8 Positive Ways to Rethink Academic Unemployment

There are lots of reasons why you might want to leave academia, but should you choose to stay, how do you deal with being in between jobs?


I have been wanting to talk about how I have been doing in academia for a while, but I don’t want to be to open about this or too negative. I don’t want to talk about the lies and inconvenient truths – the dreams that get crushed when you are in between jobs for a short while. By relying on high output, valorization and over-the-top management skills, academia seems like a stranger place to be in for us introverts, who thrive under different circumstances. There are also many things that come with being a woman – the gender gaps, and preference for “brilliant men” in many academic cultures,  the difficulties with maternity leave or raising young children, the imposter syndrome that many of us suffer from. Being a humanities scholar is specifically bothersome these days, because we are in a crisis and they are cutting down our majors everywhere. So what do we do? Some of us leave and that’s smart. Please think about other options and think seriously about what makes you happy. I don’t want to talk about leaving academia though.

8 positive ways to rethink academic unemployment    

  1. Present yourself as an independent scholar. No one immediately leaves academia. You have written books and articles, and have build a network. Try to present yourself as a scholar without an affiliation for a while. Offer services that go beyond academia, including consultancy, professional writing, data analysis and workshops. Make it clear that people are hiring you, not inviting Depending on the country that you are from, this can be met with hostility. In The Netherlands (that’s me!), typically a guest lecture at another university is unpaid for. (You should feel lucky when they reimburse your travelling expenses! Start groveling and kissing their feet!) Try to get an offer, though, in a polite way.
  1. Act like an independent scholar. You are a scholar. This will not change. Even if you start tow work somewhere else entirely, you bring your analytical and critical skills to the floor. Maybe you need a part-time job to get by, or maybe you need to teach somewhere else. Don’t feel bad about this. You can still participate in the community. You draw this line. Maybe you have more time on your hands, hopefully, and can finally get around to that article that you have been meaning to write. Now that you are not employed by a university, you can do those things that you think a public intellectual should do, and that are not ranked highly by your university. Blog, write book reviews, publish open-access essays, tweet, and write popular articles – your university probably looked down on all of that, but these are the activities that will build your network, and make you feel like you belong.
  1. Listen to your colleagues. Times are hard, yes, but whenever I talk to seniors I hear that they too have been unemployed frequently. In fact, some of the scholars that I look up to most – with excellent books, inspiring talks, and lots of charisma – have told me horrible stories. How they were dismissed because of their disciplines, or because they taught in liberal universities or “improper systems” (like the problem-based learning system that I taught in for years). We all go through this. Try to get in touch with people that you haven’t met yet. Ask colleagues that you trust, and also like you personally, to help you out. Don’t listen to your mom.
  1. Don’t listen to your mom. People who don’t fully understand academia, or who are in different disciplines, can give pretty rotten advise. My mother (a self-identified independent farmer!) likes to say things like: ‘Maybe you could become a librarian, you do something with books right?’  ‘You have finished your study, can’t the university just create a job?’ ‘Maybe you should do another study in law? You are not 30….yet. A new study is a great solution. It’s really expensive, but at least you’ll pass the time!’ ‘They should never have given you that title- what was it again?’ Also don’t listen to my friend’s mom: ‘You can always marry a rich man, like prime minister Mark Rutte!’ ‘Next year, you will all have babies and we will be sitting here having cake.’ ‘My daughter has not moved out of the house. That saves a lot of money. You could always move back in with your parents too.’ Don’t listen to my married colleagues from politics either: ‘This is a good time to have babies, Nicolle. My daughter has really given my life meaning.’  ‘My husband just got hired in Boston. I’ll be joining him, maybe I can also do some lectures there. That way I’m in the system.’
  1. Stay positive if you do what you love. Keep doing what you love and motivate yourself. Try to get  satisfaction out of the papers that get published, the invitations that you get, the support from your friends and colleagues. If there is a conference nearby or a talk, go there. Be part of that community and don’t retreat because you feel ashamed. There is nothing wrong with you and this happens to the best of us. Be thankful for every chance that you get, even if you were not the right candidate, at the right moment.
  1. Prepare for the job interviews. Hooray, you got an interview! Good luck, because academic job interviews are a huge trial. They are commonly done with panels and without a recruiter. Panelists judge your ability to think on your feet, ask you hypothetical questions and advise about courses, ask you about choices in your career (why publish here, not there? Why are you not working there and there?). I will be honest; This is where I need to learn so much more. The panel situation often means that one person might be hostile, seems to not pay attention, etc. I find that very distracting. If you can keep your mind clear, you realize that it’s a performance and that panelists clearly have different tasks within the panel. Whatever happens, try not to feel fear. It’s horrible but the professors that are in these panels don’t realize that you’ve looked up to this interview for months, and that it’s a stressful situation. The key is preparing, being at ease, seeing the committee as people that you have a lot in common with, and, if need be, memorizing a list of things that you can offer to a department. There might be other strategies, and I’d like to hear your input.
  1. Enjoy the free time. Working during the holidays and weekends, constantly juggling between teaching and research, that’s academic life. I noticed the past months that it had burned me down more than I had ever thought. While being in academia has its merits, and can be splendid if you enjoy it, we struggle with very less research time. In The Netherlands, the amount of teaching can be so high, it astounds foreigners who start to work here. It shouldn’t surprise you that the minute I was out of a job for a moment, I had to recuperate from the stress. I had been working very hard for five years and had given up lots of things. I needed this time to work through this. I still do. And perhaps you do too. And that’s okay.
  1. Be practical. The most important bonus tip. Being in academia today means that, from time to time, you might not be affiliated to a university. Even at universities, research time is precious, and over here, not handed out lightly. Be practical during your PhD process. Teach as much as you can, coordinate and manage. Develop skills. Realize that you are on your own and that you need to keep it going: try to get funding, do pet projects and read what is new in your field. Keep doing these things because you are an intellectual, and because they motivate you.
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