Build Your Own Professional Utopia

Utopia by Felipe Vevancio under CC BY 2.0.

By Candace Cunard

Long before I wanted to be a professor, I assumed that my BA in English would lead me to a job teaching high school. As an undergrad, I fell hard for the academic study of English and saw grad school as a chance to continue this study, but I also knew that the work I most enjoyed happened in (or in proximity to) a classroom: tutoring in a campus writing center; teaching writing workshops; leading a regional writers’ meet-up group.

With my PhD very nearly under my belt, I still find teaching to be the most engaging and rewarding part of what I do, even when it’s far from my own area of study. But instead of noting that few academic jobs actually prioritize these things, I spent the last years of my PhD holding out hope for the few that seemed like they might.

The second-hardest lesson I’ve learned through my experience in the 2017–18 Connected Academics New York City Proseminar on Careers is that most of the jobs my PhD has explicitly trained me for would not mesh well with my own goals and priorities. The hardest lesson has been learning how to name and value my goals and priorities anyway.

Of course, a tenure-track job doesn’t preclude teaching—they all more or less require it, even celebrate it. But those tenure-track jobs that still exist seem to prioritize excellence in research, with teaching as a footnote. I’m sure many academics will insist that not all universities are like this, and I’m willing to admit that there may still exist small utopian pockets, where “teaching-centered university” isn’t a euphemism for a 4-4 load that makes a deep and meaningful focus on teaching a challenge to sustain. But approaching the market with this mindset puts a certain kind of job first and my own needs second. I am assured that there is room for my values in academia, but room I would have to carve out for myself against the grain of prevailing trends.

My first step in the process of putting my own needs first was to sit down and make a list of what I really want out of a future career—what I love about my current job as a graduate student and teacher, but also what I am lacking here and want to have in my next position. Only after I finished that list did I consider it in relation to the kinds of work I’d be expected to do in the various careers I’ve considered pursuing, from college professor to high school teacher to non-profit educator and administrator. I came across a second stumbling block at this point: I’d spent seven years learning how to be a professor, but I knew almost nothing about other careers in comparison. What would teaching at an independent school even look like?

To begin to answer this question, I reached out to friends and colleagues with experience in the independent school world. At the beginning of January, I shadowed a graduate of my PhD program who teaches at an independent high school. I spent a full day sitting in on classes ranging from ninth graders performing rhetorical analysis of Obama’s second inaugural address to eleventh graders in a combined US history and literature class bringing their close reading skills to bear on South Carolina’s articles of secession.

Throughout the day, I used my list of career goals and values to ask questions that would help me understand whether this job would be a good fit for me. For example, I am seeking a workplace that not only values the intellectual and emotional labor of teaching, but that supports teachers’ individual autonomy while encouraging collaboration and community. The teachers I asked about this issue all agreed that they felt they had both freedom to teach in their own way and support from the larger department or school community. While teachers could select their own texts and design their own assignments within reasonable parameters, I overheard plenty of conversations in which teachers working on different texts, or even different subjects, engaged in ongoing collaboration.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted, but buzzing with a sense of excitement, commitment, and purpose: here was a place and a set of people whose values matched my own.

As PhD students, we’re often trained not to prioritize our own desires, for fear that the academic market can’t meet them. But I’d encourage every PhD student to set aside some time to think seriously about what you have really enjoyed and valued about your graduate school experience, and what else you want from your future. It’s not easy, but knowing what you want and what you value is the first step in finding your own personal utopia—whether it’s inside the academy or not.

Candace Cunard is in her final year as a doctoral candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her dissertation explores how novelists describe and invoke lasting emotional experiences to imbue the rhythms of novel-reading with an ethical charge. In her current position as a core preceptor in Contemporary Civilization, Candace makes space for students to compare their assumptions about texts, traditions, and history against the nuanced, messy reality of the past. She views the humanities classroom as a laboratory for developing practices, thoughts, and desires that not only help students understand their place in a larger world, but encourage them to actively participate in shaping that world.