Navigating “Postdoc Purgatory” (and Helping to Save the Humanities)

By Scott Muir
Ph.D.’18 Religion

Scott MuirLast Christmas was by far the bleakest of the 33 I’ve faced. I had just learned that I was not on the shortlist for the last tenure-track job I interviewed for, leaving my job hunt cold. Like many of my colleagues, I’d spent the final 18 months of my doctorate wringing my hands over the job market, applying to dozens of academic jobs while finishing my dissertation. The dissertation was all but finished, but I could hardly even enjoy the milestone. My funding had been exhausted and my spouse’s grant-funded social work job was set to expire in three months.

The pressure became more primal: I needed a job. But how to summon the energy to cast a wider net when I was feeling so demoralized?

Just then, I received an unexpected gift. A colleague forwarded a Versatile PhD email with a National Humanities Alliance (NHA) job ad for a Social Science Fellowship to Help Save the Humanities. “Right up your alley,” she said. As a hybrid humanist/social scientist, I wholeheartedly agreed. I, like many others, was longing to do something amidst our nation’s political crisis.

Within six weeks, I had received and accepted a job offer—a refreshingly swift process after two years of submitting thick dossiers for jobs from which I might hear so much as a generic email response six months later. Deliverance!

Completing a dissertation while searching for a job is without question the most grueling emotional rollercoaster I have ridden. It feels never-ending. And then it ends, and everything is OK. Really.

“Breaths of Fresh Air”

Like many, I had hoped for a tenure-track job, though doubts increased the more I pursued one. I had also explored jobs in higher-ed administration, but the NHA fellowship was the furthest I had ventured outside the academy. I still have a couple of toeholds—promoting federal funding for humanities scholarship is part of my job at NHA, and I continue to teach an online survey course at Western Carolina University—but my work life, output, and motives have all fundamentally changed.

Most of those changes are decidedly for the better, but of course there are costs. The boundaries of the 9-to-5 feel like blessings, mostly. The spacious weekends and paid time off have felt like breaths of fresh air that have blown away the pressure of “you can always do more.” On the other hand, I miss the freedom and fluidity of my grad school days, and I struggle with the cubicle, fluorescent lighting, and constant staring at back-lit screens.

Work-wise, I have made the leap from independent interest-driven (“pure”) research to collaborative advocacy-driven (“applied”) research. I design surveys to measure the impact of programs funded by the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), work with NEH project directors to implement those surveys, and write blog posts and advocacy materials that connect the collected data with broader conversations about the value of the humanities and the importance of federal support for them. For me, the shift couldn’t be more welcome, but perhaps I’m not enough of a true believer in pure research.

Which brings me to motives: As I shift from individual academic motives to collective civic motives, I have become more keenly aware of how the individualism of the academy is intertwined with the instrumentalism and careerism that too often undermine the purity of the research enterprise. Ironically, venturing into the political arena has revived deep intrinsic values that had been overshadowed by the need to establish myself when I was a vulnerable graduate student.

As an extrovert, by far the most refreshing shift has been joining a great team. I get to support my colleagues’ fascinating, impressive, and important work and benefit from their support as we share resources, edit each other’s work, and discuss relevant issues. We’re all in what feels like a noble enterprise together, and we all clearly enjoy it. We also laugh a lot and eat ice cream together on each other’s birthdays.

Then there are the people whose work I highlight through my research. I love being in a position to encourage and affirm some unsung heroes—those who work to make invaluable public humanities projects come alive. I also appreciate the opportunity to write more succinctly and accessibly while tackling larger issues—in other words, de-academicizing my writing toward broader engagement.

“Purgatory” and Possibilities

The biggest loss is a long-term sense of trajectory. I had dreamed of working at a single institution for decades, becoming a part of its fabric and history, and continuing to work part-time in my twilight years. I clung to that illusion of security and longevity even as it was called in to question by what I actually witnessed: the adjunct majority, the constant job hopping of young faculty, and tenured faculty who continue to bristle under various institutional pressures. Now I have no firm ideas about where my career is heading long term—which may actually be more appropriate given my adventurous personality and lived experience of unexpected turns, but it’s bracing nonetheless. I call it postdoc purgatory.

At the same time, I appreciate the freedom to pivot in several different directions without having to make a huge leap. Many opportunities that were previously invisible, vague, or distant now appear within reach. I am enjoying this expansion of possibilities while simultaneously struggling to let go of the longing for a clear trajectory and embrace the discipline of “staying where my feet are.”

If you are where I was at the beginning of this blog post, hang in there! I thought I knew what I was getting into with the challenging job market—that I was comfortable playing a wide range of options and would be OK whatever happened. But it’s a brutal process and a brutal market, and the widespread despair about the state of our world and higher education certainly doesn’t help. It’s easy to be beaten down to the point of doubting what you have to offer and becoming alienated from your core capacities and sense of self.

If you’re feeling less intelligent, confident, and capable than you did when you got into your Ph.D. program (we all felt really smart then, right?), know that it is normal and, ironically, a testimony to how much you have learned and grown through the process. You are actually stronger, smarter, and more capable, even if that’s not how you feel at the moment. There are many paths you might take to share your particular gifts with the world. The question is which will unfold for you.