How to best support my partner with a stressful academic job?
January 25, 2014 5:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a LTR and my partner is unhappy in her academic job and considering a major career change. How can I best support her?

I'm in a LTR. My partner works two part-time academic jobs as well as another part-time job, as the university jobs don't pay well enough to be her only income sources. It has always been her lifelong dream to teach at the college level, to the point that her family will be disappointed if she does not. Her goal has long been to land a full-time position at a university by starting at the part-time adjunct level and working her way up. Recently her two main jobs have gotten worse due to situations beyond her control (lowered enrollments, department politics, etc.). Now she has begun considering other alternatives. The options she is considering are to either go back to school to earn more credentials that may help her secure a full-time job in the future or else change career trajectories.

It always seemed like she was making progress toward a full-time position. She loves teaching, volunteers on committees, goes to conferences, and everyone says she is doing everything right. But something changed in the last year. She has gotten nothing but positive feedback from her supervisors over the years and they tell her she would offer her a full-time position if there were more openings, but for whatever reason those positions aren't being created, year after year. Instead there are only more part-time adjunct faculty positions. It seems to me like the universities are exploiting her hope for a full-time position, stringing her along with the promise of a full-time position that may never come. She is frustrated that her years of hard work aren't paying off as she expected. She has been very successful at her level but there isn't room to move up to where she wants to be.

Now her jobs have become unstable enough that she doesn't even know if she will have enough money to help cover basic expenses like rent. She may have to take another job for the summer, so we cannot plan trips or time off together like we used to. (Which may seem silly but has been a major blow to our relationship, as we used to bond a lot over our love of travel.) Previously she seemed to like part-time adjuncting but I think she is starting to realize it is an unpredictable career and not where she wants to be long-term.

This is understandably a very stressful time for her so I am trying to be extra supportive. I know that the academic world is hard. I love her and I have tried to support her as much as I can, both in word and deed. She is on my insurance and I tend to cover our groceries and do most of the cooking. I love her and I plan to spend my life with her. I want her to be happy but I feel conflicted about her going back to school again. Even though we both are generally conservative with our spending and we try to split our shared expenses and live within our means, I do feel that there would be more pressure on me to support her if she went back to school, since she wouldn't be earning more than a small stipend. I'm also concerned that she might still be in the same situation even with another degree – holding out for a full-time position and barely making ends meet while working part-time at several schools. She also worries about that and so she has considered either teaching at the secondary level (which she has done in the past) or changing careers entirely..

I am trying to be very patient and loving while she goes through this. I don't want to be too forceful with giving her suggestions because I know it is a sensitive topic for her but this is creating a major source of stress in our relationship as she spends most of her nights and weekends worrying about her career and talking it over with me. I have put some of my own goals on hold and have spent less time on my own hobbies to make myself available for her during the worst of it, but I feel myself getting tired... losing my patience. I just want her to be happy so we can enjoy our time together outside of work doing the things we used to do. Sometimes I feel like she is so depressed about work that she doesn't have any energy left for me. Maybe that makes me selfish, I don't know. I don't know at what point a partner's career frustrations become detrimental to the relationship but I feel like we are getting close and I don't want that to happen. I just want to make her happy.

I think this feels like a huge crisis because her identity is so wrapped up in teaching at the college level, but she is so intelligent and driven that I know she would be enormously successful doing anything she puts her mind to, and I don't want her to spend so much energy spinning her wheels in an organization that doesn't value her skills. I love her and want to help however I can but I know we can't go on like this forever.

I was hoping there was someone on MeFi who had been through a similar experience who could give me some advice on how to be supportive. Am I pushing too much? Are there resources i should be aware of?

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm also concerned that she might still be in the same situation even with another degree – holding out for a full-time position and barely making ends meet while working part-time at several schools

She should absolutely not pursue another academic track career. There is none for her. It actually doesn't even matter what alternate she is thinking of; e.g. into STEM where positions might actually exist - she will not be competitive.
posted by rr at 5:21 PM on January 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

...It always seemed like she was making progress toward a full-time position. She loves teaching, volunteers on committees, goes to conferences, and everyone says she is doing everything right. ...

Is part of the question wrapped up in this "How to help her get a fulltime academic job and be supportive?" I could be wrong, and if I am, please flag and delete this.

It may be helpful if you let a mod know your GF's general area of expertise because some fields are very different ... as in I have no idea what one needs to do to get an academic job in the humanities, but onwards.

So if this is in the sciences, one thing that I would recommend is being willing to live and teach in any part of the country and accept/apply to jobs at the 90th hour. If you plan to support her in this, then I would let her know that you would be willing to move to wherever, etc. I was able to get a job right after finishing grad school, and I suspect that it may have been because I did interview and take jobs in places in the middle of no where. I also took a sabat replacement type job, and it was advertised late in the year, and they only flew in one I think the chances get better but I could be wrong.

If I were in her shoes, I would not do committee stuff, etc. Spend her time and resources towards getting a job that she wants.

Also, this is anecdotal and only from one university/college - I met an adjunct at one of the places that I took one of those full-time academic jobs at - and the person was upset because she had been adjuncting for years but they chose to hire someone else (me and some other person). I really believe in academia that if they will not hire you at your place full-time then look somewhere else. For whatever reason, I don't think they will see you the same way. But again, this was one place, and who knows if it is the same in different departments, across the country, etc.

Also, some other resources if she is considering those alternative jobs.

I was surprised to find postacademia that it was very easy to get hired quickly at a private school (as in weeks) and at a salary that was similar to public schools. I used this placement service and emphasized teaching at uni experience and that was enough for them. I personally did not like teaching at that level (=hell), but if she does not have a full-time job, then this may be an alternative.

It also may be helpful for her to talk to people who have left academia,but still want to use their degree. When I started thinking about leaving academia, I found this organization (it has an online forum).It was helpful because you knew that you were not alone, lots of people were frustrated (either did not like their careers and/or could not get academic jobs). It was also useful just to start to think what else was possible or out there.

As an aside, I would NOT go back to school. Either you are a candidate now, or not. What would gained by going back that you can't get now? IF it is more research,then a competitive postdoc maybe, but only if you love research and plan to do something different this time.

If this is in the sciences, my first askmeta may be helpful, too (I wanted to find ideas for alternative careers with a Phd in bio - and people had ideas about fields that I did not even know existed). If she does not have that background, ignore it.

Also, as I think about this more...I would ask your GF if she truly wants your suggestions and queries. I don't mean this in a bad way at all,but I have to say that when I was looking for fulltime academic job, when people asked about the job hunt it was very, very stressful.You apply and even if you are the top candidate and get a job offer, they make you wait for MONTHS. You may also apply to universities and hear nothing as a response. So even being asked the question was stressful.So I would first ask her whether she wants these suggestions, ideas, or even queries. Or maybe ask her what kind of support she wants.
posted by Wolfster at 5:45 PM on January 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best resource by far is/are the Chronicle Forums, particularly in your case the The Nontenure Track and Leaving Academia subforums.

You can also read some of Rebecca Schuman's work on Slate or on her blog though she's definitely not to everyone's taste.

I would say that if she's been adjuncting and also on the market (applying to as many tenure track positions per year in her field regardless of status/location as she can - in my field, I'd recommend applying to about 80 a year) for more than 3-5 years and still hasn't landed a full-time position, she's not likely to land one. The problem is that after a certain point applicants are considered stale/lifelong adjuncts particularly in comparison to the fresh, "promising" new crop. And if she's been artificially limiting her options (only applying in-state, only to R1 positions, only to her current places of employment, etc) then she's not been nearly serious enough about this as a career. If that's the case, she can perhaps give it one to two more years of serious job searching, and then bow out. Or if she's not willing to do that, well, she needs to understand that she's very, very unlikely to get the career she wants and should find a better fit in a different career.

To be supportive, I would try to help her feel less bound up identity-wise in being an academic and research other career tracks she could follow (and find open listings/high employability in those tracks - it doesn't help to find an equally impossible alternative). See what it is about academia that is drawing her in (the intellectual atmosphere, the people-facing/interactive part, etc), and see if you can show her that some of her favorite aspects might be found in a less competitive career. If she just loves teaching, teaching positions for high schools are often way easier to find, etc.
posted by vegartanipla at 5:48 PM on January 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you can gently suggest to her that you don't feel fully ready or willing to support her going back to school.

I think for her, the key is actually trying something else for a while. Has she even had any other type of work experience? In a field that maybe is similar to teaching, but not exact? How does she know she wouldn't like it and kick ass at it?

It can be really hard to give up on a lifelong dream. It will be a lot easier if she immediately jumps into something she's good at, gets kudos for, where she likes her coworkers, and feels competent. It could end up surprising her.
posted by quincunx at 7:51 PM on January 25, 2014

She could check out Versatile PhD

It's a forum/resource for people with PhDs who are looking to leave academia.

Listen, others up thread have probably already mentioned this, but it's become nearly impossible to get a full time job in academia. Universities do, in fact, rely on adjuncts to a ridiculous ought-to-be-criminal extent. Hardworking adjuncts are screwed, because they've demonstrated their willingness to work really hard for low wages, no benefits, and no guarantee of work. And there are plenty more lined up behind her waiting for that experience to put on the CV.

Best support I've gotten in my graduate odyssey has been my husband who says "screw academia!" And "if you hate it, leave! Seriously, it's a terrible system that is doing nothing to improve peoples' lives!"

posted by vitabellosi at 6:29 AM on January 26, 2014

It seems like the answers are coming from the perspective of her already having completed her doctorate, but you don't actually say that in your question. It might make sense for someone who had been adjuncting with only a master's degree to go back and finish a doctorate whereas another degree on top of a doctorate is much less likely to affect job prospects for college teaching.
posted by Jahaza at 6:37 AM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, is Jahaza correct that she might not have a terminal degree in her field?

Because if so, that's pretty much required now. Used to be that community colleges and very small regional universities would hire full-time and even tenure-track Masters level instructors, but now because the market is so glutted (and because terminal degrees help with accreditation and academic reputations) it is beyond threatened into endangered and soon to be bordering on extinct to become tenured anywhere with a non-terminal Masters only in the humanities.

But even if she does go back to get the terminal degree in field if she doesn't already have it, she needs to be willing to do all the other stuff we've already discussed as well (stay competitive, apply everywhere - in itself a part-time job that when I did it required about 2-4 hours every day from November through March, willing to move anywhere). And though all of that will be necessary to maximize her odds and she absolutely needs to do all of that if she's seriously going to continue trying to remain in this career, it will still in no way guarantee her a full-time position. Meanwhile, if she does go back to get a degree it will extend her opportunity and quality of life costs as well as the emotional costs of not feeling stable/worthy and tying her even more into thinking academia's her only option for quite a few more years (earning degree years + job searching for a couple years again) and it all may still not pan out.

She needs to really assess whether she's down with that, and know that if she's not, there are other careers out there for her.

**I'm in academia, I love it, and I don't think it's "academia bashing" to acknowledge the realities of the market.**
posted by vegartanipla at 8:22 AM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Spitbull's advice is spot on. She needs to be publishing, not teaching. It's counter-intuitive, but teaching does not get you teaching jobs, publishing does.

She needs to be adding a new significant line item to her resume every single month. Publications, conference presentations, etc.

To support her in that, you'll need to support her working less as an adjunct and more as a researcher.

To really understand what's going on with the adjunct world, OP should read the nonstop coverage of it in the blogs and sites others have listed above. Search Twitter for "adjunct" and "PhD" - follow the news and learn about what she's facing.
posted by jardinier at 11:10 AM on January 26, 2014

Not encouraging news, but here's what you really need to know:

-- there is no "working your way up"; that's not how academia generally works

-- it sounds like she doesn't have a PhD; without a PhD, there is no way she will get a full-time job at a university, and perhaps not even at a community college

-- she should not pursue a PhD with the idea that it will get her a job; many hundreds of people apply for each job that comes available, and it is highly, highly competitive; if she doesn't have at least several publications by the time she gains her PhD, she will not be competitive; part-time adjunct positions are becoming the norm in many universities. it sucks, but that's the reality she's facing.

I agree with others that the best way to be supportive is to try to gently challenge how much her identity is wrapped up in academics, and to gently steer her toward thinking about her skills might apply elsewhere. And also encourage her to read those Chronicle of Higher Education columns -- what she's experiencing psychologically is a known syndrome that many, many others have been through, and I think it would be helpful to her to see that and to see the positives of pulling away from a system that is not (and will not be any time in the future) set up in a way that is conducive to her dreams.
posted by ravioli at 2:48 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's also another aspect of this that you might want to consider. You write: "I just want to make her happy." Of course, this is a problem, because it's not your job, responsibility, or even a realistic goal. She is going to have to make herself happy - you would do well for the relationship by working on your goals, by focusing on ensuring that you are making the right decisions.

There's an underlying current of emerging bitterness in your post. You are starting to resent her. This isn't her fault, though, it's yours. And if it continues or gets worse, or gets in the way of the relationship, it will be because you let it go on without addressing it. Addressing it just means sitting down with her and saying what you've said here to all of us - directly and honestly to her.

Especially this: "I have put some of my own goals on hold and have spent less time on my own hobbies to make myself available for her during the worst of it, but I feel myself getting tired... losing my patience."

That's not her fault, that's your choice. But don't choose to do that and then hold it against her. In fact, my advice is to stop doing that - and think about how you can be supportive without stunting your own life and development. Both of you need that to be in a healthy relationship.
posted by jardinier at 3:58 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

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