Why and How I Left my “Skim Milk” Academic Job

Adapted from remarks delivered at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society in San Antonio, Texas

When I decided to go to grad school, a decision I reached around 2005, I had a pretty good life and career. I was a fundraising manager at the Kennedy Center, specifically working for the National Symphony Orchestra. I lived in a really dynamic city, got to meet really interesting people every day, and had amazing colleagues at work. I got to see free performances all the time, and even got to travel the world on the Kennedy Center’s dime. Fundraising is a weird but fascinating profession – it’s your job to get to know people that you might never have met in your “real life,” millionaires and even billionaires who have made their money doing all kinds of things. It’s your job to facilitate their relationship with your institution and of course collect donations from them in the process. Not only did I enjoy my work, but it was a pretty decent living. I had health insurance and even dental insurance fully paid for, and after my first year of employment the Kennedy Center started contributing to a retirement account and matching my own contributions. I had enough extra income that I could do a little traveling now and again, and every year I got a modest cost of living raise, and even a little more sometimes for merit.

But in the course of my work I began to feel increasingly estranged from the thing that had drawn me to it in the first place—the art itself. I always eagerly read the program notes at performances and began to wonder who are the kinds of people who write those? I began to explore other careers—should I become a journalist, or join the foreign service as a cultural attaché? In the end the most pointed advice came from the President of the Kennedy Center himself, Michael Kaiser, who advised me that the only place where you really got paid to think and write about art full time these days was academia, something I had already been thinking about anyway. With that push, and a GRE test taken the day after Thanksgiving, my journey to graduate school began, first with a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago, and subsequently with an PhD in musicology at Princeton. I started at Chicago in 2006 and defended my dissertation in 2014.

Without regurgitating my entire CV, I’ll summarize my graduate years by saying that I made good use of the time. I published in a variety of contexts, presented at conferences and organized a few others, and secured several fellowships for my dissertation research. I had ticked what I thought were all the most important boxes that would ensure academic success. But when it came time to enter into “the job market”–as it is obsessively discussed in academic circles–all my momentum seemed to push me not into my dream job, but into a brick wall. Maybe more precisely, it pushed me into an unhealthy obsession with checking the mysterious musicology jobs wiki. Over the course of several years before and after defending, I’d eagerly await new job postings towards the end of the summer and early fall, dutifully prepare my materials and send endless requests for letters of recommendation, and then dutifully check to wait to see if I’d be one of the chosen ones. After many dozens if not hundreds of applications and only one other campus visit for a postdoc, I finally got a break in the form of a real actual full time job, at Stanford University of all places, a school located somewhere that my partner actually wanted to move to as well. Although the road had been a little bumpy, the system seemed to have worked.

“Skim Milk” Academia

I felt a sense of relief that I had secured a job after only one year of awkward in between time after defending my dissertation. After my defense I had been an adjunct professor for one semester at Columbia University, where I was paid $5,000—yes, that’s $5,000, a small fraction of median income in the United States—to teach one semester of Music Humanities, a class required of all Columbia students (and which tenured professors are apparently so reluctant to teach that they are offered extra perks on top of their existing salaries and benefits to do so). Ironically, I secured a better salary working as a teaching assistant for two courses (and as an adjunct professor for another) at Princeton, not technically employed full time but at 50 percent one semester and 86 percent employment the next, enough to qualify for health insurance even the ability to contribute to a retirement account.

When I secured the Stanford job, I thought these days of contingent struggle were over. I had one paycheck, from one institution, with no hunting for classes and sections from semester to semester, and I had full access to a first rate research library and even a modest amount of research funds. But early on in my job there were some troubling signs. My orientation did not include any new tenure track faculty—it was just fellow lecturers from various departments, and no one seemed to bat an eye that those positions had their own separate process. One session I’ll never forget was an hour-long overview on first generation and low-income college students. Among other things, the presenters explained the various financial thresholds by which Stanford calculated financial need. I was surprised to learn that total household income of $125,000 constituted “low income.” But even more shocking was the threshold for “very low income,” which was $65,000. When that number flashed up on the screen I looked around at my fellow lecturers, whose names I barely knew, much less their personal or financial situations. But I caught eyes with at least a couple as if to say “duly noted” since $65,000 was pretty much not the floor but the ceiling of what we would ever expect to be paid by Stanford in our lecturer jobs. It was a sobering moment, and one that only sunk in with me much later: the income I was being paid was not a sustainable living, and this was according to the standards set by my own employer, an exceedingly well resourced research institution located in one of the richest communities in the US if not the world. And notably, these income thresholds did not take into account the astronomical cost of living in the Bay Area.

It’s now been almost a year since I left what I had thought was a good job teaching at Stanford. A lot of this decision had to do with money, but it wasn’t just about money. Ruth Bader Ginsburg coined a memorable turn of phrase in course of the legal debate over marriage equality that I’ve thought about a lot over the last year as I’ve tried to think about my employment transition. She adamantly rejected the argument that gay and lesbian couples should enter into a different kind of union not called marriage, because this would set up two kinds of marriage, real marriage and what she called a kind of “skim milk” marriage. And during my time at Stanford I increasingly realized that I had secured what could only be called a skim milk academic job, one that might be ok for a while, but one that really didn’t have much of a future.

As much as I liked many aspects of my job—first and foremost the really amazing students–I just couldn’t see where it would lead. What would it be like to be doing this job in ten years, much less in twenty? I had little self-determination in what I taught, and even if I did a better job than my tenured peers, there was no guarantee that I’d ever get to join their ranks. In fact, because I was teaching as a lecturer I knew I’d be a weaker candidate for a tenured position at Stanford if one were ever to come up in my field. This is thanks to the perverse and inhuman logic of academia that the person already working in your midst might be the last person you hire for a newly created opportunity. Although my colleagues and administrative staff assured me that they wanted me to stay on as long as possible, I was still on a year to year contract, and I was told—after repeated requests—that any kind of multi-year contract was out of the question since that’s not how the university operated. During the summer months I was assured that my new contract would be sent any day, and even though I genuinely did not fear for my job, I still anxiously awaited the actual letter and sent it back as soon as it came in. The position was evidently mine for as long as I wanted it, but I knew that in another economic crisis like 2008 that a relatively new and exotic program like mine could be the first on the budgetary chopping block, and Stanford would not be obligated to give me any kind of notice much less severance.

Life Beyond “The Job Market”

I readily acknowledge that my personal story is not the most hard luck one out there, and that there are contingent laborers in much worse circumstances than I was. But I think that’s precisely why cases like mine are important to talk about. I came out of a fully funded PhD program, I was more or less continuously employed, with employer-based health insurance, and I did not undertake any complicated moves around the country for 9-month “Visiting Assistant Professor” positions. All these advantages actually made me feel ungrateful when I began to even think about quitting, since I knew how much worse a lot of other people had it. And many fellow academics kept telling me—just keep publishing and working and the better job will follow. I also recognize that as a man and especially as a white man I’ve been able to avoid other challenges and emotional labor that many young academics face. In fact I was empowered and encouraged by gender and racial norms to advocate and demand more for myself without fear of being labeled as “pushy” or “difficult,” even if most of the time I was still told no.

All of this serves to illustrate the fundamental problems with academic employment today. Even with all my privilege, as an individual I was able to make the system only a little better for myself, and maybe a few other people whom I encouraged along the way. Ultimately the contingent labor system is set up for most of us to fail, and even worse make it feel like it’s our fault when we do, and even more worse, make us feel ungrateful when we finally decide to leave it behind.

I’m happy to report that as of a year ago, I’m back in the fundraising business, this time at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a small but mighty and dynamic school led by the indomitable David Stull. For my colleagues and donors the fact that I’m a musicologist is somewhat exotic, but having a PhD in higher ed administration does carry a certain amount of cachet, and this fall I was asked to cover an opera seminar for a colleague on leave. In my much more scarce spare time I write program notes for places like the Park Avenue Armory and Carnegie Hall, and November 1 was the release date for my first book, Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, published by Oxford University Press. During this past year of transition I somehow also managed to translate a book from German to English, a history of Renaissance music that will be published in about a month from California. I still proudly call myself a musicologist, even if my musicological training didn’t explicitly train me for many aspects of the full time job I currently hold.

Looking for a Job Outside “The Job Market”

If and when one starts to look for a job besides full time teaching and research—and I refuse to identify with or use the problematic term “alt-ac”—it’s a revealing experience. I had been out of the “regular” job market so long that it seemed shockingly humane and rational. You can look for jobs at any time of the year, not just during a narrow window in late summer and fall. That means you can also apply for jobs at any time of the year. Even more important, you can apply for jobs on your own—that is, without having to solicit a formidable dossier from your advisors and departmental staff or paying fees to companies like Interfolio. In most cases when you apply for a job—again, at any time of year—you’ll find out within a month or maybe just a few weeks if you’re moving to the next phase. And you’ll find this out directly from an HR department or other means—not by furtively checking a problematic website or otherwise hunting for clues on social media. If you’re turned down for a job, as I was many times in the course of my search, you can be sad for a moment but then move on to the next one, not wait for months to wonder if and when you might be one of the chosen ones.

But you probably won’t find a job through just online searches—you’ll get one through another person. I got my current job in part thanks to a fellow musicologist who introduced me to his colleagues at the Conservatory, and the rest is history. So if you’re a graduate student out there who encounters someone like me at your next conference, I encourage you not to walk away thinking “oh, well I don’t need to talk to them because I’m definitely going to make it,” I hate to break it to you—think again. And at the risk of being a little too blunt, you should be spending more time talking to folks like me asking how we got where we are and less time angling for an introduction to yet another tenured professor in your field. Because unlike that tenured professor, people like me have a wider network out in the rest of the world. People like me have a LinkedIn page that you can connect with. We can tell you how to write a cover letter and resume that leverages your academic expertise properly and compellingly. We can tell you what kinds of things you might try to do while you’re still a grad student that might help you get a lot of different kinds of jobs when you’re finished.

I’ll admit that there are days I’m still a little sad that I am no longer doing teaching and research full time, instead doing the hard but equally important work of securing resources for education and the arts. Sometimes it feels like I’m just back where I started before grad school. But then I remind myself that I’m back where I started in the best possible sense. I have a good life and career. I live in a really dynamic city, I get to meet really interesting people every day, and I have amazing colleagues at work. And most important, I would not be able to do what I’m doing had I not studied to become a musicologist. Had it not been for my journey through academia I wouldn’t have met the people who got me where I am today, and ultimately that makes all the joys and tears seem worth it.

2 thoughts on “Why and How I Left my “Skim Milk” Academic Job

  1. I enjoyed reading your journey. I admire your steadfast dedication to the arts – and all the myriad ways you have and will contribute. During my long work life I’ve come full circle. My guess is you will also circle a few times. All the best!

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