Outline

The Mass Exodus: Why People Are Leaving Academia and What We Can Learn from Their Stories

May 29, 2024

Sonia Arellano

Will Kurlinkus

Caitlan Spronk

Moderated by Alexandra Hidalgo

Introduction

In June of 2023, I got an email from Sonia Arellano. The subject line was “Professional Goodbye and Thank You.” She’d sent it to a dozen members of NCTE’s Latinx Caucus. In a beautifully crafted missive, Sonia told us she was leaving because staying in a flawed, exploitative system she’d unsuccessfully tried to change was unhealthy and unsustainable. She made a call to those who were staying to stand up to injustice within our departments and beyond. It took me days to process the email. Sonia had been a constellations managing editor for three years, and she was brilliant, fun, and utterly dependable. She also did some of the most innovative and moving scholarship I’ve encountered by theorizing quilting as a feminist act that helped elucidate the experiences of migrants in the US.

I was grateful to Sonia for elaborating on why she’d left because it helped me begin to piece together reasons for the mass exodus, as I call it. Since grad school, I’ve watched academics—from graduate students to full professors—leave. Sometimes I see it coming from people who seem unhappy or who detail their trials and tribulations on social media. Sometimes it’s completely unexpected from people who seem content and successful from my (usually limited) vantage point. One day they’re just gone, and I don’t know why. Nor do I have a way to ask because they’re no longer at conferences or on the listservs where academics connect.

The conversation you’re currently reading was inspired by my belief that, with our emphasis on personal storytelling, constellations is a great place for those who’ve left to explain their decision to those who’ve stayed. Additionally, I wanted to ask what they thought those who’d stayed could do to turn academia into a place where graduate students and faculty can see a future for themselves. It seemed like a fantastic idea, and we set out to contact people who’d left with invitations to participate. That’s when we realized this fantastic idea might also be unrealizable. We got some very kind no-thank-yous, some requests for payment for time spent doing something that only academics willingly do for free, some maybes that turned into nos. Mostly, we got silence. No response. When people leave, they leave. And why shouldn’t they?

 I couldn’t be more grateful to the three generous humans who did agree to participate in this conversation, even after they’d bid the Ivory Tower farewell:

  •  Sonia Arellano, technical writer.
  •  Will Kurlinkus, business communication instructor.
  •  Caitlan Spronk, software engineer.
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Don Unger, Santiago Hidalgo-Bowler, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Caitlan Spronk at CCCC 2015 in Tampa. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Hidalgo).

One aspect of Sonia’s letter I was hoping to explore is how academia tends to be even more onerous if you’re a woman of color. I tried (tenaciously) to encourage more women of color to participate, but I couldn’t find others who would. Still, Sonia does an excellent job describing the experiences of women of color, while Will and Caitlan show that many issues in academia affect people regardless of race and gender.

This conversation opens by describing how impactful mentorship can be. All three participants found their way to academia because mentors guided them in our direction. However, we need to rethink our approach to mentorship. As Will writes, “Mentorship and support are vital—but also realizing that mentoring on the realities of the job (good and bad) is equally important.” Not only in terms of the downsides of academia, but also how to stay sane and happy as academics. Sonia adds, “We weren’t mentored on how to live as a successful academic. And to be fair and honest to my more senior mentors, the academia they sold me is mostly what they got to experience.”

While it’s hard to predict what kind of opportunities will be available to our first-year PhDs, we can pay attention to trends and to how our students who are graduating perform on the academic, alternative academic (Alt-ac), and industry job markets. Then we can share that knowledge with students coming into our programs. We should also make sure students see beyond idealized stereotypes. Caitlan writes, “I think my young self was at least somewhat influenced by representations we see in popular media of professorship: inspiring young minds, oak-paneled classrooms.” For Will, some of those ideals became a reality, but there were also hardships no one prepared him for. He says, “I expected to research whatever I wanted and teach whatever I wanted at a big R1, and I got to do that! But no one talked to me about the hours, the money, the drawbacks of university life.” As we train students, we owe it to them (and to ourselves) to paint the full picture of what an academic is expected to do and under which conditions.

The hardest part of the conversation for me was when they discussed how little our labor is valued because—unlike the two themes above—there isn’t much faculty can do to alter that reality. One issue faculty have no control over is salary. Will explains, “I’ve worked as a professor since 2014 and the only raises I’ve received over the years were when I got tenure and when I argued that since I was directing a technical writing program and working over the summer, I should get paid for that (and I didn’t get paid for the first four years! Ha!).” Will’s statement is shocking, but only part of the problem, since undervaluing of labor goes beyond remuneration. Sonia writes, “[b]ecause we are expected to accept the passion tax (the idea that doing passionate work is worth the tax of terrible pay or treatment) as part of the virtue of working in academia, we are made to feel like a moral failure for not sticking it out.” I, at least, never had that reaction to someone leaving. Still, we should conscientiously build a culture where we don’t punish people for making the choices they need to make to live the lives they want and deserve.

The conversation ends with a positive spin as participants share how much of their academic skills have transferred to their new careers. Caitlan says that “the general research, critical thinking, and problem-solving mindset I learned in academia has been of great benefit.” She adds that graduate school “teaches you to ask questions, look at things from multiple angles, and find your own way into it.” Those are skills that will be assets in most professions. Sonia concurs, writing, “When I was reading job ads, I realized that academics do so many jobs in one.” She has realized that “my experience in academia was so vast that I have an example for any interview question I’ve been asked.” It’s hard to see vibrant, caring, innovative academics like Sonia, Will, and Caitlan leave. However, I’m glad some of the experiences they had are shaping their new paths in positive ways, just like they positively shaped their students’ and colleagues’ lives. Keep reading to find out why they came to academia, why they left, and where they went after they walked away.

Let’s start with the story of how you ended up in academia and how you envisioned your academic career would go.

Sonia Arellano: Hello, everyone. Well, I ended up in academia because Jaime Mejia was a great mentor to me, suggesting I apply to grad school and attend CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication). I fell in love with the field and the work, and I wanted to give back because I had a bad first-year-composition experience, and I wanted to make sure no one else had that same experience. I envisioned I’d start at an R1 school, maybe move, publish a book, get tenure, and contribute in a meaningful way to my community and university. 

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Sonia and her mentor Jaime Mejia during a visit to Texas. (Photo courtesy of Sonia Arellano).

Will Kurlinkus: I always wanted to be a writer. I ended up in academia much like Sonia, it sounds. I had good mentors (Gail Hawisher at Illinois was a big influence) and I took writing studies undergraduate and graduate classes at the University of Illinois that I really enjoyed. Gail also recommended I work as a consultant at the University Writing Center, which was my first “teaching” experience as well as my first real research experience—the Writing Center director Libby Morley had consultants create their own IRB-approved research studies. I had intended to be a high school teacher but loved working with college students so much and really enjoyed researching writing. My interests shifted everywhere I studied: I started off in stylistics, then writing technologies, then nostalgia and technology/design. 

As far as expectations, I suppose I expected my career to be much like my mentors’—that being said, I didn’t know what their personal lives and careers were actually like, just my idealized version. I expected to research whatever I wanted and teach whatever I wanted at a big R1, and I got to do that! But no one talked to me about the hours, the money, the drawbacks of university life, what it’s like to have a family without a support network nearby, about living in a very conservative state, etc. So, I got the academic mentoring, but not the “living mentoring” if that makes sense. I also kind of imagined the university as a meritocracy, where if you published well and taught well you would be paid well. Or at least equitably?

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Will Kurlinkus in his office in Oklahoma. (Photo credit: Krista Kurlinkus).

Caitlan Spronk: I was an English lit major and an honors student, so at the time going to grad school seemed like the thing to do. The professor who was my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Vander Lei, worked in the field of Rhetoric and Composition and she encouraged me to try that field, so that’s where I headed. I had planned to be a writing professor, and I think my young self was at least somewhat influenced by representations we see in popular media of professorship: inspiring young minds, oak-paneled classrooms, that sort of thing.

Will Kurlinkus: I love this nostalgic image of professorship with the oak-paneled walls, Caitlan! I longed for that, too. I didn’t imagine the tiny classrooms I used to teach in—this is my final year at University of Oklahoma and I’m teaching over Zoom. But I also like your “seemed like the thing to do” point. The path of least resistance option (despite the fact that it is secretly the path of most resistance!) feels like a common motivation for becoming an academic but also a common motivation for staying in academia even if you don’t want to anymore. I’ve had several colleagues across campus (who I know could get industry jobs) tell me it’s just easier to stay, even though their hearts are not in it anymore. In fact, I did the same thing—I was planning on getting an industry job but applied for and got a job teaching business communication at University of  Wisconsin-Madison because it just felt easier. 

Alexandra Hidalgo: Everyone seems to have a connection around mentors getting you into academia. That’s wonderful to hear and key for those of us who want to figure out how to connect to students and perhaps make a difference in their journeys.

Will Kurlinkus: Definitely true, Alex. Mentorship and support are vital—but also realizing that mentoring on the realities of the job (good and bad) is equally important.  

Sonia Arellano: It also seems like we all were English majors with a love for writing and reading. And Will, I also think working at the Writing Center always hooks us in, right? 

Will Kurlinkus: Absolutely, I loved working at the Writing Center, it was my first experience at feeling like an expert in writing. 

Sonia Arellano: And wow, Caitlan, the imagery of professors in popular media is so spot on. I recently told a mentor who retired and had the ideal career in academia, “Your amazing version of this career just doesn’t exist anymore.” At least not for people like me.  

Caitlan Spronk: Yes! That version of academia does not exist anymore, if it ever existed. And I worked at the Writing Center also, but only in grad school. I worked as both a tutor and as the “webmaster” for the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), and both of those were probably my favorite things I did in academia.

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Caitlan Spronk celebrating the launch of Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society with her fellow grad student co-founders at Purdue in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Hidalgo).

Will Kurlinkus: Totally agree on the non-existent ideal, Sonia. I got roughly that imagined ideal version, but what I imagined wasn’t what I imagined! When you’re thinking about the future, you imagine the big stuff and the shiny surfaces like the oak-paneled walls and the books you’ll write—all those dreams—but you don’t even think (at least I didn’t) about the pay or healthcare or where you’ll live, etc. Now, I tell my doctoral students, “Look, this is how much I get paid and I work at an R1 large state institution.” Sometimes they’re a little shocked, especially if they know how much their friends and family make at an industry job.

Sonia Arellano: Yup, exactly, Will. I think you phrased it perfectly that we weren’t mentored on how to live as a successful academic. And to be fair and honest to my more senior mentors, the academia they sold me is mostly what they got to experience. But as the university continues to shift, we must be honest with graduate students (more on this later I’m sure).

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Sonia Arellano at the RSA Institute 2023 updating her name tag to her new status: Independent Scholar. (Photo courtesy of Sonia Arellano).

Caitlan Spronk: I do recall my mentor and other undergrad professors gently trying to tell me that academia isn’t all oak-paneled walls, but it didn’t really sink in for me as a 22-year-old. I didn’t really have a better plan, and I wanted to try it. 

Will Kurlinkus: Totally agree, I know people were telling me these things, but I was a kid! Of course, they were mostly warning me that I would be lucky to get a job. 

Caitlan Spronk: Yes, it’s really young!

Will Kurlinkus: I don’t want to be totally negative, though. Because I really have had fun and some things really did work out for me. I love working with my students, I love teaching my classes, I love mentoring my graduate students and watching their projects turn from proposals to publications. That part really is a dream. But the part of it I didn’t understand, for instance, is oh, hey, you don’t get paid extra money for teaching grad students/independent studies. No one cares if you take on that extra work (the students care, of course!)

You’ve started touching upon the issues I wanted to ask you about on the next question. You guys are ahead of the game (of course!). Still, I’d love to give you space to ruminate a little more. What was your academic experience like, and how did it differ from what you’d imagined?

Caitlan Spronk: This is a hard one for me to answer, because I was really never very happy in academia, and that’s not necessarily all the fault of academia. It just was not a good fit for me. I realized fairly early on that, while I love tutoring, I don’t like classroom teaching or lesson planning, and I also couldn’t find my way into research that I was really passionate about. While I loved working in the Writing Lab and on the OWL, I found myself continually trying to make my research projects into reasons to learn programming languages. Inevitably, I’d spend time learning javascript or computer architecture instead of doing the theory reading and writing I was supposed to be doing. 

Sonia Arellano: I’ve been waiting to answer this one because it was everything I dreamed of…at first! I remember participating in the women of color leadership project at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference my first year as an assistant professor. So many of the women had intense grievances about their institutions and departments. I felt like such an anomaly because everything was great, and I didn’t have a single complaint. However, so many changes caused my experience to go downhill very quickly. I’d say the lack of COVID protocols and the Florida legislation were really disheartening and affected the job. The last straw, however, was a change in my departmental leadership that made all of the bad parts of academia insufferable. I got tenure and I left.

Will Kurlinkus: First, like Sonia, I want to say so much of what I imagined did come true. Often, I feel, out of sheer luck, and even now the idea of critiquing or leaving the university makes me feel guilty. Like 100 other people wanted my job and I got it and now I’m leaving? I got to work with smart students, nurture their projects, teach fun classes, I got tenure, I published a book. But my imagination of what academia would be like didn’t involve the day-to-day realities.

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Will Kurlinkus’s book, Nostalgic Design, a symbol of academic dreams that did come true. (Photo credit: Will Kurlinkus).

For instance, my friends and my wife (who is also my friend!) work in industry and get raises every year and often merit raises. They get praised and rewarded for doing a good job. I’ve worked as a professor since 2014 and the only raises I’ve received over the years were when I got tenure and when I argued that since I was directing a technical writing program and working over the summer, I should get paid for that (and I didn’t get paid for the first four years! Ha!). I think we got one cost of living raise (I know some schools get them every year—not us); everyone was excited until we realized, oh, this is like $50 more per paycheck. We recently started merit raises, which are their own can of competitive worms. Only like 5% of people in a given department get them in a given year. A lot has been written on this, but I got tired of working for the prestige and the love of the game. Those are nice for a while but don’t pay the bills, and I eventually learned that institutions won’t love you back.

Another thing that I felt over the years was how isolating things were. I loved my colleagues and even played on a volleyball team with some of them. I’ve got friends, but when I was doing some research or publishing an article or running a national workshop or whatever, I never felt like people knew/cared what I was doing. I also didn’t feel particularly rewarded for the extra labor it took to make those things happen.

A final thing is that I really imagined that professors might have some say over what was going on at the university. Like we’re experts in fields and so the university might listen, but that never really panned out. So, for instance (and Sonia mentioned this too), during the pandemic our faculty senate had all sorts of recommendations about wearing masks, social distancing, etc., and the university just ignored them. They didn’t even reply. Or, recently, we’ve had anti-DEI legislations come down and, again, the faculty senate made a statement against them, but the university president was essentially like, well, can’t do anything about it. The lack of backbone (combined with lip service) kills me.

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Screenshot of a headline that shows the University of Oklahoma not listening to its own law professors who told them that they could require masks during the pandemic. (August 2021 OU Daily article written by Jillian Taylor).

Sonia Arellano: Will, one point you made really struck me. My good experience did seem to be all luck, and that’s one thing that was so hard to come to terms with. I knew people who worked very hard and yielded very little and others who barely did any work but were praised. Jobs didn’t necessarily go to those who were the most qualified. BUT isn’t that the case in most jobs and fields? I guess the thing for me is that academia (or at least our field) presents itself as equitable and considerate, but in the end it wasn’t (at least in my experience). 

Will Kurlinkus: Yes, I agree that it’s probably the case in most fields, but it felt so built up or something. I haven’t left, yet, I’m about to leave, and I feel like I’m throwing something away. It feels like I’m spitting on all my friends who didn’t get the job or something. I think, too, it’s important to tell students about this idea of luck. That it’s not necessarily who is best, but who seems the best at a specific moment to a specific search committee. 

Last summer, I moved out of Oklahoma with nothing (no job prospects), but I wanted to live by my family, and I recently got a new job, and it felt the same way. I saw the right job ad at the right time, and I randomly did well in the interview (I’m usually terrible at interviews because I don’t sleep the night before). But to Sonia’s point on the appearance of equitability—yes, that is a soul crusher. It’s such an affective calculus on why I left my tenured job in this way: 

-1 The university says they’re equitable but just bow to our shady state government. 

+1 I love my students.

 -1 Our state has underfunded public schools so I’ll have to pay private school tuition for my son.

It’s hard because, and we’ll get to this, but the reason I left wasn’t because I hated my job. Like I really really love researching and writing and I often love teaching (depending on the students and the class).

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Caitlan Spronk and fellow Purdue grad student Liz Angeli enjoy a laugh between reading Aristotle and Cicero. (Photo credit: Gracemarie Mike Fillenwarth).

Caitlan Spronk: In terms of Sonia’s point about “isn’t that the case in most jobs?” when it comes to how the best people aren’t always the ones who get hired, I’d say yes, to some degree. The difference is that, in academia, the stakes are SO high that it feels like academia needs to do an especially good job of being equitable. If I didn’t like my corporate job, I could give my two week’s notice, and in theory, go out and get a different corporate job in a few months, rather than having to wait an entire year, go through another grueling job market, and maybe still not get anything out of it. I’ll be harsh here: it’s absolutely insane. (And I never even did the academic job market, having noped on outta there.)

Sonia Arellano: Caitlan, it’s so interesting to hear your perspective. I know quite a few people who had a similar experience or felt a similar way. In some ways I almost wish I had a bad experience from the beginning so I could have moved on sooner. Instead, it feels like I put my heart and soul into a thing that just couldn’t love me back the way I knew I deserved. But I know there’s no use in comparing which awful relationship is worse.

Caitlan Spronk: I agree, Sonia. The funny thing is that although I felt something was not a good fit fairly early on, I did end up staying in academia almost seven years. I finished my M.A., and made it to ABD status, and then I just could not get a dissertation off the ground because my heart wasn’t in it. I had taken a technical writing internship to explore that path, because I kind of knew academia wasn’t working for me. Since I was so close, I did linger for a bit on the intention of still finishing a dissertation, just to have those credentials. But it was making me miserable, so I finally let it go after I had already been working full time as a technical writer for a while. At this point in my life, I’m not sorry I went to grad school or had that experience. I think it was a growing experience for me and some of the skills I learned definitely make me better at my engineering job, and in fact I’m not sure I would ever be in the career I love if I hadn’t taken this circuitous route to get here.

Will Kurlinkus: Caitlan’s story makes me think that having different off-ramps at different points in a graduate program is important. Like, PhD is one off-ramp, but so is an internship like she had. And trying our hardest not to privilege one above another.

Sonia Arellano: Can I just chime in to say I’m super proud of us all for leaving something that we spent a lot of time and energy on, while also not regretting our “circuitous” routes. (Caitlan, I love this word!)

Will Kurlinkus: I constantly have to cheer myself on like this! And remind myself I’m still a writer and researcher. Good job, us!

Sonia just gave us the perfect transition to our next question! What made you decide to step away from academia? Was it a combination of things or one major event? I realize that this is a reductive question and that what precipitates these kinds of decisions can’t be explained in a few paragraphs, but it would still be useful to hear even a reductive account of what caused you to leave academia behind.
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Sonia Arellano giving a community workshop in Orlando Florida about quilting.

Sonia Arellano: Oof, to put it simply, the cons outweighed the pros for me. In a letter I wrote to my colleagues when I left, I boiled it down to the following reasons: 

  • My work/life balance was unsustainable.
  • I did not feel valued as a person. 
  • I lost faith in the institution and began to question my unethical contributions to it, mainly exploitation of people in precarious positions and protecting the university over students and faculty.
  • I experienced performative allyship from administration and senior colleagues that fractured my trust. 

But, in the end, the breaking point was my health (mental and physical). My chair and my dean were terribly unsupportive (dare I say, made my life so much worse than necessary) and they contributed to my decline in health. I kept asking myself: what is tenure worth if I’m so unhealthy?

Will Kurlinkus: I totally identify with everything Sonia is saying here. Like, even though I was kind of fine with work/life balance, I completely lost faith in my institution. The performative allyship from admin was a big one for me too. For instance, we were supposed to have this big change to our first-year experience in response to several racist incidents on campus. We had developed a whole diversity course and curriculum that was going to be required and even hired a set of faculty for them. Then the state said we couldn’t have required DEI and the university pretty much immediately folded.

I had my son, Grey, in September 2019, right before the start of the pandemic and right during my sabbatical. So, perspective. I see Sonia writing about cons outweighing pros and the exact thing is true for me as I mentioned with my affective calculus above. I didn’t feel supported by my university during the pandemic—the leadership kind of bowed to the whims of Oklahoma’s conservative governor (who said we couldn’t mandate masks). It made me so mad—I thought to myself, isn’t the university supposed to be the voice of reason, of science, of fighting to make the world better? And we can’t even protect our employees and students? I started realizing, too, our public school systems were deeply politicized and worse for it. But also, my wife is a professional writer, and I started watching how she valued her time as a working writer—getting paid for meetings and the time she puts in—and I started seeing my time differently.

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Will Kurlinkus’s son, Grey, the biggest change in his life that made him reconsider his career in September 2019, right before the pandemic began (Photo credit: Krista Kurlinkus).

Our university also puts such little effort at retention at the associate level—like once you get tenure, good luck. So there was even less support or acknowledgment of work. I remember one of the first things I did when I was new at OU was the new faculty orientation; I met a lot of people who would become my close friends there. But I’m now the eighth professor in just my friend group/cohort across the humanities that has left. More than half left for industry jobs. It’s also interesting and affirming to me that when I told my colleagues and friends I was leaving, they were all incredibly supportive—they understood my motivations intimately (almost as if they’d been doing the same pro/con evaluation for years as well).

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Screenshot of a headline that shows how the University of Oklahoma shuttered/reshuffled its DEI offices in response to a state executive order without pushing back. (December 2023 Higher Ed Dive article written by Laura Spitalniak).

Caitlan Spronk: I think I’ve covered this pretty well above, but to briefly repeat it: academia wasn’t a good fit for me. I didn’t like either teaching or researching enough to stick it out and deal with some of the downsides. I kept being pulled toward my technical interests, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to get a technical writing internship at a software company and that morphed into a full-time position. At the same company, through luck and perseverance, I pivoted to my dream job as a software engineer, and that’s where I’m still at today. 

Will Kurlinkus: As a technical writing guy, I’m feeling this same pull Caitlan describes. Like, I really love qualitative research, interviewing people. When I decided I was leaving Oklahoma, I started training for a research job in tech and doing some informational interviews. I actually had an interview at a major design firm, but then I saw an academic job near me (non-tenure track but in a business school, so it pays more money than I get paid now). I applied and got that job. Now, I’m still thinking about the alternative future I didn’t pursue of being in industry, working as a technical writer or qualitative researcher, and feel just a bit disappointed. 

Sonia Arellano: Caitlan, as some of my former students would say, “I love this journey for you.” But seriously, I look to former academics like you, who’ve now landed their dream job and I tell myself that I can do it too! I hope that others read this and know that they can make the pivot and deserve what they want. 

Caitlan Spronk: Sonia, yes! Honestly, it was really scary at first, and there were times I was not sure what the heck I was doing. Especially the first six months to a year in the engineering job. I had SUCH imposter syndrome. 

Sonia Arellano: Will, you’ve mentioned a few times your wife, who is in industry, and seeing her life in comparison to yours. I can totally identify with this as my husband is in IT. He constantly gets raises and promotions, doesn’t work on weekends, and isn’t stressed. I would see him compared to my life (always working, always putting out fires, always asking for the bare minimum and still being denied) and I just thought, this isn’t it. I’ve talked with others who have left academia and had a non-academic partner, and I think when you consider some of the points Will has made about the downsides to academia, it makes total sense that seeing another person in your household experience something so different inspires you to want better too. 

Will Kurlinkus: Yes, I’ve watched my wife, some of my good friends who left academia, even some of my students experience this. It’s one of several ruptures to my point of view that made me question my career. I feel lucky to have gotten the perspective. My wife also has the same PhD as me, so in some sense it made me feel like, well, I have some of the same skills as her. Maybe I could do it.

Again, we’ve gotten some of this already, but here we go, so we can get a clearer sense of your journeys. What have you been doing since leaving academia, and what are the most rewarding aspects of this new path for you?

Will Kurlinkus: My journey is a bit weird here. I decided to leave Oklahoma in spring of 2023, but was asked to stay on to finish directing my PhD students and help hire my replacement as director of technical writing. So, I moved to Illinois in the summer of 2023 to be near my family (my mom, dad, Grey’s uncles and aunts, and my nephew). I had no idea what I was going to do when I left, but had this transition year teaching over Zoom, which was super generous of my chair to give me. Once I moved, I started essentially prepping skills for industry jobs. 

I took several UX courses on Coursera and got certificates (it’s funny because I teach UX at a more advanced level than those courses and feel I’m semi-expert at it but don’t have projects or certifications to make that expertise real). I started putting together a tech writing portfolio. I began working a bit more for my wife’s grant writing consultancy—anything I could do to say my writing and research skills weren’t only academic/imaginary. Like I said above, I actually got several interviews/requests for more materials from design firms, but ultimately, I saw a post for a non-tenure track position about a 40-minute commute from where our new house is. It’s in a school of business. Somehow, I’ll be getting paid more for doing less work, which is nice. Actually, I don’t know if it’s less work yet! I start in the fall. 

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Megan Schoen, Cristyn Elder, Caitlan Spronk, and Alex Layne celebrate the end of the spring semester at Purdue in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Caitlan Spronk).

Caitlan Spronk: I sort of “soft-left” academia, in that I was still enrolled as a student when I accepted a full-time technical writing job, and for a while at least, I thought I would still write a dissertation. I worked for a couple years as a technical writer, and at that job, I would also make up excuses to learn more technical things and write code (yes, there’s a pattern here). I was the docs writer for the analytics UI (User Interface) team at my company. We had to come up with goals every year, and I made it one of mine to learn more about the analytics API (Application Programming Interface) by actually working with it. 

My technical writing boss was so impressed by that project, in which I wrote a small application that used the analytics’ API, that he arranged for the analytics UI team lead to mentor me and I got to actually work on some tickets for the team. Eventually, she had a software engineer opening on her team, I interviewed for it, and got it. I owe my career to both that first boss who saw promise and set up that mentorship, and to the UI team lead, who is my current boss and who took a chance on hiring an English M.A. onto her engineering team. To be clear, at that point I could program in javascript, having spent years learning to code when I was supposed to be doing other things, so she knew I had some ability, but she was still taking a chance on someone with no engineering-related degree.

Sonia Arellano: Caitlan, first of all, I’m over here cheering for you and your path because it’s such a hopeful one. You mention something that I heard in a panel discussion about former academics going into industry: someone took a chance on you. In the informational interviews I’ve done, I found that academics often get their foot in the door because someone takes a chance on them and/or someone (sometimes another former academic) knows the value of your academic background. And I think your path shows that. In fact, in the interview for the job I’ve just gotten, there was a PhD on the interview panel, and I believe that was to my benefit.  

Will Kurlinkus: I’m over here cheering on both of you (and also jealous since I’m still in the academic cult). I like this idea Sonia just mentioned about academics sponsoring academics to get industry jobs. 

Sonia Arellano: I resigned from my academic job in May of 2023, and I spent about six months healing. My partner was in Germany for work, so I tagged along and had a European summer to help in my healing (so privileged, I know). I spent the next six months looking for a job, and it was ROUGH! I initially wanted to transition into UX research, but the market is pretty terrible right now. I had to learn, seemingly for the first time, how to look for an industry job in the current market, with AI, and so many unethical practices around hiring. A job offer has recently fallen through because of factors outside of anyone’s control, but it’s left me hopeful that I’ll find a great fit soon.

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Sonia Arellano and her partner Javier traveling in southern Spain after resigning from her academic job.(Photo courtesy of Sonia Arellano).

The most rewarding aspect has been the work I’ve done on myself in this process. I thought I’d have to work through some grief to mourn the professor life I thought I’d have, but in reality the work has been detaching my self-worth from my productivity and income. Although we make this connection in our capitalist society generally, in academia our self-worth is so incredibly tied to our productivity and identity in such a different way. I think because we are expected to accept the passion tax (the idea that doing passionate work is worth the tax of terrible pay or treatment) as part of the virtue of working in academia, we are made to feel like a moral failure for not sticking it out. That has been the real recovery project for me post-academia. 

Caitlan Spronk: Sonia, I hope you find something you love. For me at least, the work-life balance, and the clear line between the quality of my work and my compensation has been wonderful. Although I do have 24/7 on-call shifts every once in a while, it’s still so lovely to not feel like I’m at work all the time in the same way I did in grad school.

Will Kurlinkus: I really like Sonia’s statement on taking time to heal and mourn. I haven’t done it yet. I’m still waiting for it to hit me (I know it will) that I’m no longer a tenured professor who trains English students and teaches and researches in the way I always have. This mourning of a lost identity is so real.

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Will Kurlinkus’s tenure letter from the University of Oklahoma (circa May 2020). (Photo courtesy of Will Kurlinkus).

Many (dare I say most? I certainly hope it’s most) graduate programs in the humanities are trying to figure out how to provide learning opportunities that prepare students for careers beyond becoming faculty. Are there aspects of your academic training that have transferred particularly well to life outside the Ivory Tower? If so, do you have ideas for how we can incorporate them into our graduate curriculum?

Caitlan Spronk: My technical writing training has been the most helpful and directly applicable to both jobs: the documentation job and the engineering job. In fact, and you all will love this: I was literally helping my co-workers collaboratively write a proposal for an internal developer conference we’re having this fall. I also write complex technical information for my job pretty much on a daily basis, whether in communication with coworkers, or in explaining things on tickets or to the customer support team or writing up requirements with and for the product management team.

I also think that the general research, critical thinking, and problem-solving mindset I learned in academia has been of great benefit to me in my career. To be a good engineer, you need to know more than just the rote programming language. You need to be able to analyze the problem you’ve been set, figure out what you don’t know, and then apply what you learn in a smart way. I’ve seen a couple new hires struggle and self-select out because they didn’t have these skills. This is one thing that I do think that grad school is doing pretty well currently—it really teaches you to ask questions, look at things from multiple angles, and find your own way into it. 

Sonia Arellano: My suggestion for graduate programs has nothing to do with curriculum because we all know we can teach things we are just learning about and some programs are doing good work to prepare students. My suggestion is to stop thinking about reproducing more academics and start asking students how to facilitate the kinds of post graduation lives they want. When students would talk to me about grad school, the first conversation I would have with them was about money because I am a first-gen student who didn’t know what I was doing when I took out loans for grad school. Insofar as we care about our students and preparing them for their lives after college, I think it would be helpful for academics to familiarize themselves with what types of jobs our degrees can prepare students for, and importantly, ask students what kinds of jobs they hope to do. That is a key starting point. 

Will Kurlinkus: This type of training and multiple path setup has been my hobby horse over the years. Something I want to say, first and foremost, is that no individual person can do this work on their own. I was the director of technical writing and would be like, we need internships, we need training, we need resume writing workshops, and often was told, “Well, go do that.” So I did. I ran an annual resume writing workshop, I ran a social media internship, I transformed our writing-track capstone so students had professional writing portfolios when they graduated, I emailed and set up internship contracts, blah blah blah.

But I eventually just had to stop myself because 1. No one cared. And 2. I wasn’t rewarded in any way for the work. Service was 20% of my annual evaluation and people sitting passively on two committees got the same scores as me. So, no one can do it alone. And I also want to say this shouldn’t be only on the rhet-comp people, which I often feel it is. Maybe our courses allow for more service learning and professional writing, but I’d argue that all courses have opportunities for small shifts towards professionalization.

So, things we can do to urge multiple off-ramps for the English graduate students (and a lot of this is for undergrads, too): vary the genres you’re teaching. Don’t just teach research essays. I’ve got a very good colleague who is a lit faculty member, for instance, and he teaches what I call a theory narration, where he asks students to make a YouTube-style video essay explaining/exemplifying a critical theory to a lay audience. Similarly, one of the few times I’ve taught creative writing and literature is in the capstone, where I have my students read speculative fiction (primarily Afro and Indigenous futurism) then ask them to write their own piece of speculative fiction imagining how a technological or social problem might play out in 10, 20, 100 years. They then write a grant proposal for a project that might encourage utopic visions or ward off the dystopia in the present. So literature and professional writing combined. Still, I’ve had a lot of lit colleagues (not just at my uni) tell me they just don’t know how to teach professional writing—which, I think, is bullshit. They can learn—they do research on their favorite topics all the time; they can research how to write a grant or a resume just like how I researched how to teach Afro-futurism.

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University of Oklahoma English major recruitment fair bookmarks, designed by Will Kurlinkus (labor he was never paid for). (Photo credit: Will Kurlinkus).

Of course, I think internships are key as well because they show students how to activate their writing, create community connections, and because students sometimes get jobs at their internships. But I also think making internal connections/internships possible is equally as fruitful sometimes. So, having a social media intern for a department or showing other pathways (we just created a science writing minor between English and geosciences that’s kind of an exchange program to create science writers, for instance).

Caitlan Spronk: Obviously I really, really agree with the point about internships because that’s how I initially landed on my path. I’m not sure what English departments are currently doing, but it felt like internship programs were not as well developed, especially for English undergrads. At my workplace, we consider engineering internships to be a key hiring pipeline and, from my perspective at least, it feels like STEM programs have a much better handle on getting their students into internships. But maybe things have changed since my time.

Will Kurlinkus: Regarding the reality of English department internships, it’s kind of weird. I say this because students often aren’t excited about internships (again, this is primarily at the undergrad level—but this applies to grad students too) or don’t know what it might be or haven’t been told or are trepidatious. I think maybe sometimes the students that choose an English major want super creative work, take fun classes, and imagine themselves as a creative writer. And so, when I recommend that even if you are going to be a creative writer, you might want to consider a tech writing internship because you’ll have to support yourself before you write your bestselling novel, they can be turned off. But then when I bring it up again in the capstone right before they’re going to graduate, they are much more terrified about job prospects and thus receptive. Ha. 

I don’t think professionalization can happen only in their final years—that’s a disservice, but it can be hard to get students to understand this early on. At the grad level, we’ve been toying with requiring some kind of work/internship beyond taking classes and teaching classes—working in the writing center, working as a journal editor, helping organize a conference, helping write grants for a local non-profit, etc.—openness and willingness to seek out that variety is important. 

Sonia Arellano: I think what Caitlan and Will have written about covers what I was going to add about what has transferred well: EVERYTHING! When I was reading job ads, I realized that academics do so many jobs in one. Especially as writers, we are so prepared to do many jobs. I would see so many job ads and think, I can do that. My experience in academia was so vast that I have an example for any interview question I’ve been asked. And Will’s answer above about all that he was doing in his program proves that there are plenty of programs doing the good work already, but if it’s not valued by the institution or department, it won’t last. 

For those of us who are still in academia, do you have any suggestions for how we can transform ourselves, our programs, and our institutions so that brilliant, compassionate people like yourselves find academia to be a space where they can have fruitful and satisfying careers?

Will Kurlinkus: I honestly don’t know. The reasons I left have more to do with state politics and being burned out by an uncaring university than they have to do with things individuals or departments can control. Valuing different kinds of labor would have been huge for me (one of my friends at another uni gets a course release for every two independent studies). Celebrating all kinds of labor as well. Celebrating publications, celebrating students getting their PhDs, etc. For a while we didn’t have much of this type of everyday celebration and reflecting on one another’s work, which made me feel unseen and I’m sure made other people feel unseen as well. We’re doing better at this now. Also celebrating our students, especially grad students, who get non-academic jobs. Like we announce when one of our students gets a job as a professor and always talk about them, but those students who get jobs as technical writers, advertisers, teachers, etc. should be celebrated too. I think we give lip service to alternative routes but don’t celebrate them in the same way. We should be as or more excited about success stories like Caitlan’s and Sonia’s. We should be bringing them back (and paying them) to give talks to our current students. 

Sonia Arellano: I agree with Will here, simple recognition of people’s work and valuing people’s accomplishments can go a long way in changing morale and shifting culture. 

Caitlan Spronk: Hmm, tough question. Continuing to do stuff like this, for one. I think we all have inherent biases to like the path we’ve chosen, so we tend to advise people in the direction we’ve gone. So it makes sense that people who have chosen to be professors will mentor their students in that direction. But I sense a growing awareness that other paths are valid and that alt-ac is an option. I’d encourage people in the position of mentoring undergrad and especially grad students to bring up that these are valid options. Maybe gain some awareness of how to help people get non-academic jobs—the corporate and/or non-profit job market works very differently from the academic one. There’s some overlap, but the process and materials can be quite different. It’d be nice for grad students to have access to both academic job market mentoring and non-academic job market mentoring.

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Caitlan Spronk with her husband during their wedding in 2022. (Photo courtesy of Caitlan Spronk).

Sonia Arellano: I agree with Caitlan here that alt-ac is much more common to discuss as an option and the work is being done to help make that shift for students. I would have loved to have a non-academic job market class like we had for the job market (the latter was apparently not that common). 

Will Kurlinkus: Totally agree with Caitlan and Sonia. Often, too, I hear any non-professorial job referred to as alt-ac. Which kind of shows an unawareness or uncaringness about anything but professorial jobs. A non-academic job class would be great. I tried to do this a little bit by bringing in different types of writers/alumni to talk about their jobs in our capstone, but again I feel like the capstone is sometimes too little too late.

Sonia Arellano: To answer this question, I have to say something that is common knowledge among the academics I am close to but controversial among many in positions of power: universities and the field of Rhetoric and Composition are founded upon and continue to uphold white supremacist values and practices. Considering this foundation, the only suggestion I have is to honestly do the work to transform the larger structures. I left because I didn’t see change but instead reinforcement of those values and practices. However, I believe some change is possible. For example, a colleague of mine who does work on Black, feminist technical writing was able to move her line into an African American and African Studies Department, and she is significantly happier because she feels supported to do the work she loves. She is one of few BIPOC people I know who feel 100% happy and valued in their role. I believe the key here is to provide a department, field, and university that is healthy to have a fruitful career. Based on my experience, dysfunctional universities yield dysfunctional departments, and even a well-meaning field and amazing and supportive colleagues across the field can’t make up for what you experience at your home institution. 

Caitlan Spronk: Yep. I maybe shouldn’t say this out loud, but at least the corporate world is slightly more honest about its motivations. The goal is making money, and they’re pretty clear about that. 

Sonia Arellano: YES! I can value honesty.

Will Kurlinkus: What Sonia is saying is dire. Again, I think this means valuing labor that gets disproportionately placed onto BIPOC and female academics, like service and committee work. Truly valuing. I just fought to have a community service route towards tenure in our department, for instance, because so much of that community work in our department has been done by our female faculty of color but, again, is thrown into the “service” category and not rewarded. We were changing our tenure guidelines—which we had a lot of freedom from the college in doing—but were being very conservative at first, you know, let’s do an article track, let’s do a digital humanities track. But I was feeling if we have a space to grab some power for others in this way, let’s open things up, not be conservative, make room for the kind of work being done and the kind of people we’d like to join us in the future. 

About the Authors

Sonia C. Arellano is an independent scholar and current Director of the Migrant Quilt Project. Her scholarship broadly engages social justice issues through textiles, tactile methods and rhetorics, and mentoring of BIPOC students and faculty. You can see her scholarship in journals such as Peitho, Rhetoric Review, Composition Studies and College Composition and Communication. Sonia was awarded the 2022 CCCC Richard Braddock Award for her research quilt and article titled “Sexual Violences Traveling to El Norte: An Example of Quilting as Method.” Additionally, Sonia received the 2022 Theresa J. Enos Anniversary Award, which recognizes “Best Essay” published in Rhetoric Review, for her article “Quilting as a Qualitative, Feminist Research Method: Expanding Understandings of Migrant Deaths.” Find her on her website: www.soniarellano.com.

Will Kurlinkus is (soon to be was) a tenured Associate Professor of English and Director of Technical Writing and Communication at the University of Oklahoma. In summer 2023 he left Oklahoma to live near his family in Illinois. And in fall 2024 he will begin a new position as untenured Business Communication Faculty in the Business School at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His scholarship on nostalgia, rhetoric, and design can be found in College English, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and his book Nostalgic Design: Rhetoric, Memory, and Democratizing Technology. Find him on Instagram (@wkurlinkus) or on his website: www.wkurlinkus.com.

Caitlan Spronk is a Senior Software Engineer at Genesys, a cloud customer experience and contact center software company. She has an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue University, where she served as the webmaster for the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) and co-founded Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society. She lives in Michigan with her husband and stepdaughter and is an avid thrifter for vintage clothes and objects. 

About the Moderator 

Alexandra Hidalgo is a Venezuelan writer, filmmaker, theorist, memoirist, and editor whose documentaries have been official selections for film festivals in 15 countries and been screened at universities around the United States. She is the recipient of From the Heart Productions’ inaugural “Carole Joyce Award for Excellence in Documentary Storytelling.” Her videos and writing have been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, The Criterion Collection, and Women and Hollywood. She has a PhD in English from Purdue University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and is associate professor and Crow Chair of English at the University of Pittsburgh. Her video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition received the Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award. Her scholarship has been published in Kairos, Composition Studies, Enculturation, and Peitho, among others. Her video essay, “Motherhood on the Screen,” received the Kairos Best Webtext Award. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed journal constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space.

Production Credits

Copy Editors: Natalie Cohen and Alexandra Hidalgo

Posted by: Natalie Cohen

Editorial Assistants: Alex Jennings

Social Media Manager: Evelynn Pugh

Editor-in-Chief: Alexandra Hidalgo