of jobs to choose from is one of the things that appealed to me about going the altac route. However, that flexibility can be scary, because flexibility could mean, like it does now, that you leave one job and go for another one that may not be in the same department or field or office or division. (I’m not saying this is unique to altac folks, but that this is the situation I find myself in at the moment.) However, the way I work around that is I’m trying to focus on jobs that are in areas I am interested in and that I am skilled for. Like Jo mentioned this morning:

The writing center is my professional home now, and the work I have done there has been emotionally and intellectually fulfilling. However, I know that, for better or for worse, I will not find another opening for Graduate Writing Specialist in Houston. I’m focusing on the things I liked about my job, the things I excelled at in my job, and the skills I developed at my job, and using that as my compass while I search.

The Altac Chronicles, Episode 1: Job (In)Security

Cross-posted from my blog, Words Are My Game:

Mid February, and Spring Training was days away.

He was in Houston, the day after the press conference that announced he was the new voice of the Astros. I went to work because, well, it’s what I do on Thursdays. It’s what I do Monday through Friday, actually. He didn’t know that I was getting increasingly anxious while he drove around Houston looking for a new apartment for our family to live in. I had revealed to my co-workers that he had gotten this unique, exciting opportunity, and that we would be moving to Houston. But when I was alone in my office my heart beat a little faster.

A lot happened in a matter of no time.

He would return that night, only to leave in the next few days for Florida to watch this new team try each other out before baseball season began. I don’t remember if he already had his Spring Training plane tickets, but it was around the corner and it was going to happen. I knew that this was that time of year when he had to leave. I’m used to that.

I’m never used to that.

There is a segment of the population that lives like this, with significant others who travel constantly for work. I’m sure any of them will say, you never get used to it. You tell yourself you are, but you’re not.

There’s always an adjustment period. Your sleep patterns change a little. Your routine changes a little. You have to remind yourself that your significant other won’t come home that night and so whatever dishes you left in the sink that morning are still sitting in the sink at night. You figure out what you’re going to do with the kids, if you have kids. You plan ahead to who is coming when and when you’ll go out with your friends. I can do it alone, I tell myself.

I can’t do it alone.

This time, though, I had to adjust to the thought that I wouldn’t seem him until after 90 days, that when I saw him again we would be in another zip code, months from now. I don’t know if he had to adjust to that idea, or to the fact that he will no longer call Kansas City home. Or that KCI will no longer be the end destination of his flights. Maybe he didn’t have enough time for that. Me, I started dealing with that the moment he asked me “what if I’m offered the job?”

This is not a post about regretting my answer to that question. (I said “we’ll go,” if you’re wondering.) I’m looking forward to the move, and I don’t regret my answer. This is a post about letting go. Letting go of a job and letting go of a city.

He was in Houston looking at apartments. I was jittery, in my office by myself. My anxiety medication wasn’t really helping, I felt. All of a sudden the flood of thoughts appeared from out of nowhere. Where am I going? What am I doing? How do I pick up and just go? I can’t. I can’t.

I have done this before. Leave one place for another. Leave one place because he had a job in another.  I know that some people judge women like me. This post isn’t about that. This post is about how someone who is as career-oriented as I am handles switching.

I did a PhD. I know what it’s like to commit to a career track.

You see, academia has always told us you go where the jobs are. Major League Baseball is like that. However, I decided that I was more comfortable being an alternative academic because I knew it gave me more flexibility, more options. I didn’t like the options the tenure track was offering me. (Or taunting me, your choice.)  But now, now that I leave a job that, frankly, I made mine, I feel the tug of that flexibility.

I broke down that morning. In the quiet of my office, a Thursday when no one was around and when we had no consultations scheduled, I broke down and cried. The anxiety of not knowing what my next step was crumpled inside that spot right in the center of my chest, and the tears came roaring upwards and outwards. I tried to be quiet, so I cried into my scarf. I texted him, barely seeing the letters on my iPhone’s screen. I didn’t know who else to talk to.

I texted him, asking him if he was around to talk. We couldn’t, not right then. He said he could call me later. I had a meeting in half an hour. I felt my chest starting to shake, tears coming up again. I eventually called my mom, the last person I wanted to talk to– I didn’t want her to worry.

She worries sometimes.

I talked through the feelings that were crumpling in my chest. I looked forward to moving to Houston, but I minded leaving my job and my friends, the things that made Kansas City a home for me. After years of frustration, of indecision, of anger, and of confusion, I was finally in much better shape, career-wise, and in a city I enjoy. I felt afraid of leaving that, of leaving that stable environment. I was afraid of going to Houston and starting from scratch. I was afraid of falling into depression again, the kind of depression that kept me wondering about what the heck I was doing with my life if my PhD doesn’t mean anything in the tenure track job market. (I blogged about that too.) I was afraid.

Nowadays I feel more comfortable with the idea, and I know that alternative academic careers are just that: careers. And careers are comprised of jobs. But I still won’t be entirely comfortable until I know where my career continues in Houston.


People frequently ask for recommendations of resources and background reading on graduate education reform and career paths for humanities scholars. Here are a few of the things I often suggest.

[This was originally posted at my personal site; please build on it!]

There are many other great resources out there, so please add to the list!