By Allison Turner, Ph.D. Student in English Language and Literature
Neil Chudgar is one of those rarest of creatures: someone who got a coveted tenure-track position and then left the academy voluntarily. I met him this past April at a UChicagoGRAD event called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Work.” Chudgar was a graduate of UChicago’s English PhD program and a specialist in eighteenth-century literature like myself, so I was particularly eager to hear what he had to say.
I had heard about Chudgar and his unusual career path before—to me, he seemed practically legendary. In anticipation of finally getting to hear his story, I wondered privately: What could possibly motivate someone to give up his dream job—or my dream job, anyway—to become a communications consultant? Isn’t consulting what graduates of elite colleges do when they’re 22? I was baffled but intrigued: I wanted to know what Chudgar knew.
From the moment the discussion began, it was clear that Chudgar must have been amazing in the classroom. There were at least two dozen graduate students circled around him, all from a variety of programs and disciplines. Chudgar has an infectiously vibrant personality and a talent for putting others at ease. We talked about what we valued in our work and ourselves, about what we wanted from our professional lives, and about what we imagined would constitute our success. As if by magic, Chudgar created an environment in which we felt not only willing but eager to share thoughts and desires we so rarely discuss in our home departments.
Chudgar told us about himself too, about the life events that had led him to his position as an Assistant Professor at Macalester College. He recalled feeling lucky to have gotten the job—so lucky, in fact, that it never even occurred to him to think about how much he would be paid. It turns out, he later realized, that you’re supposed to negotiate these things.
In his fourth year at Macalester, though, just as he was beginning to think about putting together his tenure package, there was a death in Chudgar’s family. That loss led him to think about time in a new way. Suddenly, the idea of going up for tenure amounted to choosing to be an English professor for the rest of his life. Did he want to be an English professor when he died? He’d hit the jackpot in landing this job. But did he actually like it? He realized that he didn’t. And so he left Macalester, turning his expertise into a communications consulting business.
Chudgar’s workshop could easily have been a two- or three-part series. Indeed, when it was over, many of us wanted to know more. How did you decide to go into communications consulting? How did you transition from not being able to find anyone to hire you to starting your own business? How do you start your own business? How do you find clients?
We may not have gotten to all the particulars, but what we did get from this conversation with Chudgar was something more foundational: a new (for many of us) sense of confidence in the simple fact that there are other things, aside from academia, that we can do. That a non-academic career path is not a failure. That there are many legitimate choices we can make.
There’s a lot to value in academic work. Many of us are drawn to it for the sense of autonomy it gives us. We steer our own courses, set our own schedules, and define the horizons of our projects. Many of us relish in the thrill of making discoveries. We want to intervene in our fields, to see and help others see the world in a new and different way.
However, as Chudgar helped us to see, these are not the only aspects of our work or ourselves to value. Successful work might not be measured by the amount of autonomy one has. It might also be something that makes other people happy. As a scholar in the humanities, Chudgar consistently felt that no one wanted what he was selling. He had plenty of freedom, yes, but he always had to persuade others to value his work—to take his classes, to publish his articles, and so on. In many other kinds of jobs, people actually want what you do for them. They might even ask you for it. And while there’s much to be said for the kind of disruption we’re drawn to in the academy, there’s also value in work that gives order to our lives. “A lot of the work that the world requires is maintenance,” Chudgar said. “Variety needs structure to make it joyful.”
I am grateful to Chudgar and UChicagoGRAD for hosting this conversation. I took away from it—and have taken great joy in sharing—an expanded sense of what might count as good work as well as a renewed appreciation for the parts of academic life that are special. One example, of course, is the form of the seminar itself—in Chudgar’s words, “sitting around and talking about a thing.”