Choosing Between Academic and Corporate Life: Did I Make the Wrong Choice?

For the past couple of days I’ve been in Idaho at a pre-professional writing conference at Brigham Young University – Idaho. The purpose of the writing conference is to bring in published novelists, poets, editors, and professional writers to give students a glimpse into the careers they plan to enter.

Recommended link: If you’re looking for a small liberal arts school, check out San Diego University of Phoenix.

This is my second year presenting to students about technical writing. You may remember my post last year about Debunking the Boredom Myth of Technical Writing, in which I tried to disabuse students of the idea that technical writing is nothing but boredom and drudgery. This year I focused on Seven Steps to Getting a Job in Technical Writing. But that’s not the focus of this post. This year the conference made me reflect on the academic life I chose not to follow and evaluate whether that choice was right.

A little background. From 2002 to 2004, I taught writing courses at The American University in Cairo (in Egypt) with about 20 other composition instructors. Among those instructors, I met Josh Allen and his wife Suzy, who quickly became our best friends in Egypt. I had so much in common with Josh – both of us were composition instructors. Both of us were Mormon (the only Mormon teachers at AUC). Both of us were married and had children about the same ages. Both of us were first-timers in Egypt. Both of us shared a love of writing, literature, and the university setting.

After a couple of years at AUC, I questioned whether teaching was my vocation. Grading was drudgery, composition syllabi were a bit dull, and my job seemed to have little future. I looked ahead at several options: I could remain a composition instructor, continuing with roughly the same pay and lifestyle, with little prospects of advancement, only to find that at age 40 I had no real career. I could get a PhD in literature and try to move up the academic scale as a professor. As a professor, I would need to publish scholarly essays regularly. Or I could reject both of those options and follow a prompting I kept feeling – to be the writer rather than teach writing.

I chose the last option. After two years, I ended my teaching career at AUC and moved to Florida, where I turned to professional writing, first becoming a copywriter and then a technical writer.

My colleague Josh took a different route. He left AUC at the same time I did, but he applied for a teaching position at BYU-Idaho, which recognized his MFA as an acceptable degree for teaching literature classes. He moved to Rexburg, Idaho, a small town that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the college, and started his four-classes-a-semester schedule, comfortably settling into a spacious home with a garage the size of an airplane hangar.

Every morning Josh wakes up early for his 8 a.m. classes, starts discussions about classic works such as My Antonia or The Catcher in the Rye or some novel by Henry James. He has one or two technical writing or composition classes a semester. He meets with students, reads at length in his office, and lives the academic life.

The life of an academic seems rich to me. Not materially rich, but intellectually rich. Dozens of books line your shelves, you’re immersed in constant learning, you’re surrounded by ambitious, dreamy-eyed students who haven’t yet become jaded. You have summers off, during which you can bury yourself in the novel or short story collection you’re writing. Even during the semester, your schedule is flexible enough to come home in the afternoons.

Being at this writing conference, surrounded by academics discussing recent books they’ve read, listening to a poet read his work, hearing a novelist discuss how she adds energy to her fiction, how she gets inside her characters’ heads to imagine how they would act in certain situations, made me remember my creative writing days at Columbia’s School of the Arts as both a student and graduate instructor.

As a student, I spent much of my time reading and writing, cut off from the world around me. I had freedom to roam the lost books in the library, to open a blank page and fill it with everything and nothing. I rarely looked at a clock. I could latch onto an idea and pursue it wherever it would take me. Every week I wrote dozens of pages. Our classes met in workshop settings, where we talked about narrative structures and character significance and arc.

I also taught composition courses to college freshmen and had freedom to assign my own essay prompts. I would spin controversial ideas for students to write about and then respond to their essays with copious feedback. Sometimes I assigned essays as prompts.

I could have continued in that academic setting, perhaps pursuing a PhD and turning to others publications. I could have looked for a job at a small liberal arts school somewhere.

Instead, I chose to become a technical writer. I figuratively turned in my university library card and stopped trying to publish creative works. I now wake up in the morning and drive to work, parking my car outside a shiny high-tech looking building. After riding the elevator to the third floor, I make my way to a cubicle where I dock my laptop, read and respond to emails in Microsoft Outlook, and work on help materials for a handful of software applications. I devote my time writing for users whom I will rarely meet.

Did I choose the wrong route? Should I instead have pursued a teaching position in a small college in a sleepy nowhere town? Should I be waking up in the morning reading Henry James novels and preparing notes for an 8:00 a.m. lecture?

I talked with Josh about company life versus academic life, and which one was better. Josh had previously spent a few years as a contract technical writer before teaching, but he found that documenting software all day left him with a sense of emptiness. It provided no thought-provoking discussions; it lacked immersion in good literature. The whole endeavor felt a bit worthless. It was just a job for a paycheck, with no intellectual engagement or inspiration.

He had just returned from teaching a class on My Antonia when I met up with him. He had been discussing “the search for the American Dream” and how the idea plays out in Willa Cather’s plots.

Josh has a sharp mind and can extract and analyze reasoning from any subject you bring to him. As we walked around the gardens of BYU Idaho’s campus, he asked what appeal the company life has for me. Why would anyone choose to work in a company rather than burying themselves in the classics and academic discussions? What value does the company life have for me?

Talking with Josh about academic versus corporate life

Talking with Josh about academic versus corporate life while sitting in BYU Idaho's gardens

Honestly, I didn’t know. It troubled me. As I slept that night, I tried to figure out what had propelled me to move away from academia into the corporate sphere. Did I make the wrong choice?

The next day we talked some more. I began to see an argument forming, but it wasn’t entirely clear. It wasn’t until I listened to a Book Lust podcast with Michael Perry, a nonfiction writer, that I began to understand. In an interview about his creative works, Nancy Pearl asks Perry:

You’ve now written four books and they’re all about your life and your experiences in the world …. Talk about how that all came about.

Michael responds:

The reason the books are as they are, is that I was always living and working in a “real” place while I was writing. So when I had the opportunity to write books, I just wrote about what was around me. And part of that was being on the local volunteer fire department with my brothers and my mom, and being a resident in a small northern Wisconsin town, and now that I have a little family and we’ve moved to a farm and we’re raising our own food or most of it. I guess for me, if I’m going to write creative nonfiction essay style work, if there’s going to be any veracity to that work, it comes from actually living it.

In other words, living and experiencing the world gives you content for your writing. It gives you substance to write about in a natural way.

This substance is exactly what I lacked as a grad student in a creative writing program at Columbia. We had time to write, time to read, but no substance in our writing. Our essays ended up exhausting our personal experiences. Our lives seemed all we had to write about. I ended up writing missionary stories about my two years in Venezuela. Another student wrote about her dying mother with cancer, another about her stint as a nurse in a psychiatric ward, another about her sordid affairs with married men, another about her past relationship with a rich guy in Soho.

While the essays had all the literary devices of narrative fiction, the writing lacked substance and information. It was too navel-gazing and self-centered. It was hard to get outside of our lives, trapped in the cloister of the university. It was almost as if our lives had been paused the minute we entered the writing program. We could only look back on what had taken place before.

I listened to another podcast with writers who explained the same problem. One of the writers had a good friend who moved to Ireland so she could write. In Ireland, she hunkered down in solitude and wrote and wrote and wrote, but her writing lacked substance. The sentences were highly refined and polished, but boring. Those same events that seem to take us away from our writing are also what give us substance in our writing, or so the writers on the podcast explained.

A writer needs to be immersed in the world to have something to write about. You can only experience and learn so much from within the walls of a classroom. This is one reason I like Ted Conover so much. Conover goes out into the world and lives and writes about it. For example, he spends a summer riding the rails with hoboes (Rolling Nowhere). Or he moves to Aspen to live among the rich (Whiteout). Or he becomes a prison guard at Sing Sing (Newjack). His living in the world, almost like a social anthropologist, provides him with material to write about.

Conover explains,

I feel a writer’s real job is to be out there with people who are strange to you.

Could he have written any of his books while being cloistered in the university? His work is nonfiction, but even fiction writers can’t imagine everything sitting in a library.

As much as I like Ted Conover’s immersive method, it seems a bit difficult for me. I can’t simply uproot and immerse myself in an unfamiliar setting. But entering the field of technical writing (rather than remaining in the university) has given me substance to write about. Immersion in projects within a corporate setting brings up all kinds of issues to write about — wikis, content strategy, community, DITA, usability, print versus online formats, quick reference guides, single sourcing, help authoring tools, the STC, presenting at conferences, context-sensitive help, podcasting, and so on.

If you were to take away my experiences in the company setting, the thoughts and problems and ideas and situations that arise from being involved projects, you would also take away all the substance from my writing. I would be in the same situation I was in grad school, twiddling my thumbs looking for content from random personal experiences to string together. Having a career in the world gives me a framework of content to write about, which I can approach from a literary perspective. I can take a topic that might otherwise be dull and make a story out of it. I can approach an issue as a literary essay, mixing personal experience with information and reflection. The result won’t be navel-gazing and insubstantial.

I’m not saying that academics can’t venture out into the real world. Nor am I saying that being a technical writer is the equivalent of an anthropological experience like Conover’s. I am saying that perhaps for a literary writer, it’s better to avoid the cloister — in whatever form, not just a university. Venturing into the world gives you something to write about.

You can make other arguments about the value of company life over academic life. For example, living in the world allows you to carry out the ideas of the classroom. Or the world allows you to prove and evaluate what you read in the library. Or the world gives you an opportunity to serve others with the knowledge you acquire in the university. But for me, as a writer, it comes down to having substance to write about, and that substance isn’t always apparent inside the classroom.

Some subjects will always remain at the university, I imagine. Arcane philosophical discussions, abstract discussions about the American Dream, or transformations of identity through the writing process in John Barth’s novels (my undergraduate thesis). But I am happy to leave those ideas in the classrooms. An idea that only has merit inside a classroom, that emerges from an assigned text, may be refreshing, but it is not the substance of my life.

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This entry was posted in creativity, podcasts, writing on by .

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, DITA, and more. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog. Email

21 thoughts on “Choosing Between Academic and Corporate Life: Did I Make the Wrong Choice?

  1. Kirsty

    Tom, I think through your blog and conference sessions you are merging the academic with the professional, but it’s from a company and conference perspective rather than a university perspective. You aren’t grading papers, but you also don’t have the summer breaks; you are having intellectual discussions with colleagues around the world, but it’s about technolog and users and HTML/DITA/XML/HAT tools, rather than about the works of a literary master.

    As humans we always look at that green grass on the other side of the fence that our friend has, but it seems to me you are forging a lovely combination of academic and professional. I think that’s what you’re saying at the end of this post.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Kirsty, thanks for your insight. I hadn’t really thought that I was combining the two (academic and professional), but to some degree, you’re certainly right. Thanks for adding this perspective to the discussion.

      Reply
  2. Shannon McDonough

    While I am not an academic, I am working as an academic administrator. Previously, I worked on the corporate side in advertising and publishing.

    From what I have observed as both a student and an employee at a small liberal arts college, there are pros and cons to the academic life.

    You have enumerated the pros above, but the cons seem to be that to say that the job market is competitive, especially for English Lit. professors, is an understatement. Furthermore, trying to find employment in a geographic location that works for you and your family is difficult. (If your spouse is also in academia, this can be nearly impossible.) And, lastly, once you have earned tenure, you are really locked in to that institution. This is the holy grail, of course, but it might also feel limiting?

    I do think that many professors have a wealth of life and other professional experience from which to draw for their teaching and research. Furthermore, I think that they do what they do because they love it and they love teaching.

    You have the flexibility to work on projects that compel you and no restrictions on how you do that. Embrace this!

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Shannon, thanks for your comment here. I hadn’t thought about the paradox of tenure, that it gives you job security while at the same time locking you in a specific area. I also liked your point that professors love teaching, which I can certainly see. Good professors have a bit of theater within them.

      Reply
  3. Scott

    Tom,

    Excellent post. Until a few years ago, I struggled with a similar dilemma. My background is journalism, and I constantly pondered why I was wasting my time with technical writing instead of writing what I felt I wanted to or needed to.

    After a lot of thought, rediscovered that I enjoyed being a technical writer. On top of that, what I earn from tech writing subsidizes my other writing. I can write articles, essays, reviews, and paid blog posts for whomever I want without having to worry about whether or not I’ll be able to make the next mortgage payment.

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the grass is greener. In some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. Quick glances can be deceiving. To fully understand the pros and cons you need to immerse yourself in an environment for a while.

    Here’s an example: I had a colleague about 10 years ago who decided that she wanted to go work for a non profit. She only touted the good things about that gig, and would be quite offended when anything remotely negative was broached. She lasted less than three months — the politics, the back stabbing and back biting, and the quality of the work drove her away. Not every switch will be like that, but it can happen.

    Anyway, as a couple of other commenters wrote you’re doing a great job of straddling the professional and academic worlds. On top of that, you’re still young. You can still wait a few years and decide whether or not you want to make the kind of switch that you seem to be pondering.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Scott, I appreciated your comment. I forgot about your journalism background. I know that this post has a heavy dose of the grass-is-greener syndrome, but I also tried to provide a solid argument against a life in the university. Your example of a colleague going to work for a nonprofit is really apropos. I know how poison university politics can be regardless of the location. Once someone explained that university politics is so bitter because everyone has so little to lose.

      I know you publish a lot on your blog and elsewhere. You must be at least twice as prolific as me. What drives you to write so much? Have you already discussed this in a post I missed?

      Reply
      1. Scott

        Tom,

        What drives me to write so much? The first word that comes to mind is masochism. But on deeper reflection, it’s just that I enjoy writing. A lot.

        I joke that writing is the only thing I can do with any degree of competence. That’s only partly true. There is a lot that I’ve learned that I want to share, ideas and opinions that I want to air, and writing is a good way to do that.

        Tech writing isn’t the best outlet for that kind of thing. But blog posts, articles, and essays are. On top of that, I can’t deny there’s a monetary angle involve. What I pick up from my paid freelance work pays for a few vices.

        Reply
        1. Tom

          Scott, thanks for expanding on your drive for writing. I also enjoy it. I think writing provides a time for thinking and reflection that doesn’t come from any other activity. It’s also fun to engage in this medium on the web. I honestly enjoy writing blog posts more than print articles. The former I get to keep and also receive feedback, linkbacks, and can read what others think on their posts. With the latter, it feels like I’m giving the writing away, and I rarely receive feedback.

          Reply
  4. Dave Johnson

    Quite a bit of navel-gazing here, Tom. I won’t call you a J Alfred Proofrock, because I know how solid you are, what a family man you are, but I do recognize a bit of the old family foot-itch lurking in your musings. Grass is grass, which ever side of the fence. Look over in Wallace Stevens’ yard and see the lush growth there and start a sprig or two with your loved ones in your own yard amongst the fountains, seagulls, and the brood in the grass.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Thanks Dad. I had to reread Proofrock. I think that’s a funny comparison, but I can totally see it. In this post, I think I played up the indecision a bit. I like your idea of starting a sprig in my own yard among the fountains and seagulls. Nice way of looking at it.

      Reply
  5. Bruce Curley

    The Need for Saturday Night Poetry

    There are those who write Friday night poems,
    manic, frantic poems of word grenades
    that are thrown in your face
    fiercely and emotionally
    with no thought to consequence,
    restraint, or the future.
    “It is here, man,
    it is in your face and your mamma’s face
    and dig it, I don’t give a
    [choose your favorite curse word]
    see, man, it is my poem,
    my poem that matters,
    and only I matter
    in this world’s creation, man,
    understan’ what I’m sayin’…”
    and the poet leaves the stage and spotlight
    to screams and high fives
    and another shot and beer
    as institutional
    as the poem was not.

    There are those who write Sunday afternoon poetry,
    wonders of iambic pentameter and tetrarch
    and word constructions so dense and thick
    that the early settlers to American,
    had they faced the same forest of words,
    never would have made it past
    the white sands of the Eastern Seaboard;
    great pedantic wonders of words on page
    and now on the Internet’s wall beckoning
    but leaving the soul as cheated and empty
    as stomachs fed on grass in a famine;
    these poetry Pharisees and Seduces
    leave the lectern and seminar
    to the abject loneliness of the desk
    with no window and soldier on,
    cursing their superior’s orders
    while religiously obeying them.

    Others write Saturday poetry,
    work and art poetry,
    poetry that takes
    the everyday and routine
    and knows that, yes,
    the baby must be fed,
    but the baby has always to be fed
    not only the sweet
    and nutritious mothers milk,
    but the poetry and song
    and gentle mental caress
    of the word well turned,
    so that generations hence,
    poetry is still sung to the baby
    whose eyes dart back and forth
    in half sleep and is touched
    in the deepest corners of their minds
    by words that connect them again
    to the peace of the womb
    and the ultimate peace of Heaven:
    Like Emily Dickinson,
    they scrub the floors
    of the Halls of Poetry
    just to raise their heads
    occasionally
    to hear the angels sing.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Bruce, thanks for posting the poem. For other readers here, Bruce sent me some thoughts and this poem he wrote via email, and I liked it so much I asked him to post it as a comment. I think this poem is a classic, especially the section on Friday Night poets.

      Reply
  6. Tammy

    As much as you contribute to the technical writing community and the passion your posts seem to show for your work, I’d say that you are where you belong – where your gifts are used as a great benefit for your readers and others in the field.

    I too have struggled with this some over the years. Mostly because of money, I never went on to get a masters degree and continue in the formal studies of the literature that I still love, though I read it every chance I can. I also stopped writing my poetry after a few busy years in technical writing. Now I’ve been a technical writer for over 20 years, and I think I have plenty of real-world experiences behind me. :-) But going back, with only these experiences and a family, is not really an option for me. Consider being thankful for the opportunity to experience both!

    Tammy

    Reply
  7. Craig

    I thought about it from time to time. Everyone says I have a professorial look and demeanor and could easily fit in on a bucolic college campus, teaching English literature.

    Then I think about “Publish or Perish” — the tried and true academic maxim. That bit always left a bad taste in my mouth. Of course, I’m doing the exact same thing here, in my corporate cube! I publish user guides, or I perish professionally.

    For your consideration:
    (1) Teaching on a college campus might offer beautiful suroundings.
    (2) Business offices do not offer beautiful surrounding. If one is lucky they not ugly and industrial.
    (3) I want to write documentation. I like doing this. I’m good at it. I’ve been told I’m good.
    (4) I have no desire to teach literature, but I want to read literature.
    (5) Grading papers? Forget about it. I’m trying to write a novel in my few off-moments. I’m also a member of a writers group. I don’t need the grading of papers to further interfere with what little free time I have.
    (6) I remember reading about a few people who have deserted ivy-draped academia for the cold gray business cubical. They felt they would accomplish more and were tired of grading papers.
    (8) If anyone has read of someone who has fled the office for the ivory tower, let’s hear about it.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Craig, thanks for adding your reflections on this topic. Re your last point, I too would be interested in reading the experiences of academics who turned to professional writing.

      I also agree with point 3 especially — “I have no desire to teach literature, but I want to read literature.” Thanks again for adding your comment.

      Reply
  8. Angelo Thomas Crapanzano

    Doing two things is great, especialy if you like them both. However, there you can have problems to. I was an Electronic Engineer. I loved engineering, but I also loved teaching. So while I was an engineer in the day time I taught engineering at the evening division at Akron University. After seven years I found that I became tired of the same subject. I wanted to get away from engineering,to do someing different. That’s when I started to write fiction novels. My background does help but I try to chose different subjects. That takes a lot of research but that is fun also. I am now retired and writing full time. so you can do even three things in your life time.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Angelo, thanks for your comment. I like how you do several things over a lifetime. We so often are trapped into the mentality of one specific career when, as you say, really the possibilities are more flexible. Thanks.

      Reply
  9. Josh

    Tom,

    Great post. What you say about the classroom providing little substance for literary writing is true. I think this is why academics like me dread student essays that explore classroom experiences. The worst of these essays are the ones about students trying to write essays. Like this:

    “The blinking cursor taunted me, all but daring me to put words on the page. How it mocked me.”

    Oh, the humanity!!!

    Thankfully, an academic’s life isn’t limited to the classroom (though I do love the classroom). Family relationships, home improvement projects, vacations, hobbies, and the everyday stuff of life offer plenty of substance, I think, to fill an academic’s literary writing projects.

    But you’re right. One danger we academics face in trying to write is that we sometimes try to draw substance out of mundane experiences (i.e., blinking cursors), when there are often more substantive places to look for inspiration.

    Thanks for visiting us in Rexburg.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Josh, thanks for your response to my post. The blinking cursor is a great example of writing about writing. A lot of popular blogs online are blogs about blogging, which I consider to be about the same thing.

      Interestingly, writing this post made me a little less fearful about any bad predicament that could befall upon me, because I could always write about it.

      I had a lot of fun in Rexburg and just posted the podcasts from the panel and presentation.

      Reply

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