My pathway to becoming a college professor always reminds me of a speech I gave in an eighth grade oratorical contest.
People sometimes ask me for advice about changing careers or about how to make the switch from practicing law to teaching it. This is the story of my journey and my advice to anyone considering making a leap.
After law school, I went to work practicing law at a large law firm. I represented clients in litigation and jury trials. I worked on cases involving sexual assault, discrimination, real estate – a wide array. I loved it. I loved the counseling and advocacy work of representing clients on both sides of the litigation process. I loved depositions, mediation, and trial. I loved learning from other skilled lawyers. I loved clients: People are nervous about the legal process, and I made them feel more comfortable. Legal concepts are confusing, and I helped people understand. I discovered that I had a knack for simplifying the complex. I loved the work. But then I looked up one day and found myself with three kids under the age of four. (Seriously where did they all come from)? I got nervous. I pictured 90 hour weeks in trial, and children sitting alone on the stairs -just like in the scene from the movies- because I forgot to pick them up at school. (This may or may not have ended up happening anyway, I’ll never tell.) So, I broke Sheryl Sandberg’s big Lean In rules, and I jumped off the partnership track in search of a new way.
Being a college professor seemed pretty cool. I had visions of my lazy summers at the pool with the kids. (Have you ever been to a public pool with young children?This vision was based on a lot of false information from the get-go). I pictured school years where I would float around a beautifully manicured campus in my Birkenstocks while having deep conversations around the water cooler about philosophy. Of course, I had absolutely no idea how to get a job as a college professor, no real experience teaching, and, as it turned out, the wrong degree. None of this slowed me down. I applied for tenure track jobs anyway. I said things in my cover letters like “I am a super good lawyer, so for sure I can probably do this, too!” Oddly, none of the schools responded.
Undeterred, I stayed the course. While practicing law part time for one client, I taught classes in early online programs that were outside my comfort zone for less pay than I would have made at McDonalds. I developed continuing education and training modules that I gave largely for free. I wondered about teaching at law school. I learned that most law professors went to Harvard. (Hyperbole, but barely). I researched the models of legal education that exist outside of law school. I kept digging for any hint that it would be possible that a liberal arts college would ever hire a lawyer. I considered whether I wanted to get a PhD – maybe in political science, I guessed. I applied for the one highly-selective program in my geographical area. I submitted a mediocre application based less on my interest in political science and more on my desire for a new career. They denied me. I felt relieved. This was telling; maybe this is what people sometimes feel like when they discover they are not pregnant, I wondered. (I’m not sure – see above, I was always pregnant.)
As I am writing about all this, I recognize that this soul searching time was a privilege afforded to me because I was lucky enough to have a supportive partner with a good job and health insurance coverage. I did not have to “keep my day job” to protect myself and my family as so many people do during transition.
Keeping at my research, I found a handful of legal studies programs hiring professors with JDs. Only one of them was close by…. and they had an opening in the legal studies department for a tenure track position. I had dinner with my favorite college professor, Max. Max had the kind of easygoing, thoughtful manner that made him everyone’s favorite college professor. He also had the most endearing Texas drawl. (This slow-speak especially intrigued us in Fargo-Moorhead, where I went to school). Max advised me honestly. He said, “academia is a tough nut to crack.” “What you gotta do, Leo” he encouraged, “is ya gotta talk about the liberal arts in your cover letter.” Good advice. I applied. I wrote about the importance of embedding professional skills in the liberal arts – and vice versa, a concept about which I became, and have remained, fully invested. Context and history, I had decided, do not have to come at the expense of skill nor should skill be marginalized at the altar of higher learning. I was really proud of my letter.
They hired someone else. I did not even get a call.
It would take another retirement at and a first-choice candidate turning down their offer before, by a stroke of good fortune on the right day, my resume would fall out of the stack of dozens of disgruntled lawyers seeking career change and catch the eye of the department chair – and not for my thoughtful and compelling understanding of the liberal arts at all, but because I had done some administrative work that would make her life easier.
My pathway to becoming a college professor always reminds me of a speech I gave in an eighth grade oratorical contest. (I was the coolest. I had curly hair and big red glasses, and I looked just like Sally Jessy Raphael). The topic was “Destiny: Choice Not Chance.” I don’t remember anything about the substance of my speech really. My first line was something about choosing what we have for breakfast, like toast or bacon. But I remember my last line – because any time you give a speech you know you have to pause and slowly, dramatically drop that last line like you are revealing the truth of the Universe. You loudly dangle your conclusory line like is the most important thing a person on earth has ever uttered. This method was especially true of junior high school orators in the late eighties.
“In the end,” I said, “it turns out, Destiny is not one or the other, but … instead it is [pause here, wait for it…] a unique combination of two parents: Choice AND Chance.” Boom.
Obviously, I had it all figured out.
I did not win. I used note cards when everyone else memorized, my dad chastised me for my lack of memorization effort, and I may have gotten second place.
This is what all of this taught me, and the advice I can now give career-seekers:
- Do your research
- Capitalize on your networks and ask people for their input and opinion; people want to help you
- Follow the good advice of your mentors when they give it to you
- Rejection will inevitably come, let it refine your path, not eliminate your goals (I really like this one, imagine me rolling it out slowly, eighth grade oratory style)
- If your dad thinks you should memorize the speech, you probably shouldGood Luck!