How I Left Academia; or, Dirty Sexy Money

Now that you know why I left academia, let me tell you how I was able to do it.

I was able to do it because I can afford to do it.


Ah, money. The subject couples fight about most. And a topic about which academics are largely silent, even though historians, literary scholars, and economists may write and teach about money and class privilege all the time.

So how does class privilege work in and around the academy? How does money – both individual and institutional – shape the way we do our work as scholars?

Family Money

I was able to leave academia and forego a full-time academic salary for 2 reasons:

My spouse makes enough money to support us both.

This does not mean that we were always flush with cash. When we moved to Lubbock, we were only able to buy a house because my grandmother had left me some money in her will that we could put down as a deposit. And for those first few years, the expense of our back-and-forth life meant that we were not able to save or invest.

From a financial standpoint, the five years that we spent choosing my job and putting Dan’s at risk were completely insane. But we knew launching my academic career would require a certain level of sacrifice. Without the financial safety net of Dan’s salary, however, we could not have made these sacrifices in the first place.

I am fully aware – and always have been – of the privilege that money has afforded me to be flexible in my career choices, and to take risks that I otherwise would not have been able to take.

It also makes me aware of how difficult it is for other academics who do not have such financial resources:


  • Couples who are both academics and must negotiate the rocky shoals of spousal hiring and trailing
  • Couples forced to live apart because of (surprisingly) limited career opportunities in small college towns
  • Single men and women who often struggle to make ends meet on one academic salary, and who cannot leave one job without the security of another.

Dan’s salary enables us both to be flexible. As does the fact that we do not have children.

No Kiddos

We made this choice long ago. Although we have always remained open to the possibility that one of us would wake up one day yearning for a baby, in the end that didn’t happen for either of us.

But let’s imagine that it did, back in 2013 when I had my revelation and decided that I was going to leave academia.


To raise that child in the urban Northeast (the most expensive region in the United States) to age 18, the USDA projects, would have cost $506,610. This includes childcare and education, housing, healthcare (though not healthcare for chronic medical issues), food, clothing, and transportation. It does not include college expenses.

So. Not having kids gives us more disposable income, which also makes the next few years of freelance writing financially possible. Also, we are able to pull up stakes at any moment and move, if need be.

There are as many stories of financial success and woe as there are academics to tell them. Sometimes the academic is a woman, and sometimes he is a man. The gendered nature of family finances  is an issue too complicated to address here in full.

But I know how this looks – Woman Quits Job to Follow Her Man! But I can say with certainty that neither Dan nor I ever expected that his career would take precedence over mine because he is a man and I am a woman. Dan has nothing but the utmost respect for my work and my career ambitions. So he was willing to take that leap for me — for us – back in 2003. And conversely, I admire his drive, and his dedication to his job. This shaped my decision to take the leap for him – for us – five years later.


While I don’t see our decisions as un-feminist, I will say that the fact that I am not currently contributing to the family coffers makes me very uncomfortable. I want to do what I love, but I do not want to work for free, even though I could. So I will devote the next several years to this project of freelance writing, with the goal of earning some consistent money by writing for magazines and securing a book advance. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll figure out something else to do that will compensate me for my skills.

These issues circulating around money and class privilege are not unique to academia. But given that job options for academics are so restricted, and they require a willingness – and financial ability – to move to often far-flung places, they do seem more stark and often quite dire.

Thinking about family money and how having it – and not having it – can impact your academic career, led me to ponder another form of class privilege in academia:

Institutional Money

Most academics on the market would be happy (or at least they convince themselves they would be happy) to score any job. But the dream is the elite school: the Ivy League, the flagship public, the rigorous liberal arts college or private university.


Here, the professor has great students, spends her days on a beautiful campus, and benefits from the money generated by a huge endowment.

There has been an uptick in the conversations about about elite institutions and their cultural and academic power in recent weeks. Most of these conversations have been about hiring and about the salaries paid to university endowment investment managers at the expense of student financial aid.

But faculty members benefit from the elite status of their workplaces as well. More money means lower teaching loads and often, teaching assistants to help teach classes or grade stacks of papers and exams. It means sabbaticals before and after tenure as well as research stipends, research assistants, funding for conference travel, and “start-up money” for technology. Sometimes there are other perks: subsidized housing and public transportation, better health care options, access to events that produce networking opportunities, large brick-and-mortar libraries, and massive e-resource collections.

And then are the advantages of name recognition.


Academics who teach at elite institutions receive more public recognition; they are more likely to be tapped for media interviews, documentaries, and high-profile newspaper columns. I experienced this myself when I was adjuncting at Harvard. I did not have all of the same perks as a tenure-track faculty member, obviously, but I had some of them. And I am quite sure that I secured many of my speaking engagements on the strength of the Harvard name. At many of these events, I was introduced as a “Harvard history professor” even after insisting that I was no such thing.

Just being an academic elicits some measure of respect. Despite the popular disdain for the intellectual elite in some quarters, the term “professor” still manages to impress most people you’re sitting next to on a plane. But being an academic at an elite institution also reaffirms and reproduces a high-value collective identity, which creates cultural capital.

All of this generates privilege. Faculty members at elite universities have more time and financial support to write articles and books; this means they are more competitive in institutional and national fellowship and award competitions. And once you win one or two fellowships or awards, more will come your way.

This privilege of intellectual production creates social and professional inequalities throughout the system. Those working at satellite campuses, small liberal arts colleges, state universities, and community colleges are at a distinct disadvantage.


  • Their high teaching loads and the lack of sabbatical or internal research funding leave them without much time to research and write.
  • They often have to pay for conference travel out of their salaries, and thus sometimes must forego these opportunities to share their research and network with their colleagues.
  • They have access to fewer research resources on their own campuses, and this slows their progress and can hamper their attempts to win fellowships for travel and funding.

And yet they the publication expectations for tenure and promotion at their institutions are increasingly commensurate with those at elite institutions.

How can we make academia more equitable? It seems like an impossible dream, short of instituting some kind of revenue-sharing system, a la the National Football League. But perhaps national and institutional fellowship committees could earmark the majority of their funds for both adjuncts and faculty at non-elite universities and colleges. Perhaps universities and colleges could devote more federal funds to creating additional faculty lines and lowering teaching loads, and purchasing more e-resources. These are just two not-impossible strategies, and they would work toward a common academic good.


For Love and Money

There is a common perception – both outside and inside of academia – that academics don’t teach and write and research for money; we do it because we love it. We may love it, but to ignore the role that money plays in job searches, hiring, workloads, and research production is itself an assertion of privilege. As Miya Tokumitsu has put it, this whole rhetoric of love “is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.”

We need to recognize the significance of money in all academic contexts. We need to admit to the class privileges that dual incomes, financial safety nets, and huge university endowments provide. Once we recognize this, we can better understand how academia actually works. And perhaps then we can start to think about how to change its structures of inequality.

23 thoughts on “How I Left Academia; or, Dirty Sexy Money”

  1. Megan:
    The world of academia is poorer for you having decided to pursue other paths; however, I suspect in your case (as the song says), “the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!”. Part of our human psyche is the trade-off between leaving the comfortable, the familiar, the safe and striking off to new horizons with the excitement, the trepidation, the expectation of a new life and new possibilities – i.e., our constant American yearning for “new horizons”.
    I look forward to keeping in touch and seeing where this new journey takes you (Book tours? Documentaries? Consultant? Lecturer?). With your talents and resumes, so many possibilities . . . stay tuned!

    Good Luck!
    – Randy

    p.s. Maybe we can still find time and opportunity for that Valverde Battlefield tour . . .

  2. Thank you for laying all this out — and thank you for acknowledging that the flexibility needed to jump away from academia is tied to multiple forms of privilege, including having a partner. As a single woman at the end of a postdoc and with few jobs available in my subfield, I am starting to feel terrified about what comes next. While there is a tinge of freedom in not getting a job and being able to move somewhere I choose (maybe a place with a pool of single men too!), I am scared sh*tless about being completely unemployed. And single. And feeling like crap about all parts of my life. In any event, I just really appreciate your acknowledgement that this isn’t necessarily a cakewalk for single people (especially women) who seem to be able to move anywhere, no big deal!, but in reality face tricky situations as well.

  3. OY — the story sounded so much like mine — believing that the spouse making money (a tenured professor) would cover the bills while I pursued less lucrative jobs… until the midlife crisis hit, he left without warning, married a graduate student and started a second family (total do-over prompted by fear-of-death IMHO). Dan is nothing like this turd but this turd wasn’t a turd until the life clock hit 40. Making a living at freelance writing is only marginally less difficult than climbing all of the Himalayas in a week… I would just send out a plea that women in all relationships have the means and the space to take care of themselves when life does a number on you, as it will in totally unexpected ways…

    1. Thanks for your note, Robin, and the reminder that one’s financial circumstances change all the time, sometimes instantly and in the context of personal trauma.

  4. Thank you for your honesty in this post! It is indeed amazing how much one’s financial, socioeconomic, and/or marital status can affect the ability to be in a chosen career. I had expected to read about how you found remarkable success within one year of starting to freelance, so I appreciated your being honest about where you are with that, and how you are able to do that financially. Not having kids makes a huge difference, too. A main reason I’ve recently taken a full-time job rather than pursuing more freelancing is because of the kiddos, as you phrase it. While they are young, and in need of childcare (because I wouldn’t be able to be a stay-at-home mom), this is a major expense, and not one that could be delayed!

    1. Thanks for your not, Emily. It’s becoming clear to me that freelance writing for magazines is not going to generate much cash, hence the hope for a book advance. We’ll see how that goes, but it may not work out. And if that happens, I’ll have some big decisions ahead.

      And yes! The kiddos are a major factor in one’s job decisions, no matter what the field of endeavor. Rebecca Schuman has just written a piece for *The Chronicle* about the decision to have kids, and her advice is that if you want them, have them as soon as you can, regardless of the market:

  5. and I represent the other side . . . no $, so I got a teaching credential in California and have taught either 5th grade or Middle School Math for over 30 years. No such thing as an assistant or a smaller teaching load, and I graded every one of those millions of papers and projects. My degree, finally, is merely a Masters fro, an on-line university, but I am very proud of it anyway! There is no time to track for tenure, I am already 66! I will be very lucky to land something at one of the local junior colleges, and I have paid for everything myself, as I have had no time to go somewhere & write.

    So count those blessings, sisters! And don’t look over your glasses at the rest of us who toil in the lower echelons. We, in exchange, will try not to wallow in self pity as I did for a moment there when I read this during my 32 minute lunch today.

    1. Meg, I completely understand your frustrations. Your story proves two of my points in the piece:
      1. That so many people working in a variety of educational institutions find their work (and often their lives) derailed by the inequities the system generates.
      2. That we need to be more aware of where our own privileges lie, in order to understand the financial hurdles that others face.
      That you are managing to research and write with the work schedule you have is amazing — and it speaks to your dedication and ambition. Kudos.

  6. Thank you for this. I am in a strikingly similar situation, but still in the middle of a PhD program. If it weren’t for my supportive husband, I don’t know that I’d be where I am. He’s moved across the country for me, taken a different job for me that involves traveling four days out of the week, and for the first year of grad school he and I lived in separate states until our current plan could be put into action.
    We both know that one day we will have to move again. The realization that his industry does not exist in small college towns is looming over the both of us. I guess we will cross that bridge when we get there, but it is encouraging to see a story like yours and realize that achieving my academic goal does not limit opportunities…if we step outside the box the academy has built around us.

    1. Kate, it sounds like you’re going into this with a supportive partner and both of your eyes wide open, which is fantastic. And yes! Keep thinking about all of your options — because with a PhD and the skills it hones, you can excel at a lot of different jobs, both inside and out of the academy.

  7. Again, thank you for this. Both parts of this post really resonate with me – except that have not yet completed my graduate program (will finish in May 2016) and so I’m just on the cusp of all these decisions. My husband has a very good job with great potential, which supports me and our children. I recognize that I’m in a very privileged position because of his career and salary – but there’s also no logical way I can uproot all of that to pursue an elusive TT position. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m glad that I have historians like you to look to as an example of what is possible.

    1. Sarah, I completely understand the problem of uprooting. While class privilege can provide a lot of flexibility, it can also circumscribe your choices (ironies like this abound in academia). And like Kate, above, thinking early on about the many job options you have inside and outside of universities is a good strategy.

  8. Megan–thanks for this follow-up post. I appreciate the ways you link your good fortune to the class system in academia.

    When I was applying for the Huntington Library fellowship I eventually got after FOUR tries, I would take note of the institutions that the successful applicants came from–and they were 90% of them from elite institutions, flagships, and fancy SLACs. I wondered if I could compete given all of their advantages of time and money to enhance their CVs. There were very few successful applicants from underfunded state Aggies like mine (and your former depts.), which sees the Liberal Arts as “service departments” rather than homes for real scholars. AND YET, I also recognize from the ways in which I benefit from the status quo, as I’m not teaching at a community college or a “directional university;” my teaching load is 2-2, which is darn good, but I’ve self-funded at least half of the research and writing of my book.

    I think you’re brave to lay out the details of your situation, too. I completely understand & strongly identify with your interest in earning a living for yourself. Money in personal relationships functions in much the way it functions in higher ed as you lay it out–those who have it have it all over those who don’t, and that contributes directly to the politics of households and judgments as to how people spend their time.

    THANK YOU for initiating this convo, and I’ll be checking back in to see how it’s going.

    1. Thank you, Ann! I hope this conversation continues, as it is really important to recognize all of these financial factors — in jobs, fellowship competitions, and relationships. Money is really hard for people to talk about, and to acknowledge, at work and at home. And I appreciate so much that you understand where I’m coming from about making money for myself.

      The fellowship situation also worries me as a freelance writer. Although I would hope that institutions like the Huntington would be willing to increase the number of fellowships they give to adjuncts and unaffiliated writers, I don’t have high hopes. So it may be time for me (and others in my situation) to look at writers’ colonies or other sources of support for my project.

  9. I’ll sound like a broken record, but truly everything you write here is my experience and sentiment. I was able to leave academia because someone else was making an adult salary in my home–a real privilege (one that, a chair once told me, should make it ok that I not get reimbursed for out of pocket expenses when taking my class on a field trip in Manhattan). When I had a child at CUNY and my salary was taken (I was still teaching, I must add), a dean told me not to let ‘material’ problems of real life distract me: I had chosen a ‘life of the mind,’ so not having salary or health insurance for my newborn shouldn’t concern me. I find this talk so haughty and disingenuous–useful for purposes of exploitation. At Harvard Hist and Lit, I, like you probably, enjoyed a stipend for research and travel. As a full professor at CUNY, I was asked to pay my own way to interview job candidates for my department at the AHA. I cancelled two panel talks because I would not pay my own way to give them, and I knew colleagues who thought my attitude strange. The disparities between elite and non-elite institutions are real and affect faculty in real ways.
    In the culture of scarcity that is academia, we’re made to feel just so lucky to be employed (with our 4-3 loads and insufficient salaries) that who are we to complain. Such is “the life of the mind,” I’ve been told. To talk money is crass in the academy–and yet because I refused to talk about it out loud, I discovered way too late how bad the exploitation was–mine, the adjuncts, etc.

    1. Julie, these comments that your chairs and deans have made to you regarding your own financial situation are most definitely, as you put it, “useful for the purposes of exploitation.” And with this kind of disregard for you and your work, no wonder you left.

      What no one talks about, I think, is that the kinds of expenses you and others incur — conference travel, research trips, class trips — mean that your salary is actually much lower in reality than in the books. And yet your institution can still claim that higher number in their PR campaigns and recruiting.

      I love your phrase “the culture of scarcity that is academia.” So perfect (and yet also, so devastating).

    2. I work in the CUNY system and the lack of resources combined with the enormous teaching load is so demoralizing, and across the campus, so there’s a strong sense of defeat and despair that reinforces it at an individual level. Because of the modest backgrounds of the students, more than a “life of the mind” pushback is the idea that this faculty work is a calling or a sacrifice for the greater good. A calling for some perhaps, certainly a sacrifice…

  10. This reminds me of other things about academia, specifically, about how flagships public universities are often in podunk towns. It used to be that those places–Athens, Oxford, College Station, State College, etc–attracted the stars, albeit always male, of the profession. They could go there with a spouse, generally not an academic, who raised their children and made their lives livable. Fast forward to today, I think it is more difficult for the female stars of academe to go to these places because men are unlikely to find a suitable career and are less likely to be stay at home dads. And don’t even get me started about being LGBT in such places. There’s not enough money on the planet to make those cultural deserts appealing.

    1. Karen–those towns are almost metropoli compared to the places that some of us are stationed! And these overgrown small towns are almost inevitably places that are overwhelmingly white, making life in general more complicated and difficult for faculty of color as well as LGBT people & single people.

      The town where my uni is located is described as a great place to raise children (if you’re a straight, white couple, I would add.) We are stuck with decisions that were made generations ago about where state institutions would be located, usually before abolition and even before the college education of even elite, free women was common.

      1. I lived in Murray, KY for a year. At the time, it was dry, controlled by the Church of Christ–one on each end of town like bookends. I met one lesbian, a student. I had a TT job, 4/4 load (3 of which were World history and my work is centered on 20thc. American South)and I gave it up after a year. Okay for families, but depressing as hell for me. It’s a miracle academia let me back in. So, agreed on all you said.

        1. Karen and Ann, you’re both absolutely right about this — these tiny towns can be great for exactly one kind of academic (partnered with a mobile and supportive spouse, able to adjust to and fit into the local culture) but are wretched for everyone else.

    2. We moved to a small college city for my spouse’s job, and now I’m commuting each week to the TT job that remains in the large city where we used to live. We have young children and being a woman and mother super-commuter is pretty taxing on the household emotionally…this is a diverse and progressive community in many ways but it is clear that there are many trailing or commuting or stay-at-home spouses across the professions because the economy is not diverse enough to absorb all of us academic spouses.

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