The Woman Who Traded University Tenure for Happiness

Michelle and Ella

Michelle and Ella

A Woman’s Thoughts on Leaving Cubicle World, Quitting the Tenure-Track and What is Next

Michelle always had dreams of working for herself.  She thought academia was the closest she could get without actually taking the leap and becoming an entrepreneur. With two master’s degrees and a decade of corporate experience she applied to PhD programs, quit her job and moved from Colorado to Oregon. Three years later she was awarded a prestigious tenure track job at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.  But even with her tenure track job she was still yearning for something more. She was also really missing the place she was happiest, Colorado.

When a one-year position at University of Denver came up, Michelle chose to abandon a potentially lifelong stable career to go home to her happy place and to force a decision about what came next.

Here is a bit of her story.

How did people react when you told them you were leaving your job to get a PhD?

It was a mixed bag. There is a difference between working and going to school part time and quitting your job and going back to school full time. I think anybody who is making the decision to go back full time will face mixed reactions from family and friends. Some people were like, ‘Of course you are going back to school!’ Other people were like, ‘You are 36 years old. What are you doing?’

It all comes from a good place, but people have their own fears and concerns and ways that they live their lives and your choices can be threatening to them. I advise my own students that whenever they are making a big decision in their lives, it’s great to get advice and input, but ultimately you have to block that all out and trust yourself. You have to be willing to listen to people’s concerns, but at the end of the day you need to do what you need to do.

What was it like being a full time student after so many years in the professional world?

It was fun. It was great to be back in the classroom. It was great to be around people who were as excited about a subject as I was.

It was also challenging.  Heading back to school after a decade in the corporate world, having managed multi-million dollar projects and teams of eighty or more was a bit disorienting.  It’s like boot camp, they break you down and build you back up.  You need a strong sense of self because there are definitely times you question your capabilities.

You went from full-time job in Colorado to full-time student in Oregon. How did that transition go?

I arrived early so that I could teach the summer before classes started, that gave me some time to adapt and to hang out on the coast. I also think coming from the professional world it was pretty easy to get organized and to keep a schedule.

But it was tougher than I thought. I only applied to programs on either coast because I thought if I was going to leave my beloved Colorado I wanted to hear the ocean again and do something totally different. Oregon’s climate was tough for me, in that part of the state it rains from November thru May. When you combine that with the intensity of grad school and sometimes not seeing the sun for 30 days in a row, there were times I thought to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into? This is horrible.’

What kept you from saying, ‘Screw it I am going back to Colorado’?

It was just another challenge in my life and I didn’t want to quit. It was important to see it through.

What about sacrifices you made in going to the academic world from the corporate world?

Definitely money. I’ve put eight years into academia thus far and it would probably take me another ten to make what I was making ten years ago. Not to mention all of the student loan debt I accumulated.

I also think in some ways I limited my personal life. I don’t think that happens to everyone, so I don’t want this to be a cautionary tale, but being in grad school can be a very isolating experience. Working on my PhD, I was ‘head down, blinders on’ for three years straight and then I moved to a little tiny town in Ohio to be a professor. In the ‘real world’ at 44, being single and childless, I’m a bit of an anomaly where as in academia you don’t feel out of place—but it doesn’t mean that’s what I wanted.

I think people sacrifice financially and in terms of their personal life, whether that means not finding a partner, not being able to live in the same place because of dual academic careers or not being able to live in a geographic region of choice—you go where the jobs are–when you choose academia.

What was it like being in an environment with younger students?

I was 36 when I went back. There were people in our program from their early 20s to their early 60s. It shows you it is never too late to make that change in your life. I would say most of my friendships transcended age and in many ways it didn’t matter.

What advice do you have for people who are considering going back to grad school?

The decision to go to grad school is something to think very seriously about. People who are thinking about it should talk to people and read as much as they can. It depends on what they want to go back for as well. If you want to get a Masters or a MBA to help you grow in your current job, I would recommend doing that at night or online and keeping your day job. If you’re looking at a law degree,  PhD or another terminal degree that will take you to a totally new career then I think you need to fully immerse yourself and do that full time. But you need to think really carefully about it.

In my field of study, journalism, communications, PR/advertising, there are a decent amount of academic jobs. In the humanities, one of every nine graduates gets a job, so then you have people running around, scrambling for adjunct positions at different universities, and sometimes teaching seven classes that they are lucky to earn $2000 a class for. There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed saying many PhDs are on food stamps now. To earn a PhD in anything other than science or something that is practical or applied it needs to come from a place of love, from a place of your soul not being able to stand not doing it because it has gotten really, really hard to make a living from it.

Sounds like academia is struggling.

The whole state of education is upside down. There are so many competing interests. You have more people entering college than ever before and now, with helicopter parents. They look at college as training for a job and they have a very consumer mind set.

Then you have people who become professors because they want to immerse themselves in research or teaching and end up finding out that a lot of their day is taken up in meetings and in having way too many students to ever do a great job with them. Then there are budget cuts. I have a lot of friends who have not gotten a raise in four years.

There is a phrase about academia that is something like, ‘The battles are so large because the stakes are so small,’ which means there is a lot of fighting over a lot of really stupid stuff sometimes. I think even more so than in cubicle world. There are a lot of power struggles.

When I was 32, working in the corporate world I was making $80,000 a year. Then I entered a doctoral program, got a tenure-track job and started in the low 50s. As much as I loved my students and the creativity of going into a classroom every day, sometimes it seemed a little crazy to put up with the politics and make half of what I was previously making, especially with the student loan debt I’ve accumulated. I have friends who love the freedom and love research and/or who came from lower paying careers, so they are willing to put up with the challenges.

Do you think a lot of these things you are talking about were surprises to you?

Yeah. I thought I was really smart too. I read, Lifting a Ton of Feathers, which is about the struggles of women in academia. I read a lot and I did a lot of research and I thought I was going into it eyes wide open. You do have a lot of freedom in academia. Other than for classes or meetings I didn’t have to be on campus, and if I wanted to grade from 10 at night until 2 in the morning and have some free time during the day that was fine. But what people don’t realize is that most academics work 70 – 80 hours a week and even then it is hard to turn it off. You are in classes, you are in meetings, you are having office hours and then when you are home you are prepping classes, designing classes, responding to students and you are still responsible for research. Tenure is still predicated on how much research you do, which is this huge inherent contradiction because what students want is to be taught by great teachers, but we are still judged by how much research we do. The latest studies I saw show that over 70% of college courses are taught by adjunct professors. Tenure-track jobs are going away.

My eyes were open about the freedom [academia would provide], but not about what the freedom meant and I think

I was not aware of how bad the politics would be. There are a lot of boomer professors who can’t afford to retire. So now there is a generational clash between younger professors who are ready to move up the ranks and the older professors who can’t afford to leave. Also, universities are top-heavy with middle managers earning six figures and it is a drain on resources. The whole idea of students as consumers was really shocking to me. I remember when it was a privilege to go to college, and if you went, you were almost guaranteed a job. I remember when it was exciting to learn and I don’t know how many people view it that way anymore.

What do you mean by students as consumers?

With more and more people going to college and resources being really scarce it is becoming much more of a vocational training mindset. With this mindset they are like, ‘I paid for this class why didn’t I get an A?’ It becomes more of a transaction. That has been really disappointing.

How did you afford all of this?

I didn’t. I am not an example of what anyone should do. If you are a doctoral student, in most cases you are offered a full ride, which sounds wonderful, and it is. I am eternally grateful for having my tuition paid for and having received a monthly stipend. The monthly stipend comes to about $800 a month. I paid $690 a month in rent, all utilities included, to live in a little garage and I thought I was being really budget conscious. I had to take out student loans for the rest of my expenses and I already had student loans from my Masters degrees. I would really advise someone who is going back to school to carefully consider how they are going to pay for it because you do not want to rack up student loan debt.

Do you have any ideas on how people could better manage their money while going through school?

If you have the time, I would save as much as you can before you start school. Really consider putting aside money before you get there and then live as frugally as you can once you get there. If you are in your 30s or 40s don’t try to live at the same standard of living in grad school as you lived before grad school.

What about health insurance?

We were lucky because we had a graduate student union and were offered health insurance and other benefits.

After grad school you moved to Ohio for a job. How was that?

I can’t say Ohio was in my top ten places where I ever planned on living. It was at a time where my grandparents, who I was extremely close to, were not doing well health wise. The job market that year was really hot and I had a lot of opportunities. I applied to eleven schools. I was offered seven interviews. I only went on three of them as the others were too far from my grandparents. I was offered jobs at all three schools. I was really fortunate. I taught at Ohio University in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, which is a top ten journalism school, so it was a great first step in my academic career. I really liked the people. The students blew me away and it put me seven hours from my grandparents. It all worked out for the best because a year into it my grandfather passed away and a year later my grandmother passed away. As much as I had my reservations about working in Ohio, I would never trade my experience because I got to be with them. It was serendipity that I got to be there right at the time I needed to be there.

How did you decide to leave your tenure job?

The first two years were so tough because of all the commuting with my grandparents. There were times when I was traveling 800 miles round trip in a week. I was fortunate because my school was so supportive. They gave me an extra year on my tenure clock. I had all this research money. They were so good to me. But at the end of my third year a job opened up at DU.

It was a one-year gig with no promise of it turning into a tenure track position. I was working with a life coach in Athens and she suggested it was like a big yellow arrow saying, ‘Go this way,’ because all I had ever talked about since leaving Colorado was getting back to Colorado. It was my happy place. My soul place. I weighed staying in Athens in a tenure track job that I liked but that made me feel very isolated–and I knew I wanted to have a family someday. I also still had this nagging feeling that I was meant to become an entrepreneur and it didn’t feel right to settle for halfway.

Michelle back in Colorado

Michelle back in Colorado

At the end of the day I am a gambler. I decided it was worth moving back to Colorado even if the position was only for a year.  It got me back to a place that makes me happy, where I have a support system and where I have more connections to help with my dream of starting my own business. It was a bit stressful financially when the DU job ended, but now I teach for an online PR masters program at Kent State, which is amazing because I am able to teach for a school in Ohio and live in Colorado. The job is about two-thirds time, which allows me time to work on what’s next career-wise.  I’m still figuring that out. I know there are people who think I was nuts for walking away from a tenure track job, but I think that goes back to having faith in who you are and what you should be doing.

What did OU say when you told them you were leaving?

My director and assistant director were so supportive. I am sure my decision was tough for the program, but at the end of the day they supported me and they always stood by what they told me, which was ‘family first’. They supported my going back to a place where I had more of a support system and family could be a priority.

How does it feel to be back in Colorado?

Ultimately, really good.  I was warned that coming back after six years away would be a transition, that I wouldn’t be able to just settle back into my old life—and that was true. I’ve struggled some because friends’ lives moved on while I was gone and it sometimes feels difficult to ‘break’ back into my old circles.  But I’ve got a good core group of friends and I’ve always thrived on networking so it will be fine.

Any time I have a rough day, I remind myself that I’m having it in Colorado and that makes my rough day better than a good day just about anywhere else.

Have you ever had any regrets about leaving your tenure track job?

Sometimes.  I think it’s toughest when I see my old students doing exciting things and achieving success.  I miss being there as a support system and to inspire and cheer them on.  I miss many of my friends in Athens and also living in driving distance to other friends and family. But as you can see, most of those regrets aren’t related to leaving a tenure-track job so much as leaving Scripps and Athens specifically.  Maybe that answers the question.

Are you in the end glad you did it?

Yes. I have my woulda, coulda, shoulda days.  I have not had the most traditional trajectory, but it has allowed me experiences I would not have had otherwise. I spent a semester in Dublin. Because I didn’t teach in the summer, I roadtripped with my dog. We’ve been to over 30 states and have gotten to visit regularly with friends and family.  I would never have been able to have these experiences with three weeks of vacation in a corporate job. I held both my grandparents’ hands when they took their last breath. I would not trade that opportunity for anything. As challenging as my path has been and as hard as it has been financially at times, I wouldn’t trade it and I am hoping that helps me open the door for the next step. I don’t think staying in corporate America would have helped me get where I am in today. A lot of good has come out of it.


5 thoughts on “The Woman Who Traded University Tenure for Happiness

  1. I had the pleasure of going to Grad School at Colorado State University with Michelle. She’s one of the most interesting and inspirational people you’ll ever meet.

    • Julie, I absolutely agree!

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