The big career move, nearly two years on

Marie, herself an academic, recently left a kindly inquisitive comment on my blog, asking how my career transition was going from history professor to knitting designer, editor, teacher. It made me realize that this was a good time to take stock, in writing, about how that transition has gone. It has been nearly two years since I took the big plunge, quit my hard-won academic job and plopped into the deep end of the freelance pool.

You may be curious about the answer – how has it gone? – and frankly, as I sit here preparing to write, I’m awfully curious myself.

I know the general sense of the answer: the transition has been rockier than I would have hoped, but I regret nothing. (And if you, too, are now humming Edith Piaf to yourself, you can thank me later.)

But it’s all in the details, right – and that’s the interesting bit to sort through. Well, here are a few of my thoughts, geared less toward self-analysis and more toward what I’ve learned that might help others….

1. As a freelancer, I’m kind of like a small business, so maybe I can cut myself a break that I’m not entirely solvent yet. Small business owners hear over and over again that it can take months and even years to start making a profit. I had grand visions of making at least half of what I earned when I had a full professor’s salary and benefits. I was delusional. I’m making about one quarter of what I earned before, and it has been tough financially even though we prepared by cutting way back on our expenses.

The good news is that I do have work – more than I can take on, actually – and that seems like a good sign that as my experience grows, I can earn more for that work. I am not despairing. OK, there are moments late at night where I do, but those are relatively rare.

And you know what? I’d rather be struggling to do what I want to do than settling because it’s safe. I truly, truly believe in that.

2. It’s really interesting to think about where my particular skills might be badly needed in the industry. When I was teaching, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, and what kind of skills I needed in order to do it. I could be as creative as I liked, but the required parameters of what I needed to do each day were pretty clear.

Now I have to think much more entrepreneurially, which is terrifying but also fun. I really have to think long and hard – and repeatedly – about what I have to offer and where that might be needed. I’m really good at teaching, so classes are an obvious choice, but then I have to think creatively about where I might teach, because there are so many local yarn store and fiber festival classes available. Perhaps teaching at nursing homes? Maybe some summer camps for kids?

I also am pretty good at graphic design, and the past couple of years working for Cooperative Press have helped me improve them immensely. I’ve been thinking about (and approaching) who might need those services in the knitting industry: knitting designers who might need better pattern templates, schematics, and charts? Indie dyers who might want a spiffed-up graphic identity for their yarn/fiber labels, signs, and business cards? Many ideas bubbling away and some already in action.

You get the idea: I’m WERKIN’ it.

3. I don’t get quite as much respect as I used to, though, and that grates on my nerves. As a professor, I had become very accustomed to being treated like a smart, competent human being. I don’t think I realized how much that mattered to me until it was gone. I now regularly have people treat me with minimal respect – because they see me as “just” a customer service rep for my publisher or “just” some freelance hack that they can push around or “just” a mom who has all the time in the world to volunteer for everything because she doesn’t have a “real” professional life.

What really gets my goat about this is that I have never for one minute forgotten that everyone deserves to be approached with respect. I was never that asshole prof who crapped all over the department secretary’s desk and expected her to clean it up with a smile. So it’s not even like I’m getting my comeuppance. I’m just getting uppance that no one deserves and it pisses me off.

Let me very clear that most people don’t treat me this way. But it’s a lot more than it used to be.

4. On the other hand, I’m still free, and that’s a very good thing. The one thing I knew I could never give up about my previous job was the autonomy. I am a really bad employee. I’m not very good at taking orders. I like to do things my way. I like being my own boss and setting my own schedule. I’m sure this is true of most people, but after getting the taste for a rather extreme form of work autonomy in academia – I could come in and leave whenever I wanted as long as I showed up for my classes, obligatory meetings, etc.; I decided what I was working on each day; I decided how I would teach my classes with minimal oversight – I knew I could never really go back to the standard boss-employee relationship. I’d probably get fired within a few weeks. Thank the stars that the person I do most of my work for – Shannon at Cooperative Press – has a high tolerance (and frankly, a healthy love and respect) for independently minded people. I got extremely lucky there.

In all, I’m glad I did this, and I still have so much learning and growing to do. I don’t think you can ask for a better outcome than that.

Vindication

For months, I have been nervously anticipating the event I just went through. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I just resigned from my job as a full professor in history, after 13 years on the job and nearly two decades committed to a life in academia.

But sometime this past fall, when I’d already decided it was time for a major life change, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was invited to present a paper at a small workshop on animals and empire in the History and Philosophy of Science department at Cambridge University in the U.K. Why, you ask, couldn’t I refuse this invitation when I’d just decided this wasn’t my life anymore? For so many reasons: first, I quit my university job, but that didn’t necessarily mean abandoning my scholarship. Second, the department that invited me is most near and dear to my heart (and you’ll soon understand why). Third, I had a paper mostly written already that was perfect for the conference. And finally, they offered to pay for my flight, hotel, and meals.

Yeah. Of COURSE I was going.

But then again, it made me incredibly anxious. The British academy is very “laddish,” an English way of saying it’s very male-oriented. How on earth were they going to understand — let alone support — my decision to give up the academic dream which we’d all worked so hard to attain, in order to pursue a full-time career in knitting, which definitely makes the short list of girliest and thereby lowest-status fields of endeavor?

Most of my friends in Austin who are academics — even most of the women — advised me not to mention my career change at all when I came to this conference. Yeah, that’s how far the perceived gulf is between the two worlds. But I can’t be that person: I have to be everything-out-on-my-sleeve. So I was back to being nervous about how it would all go.

Well, the conference just ended, and I’m happy to report that it went very well. Not only was my paper well received, but so was my news. Thinking back on it, I can count two men who seemed utterly baffled (one — a good friend — even said, “you are KIDDING, right?”). But everyone else — men and women alike — was unabashedly supportive. In fact, it evoked several heartfelt discussions about career choice and quality of life.

And then came a moment that literally moved me to tears. After telling one of my mentors here at Cambridge (Jim Secord, a full professor here and a major intellectual figure) about my news, a few hours later I sat down to listen to him present the wrap-up, summative comments on the conference papers. Jim proceeded to frame the entirety of his remarks around the metaphor of — wait for it — KNITTING. He described at length how knitting was the perfect image for understanding the relationship between animals and empire in history, and even made an informed pun about how SSK not only stood for the sociology of scientific knowledge (the term familiar to most people in the room), but also slip, slip, knit, a technique for rearranging a set of individuals into an integrated whole.

When I told him afterward how wonderful that was, he said, “Oh, yes, well I did that just for you, because I want you to know that no matter where you are, we always appreciate you and hope you’ll keep writing in history for as long as it feels rewarding to you.”

I mean, seriously, do you get more dear than that? No. No, you don’t.