Sixteen years in academia made me an a-hole

After a decade at the Ivies, I work at a bar. But I've learned more waiting tables than I did as a professor

Published December 20, 2015 12:30AM (EST)

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(ehblake via iStock)

In 2007, I got my Ph.D. I proudly walked across a stage and received my diploma in Ethnic Studies and Film from the University of California at Berkeley. I held on to that diploma tightly, but not too tightly. I didn't want to crush it.

In 2009 I was a lucky one, lucky because the market crash in 2008 hit hard and still I had nine interviews at the Modern Language Association. There were not a lot of tenure-track jobs in academia to begin with, so you can imagine what the job search was like afterward. Still, I seemed destined to get a job. The odds were on my side. A reporter found out about my interviews through a mutual friend. She wanted to interview me for an essay she was writing. The job crisis was getting a lot of media attention and my multiple interviews were, I guess, newsworthy.

"What is it like to be on the market during this time?" she asked.

"Well, it's frightening. Sometimes I think I am going to end up being a waitress."

When the article was published, that quote got pulled. It was one of those quotes that they highlight. The font goes up to like 72 points and it’s bolded and placed between paragraphs. You know the kind of quote I'm talking about.

I didn't get any of those nine jobs. I applied year after year, flew to wherever the MLA conference was being held, sat in hotel rooms (yes, interviews for tenure-track jobs in the humanities take place in hotel rooms), wore conservative clothing to cover all my tattoos and body parts that I’m told should be covered. I was warned that if I dressed too stylishly or provocatively, it would distract from what I was saying—I needed to look boring.

For hour after hour, I sat in front of strangers who made me feel either special, as though the job was mine, or alternatively, like an idiot. They asked me long and intricate questions meant to show off their own brilliance. Lots of peacocks in academia, lots. I applied year after year and never got a single offer.

Fortunately, I did get post-docs, which were temporary appointments, so every two years I moved to a different city to work at a different school and build a new life--new streets, new friends, new bars, new grocery stores. My only constant at that time were my dogs.

Gradually, I started to resent academia, partly because I couldn't get a permanent job and partly because of the elitism and snobbery that came with the profession—an elitism that seemed inextricable from the environment and the people in it. I would grit my teeth at academic parties, listening to conversations where it was impossible for a person to talk about anything other than Hegel or T.S. Eliot. All I wanted to talk about was "The Good Wife."

“How do you deal with these people?” a colleague’s spouse asked me one night. We were smoking on a porch in the dead of winter, shivering through our conversation. There was snow everywhere. I had been quietly listening to two white dudes from the philosophy department alternate between a discussion of Heidegger’s "Being and Time" and reminiscences of traveling to Paris in the summer for research, how wonderful the city was and how hard it had been to return to the provincial United States. In my head, which had started to throb, I was thinking, “You guys have it real hard here, don't you?” Another guy from the English department launched into a monologue about his recent publication in some fancy academic journal.  No one seemed impressed. No one there seemed impressed by anything other than themselves.

“Oh my god, have you read so-and-so’s book? It’s terrible. She doesn't understand Deleuze at all. I can’t believe Harvard published her!”

I looked at my colleague’s spouse, a bit tipsy. “Save me,” I mouthed.

We went inside. There was a glass of wine in her hand. “Here,” she said. “Sedate yourself. It won’t make it stop but it will numb the pain.”

We started talking and laughing. And that was when it hit me. I was someone who always made friends outside academia, who would rather engage with the spouses or bartenders and servers I encountered than the fancy senior faculty around the table. It was suddenly clear; I would rather be a waitress than an academic.

The one thing I still loved about the job was teaching, but that was changing. The kids I taught now seemed more like clients or customers than students. In 2014 I taught a class on sex and cinema, a course that pretty much broke me. After that, I’d had enough. I went on unemployment and began applying for jobs outside higher ed.

It was a bust. It seemed that without any connections outside the academy, I was screwed. My résumé was too long. People in HR wouldn't even consider me. They would read "Ph.D." and think, "overqualified." I was at home doing nothing, not even writing. I had given up on that passion as well, floundering about in self-pity and confusion and the panic I felt when I realized my unemployment was going to run out before long.

What the fuck was I going to do with my life?

I knew I needed income and structure, that without it I was going to go crazy. As an undergrad in the '90s I’d worked at a bar in Cambridge and loved it. So much 21-year-old fun. As a 38-year-old, back in the area, I went there once a week. I knew the manager. I loved the staff and the food. It was that bar that I always went to: it was my bar. We all have a bar like that. One day I was telling one of the servers about being unemployed. She said, "Why don't you work here again? You know all of us, and you've already done it." I looked at her, sighed, and said, "Yeah, maybe," thinking at that moment, I have a Ph.D., I’ve taught at Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins, and now I’m going to waitress? This feeling was only compounded by comments made by folks in academia, some leaving because they couldn't find a job or wanted to be in corporate America (something that is vehemently not me).

"What? You're going to waitress? You are way too overqualified to do that."

"You are going to waitress? You are the most educated person I know."

I felt like a total and utter failure.

I also knew I was going to do it. I needed a job and doing anything was better than doing nothing. I contacted the manager and asked if he was hiring. He was. I interviewed with the owner. When he noticed my age, he said, “Oh! You’ll be our oldest server.”

Just like that, I was the thing that I once joked about becoming: a waitress with a Ph.D., only now I also felt old waitress with a Ph.d. That bolded quote in 72-point font was coming back to haunt me.

The night before my first shift I crawled into a ball on my bed, hugged my chihuahua, and started crying. My husband came in and held me. My chihuahua climbed between us and licked the salty tears off my face. I don't think he cared that I was crying, he just really likes salt.

My first week the two people training me walked me over to the computer and showed me all these buttons, some for drinks, some for food. I stared at it. I touched it. This was new, a touch screen. Still, so many other things were familiar; I remembered the narrow stairs that take you down to where everything is stocked, carrying buckets down to get ice, the slow soda gun, restocking toilet paper, soap, napkins, and rolling silverware—I was so fucking bad at it, and watching my co-workers do it was mesmerizing. Remembering orders, that was the hardest thing. What temperature did she want that burger cooked? Did he want dressing on the side? I felt pretty dumb because I was the only person carrying a pad in my pocket, the only person that needed to write everything down. Other folks had razor-sharp memories. I didn't.

I ran around shaking that week. I didn't want to fuck up. My feet hurt. They hurt so badly. One night I was an utter mess. I did everything wrong.

"What do you want, Miss? A vodka soda?" I brought her a Jameson on the rocks.

I broke shit. I ran into a door and smashed my arm into the handle. I slipped on a puddle of green Tabasco sauce from a broken bottle in front of a full restaurant. When I looked up, my co-worker was already leaning over me, his hand extended to help lift me up. The Brazilian cooks started calling me desajeitada. I am told it means clumsy. I hope so (actually it does, I looked it up to make sure). Even though I was desajeitada, everyone was supportive. My co-workers would repeatedly grab me by the shoulders and say, "You’re doing a great job, Rani."

The next week, I got some sensible shoes. My feet still hurt, but not as much. The less I shook and rushed, the easier it became.

Now, I’ve been working there for almost six months. I have started to get to know the people I work with. All of my co-workers are smart. Many are in school, one was in the Army, a few are moms. They are funnier than a lot of academics, but that seems unfair to them because most academics aren't that funny.

The biggest difference is that it feels like a family. The regulars come in, sit at the bar, and talk to us. I smile as they saunter in, hug most of them, and chat with them about our lives. A lot of customers are nice and I enjoy engaging and making them laugh as they sit down, persuading them to come in again because, after all, it's a cool bar. And my clothes don’t have to be boring.

I’ve learned a lot about the world and myself since I started working there. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that I’d been an asshole for thinking I was a failure because I was going to be a waitress. I’d been an asshole when I’d believed I was too good, too intelligent and too educated to wait tables, even though I ended up enjoying it more than teaching at any fancy institution. I’d been an asshole because my co-workers are intelligent and interesting, but I had been looking down on what they do, declaring it my biggest fear and failure. I’d been an asshole because I thought that having a Ph.D. made me special or better or smarter than everyone else, when in fact, all it made me was, well. . . an asshole.

I looked back at those parties where I took pride in thinking I wasn't tainted by academia’s snobbery, when really, I was just as much of an elitist as any of them. Hello, hypocrisy. Confronting my own elitism has been embarrassing. The realization that every time I was asked what I did for a living and got pleasure from saying I taught at Yale or Harvard makes me cringe. And yet I try not to be too hard on myself.  After all, academia cultivates and nurtures elitism and entitlement. Clearly, being critical of it didn't make me immune to it; elitism can creep up on you.

Now, I’m proud to say I’m a waitress. We pool tips at my bar. This makes for a community where we all have each other's backs, and if someone doesn't, they’re called out.  Unlike the competitive environment of academia, working at my bar is actually about being in a place where people want you to do well because that means we all do well.

I’m painting an idyllic picture here, there are definitely rough moments and nights and days where things fall flat. I know about the debate over banning tips and raising the minimum wage. I am not sure how I feel about it, and from what I can tell, my co-workers don't either. People can be awful and not all bars are like this one. I am aware that many servers have shitty jobs for shitty pay. And let's be real, it isn't enough money. But here is the thing; being a part-time lecturer in academia never paid me enough, either.

Recently, I was talking to a sociologist about leaving academia to become a waitress. I told him I thought that higher ed was falling apart. He didn't seem interested in my opinion or my personal experience and instead started explaining how it was neoliberalism that was destroying academia. I looked at him, laughed, and said, “Whatever the reason, I like being a waitress; it’s much better for my mental health.” I didn't have the heart to tell him that waitressing had taught me more about the world than academia ever had.

HPL Takes On: Ivy League Education

By Rani Neutill

Student at The Startup Institute; Server at the Miracle of Science; recovering academic, and a surviving feminist, Baltimore City lover, lives in Cambridge, MA.

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