Life after academia: a status report

This past week, I started retooling my online presence, both on this website and on Twitter. I made the changes after a lot of reflection and with some misgivings over what I was doing. While not dramatic, I had decided to reduce the prominence of my academic qualifications and accomplishments. On Twitter, for example, my bio no longer says I’m a historian with a PhD. I’m now a “words and images guy” in part in recognition of my renewed focus on art as part of what I do.

The reason for the change was not complicated. I do not have a career in academia, and an academic identity in much of the world in which I am striving to make a living is a neutral/negative. Having a PhD was starting to cause discernible damage, although the potential for harm had started to appear almost from the moment I began my doctoral studies, back in 2010.

The blowback began when I published The Race to the New World—even before it was published, actually, by Palgrave Macmillan (world ex Canada, 2011) and Douglas & McIntyre (Canada, 2012). While it was in production I mentioned to an editor at D&M that I was starting a history PhD. He audibly groaned into the telephone and said, “What are you doing THAT for?” When it was published, a reviewer in Winnipeg who had liked God’s Mercies panned the new book, saying that my writing had been ruined by my current PhD studies. I found that bleakly hilarious, as I had completed the manuscript and hit the “send” button to my editor in New York before I started my doctoral course work. The Canadian edition enjoyed a superlative review in Literary Review of Canada by Mark Starowicz, the celebrated producer of CBC’s history of Canada, but it ended with a peculiar caveat: “He is currently working on his PhD at York University. If that doesn’t spoil his writing, Hunter is on track to become a major player in popular Canadian history.” Clearly I was heading for a bumpy reception down the road as an established author.

The general hostility toward academic credentials and training was reiterated after I completed my PhD and postdoctorate, when my agent submitted a book proposal to a mainstream trade publisher in Canada. The proposal was rejected, with the comment that it sounded “too academic.” There was nothing academic about the proposal or the writing in the sample chapter at all. What was academic was the part of my cv accounting for my life from 2010 to 2017. It had begun to sink in that this doctorate thing was not being greeted as a sign of reliable, rigorous research and engagement of ideas. It was a red flag indicating to some that I had become dull, tendentious, mired in theory (and probably in political correctness or whatever sin academia is being accused of at the moment), and incapable of producing an engaging narrative. I apparently had poisoned my own well, salted my own fields.

I suspect many people I now deal with as a freelance writer, in my return to what I call civilian life, view my PhD as an interesting but irrelevant aspect of who I am, or what I can do for them. And I began to worry that people who did not already know me from my literal decades of productive publishing would give the opportunity to work with me a pass (as one publishing house recently had) because of what they considered a fatal flaw in my cv. And so, by the end of 2018, I decided to start dialling back the PhD in my online presence. I don’t suppose that, unless I completely expunge my academic record from my cv, a publishing world that harbours pockets of hostility toward scholarly qualifications is going to forget that I’m now officially a “doctor.” So I am trying to carry on in some muddy middle ground. All my academic stuff is still there on this website, for anyone who cares, and I’m very proud of what I have accomplished in scholarships, awards, and the PhD and postdoctorate. I still use “PhD” in my email signature. But I’ve otherwise gone back to being more of who I once was, even though I don’t think I’m who I once was.

I’ve made this change with some misgiving, as I feel the PhD was a tremendous experience and has made me better at what I do, without damaging what I was already doing. I have also been striving to work in, and to help further, a niche of book publishing: crossover works for academic presses that are rigorous in scholarship but accessible to general readers. Without my PhD, it would be difficult to get my foot in the door with this niche, and I’m grateful that it has allowed me to do so.

I’ve sometimes embraced the label “alt-ac,” which is applied to doctoral graduates who find some place other than academia for their talents. But I’m tired of the label. I’m not “alt” anything. I’m doing what I do, and hopefully I can keep doing it.

To me, the PhD remains a positive personal experience and a worthwhile professional accomplishment. I still have my “trophy wall,” (see photo) where my scholarly awards at my wife’s urging hang in my home office as a reminder of what I achieved. But I can’t change the fact that in the wider world, where I need to make money to eat and pay my bills, my education is seen by many as a negative. I find that sad, and undeserved.

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