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Mar. 21, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 9


High heels beat flats: Why I left academia

By Hilary Levey Friedman *09
Published in the March 21, 2012, issue

“Hilary, you know you shouldn’t wear high heels.”

No, I didn’t know.

“Believe it or not, we’ve been known to talk about female job candidates’ shoes in faculty meetings. You should go with practical shoes.”


Until that moment, I had thought that my nude Kate Spade pumps were practical. As anyone who has been through any sort of extensive job search knows, you have a go-to power suit. My power suit’s pants had been hemmed so they could be worn perfectly with the aforementioned accompanying power, yet now impractical, pumps.

Stunned, I stammered, “Got it, thanks,” before hanging up with my friend, a recently tenured professor in the sociology department I would be flying out to visit the next day to interview for an assistant ­professorship.

I tossed a pair of flat black boots into my suitcase — and realized that maybe this academic thing wasn’t for me.

Of course, it wasn’t the shoes themselves that sent me over the edge (though they were gorgeous). In a way, this had been a long time coming.

Like most Ph.D. candidates, I had worked hard in school and was good at it. School and learning truly were my “thing” — and my main extracurricular activity. Some kids had basketball, others the flute; I had my books. A lot of my self-identity was wrapped up in this learning “thing.”

In college, while my friends prepared for careers in investment banking, management consulting, and law, I took my GREs and applied for fellowships. I was on the academic track, and not a small part of the allure was that grad school and academia offered a clear path to how my professional life would unfold for the next few decades: a tenure-track position as an assistant professor, then associate and full professor, and finally, an endowed chair.

When I arrived at Princeton in the fall of 2003, I knew what I had to do: Write an outstanding dissertation in sociology, get a stellar job, get tenure. And on the surface I seemed to be excelling — I received some great fellowships, and I had fantastic advisers and female mentors, like Viviana Zelizer, Katherine Newman, and Sara McLanahan.

And yet, something wasn’t quite right.

During my time in Wallace Hall, I began to realize that sociology wasn’t always about engagement with the wider world and people’s everyday lives. Instead, particularly for graduate students, it seemed to be about publishing articles in a narrow range of journals, and those articles often tended to be about arcane topics. (This doesn’t apply to all tenured faculty but, well, they have tenure.)

The things I like to study, however, tend to be the opposite of arcane. I wrote a dissertation on why families with elementary-school-age kids enroll them in competitive after-school activities like chess, dance, and soccer. This was pre-Tiger Mom Amy Chua. I wrote my senior thesis in college on why mothers enroll their young daughters in child beauty pageants. This was pre-Toddlers & Tiaras. I wanted to understand what people care about far from the ivory tower, and what matters in their everyday lives — and how I could help them improve those daily experiences.

But in academia, this openness and desire to write for a broader audience often is seen as suspect. And if your focus is on getting tenure, anything other than “serious” academic publications is a distraction. Six years after starting my Ph.D., I still was more interested in the broad topics and a more mainstream audience. Nonetheless, I continued on the academic path, landing a two-year postdoctoral fellowship.

During those two years, I married a fellow academic, and things became even murkier — and then, suddenly, much clearer. Like many couples in various professions, we were struggling to balance the careers of two ambitious people. In the academic job search, whose job was going to take precedence location-wise? Or, to put it more bluntly, who was going to give?

And the shoes? An analogy, of course, but I realized that I was heading down a path that potentially would stifle the real me — someone who loves pop culture and high heels. And so, I had my epiphany. I no longer wanted to be an academic. I wanted to wear fabulous high-heel shoes all the time, especially after wearing those boring flat, black boots to the interview, having two professors comment on them, and still not getting the job.

Mostly, now, I feel relief. I’m pursuing writing for a more general audience, ­publishing articles in magazines and newspapers and appearing as a “talking head” on local news shows when the subject is childhood and competition. I have a literary agent and am completing a book. I love hearing stories about scientists who left the lab to pursue cooking, or attorneys who left the law for literary pursuits.

The world didn’t end once I no longer received university computing support, lost my “.edu” email address, and stopped adding to the “under review” section of my CV. In fact, the world opened up as I embraced the opportunity to blog and dabble in social media, and I discovered that it felt good when more than a couple of hundred people read my writings. While my formal school days may be over, I’m clearly not done learning. And I do hope that learning can continue to be my “thing” for many decades to come.

Hilary Levey Friedman *09
Hilary Levey Friedman *09

Hilary Levey Friedman *09 is a freelance writer and sociologist in Boston.

Post Comments
9 Responses to High heels beat flats: Why I left academia

Lindsey Mead Russell '96 Says:

2012-03-13 11:57:36

Bravo -- I applaud this story of listening to what you really want, and of stepping off the track that had previously fit so well. A process -- both the figuring out and the stepping off, actually -- that I'm familiar with myself. And I think I'd love your shoes. xox

Ilyana Kuziemko Says:

2012-03-13 13:38:39

A really interesting, honest take on the constraints and anxieties associated with graduate study. I think it will resonate with a lot of people, even those who chose to remain in academia.

Anand Gnanadesikan '88 Says:

2012-03-19 15:54:17

Great article. One thing I'd add -- as my wife likes to say, "Life is long." Keep writing, thinking and learning, and who knows what may happen. An author who's been an inspiration in this regard is Po Bronson. Ultimately, I think what he's doing -- and what you seem inclined to do -- are every bit as important in their own way as most of what goes on in the academy (this coming from a tenured professor).

Bob Buntrock *67 Says:

2012-03-19 17:52:36

Bravo. Those in the arts, as opposed to the sciences, may be more constrained to pursue an academic career, but there are plenty of careers out there for all that don't involve tenure-track academia. Even though many colleagues and mentors may be disappointed in the pursuit by their students in nonacademic careers ("didn't you buy the farm?"), it's not the end of the world, just the beginning of many others. In my own case, I chose not to pursue an academic career in chemistry, but instead opted for lab positions in industry. After the loss of two of those lab jobs, I found a new career in my second love, chemical information, and things have been great ever since. I'm "semi-retired" but still professionally active and consider myself a chemist "for life." I also mentor students from high school through grad school on "alternative" careers for scientists.

Suketu Bhavsar *78 Says:

2012-03-20 11:25:44

Thanks for sharing your story poignantly and with humor. A similar epiphany occurs *within* academia when a choice is made between teaching and research. For some academics it becomes more satisfying to share their passion of the field in a large class, rather than publish a research paper read only by the other five experts in their field.

Daniel Santore Says:

2012-03-21 09:35:57

A very interesting piece, chronicling somewhat common struggles, I think. The shoes thing is petty, I agree. But so too is having to wear the "power suit." We all tolerate some level of petty decorum. But here's something I don't quite understand. You seem to find academia -- and sociology, a social science -- lacking for its insularity and seriousness. A tried and true criticism. I have to ask: Did you expect something different of science? Did you expect the bulk of science to deal with non-arcane topics, analyzed for the level of non-expert grasp? If you find that science and its strictures are not to your taste, well, you've joined an enormous club. Nor harm, no foul. But if you think that social science is tainted by its insularity and seriousness, I beg to differ. Pick up any journal outside of the top five or six in sociology and you'll find that lack of rigor -- not too much of it -- is the real problem. There is a place for popular analysis, but I don't think it resides at research universities.

W. Barksdale Maynard '88 Says:

2012-03-21 13:04:02

Along similar lines to what the article describes, an undergraduate in the English department at the University of (nameless) was about to take a trip to see graduate programs. Before she left, her adviser took her aside and warned her that she was, by nature's gifts, too attractive a young woman and ought to "dress frumpy" lest she harm her chances of admission. I am glad to say that she followed this sensible advice and is now a graduate student.

Bill Blair '81 Says:

2012-04-16 09:45:20

This is fascinating. I have been in network for AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint for the last 10 years. Many of my peers are going through identical struggles with "common notions" as their careers evolve. The surface facts are quite different, but the process is identical.

Mike Martlet Says:

2013-12-02 09:26:40

Maybe you should have come to the UK, the "blue stocking" is a vanishing breed in UK academia. High heels are quite common even amongst deans and vice chancellors. It is only the left-wing crackpots who tend to look down on them.
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