Post-Ac: The Bad Boys of Academia

In honor of a post on how to use the life lessons from Seinfeld to revolutionize your academic career, I am throwing my own Seinfeld post into the ring.

In a season eight episode, the eternally milquetoast George Costanza accidentally reinvents himself. Elaine tells a co-worker to stay away from George due to a misunderstanding, causing her to think of him as a “bad boy.” To keep up the act he transforms from a schlub into a muscle-car owner who wears a Yankees jacket and chews gum as insouciantly as possible.

Jerry responds to the strange metamorphosis in perhaps the best exchange between the two characters in the later years of the show:

George: I’m the bad boy. I’ve never been the bad boy.

Jerry: You’ve been the bad employee, the bad son, the bad friend…

George: Yes, yes…

Jerry: The bad fiance, the bad dinner guest, the bad credit risk…

George: Okay, the point is made.

Jerry: The bad date, the bad sport, the bad citizen… (looks at table as George

exits) The bad tipper!

The idea of George Costanza as bad boy came to mind when I was thinking about how to describe a certain breed of academics. In a recent blog post I talked about alt-acs, or alternative academics. These are scholars who work at full-time non-teaching or research positions within a university. Their bad-boy counterparts are Post Academics, or post-acs.

So what is post-ac? It is completely leaving academia altogether, wiping your hands clean of the entire process. If alt-ac is the good daughter of academe, post-ac is the family’s black sheep–ready to air the dirty laundry in the hopes of shaking up the (damaging and corrupt) status quo.

Here is how it is described in Lauren Nervosa’s manifesto “The Post-Ac Manifesto.”:

Post-ac can be both a refusal or an inability to engage with the academy. Post-acs opt out or get shut out. Post-ac is at heart a state of disillusionment. Post-ac is an identity or way of identifying in relation to the institution of academia, and a belief that the current system is flawed, cruel, unsustainable, and therefore impossible to directly engage with.

So Post-ac means being over academia. You are done with the rat race of publishing, conventions, worry about tenure, or your standing among other colleagues in your field. Post-acs consider academia just like every place of work. It is demystified and therefore more easily discarded than it is for alt-acs, who consider the academic life more of who they are.

For post-ac blogs out there, they are interested in helping other academics find a job that can help them be financially solvent, whatever that job might be. They help others on career paths that use the tools acquired in academia, but might be way outside what a typical academic job looks like. Alt-acs stayed within a university or in its periphery. Post-acs might venture widely outside this.

Again, from the Post-ac Manifesto:

“Post-ac is less concerned with “refashioning academic identity” as it is in helping people move on from their academic experience and build a new life and identity that is not centered around vocation or institutional affiliation.” Among postacs there is a lot more frank discussion about how terrible the job market is for PHDs. There is less shame about corporate employment or “selling out.”

They are not concerned whether their next job looks good on their academic CV. Postacs are also very skeptical about higher education, and think the whole system is so broken that its no good hitching our cart to that horse.

One of the best examples of post-ac is Rebecca Schuman. She is an education writer for Slate.com and was the first guest on this podcast, all the way back in Episode 2. Here is how she described her decision to leave academia. She wrote an article for Slate.com called “Thesis Hatement,” which she also called Academic Barn Burner 5000. One of her friends replied, “well what about search committees seeing this? The Internet is forever!” Here is how she thought about leaving academia.

I replied that I had no intention of submitting myself to the ignoring of a search committee ever again, and he said: But what will a search committee say about that? I was reminded of the most darkly uproarious scene in Kafka’s The Trial, in which bumbling defendant-with-no-charge Josef K. finally gets the good sense to sack his useless attorney, Huld, and Huld basically tells him, Well that’s all fine and good, but how do we proceed on your case? Nobody I worked with, and none of the rest of my academic acquaintances, seemed to understand that even though it felt like a death to leave the only world I now knew, I was done. I needed to do something that would prove beyond any doubt that my academic “career” was dead before it began. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the title character recounts the gruesome practice of puncturing the hearts of the recently deceased, which had been performed on his own father when Malte was a child. This was ostensibly to prove once and for all that deceased persons were deceased, so as to avoid burying anyone alive, apparently a common practice until the late nineteenth century. Of course, the practice also ensured that even if the “deceased” had been alive, he wouldn’t be anymore.

My academic barn-burner would be the needle through the heart of any future attempts to go on the job market. 

Post-acs can get nasty blowback from those still in academia. When Rebecca published Thesis Hatement, there was a response in the New Yorker, a rebuttal in Slate, and thousands of commenters on the article who criticized her of giving up on academia for lacking proper academic credentials. They breathlessly intoned that “good people always get jobs”

I’ve experienced this as well. I got nasty blowback from fellow adjuncts when starting this project because they thought I was attacking their livelihood.

Who are Post-acs?

  • Those who quit grad school,
  • Adjuncts who quit
  • Those who earned an advanced degree but haven’t pursued academic employment

I’m heavily interested in post-ac because I want to encourage people to look beyond the tenure track and even beyond universities themselves. I think that as a mediating institution, universities are becoming unnecessary. So maybe I am not post-ac in that I do not want to forsake the academic enterprise, but I think the modern university is doing such a poor job of meeting its original mandate that academics have to forge their own route.

Some notable examples of post-ac blogs are From PhD to Life, created by Jen Polk and Amanda Krauss. On their website they have tons of free resources such as books and presentations on how to go about a job search when you are leaving academia, and how to turn your CV into a resume that can get you a job at a business. One book listed, for example, is Heather Steel’s “What Can I do with a Graduate Degree in History?”: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding a Post-Academic Job.

James Mulvey from selloutyoursoul.com is another person to find online if you are interested in the post-ac route. He was in an English PhD program but dropped out when he realized how dire the chances were of actually getting a job in academia. James wrote a book that is a practical 18-week roadmap to finding a career with your humanities degree. It’s called “Find a Career with your Humanities Degree in 126 Days.” It takes you from having a degree but no idea what to do, with nothing but an academic CV in hand, and gives week-by-week help into turning your interests and academic experience into a career that matches those interests.

Another great blog is PhDs at Work. This blog connects PhDs working across industries and helps you make new professional contacts. One of the best things this blog has is “week-in-the-life” profiles of post-acs. These are scholars who describe the jobs they found and how they got their jobs and how they use their academic knowledge in these jobs. The people do such things as working at publishing houses, investment banks, marketing, PR and media service companies, museums, LinkedIn, startups, non-profits,

PhDs at Work also hosts many meetups and social events, primarily in the US. Upcoming cities include Portland, San Francisco, Washington DC, Seattle, and New York.

Perhaps the grandaddy of them all for post-acs is The Versatile PhD. This is the oldest, largest online community for non-faculty careers for PhDs in humanities, social sciences, and stem. It is primarily a message board, but over 50,000 have joined it since 1999. Here you can consult with people who are in a similar state as you, discover career paths, network with other PhDs, attend local meetups, and even find job listings appropriate for PhDs.

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