I interviewed Christopher Caterine, PhD He’s the author of Leaving Academia A Practical Guide, which came out in September.
Chris currently serves as a proposal writer and communication strategist for a global consulting firm working with technical experts, account leads and graphic designers to win high-value contracts prior to this. He spent a decade in higher education as an advocate for contingent faculty and a professor of Roman literature and history. He holds a PhD in classics from the University of Virginia.
I had such a great time chatting with Chris and comparing notes about what it was like to forge a path outside of academia. Our conversation was plagued by Zoom challenges, the video kept cutting out, but it was still a remarkably inspiring one. I hope you enjoy it.
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Chris Cornthwaite It’s really great to have you. And I just finished the book. As I as I told you, I was reading through it the last few days and it’s a really great read. And I really enjoyed it, too, as somebody who, you know, went through a similar process and found my found my own way and found a career with my degree. And it was it was neat. Like I was trying to see it from somebody’s perspective as they stand at the other side of this journey or from my perspective before I started. And it was really neat to see it from the other side and how much it resonated with me at different points.
It was really easy to read and chock full of good stuff, but it also had lots of really solid research in it and a lot of facts. And to be honest, I think I had known some of the facts about academia. But you raised a lot of things that I didn’t actually know, especially like in the first chapter when you talked about kind of how bad it is. I think you had some of the newer research and just some of it I hadn’t seen yet.
And I mean, academia is bad, but when you when you really get into it, you really just kind of you really kind of laid out how bad things are.
So anyway, it’s not to stay there because we’re not going to we’re not going to have a sad interview about how bad academia is. But to get us started, I wonder if maybe — and recognizing probably not everybody watching this has had a chance to read the book yet — Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your journey as an academic. And kind of we’ll start there and kind of move forward with your journey a bit and then talk about some of the parts of the book.
So who was Chris? Chris the academic?
Christopher Caterine: Yeah, Chris, the academic was a Graeco-Roman classicist.
So I studied the literature of the Greeks and Romans ancient ancient material. And I focused in particular on how historiographical authors, so authors of historical texts, influenced their readers thinking about the past and their understanding about the past. And in particular, I looked at how different emotions are provoked by historical texts.
And my dissertation was actually written about a long narrative poem about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey that led to the fall of the Republic by a twenty five year old friend of the Emperor Nero, who was made to commit suicide after being implicated in a plot to kill the king. So it’s sort of a wild and sticky poem. And yeah, I spent basically spent my days really leaning hard into a deep, philological analysis. So, trying to understand how the words on the page feed into broader themes within the poem and then how those influenced the reader into thinking whatever it is that the author wanted them to think about the past. That was part of their culture.
And you, as you kind of talk about in the book, you were one of those people like me as well, who you didn’t expect to leave academia, right?
Christopher Caterine: No, I was way too arrogant to think that I would ever leave academia.
I was I was really convinced that, yeah, I could I could outwork or outsmart enough people that the statistics didn’t matter.
And I think you could have told twenty one or twenty two year old Chris, you know, only seven percent of people who enter grad school get those tenure track jobs that you think you’re after. And I would have said, “Well, yeah, but I’m going to be one of the seven percent” and I would have believed it.
Yeah. And you chased you chase the dream for a while. It took a little while to recognize that that that academic job wasn’t coming.
So can you tell us a little bit about what your life looked like at first when you were still kind of had your mind set on academia? And I know also it involved your spouse as well. And you guys were kind of navigating that together.
Christopher Caterine: Yeah, my wife, Mallory, got a job: Tulane in New Orleans, where she still teaches in twenty thirteen. She began that fall right after we got married, actually. And so we came down here never having been to New Orleans, thinking that we would really only be here for nine months before one of us got a tenure track job. And that really was the belief.
So during that year I was finishing my dissertation. What I was done, she had not secured a tenured position and neither had I. And the department had a visiting assistant professorship opening that I was able to secure, I suspect.
Because I was you know, they were doing a puzzle here, even though I did have to go through an interview process and all that, so they made me maybe think I wasn’t going to get it necessarily, although I did. And then I taught in that position for three years and I was teaching a course on Roman history, two sections of it every semester, and then one course that would rotate on top of that. So, I was publishing an article thinking about how to revise my dissertation as a monograph, really looking forward to a true academic scholarly career.
Things really changed for me and for my wife when she was actually offered a tenure track position at a small school in the US Midwest. That was just a bad fit for the two of us as as a couple for us as a family and for her as an individual as well. And in the course of coming to that decision that she was going to turn down the job, as we had these conversations together, one of the things that shifted in our conception of work was we went from thinking about how bad does a job have to be to turn it down, which is how we entered that process in this job that met that threshold.
And we started talking about. how good would a job have to be for us to leave New Orleans? And we’d only been here for 18 months, but we’d really fallen in love with the city. And once you start asking you how good does a job have to be to uproot my life, that is actually a lot higher than we expected it to be. And so from there, I sort of began this process of exploring other careers that started, I guess it was spring 2015. And yeah, I didn’t actually end up getting my current position until I began in August. Twenty seventeen.
So there was one of two and a half year period there where I was, was exploring other things. But that’s, that’s sort of how it started. And again I came at it as somebody who was really quite committed to being a professor and rising to the academic ranks.
[00:08:52] Deciding to Leave Academia
What struck me about all this, as you were reading, as I was reading the book and especially with the with turning down that particular position is you really highlight, well, the actual lack of agency that we have as academics and the amount of times that we’re just willing to just believe that we don’t get any say in the work we do that the place we lived, all these types of things. And you write about this in the book really well. Can you reflect on that?
Christopher Caterine: That period of time for us was like really intense therapy in the sense that we were having these discussions, this driving back and forth between this college town and the nearest minor city and really talking about what was getting us excited about academic work, what would be good about this position for my wife, what might be good about it for me if there were any redeeming qualities in this place? We’re talking about leaving.
And the thing that sticks out in my mind is I remember driving back from the city to the town one day. I was about seventy five minute drive and we were talking and the conversation was turning, “how could you bring Gareco Roman literature to impoverished kids in New Orleans, and wouldn’t it be really interesting to run a program doing that? And I would say and at the end of it, I was just thinking, Wait a minute, like we’re in this place, try to think forward to a life where we live in in the Midwest, not in New Orleans, but our conversation is still going back there.
It was just like a thousand epiphanies that hit over the course of two or three weeks. As much as we thought we were supposed to want to be at this tenure-track position or that she was supposed to want to be in this position. It didn’t make sense for her. It didn’t make sense. You know, moving there didn’t make sense for me because nothing else around that I could do. They dangled the spousal hire in front of me at one point, which we discussed and I met with the dean about that and he said, “Well, it’s going to be half-time employment for one year. And then we’ll see. ]”
And I said, “Well, that’s not a spousal hire. That’s you trying to get me up here on the cheap as it is.” And then, you know, it’s a bait and switch, really, because we all know what the budget is going to do the next year.
So there were just all of these signs saying, no, no, no, this is a bad idea.
But we’ve been acculturated over the course of a decade just to fight those instincts. And I say that this was like a really intensive therapy session because it forced us to reconsider all of these really fundamental assumptions that we were making about how we had to live.
And coming out of that, it just became a lot easier to prioritize things and to make decisions because we said, “OK, well, we don’t want to live apart. We know that we don’t want to leave New Orleans in the short term at least. So we know that. And if I can’t get a job at a university here, then the obvious solution is for me to look for a new career, her position being on the tenure track, but renewable.” Oh, yeah, that’s really how it happened.
But it was a really challenging, challenging period.
And I don’t know if the full degree of the angst that we were experiencing really comes across in those pages. But it was painful. It really was. And even after we made the decision jointly, we were not sure that we made the right one. And there were people telling us that was sort of career suicide, which it hasn’t been for either one of us. But that was a real fear.
[00:14:59] On Making the First Moves Out
So you so you decided to kind of strike out. And obviously the story is too long to tell. We’ll have to leave it as a teaser that people have to go by the book if they want to read the whole story. But can you give a little bit of kind of an overview of what your journey out of academia looked like and what it entailed?
Christopher Caterine: In the spring of 2015 after the incident we just spoke about, I was really apprehensive about leaving, but felt it was something that I had to do.
So I quietly began a few informational interviews with people adjacent to the scholarly world. So basically university administrators, both at Tulane, where I was teaching at the time, and at Loyola University in New Orleans, which is right next door.
And I think I had maybe four or five discussions to see if there were any kind of on-campus roles that might be an easy fit. And what I told myself was that I was going to spend a month having those conversations, thinking through it, and then I would return to my scholarship for that summer and fall and have one last outing on the academic job market.
And if that didn’t go well, then I would call it that year was sort of infamous in classical studies, because usually there are an awful lot of jobs for Latin literature and Latin poetry in particular, kind of all the subspecialties. That’s the one that does OK. And that was my area. And that year there was not a single job in my subspecialty. And I said, OK, well, I’m glad I started thinking about this, but it’s time to begin looking elsewhere.
And that that so that brings us to winter of 2016.
Really trying to re-engage with university administrators that spring didn’t have much luck. It was in the late spring or early summer of twenty sixteen that I met a guy named Andrew Foley. I noticed Andrew on the website of a local consulting firm, and he had a master’s in music from Johns Hopkins and had been pursuing PhD work. But now he was in this consultancy and said, I need to meet this guy. And it seems sort of forward. But I just sent a note to the info site and said, “Hey, can you put me in touch with this guy?” And later that afternoon, he called me to set up a time to have drinks and chat, and he put me in touch with five people he knew in town.
And that really kick-started my informational interviews with people in business. And once I saw that there was somebody with a background similar to mine who really been committed to the academic life, committed to humanistic study in particular, who then was going and doing this pretty serious business, that really got me excited and made me think that it was something that I could do and actually enjoy.
And that that really did kick start what became a basically one year process of just meeting as many people as I could, taking night classes, throwing myself into as many new experiences as I could to build experience, build skills. And eventually it was through networking again that I got a foot in the door with my current company and was able to learn the job that I hold now.
[00:18:20] On Networking
It’s really one of the things that struck me about the book, and I mean, you do you do kind of devote time to both resume writing and the informational interview kind of networking side of things.
But it’s no secret if anyone who’s read the Roostervane blog that I’m very, very, very heavy on the informational interview networking side and very light on the resume side. So I really I enjoyed both. And they’re both really important to have as you really rightly point out in the book.
But I perked up at the way that informational interviews kind of transformed your life. Because it was similar for me. It’s one of the reasons why I became so kind of committed to telling people that they need to do this, because that was really what made the difference for me. I do talk to people who have edited the resume 47 times, who’ve sent it out 300 times, but have never quite had the courage to cross that threshold—going sitting down with a stranger and asking them about what they do.
What would you say to them?
Christopher Caterine: Well, first, I used to be like that, too, and I remember taking 30 minutes to write an email to ask my dissertation adviser for a 15 minute meeting. It’s a terrible use of time, but that’s how introverted and shy I really was.
So to go from that to being willing to send an email to the info@ at a website and ask for a meeting, it was quite a change for me. I think academics often get into this habit of really writing the resume because you’ve done your CV and it seems like if you just spend more time on something, you should be able to get to a breakthrough.
As a communication strategist, though, one of the things that I am keen to remind people is that until you know who your audience is, you can’t really know what your message is going to be. And so all of this work polishing a resume is, to my mind. I don’t want to say useless, but it’s a wasted effort because you’re not putting time into the right sort of thing until you know who you’re speaking to, what they value, how they think, and until you have a decent grasp on how you can frame your experience and your skill sets and the methodologies that you apply in your work to the problems that matter to them.
So to my mind, informational interviews are just a much more efficient way of learning the culture and the language of a new sector, of a new industry, of a new company, so that when they ask for a resume, you’re not just giving them what you think is important, but you can actually include the details that they think are important. And that’s actually how you communicate well, is you need to start with them.
And I’ll add that this is a place where people coming out of the humanities should be especially strong because most of us do cultural history in one shape or another. And we tend to be very good at looking at other people with different ideas and mental frameworks and figuring out how those work and putting ourselves into their shoes without losing our own sense of identity.
And so I think in a sense, you can approach informational interviewing like a sociological experiment where you’re trying to learn what is the language of these people? How do they think? What do they value? What what is this society? What is this culture? And you don’t need to buy into it all. You may choose to find some of it, but if you go about it that way, you’ll learn what you need to say to get them to listen. And at a certain point, it is on you to convince them that what you do has value, not for them to get the Ph.D. that you’ve got to see why they should care.
Yeah, and I love that. Just what you just said made me think of something else in the book that I really enjoyed. It was this idea of telling your story, but also evolving your story and getting better at telling your story. Because I know (sometimes in informational interviews we end up) talking about this kind of big sob story you had about academia that you were telling people. There was a similar thing that happened to a friend of mine. And somebody had actually told them, pardon my language, but somebody said, “Nobody gives a shit about that.”
For this individual, they were telling everybody this story, “Academia is so bad and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I wanted to be a professor and now I can’t. So what do I do now?”
And being told that nobody cares was it was a real wake up call for this person. And it sounds like it was kind of a similar thing for you to, as you describe it, to first of all, refine that message and get better at what you’re saying. But, also don’t make it seem like, to the person you’re talking to, that their life would be a consolation prize for you, right?
Christopher Caterine: Yeah. That’s such a good way to put it. And, you know, it’s funny, I tell that story in the book where I basically just felt flat explaining why I was changing careers.
And what’s really funny is there have been a handful of times where I’ve wanted to reach out to that person to introduce them to somebody who might be really useful to their career. Or in one case, was briefly on the finance board of a nonprofit, and I thought that that individual could have been really helpful person for the executive director to get in touch with. And she didn’t answer the introduction emails, in large part because I clearly hadn’t made a good impression.
And I think everybody should realize that you are going to have a couple of informational interviews that don’t go well, and that’s OK. But one of the reasons why you do want them to go well is because there may be times in the future where it’s not even that you want help from that person, but where somebody who needs help could benefit from them. And you want to be that conduit to put them in touch to help solve that problem. And if you come at networking and relationship building with that lens of wanting to be somebody who helps other people resolve problems faster and with less expense, that is a recipe for success.
[00:28:28] All academics are contingent, they just don’t know it yet.
Yeah, OK. So I want to pull out a few things from the book that I thought were really interesting and really resonated and kind of pitch them to you maybe for some comment or discussion. So, first of all, I don’t know if I have a discussion on this, but this jumped out at me. I think you were quoting somebody, but I didn’t write down who it was.
The quote was “all faculty or contingent, even if some don’t like to realize it.”
Christopher Caterine: Yeah, that was a friend of mine from the world of classics who said that I worked with him on and I don’t name them. So, it’s not that you missed it. But I worked with him on contingent faculty issues with the Society for Classical Studies. And this was a quip of his. He’d spent some time outside of academia before coming back, actually. And he said, yeah, once you realize just how dependent so many universities, especially in the US, are on tuition. All it takes is for, as we’ve seen, unfortunately, a few of them to start closing. And tenure is pretty worthless at that point. The moment the university needs to shutter for financial reasons, that is not actually job protection.
[00:30:50] On money
A couple more things kind of in this realm that that struck me. One was you were telling David Engel’s story. You said he loved academia and loved to drink wine and hang out with professors, and came to realize that it’s easy for philosophers to say that money didn’t matter because some of these people had the privilege of having some.
But it’s a different story when you don’t have any, right?
Yeah, and I mean, if David had said he was one of those people who didn’t have to worry about it. And so that was sort of OK for him. But then all of a sudden he realized that maybe he did care about money and wanted a lifestyle that could afford different or better things. And so he pursued it. And he’s been quite a bit happier since.
[00:38:10] The myth of hard work and success in academia
OK, so I wanted to ask about this idea. I love this. And I wrote it down and it resonated with me so much that when you were in academia, you believed that being single-minded and devotion to academia would lead you to be a successful, serious scholar and you didn’t have any other outside interests. This is true for me as well. And this belief that if I just focus on this and don’t even think about anything else and don’t have any fun, that I will be successful. And that just it just resonated with me so much.
And then also, I think which sounds like it was true of you, too, it made the exit that much more difficult because it didn’t have any other friends. I didn’t have any other interests. I didn’t have any hobbies. I was just thinking about academia all the time. So it made life a little tricky on the other side. Could you talk a bit about that? That’s a really interesting observation.
Christopher Caterine: That that really is the biggest issue, and I think this ties back to the informational interviews and why they’re so important, it’s another way of just learning how to talk to people. I did end up picking up a hobby at the very end of grad school. I began brewing my own beer and I came to New Orleans.
I got plugged into a local home brew club where I was speaking with these like old libertarian white guys who had been doing it since before it was legal in the US, like off the grid types and then a bunch of hipsters, which was a really weird mix of people all in one room sharing beer, but they didn’t care about what I was doing with ancient literature. They wanted to talk about beer.
But yeah, all through grad school, I was really convinced that I wouldn’t be serious if I was doing anything else. And there were stories that grad students told, I still don’t know if they’re true or not, but about faculty calling people in for a serious chat about whether they were serious about their studies for teaching like a cooking class once a week and things like this.
And so there was this culture, at least where I was studying that said, hey, “serious” means doing nothing else. And one of the things that I’ve come to realize since leaving academia is just how much worse of a scholar that made me. Because when I wasn’t talking to anybody outside of the field of classics, I became incapable of seeing through the trees in the forest and or seeing the forest for the trees.
And so I could only ever tell people about the details of what I was studying. I couldn’t tell anybody why it mattered, and I couldn’t even explain to myself why it mattered. And so my scholarship took a very long time to do and to write. And I gave some presentations that were OK, but not terribly impactful. And I really do believe that if I had spent more time in grad school not doing grad school, I would have been able to see the importance of what I was studying, or at least to distill it in a way that was more helpful, probably seventy-five percent faster.
And that was one of the things that I think was so personally hard and in my exit from academia. I was looking back on my undergrad, my grad school years, and saying, “Oh my God, I wasted so much time.” And it wasn’t that I wasted time in the sense that I wish that I hadn’t done it because I’m happy that I did it. And it made me who I am. And I and I don’t think I would change that. But I would certainly change how little attention I gave to outside activities and to view myself as a complete person rather than a classic robot.
[00:44:37] On Ego
So there’s one last thing I want to ask you about. And this is a really good natural segue. You talk about you talk a lot in the book about ego. So what have you learned about ego, both in academia and outside of academia?
Christopher Caterine: Ego really blinded me to so much. And the problem with ego is that it leads you to believe that your assumptions are fact and it leads you to believe that you don’t need to find an outside check on your assumptions.
And so the things that you believe about corporate life in America because of Office Space or The Office or whatever else, just become real to you. Or the things you believe about how good the academy is, become real to you, even if reality doesn’t map on to that.
And I think a lot of the disillusionment that people feel when they get into academic careers has to do with that that discrepancy. And I suspect that ego is part of that for a lot of people, because you just refuse to believe that somebody else’s experience or collection of evidence could actually be right and apply to you.
And so that’s the thing about informational interviews is that they are essentially a way to rapidly get more information that comes from somebody outside of yourself and your assumptions. And you need to break down those assumptions as quick as you can. Of course, once you get into a new job and get settled in, new assumptions will be built back up. And you need to be disciplined, I think about continuing to break them down to keep doing informational interviews, to keep networking. You don’t need to do it straight away necessarily. You still want to learn your job and get good at it once you get one. But if you stop, if you get back into that habit of thinking that, you know, all the answers can solve all the problems and don’t need to consult with anybody else, you’re just going to find yourself in the same position.
And I’m three years on into my second life now, and I think that is one of the biggest concerns or fears that I have still moving forward. And I don’t want to get stuck again. And I want to make sure that I’m constantly growing and seeking the best possible opportunities that I can find for myself within, you know, within the context that I that I operate in.
OK, so the book is Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide. Ideally, I’d be holding it up right now, but I read it on my phone. I downloaded it on Kindle, so I don’t have the hard copy. But Chris Caterine, where can people get the book?
You can get it from Princeton University Press. It’s also available on Amazon.
All right, Chris, thank you so much as being such a great conversation. Thank you for spending this time.
Thanks for having me, Chris.
You can find Chris’ book, Leaving Academia: A Practice Guide, here.