I read many of Kelly Baker’s essays about her transition away from academia on Vitae when they first came out, so of course I had to read them all when they were published as a collection. In “Grace Period,” Baker chronicles her–frequently bitter, angry, and desperate–transition out of academia to the alt-ac world.
It’s hard to explain academia, like war, to those who haven’t experienced it. For those who’ve never been on the front lines or in the trenches, the intensity, the desperation, and the sheer, astonishing misery of the academic experience sound like ridiculous exaggeration or pathetic whining, and the normal response from those who haven’t been there is to whip out some insulting, cowardly platitudes. Baker confronts that problem head-on in one of her earlier essays:
“After all, life is hard. People reach for this mantra when confronted with the suffering of others. ‘Life is hard for everyone,’ they say, ‘why would academia be any different?’ We suffer, so why should we be surprised that you suffer too?
“They are right. Life is hard and fragile and fleeting. That brusque statement of fact, however, is not an excuse to ignore structural injustices wherever they may be. We can’t use ‘life is hard’ to obscure the pain and suffering of others, inside or outside academia.”
The issues that Baker deals with will be familiar to anyone who has read her columns or the columns of anyone else who has become disenchanted with academia, or who has just had any personal experience with the culture. An apparently promising young academic who did well in grad school and had multiple publications, including a book, Baker nevertheless struggled to find work, cobbling together multiple temporary and part-time jobs as she juggled her work with her growing family. Interview after interview led to rejection after rejection, and she felt increasingly underappreciated and over-stressed about her position, leading eventually to the decision to take a year off the market (for the non-academic: “the market” is a sort of virtual slave market in which aspiring professors submit their–very long, very torturously composed–applications each fall, a few lucky ones are trotted out like show ponies during the winter conferences, and then an even fewer number of extra-lucky ones are shipped in for campus interviews in the spring, culminating in one very, very special pony receiving a job offer. Failing on the market one year means waiting a whole year to try again, as academic hiring is an annual event and a single job takes a year to fill). While off the market, she found herself turning more and more to writing, eventually making a career of it.
Baker’s story is worth reading for any academic, especially since she decided to leave academia behind and do something else, although there were plenty of bumps along the way. While she openly acknowledges that she lucked out, circumstance-wise, by having a spouse who was able to pick up the financial slack while she was struggling to find work and then changing careers, that she was able to do so at all is interesting and frankly rather uplifting, and she brings a number of insights into the academic process and the escape from it. “Grace Period” will no doubt resonate strongly with early-career academics, should maybe be required reading for those who dismiss their struggles, and has plenty of poignant, touching moments for any reader.
Buy link: Amazon