How I Came Out Of The “Liberal Arts Closet”

Note: this blog post was originally published on the Vitae.

Two years ago, I accidentally outed myself when I quietly applied for a teaching job at a small liberal-arts college. I thought my secret was safe, since the search committee hadn’t yet asked for recommendation letters. But thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a glitch in the system, my references were automatically alerted when I submitted my application online. One of my mentors emailed me about it almost immediately.

It was time to come clean. No, not about being queer — I’d gone public with that 10 years earlier — but about my ambivalence toward the R1 track and my openness toward “going liberal arts.” You’d think my previous experience in coming out as gay would have made this new revelation easier. But I was surprised by how hard it was, and by the odd parallels between outing myself as queer and coming out as a liberal-arts professor-to-be.

Let me explain.

In both situations, I knew that hiding my true identity and desires meant safety and inclusion, but at the cost of authenticity and happiness. Just as society presumes that most of its members are heterosexual, and socializes and educates its youth accordingly, most graduate programs still presume that their students will land jobs at Research I’s and train Ph.D.’s primarily for those jobs.

The unfortunate result in both cases is that people who deviate from the norm are often castigated. LGBTQ youth are excluded, or worse. While I would never suggest that Ph.D. students who want to work at liberal-arts, regional, or community colleges, or outside of academia, are victims of discrimination and violence, such students may receive more subtle punishment, like less intense and more “hands off” training, particularly when it comes to research.

I quickly noticed in my first year of graduate school that Ph.D. students were tracked based upon their post-graduation career plans. As a naïve 22-year-old, I knew that I wanted to teach and do research. What I didn’t know was that the expectations that faculty face vary depending on the type of institution for which they work. I wanted to become a professor at a small liberal-arts college. When I shared that dream with a professor, he discouraged me from narrowing my career options so soon in graduate school. He said that I should “aim for R1’s” because those jobs would be the hardest to obtain; and if I changed my mind later, jobs at other institutions (e.g., liberal-arts colleges) would be automatically open to me.

Since I was miserable in my first two years of grad school, and unsure whether I’d even make it to the Ph.D., I didn’t take his advice too seriously. But I did stop telling people that I wanted to work at a liberal-arts college. I also started to observe that students who were open about their intentions to “go liberal arts” were treated differently from other students. They weren’t pushed as hard on their research. They weren’t regularly selected for research assistantships, awards, and other research-based opportunities. I even suspected that certain professors declined to mentor such students at all. In general, they weren’t as visible in the department, and they never reached “rockstar” status.

The message was clear: Stay in the closet if you want the best, most rigorous graduate training possible.

In my third year, I decided to pursue our department’s Preparing Future Faculty certificate – a three-course sequence focused on teaching and pedagogy. Unfortunately, my proposed project for the third course fell through, so I gave up on completing the certificate. When I shared the news, one professor said, “That’s fine. I don’t see that career path for you anyway.” I knew then that I was passing as “R1-bound.” But I was secretly disappointed that no one encouraged me to finish the certificate, since every future faculty member could benefit from training in teaching and pedagogy.

Before long, I felt “trapped” by everyone else’s R1 plans for me. I was fortunate to receive the Ford Foundation predoctoral award – a three-year research fellowship for graduate students of color. It was mostly a blessing as it allowed me to work on projects other than my master’s thesis, and to publish and graduate early. But the exclusive focus on research, and the pressure to publish, took a toll on me; I developed Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I asked two professors about taking a one-year break from the fellowship to teach, specifically citing concerns about my mental health. Both professors said it would be foolish to “give up” precious time and money for research just to take time to teach.

I decided to make my fifth year my last in graduate school before going on the academic job market. My committee strongly opposed my plan to write and defend my dissertation, and start searching for jobs in a little over a year. I sensed that underneath their concerns about timing was actually a fear that I was jeopardizing my presumed R1-bound future. Staying in graduate school for seven, eight, or more years wouldn’t necessarily offer me more training, just more time to publish and make myself marketable for top research universities. I could barely stomach the idea of a sixth year, so I pressed on anyway. I reminded my committee that it was my future (to waste).

They begrudgingly allowed me to apply for jobs at the start of my sixth year. One committee member asked me, “You’re not applying for liberal-arts jobs – are you?”

“Of course not,” I answered automatically, despite knowing that I had no desire to pursue an R1 career path. But having never attended a liberal-arts college, and with only one year of teaching experience under my belt, I also wasn’t absolutely certain that I would be a good candidate for a liberal-arts job, either. I feared limiting my job search, but dreaded losing my committee’s support even more if I came out as liberal arts-bound.

That’s when I quietly (or, so I thought) applied for that opening at a small liberal-arts institution and was outed by its online application system. The jig was up. So I revealed my ambivalence about the R1 track and came clean. In an attempt to soften the blow, I lied to my committee about being willing to go either R1 or liberal arts, just as I’d once lied to my parents about being bisexual, rather than “fully gay” (my mother’s words). One committee member asked me for a list of the liberal-arts colleges to which I was thinking of applying, only to regale me with reasons why each of them would be a poor fit for me.

My first invitation for a campus interview came from the small liberal-arts university where I now teach. I was relieved and excited but my department was less enthusiastic. “Oh,” was the usual response when I told my professors where I was interviewing. But I loved the campus and the department, and was ready to accept an offer as soon as it came.

When I returned from my interview, however, only my friends wanted to know how it had gone. In contrast, when I returned from an interview at a research university – a place that I’d dreaded visiting and realized at once I’d never be happy at – my professors were eager to hear all about it. (At least that interview gave me confirmation that I was not R1 material.)

When the liberal-arts university offered me the job, I shed tears of joy, but the good news was not celebrated by my department. Instead, I was instructed to meet with my committee members so they could try to talk me out of taking the position. Their anxiety was fueled further by an impending campus invitation I was expecting from a top-30 research university. In the end, I declined that invitation — literally moments before I called to accept my current position.

After the dust settled, I compared notes with a friend who was also on the job market. I learned that she’d had similar experiences with her department. In fact, hers was explicit about their expectations that she would “go R1” and that taking a liberal-arts position was, in essence, a waste of the time and resources devoted to her training. Clearly this kind of tracking was not unique to my graduate program, but it seems no one is willing to name this practice.

An attitude adjustment in graduate training is long overdue. My career choice upset members of my graduate department because they had invested in me. By pursuing a different path, I had squandered their investment. Or so they believed. But at a time when few Ph.D.’s can bank on landing a tenure-track position at an R1, why wouldn’t doctoral programs want students to apply for jobs at liberal-arts and community colleges? And why wouldn’t we want excellent researchers working at those colleges? After all, strong researchers can make for better teachers. All students deserve equal access to training for research, teaching, and applied careers. What’s more, graduate departments would better serve their students by asking about their goals, dreams, strengths, and worries, rather than making assumptions or pushing a certain path.