On Being Alt-Ac, or #PullingADrKaren: Going into Business for Myself As a Creative Writing PhD

On Being Alt-Ac, or #PullingADrKaren: Going into Business for Myself As a Creative Writing PhD

So I have mentioned that I am on the alternate-academic track (alt-ac) or the post-academic track (post-ac), and, if things keep going my way (i.e. my business continues in the upward direction it’s going), I plan on never returning to the broken system of higher education. If you’re not entrenched in academia, or close to someone who is entrenched, you might not be aware of how broken the system actually is, or what being alt-ac means.

This post is going to be a little longer than I intended–it might end up another three part-er. But  I feel the need to explain, in a somewhat truncated fashion, what I perceive to be broken about academia, and why I’m the happiest now than I’ve ever been being alt-ac.

Being alt-ac or post-ac means I managed to graduate with a Ph.D. and had grand designs on being a creative writing professor, but now I am finding a gainful, alternate form of employment outside of academia by starting my own business, The Brainery: Online Speculative Fiction Writing Workshops & Resources. Other alt-ac people in the humanities that I know have become freelance editors and consultants, or started their own businesses.

It will make more sense if I explain how I got to the point of starting The Brainery.

It doesn’t necessarily begin with the archaic, but necessary, job hiring process–but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since tenure lasts longer than most marriages, it makes sense why the hiring process is so involved, but knowing that doesn’t make the process any more tolerable.

The job application process for creative writing professor jobs is about nine months long (so, an academic year long) and typically follows this pattern–if you’re an academic, feel free to skip this part because you’re all too familiar with it anyway, but for newbies to academia, you might it find it interesting in an abject sorta way to peer at the man behind the curtain:

  1. Applications are mostly submitted in September-October (and will trickle out until December).
    • The application package includes a tailored job letter for each dept, which means researching the school and dept intensely so you can write about how you fit with the dept’s mission in a Shakespearean way–by that I wish to evoke the image of Cleopatra writing a love letter for the Antony of academia, and how the things she chooses to include highlight the mission of the school as well as one’s perfectly matching skillset. Additionally the application includes an updated CV, three letters of recommendation, and a writing sample usually 25 pages long. Most schools have stopped paying to send dossiers out for their graduates, putting the financial burden on job seekers, who typically are making poverty-level wages either as grad students going on the market their dissertation year, or as jobless recent graduates, or as adjuncts as an interim gig while they look for a permanent job.
    • The cost to apply to a job is usually $16 through Interfolio, because each letter of recommendation is a separate cost.
    • Most jobs in English literature get 400 applications on average. Jobs in creative writing typically receive 400-800 applications. 400-800 applications for a single job. And, it is important to note: as a job applicant, you are not only competing against other recent graduates, you are completing against people who have already been hired as Assistant Professors, and have been doing the job for the last 5 years; these current Assistant Professors are going on the market during their tenure review year to either “trade-up,” “move to a better location,” or negotiate a better deal with their current school.
    • Let me say this again: recent graduates are pitted against current professors who have been already doing the job for the last 5 years–who would you hire?
  2. Next are requests for additional materials in November, which includes two sample syllabi (at minimum), evidence of teaching excellence (the interpretation of which varies wildly), grad school transcripts, and another writing sample. From what I understand, the initial applicant pool is narrowed to 30-60 people. Also, any of these documents could be part of the initial application request as seen in #1.
  3. First round interviews take place in December-January.  Anywhere from 15-30 people are interviewed at this stage. If the school is awesome, they’ll use video chat software; if they’re cruel, they’ll insist you interview at the MLA, transportation to which is at your own expense.
    • MLA is the largest conference for literature-based academics, the location of which changes every year, and typically costs about $1000 to attend in you fly, get a hotel room, and pay the registration fee.
  4. Lastly, campus visits in February-March. These are 36 hour long interviews, but sometimes they can be as long as 3 days. The dept will pay to have you travel to their location. Sometimes, you will have to pay out of pocket to travel and they will reimburse you, which if you’re jobless, sucks. If you are a creative writer, you will probably give a presentation on your writing and teaching approach, and then give a reading of your work–so two presentations in total, and sometimes you’ll have to do a teaching demonstration as well. Usually only 3 or 4 people are invited to campus visits. (I have only been on the 36 hour long interview types, I haven’t had to endure 3 whirlwind marathon days of meeting and memorizing names and research disciplines. 36 hours was painful enough.)
  5. Decisions are announced in April, the 1 job applicant out of potentially 800 applicants is offered a contract which is negotiated at that time.
    • If you made it all the way to campus visits and get rejected at this point and the dept is cool, you’ll get a really nice, cathartic phone call. If the dept is cruel, you’ll get a bullshit form email that was sent to you and the other campus visit people, which I think is fucking unacceptable at this stage in the process. (Having experienced both forms of rejection–the phone call is much more humane.)

So, after having gone through an expensive year of the job application process, the costs of which included:

  • $333 on Interfolio fees
  • $180 for the first hair cut I’d had in 2 years + hair color to cover greys (despite only being 32 at the time!), this included a 20% tip
  • $209 on two new suits (blazer & pants) + two new blouses from a Banana Republic outlet store, which were already on sale coupled my with a 40% off coupon
  • $70 on 2 pairs of interview shoes, both of which I used at MLA so I couldn’t return one pair like I had planned
  • $100 on a pair of interview appropriate snow boots that I could wear with my suit without looking like an idiot on campus visits since all campuses I visited had experienced a snowpocalypse–these had already been discounted $200, it is really hard to find affordable dressy snow boots for women
  • $200 to attend MLA: I was super lucky because MLA was in a city where I had a close friend who let me stay there for free, and I was able to take a train from my in-law’s house, so I just had to buy my own food, and paid the unemployed registration fee

At this time, I can’t really afford to keep going on the job market–although, I suppose, the costs would be somewhat less seeing as how I already have the clothes and shoes, but I’d still need to pay Interfolio fees and potentially a haircut + transportation costs.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching a lot of Real Housewives lately, but $1092 for all of those things doesn’t sound like a lot when a Housewife on Bravo spends $20,000 on a purse. But when your family makes less than the cost of that single purse, it feels like a lot. And it’s an especially crazy mindfuck to go through an academic year dedicating my life to job applications to ultimately come away with nothing.

I learned a lot about job application materials for creative writing, but the most important thing I learned was that it was a giant squid sized waste of my time because:

Every school hired someone who was already an assistant professor elsewhere.

Read Part Two for the rest of this post.