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Faces of the unemployed

January 12th, 2010 at 02:06 pm

This interview is the first in a series profiling those who are dealing with the loss of a job. Each story is unique, yet the emotions they feel, and the challenges they face, will resonate with many who share their experience.

I recently spoke with "Dido," a former psychology college professor in Pennsylvania who decided to change careers after investing 20 years in academia. Dido is also a fellow Saving Advice

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Q. Dido, why did you decide to leave a 20-year career as a college professor?

Dido: To understand why, you'll need to understand the nature of traditional tenure track positions in college-level teaching. It's very much a "publish or perish" environment. I started out teaching psychology at a research university, but because I wasn't publishing enough, I was asked to leave after six years. Since then, I have taught psychology courses at several small liberal arts colleges, where I mostly worked as an adjunct professor.

Q. What's the difference between a tenured professor and an adjunct professor?

Dido: If you're on the tenure track, you need to be doing some research and getting stellar teacher ratings from the students. An adjunct professor is the equivalent of temporary help, and you're usually hired for short-term periods of a year or less. As an adjunct professor, you're likely assigned to teach introductory courses that are requirements for incoming students, and these are the classes students are most likely to rate as "average."

As an adjunct professor, I was patching together individual courses for two years with no contract longer than four months at a time. At one time, I was teaching five different classes at four different colleges. I put a lot of miles on my car.

In 2003, I landed a full-time, one-year sabbatical replacement job at one liberal arts college. I taught there for six consecutive years with six consecutive one-year contracts. That contract wasn't renewed in May 2009.

Q. So it was after that layoff that you decided not to return to teaching?

Dido: My exit strategy was actually several years in the making. I had already begun to think about a career change a few years prior to my layoff, during that period of one-year contracts. I was unhappy with the instability of my teaching career and became involved with a small group of women who each felt like they were facing a transition point in their careers. We would meet periodically and give each other little homework assignments. Those discussions helped me realized that I wanted to merge my interest in psychology with an interest in personal finance. I wanted to do financial planning, helping people overcome financially self-defeating behaviors. I'm interested in how findings from psychology and behavioral economics can be used to help people more effectively manage their financial futures.

After some investigating, I realized that most financial planners essentially end up working as sales people for some company. I decided to take a different route and am now pursuing my CPA and enrolled agent licenses so that I can eventually work at a small CPA firm doing taxes, accounting and some financial planning. (Editor's note: An enrolled agent represents their clients with the IRS.)

I've been enrolled in classes since 2004 and have completed three of the four required CPA exams. I expect to have both my CPA and enrolled agent licenses by July of this year. Of course, I would have liked to control the timing of my departure from teaching, but that was not meant to be.

Q. Job loss often triggers a great deal of emotional distress, turmoil and feelings of isolation. But it sounds like your classes and exam preparation have kept you very busy during your last eight months of unemployment. Is that true?

Dido: Yes, studying is my anxiety reduction technique. I have felt a sense of isolation, but ironically, it was while I was still working.

Q. What do you mean?

Dido: When I learned that my teaching contract would not be renewed, my colleagues at work started avoiding me. People were friendly, but most of them never asked me about my future plans. No one really had time to listen. There was a studied avoidance of me, and after my office was moved to the philosophy department away from my colleagues, the separation became even more uncomfortable.

Most educators who have committed themselves to a teaching career have a very strong loyalty to academia. So they really couldn't relate to my career switch. I have a PhD in psychology, but at the college level, everyone has a PhD, so it's not valued. Now I have to hide my degree because prospective employers think I'm overqualified.

Q. How did your interest in personal finance develop?

Dido: I got involved in a
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Simple Living network that was created by a group of Quakers who formed an online study group based on the book,
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Your Money or Your Life. That book changed my life, and really got me thinking differently about money.

Q. Tell me about your "Happiness Project."

Dido: The Happiness Project was an assignment I gave students who were taking my Money & Happiness class at several of the schools I taught at. It was an elective course for psychology majors. We delved into behavioral economics, cultural expectations about money, advertising and consumerism, and "positive psychology." As part of the class, I asked students to use what they were learning to make a conscious effort to make themselves happier.

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The Happiness Project is also the title of a new book by Gretchen Rubin. I decided to create my own "happiness project" by coming up with different ways of keeping myself happy while dealing with my job loss. So this month, I'm keeping a gratitude journal. Each night I write a bit about what I'm grateful for each day. Next month, it'll be something different, maybe committing myself to performing random acts of kindness. I'll also use ideas from Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness and the tools at
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Happier for guidance.

Q. What else are you doing to keep busy?

Dido: After being shunned by colleagues after my teaching contract wasn't renewed, I made sure to cultivate friendships outside of work. So these days, I exercise regularly with my walking "buddies." I'm active in my congregation, I do some volunteer work, I'm a community leader on a diet website forum and I'm part of an online women's coaching group. Each week, we talk on the phone and offer feedback to one another on "getting unstuck." And, of course, I'm looking for a full-time job.

Q. How has prolonged unemployment affected your personal finances?

Dido: I'm fortunate in that I recently started working for H&R Block for the coming tax season, but unemployment has been very hard on my bank account. Despite having a substantial cushion prior to my layoff, my credit card debt now exceeds what I have in savings. After my layoff in May 2009, I had about $3,000 worth of work done on my car. My dog became seriously ill and required expensive surgery and radiation treatments. I racked up over $9,000 in credit card debt.

Not counting my mortgage, this is the first time in 15 years that I've been in debt. I'm very much concerned about going deeper into debt before I find a real, self-supporting job.

Fickle economic currents can swamp the boats of many workers who never saw the wave coming. People like Dido can regain a sense of control by being proactive, taking the initiative to manage their careers rather than waiting passively by the phone for a call that may never come.

Although returning to school and changing career paths may not always be feasible or the right move, other choices exist for those determined to discover them.

8 Responses to “Faces of the unemployed”

  1. Broken Arrow Says:

    Wow, I knew Dido was up there on the brain food chain, but I had no idea Dido was a college professor. Another great article, Fern! Nice to see you still around, Dido!

  2. davera Says:

    Beautiful piece, and very touching. Appreciate this interview very much. Had no idea academia could be so cold. But since success is rewarded for individual accomplishment and not collaboration, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised.

    Dido has great courage and is a terrific inspiration. I sincerely hope that she lands a good job in her new chosen profession very soon.

  3. pretty cheap jewelry Says:

    excellent journalism, thank you for blogging, off to tweet it

  4. my english castle Says:

    Great interview, Fern. As academic staff myself, I understand the tenuousness of that environment, although my career path went the opposite way--from a finance job to the university.
    We're cheering for you, Dido!

  5. Dido Says:

    Thanks for the supportive comments, everyone--it means a lot!

  6. ralph Says:

    Wow - interesting. I mean I've heard of publish or perish, but I didn't think it was that widespread. I guess I always assumed that since colleges are swimming in money the life of a professor was pretty privileged. In fact, I always had that in the back of my mind as a last resort backup career. Just goes to show it's good to know what is really going on around you!

    Thanks for an informative blog entry.

  7. Dido Says:

    The life of a *tenured* professor is relatively privileged--albeit salaries are significantly lower than in industry, and academia has its own set of stressors. But--just like the rest of our society--academia also has its "haves" and "have nots" and, relatively speaking, adjunct faculty are the "have nots." As an adjunct, if I taught 3 courses a term, which is a full-time load at many places (a full load typically varies from 2 to 4 courses depending on how intense the resesarch pressures are), I could be paid $10,200 to $12,000 for four months' work with no benefits; but for the same semester even at the lowest rung of the tenure track, I'd probably make at least $25,000 with full benefits for teaching exactly the same set of courses. That salary discrepancy does rankle--I just tried not to think about it.

  8. katwoman Says:

    Fern, you are on a whole other level! Outstanding work!

    Dido, good luck on your new career choice.

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