Back to Ac: Returning to Academia, With a Twist

In 2009, I received my PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London. I thought it was the culmination, and the conclusion, of my academic career.

At the time, I had a full-time non-academic job as director of communications at a private school. I had decided to settle permanently in Toronto, my hometown. Since undergrad, I had worked in communications while pursuing degrees in English literature and teaching cinema and media studies; by settling in Toronto, I thought I had effectively chosen the former career, relegating my academic work to a fun, occasionally lucrative-ish hobby.

But I wasn't ready to give it up. I loved teaching, and I loved writing. And don't get me wrong: although I often project optimism (I am, in fact, a perennial optimist), it was painful not to be a full-time professor. On good days, it felt like a choice. On bad days, it felt as though I'd been abandoned by the academy. I would listen to Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black":

We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to...

So, over time, I continued to teach and publish. I also continued to work in PR and communications, specializing in social and digital media. I published my book. I started a boutique agency, which took off beyond anything I'd hoped for. I did a short stint in corporate management before leaving to consult again. I continued to teach: at the Schulich School of Business, McMaster, Ryerson - I even went viral for it.

Over those same years I applied very selectively for a couple of academic jobs. I was interviewed for two. One of them went to someone who fit the field specification much more closely. For the other, in a far-away city, I withdrew my application after deciding with my husband that we weren't willing to move for it. I kept teaching part-time and consulting full-time. My kids got older.

And then, near the end of last year, I was offered what I never thought I would have: a full time, permanent academic job, as a professor in the Bachelor of Public Relations Management program at Centennial College here in Toronto.

The Unicorn Job

I joke that my current job is a "unicorn job": it's exactly right for me, but it wouldn't be right for most people. It requires a PhD and a fair bit of industry experience in PR/marketing/comms and a lot of teaching experience and research experience with a good publication record. Most academics don't have much industry experience, and most industry folks don't have a doctorate. 

The ironic thing for me, of course, is that if I'd taken the classic academic pathway of TT-job-while-ABD, I wouldn't have been qualified for this job. It's only because I left academia that I've been able to come back to academia in this capacity: at a college (what Americans would think of as a "community college"), in a degree-level program at that college.

And what a job it is. Centennial is spectacular. I get to work alongside colleagues like PR czars Barry Waite and Donna Lindell and pedagogical champion Marilyn Herie and change leader Ann Buller. It's a school where they hold a huge Pride picnic, and include the First Nations Two-Spirit community by name. It's a school where I get to work directly with the Global Experience folks to help my students access international work placement experiences.

I get to teach, I get to publish, and I get to present at conferences like CPRS Illuminate 2017. It's pretty much a dream job for someone like me who couldn't decide between academia and industry. I get to do both now.

always coming home

I want to make one thing clear: the academic job that I have now is a great job, but it not the kind of academic job for which most PhD programs prepare their students. It is not a job at a research university. It is not a tenure-track job; although Ontario college professors have a lot of job security, it isn't a tenure system. It is a job where I teach a relatively heavy course load (4-5 courses per semester) and where my research, although it is highly valued, is done alongside my teaching.

It is not a job for everyone. But it is the perfect job for me, and for my colleagues, all of whom are exceptional teachers and mentors. I love research but I love teaching. The job security I have is enough for me. And I truly do have at least part of the summer off.

The point of all of this, though, is that I want to tell other academics who have left academia: leaving doesn't have to be forever.

In Ontario, specifically as colleges offer more university-level degree programs, there is likely to be an increasing number of opportunities for people with PhDs and industry experience to help build these programs, like mine, that offer the best of both worlds: academic rigour and practical application. 

But even if you're not in Ontario, there may be jobs like mine near you: jobs that are probably at community colleges that value both your terminal degree and your practical experience. Jobs like mine are jobs in which "leaving" academia isn't leaving, but rather broadening. It's not an either/or; it's a both/and.

One of the most important things I learned in graduate school, in fact, is the value of both/and thinking. Holding two things in tension that seem to conflict but actually complement.

So I guess I didn't go "back to ac" after all. I'm not a prodigal academic, who left and then returned.

I didn't go home. I've always been home. I just didn't know it until now.

 When you think it's the end, but it's not. Photo © Jessica Langer.

When you think it's the end, but it's not. Photo © Jessica Langer.