How I Quit University and Got the Academic Job I Always Wanted

Tuesday, 27 March 2012 20:51

Last week I attended my first ICFA – it was an amazing conference and I’m still processing all of the information force-downloaded into my brain. I met dozens of interesting and brilliant scholars and writers, as well as received a deep validation of my own career choices. Last week also marks, roughly, the first year anniversary of Academic Editing Canada. I’m not sure exactly, because I never bothered to celebrate the date of my sole proprietorship’s launch last March. As anyone who has been following my blog knows, I left graduate school in the fall of 2010 feeling defeated and suffering from depression and chronic pain. So when I launched AEC in at the start of 2011, I had only the barest glimmer of hope. I could imagine the possibility of success, but only in the way that I can kind of imagine what being an astronaut or billionaire must be like.

Needless to say, I was not prepared for actually succeeding on my own, but here I am, with enough client work to keep me employed and support my independent scholarship (i.e. free up time to research/write and provide resources to attend SF cons). I’m absolutely gobsmacked at what I’ve accomplished. It’s not that I’m rolling in cash (far from it), nor am I racking up prestigious publications (so far). Yet I am happy – I have the academic job I always wanted!

From the completion of my PhD, it took me over 6 months to separate out what I liked about academia and drew me there in the first place from all of the stuff that I detested and could no longer endure. Once I worked out the basics of what I loved doing, I started shaping my career plans around them (creating, what is commonly called, a portfolio career). This is how I have ended up working as a copy editor (primarily for academic texts), dissertation coach, and independent scholar. Just as PhDs looking for non-academic careers need to articulate their “transferable skills,” I began thinking about how I could transfer or recreate the kinds of work I enjoyed performing in academia. Here’s what I did:

I moved my love of teaching and working with students one-on-one in the classroom into copy editing (where I assist people in improving their communication) and into dissertation coaching (where I get to practice mentorship). Basically, I have replaced “students” with “clients,” which, admittedly, is not really much of a stretch these days. I am engaged with people looking to improve their knowledge and skill base, but now I choose with whom I work and I never have to give or defend a C grade ever again. Down the line, I might want to pursue more active teaching avenues, such as working as a corporate trainer, and so I am already networking to keep that possibility open.

Working as an academic copy editor and coach also allows me the space to work with scholarly ideas and get paid at the same time. While a portion of my day-to-day work deals with subject matter outside of my immediate interest, I frequently get to edit challenging and thought provoking texts. In the year that I’ve been copy editing, I have not once been bored by the material I am hired to make better. I have learned about everything from pain management for recovering addicts to the intricacies of the Indo-Pak war of 1965. In terms of dissertation coaching, every client brings with them a unique set of knowledges and challenges. I’ve helped PhD students with all-things thesis, from developing writing schedules to reviewing what it means to “critically read” articles. The variety of work I encounter is fantastic … and it’s only becoming more interesting as time goes on.

And the best pay-off from doing this fun, engaging, and fulfilling work? It allows me the flexibility and opportunity to pursue my science fiction research. When I’m not doing client work, I turn my attention to reading SF, watching SF, writing about SF, and going to SF-centered events. Yep. It’s pretty freaking amazing. Being an Independent Scholar is way more awesome than I first thought. My worries about not being taken seriously by “real” academics? Gone. Going to ICFA confirmed to me that, in the field of SF studies anyways, my contributions to scholarship are valued and desired. I am now even more determined to put my head down and research/write my heart out.

I should add that I am able to maintain my portfolio career (copy editor/coach/scholar) because I am in a unique and privileged position. While I am certainly far from wealthy, I earn more than I did as a graduate student (which was practically nothing), I live in Canada where my healthcare is covered by the state, and I have a supportive partner (both in terms of financial and emotional support) and no dependents (only one little cat). We decided together, long ago, that we would work jobs that we love, even if it meant a materialistic minimal lifestyle. We rent. We have a hand-me-down vehicle. We don’t go on costly vacations or buy things we don’t need. But we work at jobs of our own creation and on our own terms.

All in all, I’m happy with my career success to date. The pay might not be the same, but I wouldn’t trade the freedom I have – to choose my work, clients, hours, research direction – for a tenure track position, even if one was magically dropped on my lap. What makes me really excited is knowing that I’m only at the start of my new career. There are so many opportunities, both known and unknown, ahead of me and I can’t wait to take them as they come. It’s a revelation (and a welcome one): I dared to quit the university and I’m doing okay. Actually, no. Scratch that. I’m doing great.


  • Comment Link Bret Cohen Monday, 12 March 2018 11:11 posted by Bret Cohen

    Inspiring! (I wish I had read it almost 6 years earlier, when it was first posted.) I, myself, keep getting a trickle of readers of the papers I posted long ago to Since I last did that, I have not have time to write more, because I have returned for a second bachelors degree in what looks like an up-and-coming professional area (computational linguistics), but I want to return to self-directed research and writing and you have shown how.

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  • Comment Link Pam Kirk Tuesday, 27 January 2015 18:47 posted by Pam Kirk

    I am in the midst of doing this very thing. I have some time before I can leave academia, but I am planning on a career in copyediting. This story gives me hope that I will be successful. I am halfway through a copyediting certificate program now. I need to begin building a client base. I would love to talk with the author of this article! Please contact me!

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