Classroom or Cube?

"Cubicles" by Timmy_L under CC BY 2.0.

By Martha M. Houle

I hesitated for ages before leaving my tenured faculty position, because I knew the alternative would probably be showing up at an office, Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. And, sure enough, when I did leave, the transition was rough.

I remember saying to a (smart and sympathetic) peer at the end of my first day at a postacademic job: “What? It’s 5:00 and I have to be back here tomorrow at 9:00? And the day after that, and the day after that? I don’t know if I like this. . . . ” It was funny in a reality-is-too-strange and that’s-why-they-call-it-work kind of way. I was thankful that she laughed too.

I soon learned that an even bigger challenge would be to work with people. I mean really work with people.

As a faculty member in the humanities, you collaborate to design a program; discuss, recommend, or vote on policy; or, more rarely, to coteach a class. You write a peer-reviewed article and integrate comments from strangers or friends, but the work bears your name only. Then you go back to your office to hold office hours, to the library to pick up a book, or home to grade papers. You travel, probably infrequently, to a conference for a couple of days in a city you never actually see.

Working in an office is like working in a fishbowl or participating in a relay race. You are not independent and you are accountable to all. Your name isn’t on anything, though your contributions to the group effort may be appreciated by peers and supervisors and even rewarded. Unless you can make special arrangements (a too rare occurrence), you occupy your desk in a public space for forty or more hours a week. Others count on your being there—and, to be fair, you expect others to be there as well—to get your work done.

The continuous engagement and learning that occur in an office setting can be motivating as well as gratifying. But working in an office can also be a big challenge for someone who likes working more or less on her own schedule and is used to working alone.

When’s the last time you had a supervisor? For about twenty-seven years as a graduate student and faculty member, I had none, strictly speaking. The “supervision” in academic positions is mostly ensured by peers. Having a real boss is not the same thing at all. I’ve made all the mistakes one can make (hint: I tend to be rebellious), and now, after ten years, I’ve finally (sort of) reconciled myself to having no real autonomy. I was told by a recent PhD that she enjoys having supervisors—when they’re good, they provide direction, motivation, and mentorship. For many, that is a nice change from the need to always self-motivate and create one’s own sense of purpose.

Former academics working in an office setting may miss their academic identities. It’s rare to find a colleague who understands what you used to do as an academic or as a full-time graduate student and all the effort, skill, and persistence it took to get your doctorate. Just like a new college graduate, in your office job you’ll need to prove yourself from scratch. Coming from the humanities, your skills are soft, so no one will call on you for your technical knowledge or understanding of how to read a text, though your colleagues will benefit from your experience.

On the other hand, in an office you are less likely than in academia to be pigeon-holed—you may find yourself more free to pursue new opportunities. So advertise your unique skills, especially any languages, and keep your eyes and ears open. Recently, because my fluency in French was well-known and I was working on related projects, I was invited to participate in a workshop in Annecy on how the humanitarian sector coordinates its response to emergencies and to see that coordination in action in Haiti.

Finally, in an office setting, you will have the opportunity for the first time since you were much younger to shape yourself outside the immutable structures of academia. You’ve entered a world where smart people change jobs every few years, both within the organization and by leaving. You won’t meet many people who have worked at the same place with the same job description for ten, fifteen, twenty years. But you will meet many people who are driven by passion for action as well as contemplation.

Both academic and nonacademic work can advance your knowledge, reputation, and career while positively influencing your local, global, or professional community. The office setting, however, may do a better job of reminding you of how interdependent we are.

martha houleMartha M. Houle left a full professorship in 2005 after twenty-two years at the College of William and Mary to begin her transition to the greater work world, which has its own set of challenges. Since then, she has been privileged to hold development and administrative positions at Women for Women International; Children’s National Medical System; and in the institutional advancement department of International Medical Corps in Washington, DC, where she is currently employed. Her degrees in French literature are from the University of California, San Diego.