Should I Quit Teaching and Give Up on My Dream?


I can’t do this anymore. I wasn’t expecting to strike it rich as a history professor. Nobody becomes a teacher for the money. But I thought that with a PhD, I could convince somebody to give me a living wage.

I drive around the city teaching at three separate colleges throughout the week. I share a studio apartment with a roommate (also a teacher). At my age, I wasn’t expecting to scrape by on part-time jobs with a rising pile of debt. It’s humiliating.

My situation would be easier to handle if I knew what I did wrong. But I did everything society said I needed to succeed. I graduated from a top school, did internships, published articles. My student evaluations are better than the tenured teachers’.

I feel like I’ve been cheated. Why did I pay tuition all those years if there were no jobs for my skill set? The sheer unfairness of it all makes me want to give up. I wish I could start my life over.

I know this isn’t healthy. Plenty of people have told me to find a new career. But teaching history has been my dream, ever since I was a little girl. I can’t bear the thought of never being in a classroom again. I feel like if I quit now, I’ll spend the rest of my life with this failure over my head.

Please help me. I can’t keep following a dead-end career into poverty. But I can’t bring myself to give up on my dream, either. What should I do? —Brilliant but Broke

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Dear Brilliant,

As you well know, teachers don’t tend to make a lot of money but do expect satisfaction from their work (which happens to be very hard work). From the description of your routine, I am guessing you work as an adjunct at three different colleges. Compared to other teachers, adjuncts typically make less money, have less job security, and are often dissatisfied with their jobs. I’m sure it’s no fun traveling from one school to another, one part of the city to another. It’s time consuming and no doubt irritating. Often, adjuncts take on other types of employment to make ends meet.

You are not obligated to give up your dream, although changing some of the details might help. For example, you might consider applying to a college in a different location for a more stable and satisfying, non-adjunct position. Perhaps you already have. Perhaps relocating isn’t an option.

You say feel like a failure, and you sound hopeless. Those kinds of feelings can’t help but color your self-confidence, let alone your worldview.

That’s pretty much the extent of any employment advice I have to offer. I’m not a career counselor, after all. What I can address is your deep dissatisfaction with your life and your feeling of having been cheated. There is a fair bit of despair in your tone, a perfectly human response to a common plight. You say feel like a failure, and you sound hopeless. Those kinds of feelings can’t help but color your self-confidence, let alone your worldview.

Satisfaction is found within, not from the outside. It might behoove you to look inside and see what else might be eating at you. An inner journey, with a therapist as your guide, might reveal that your life has its satisfactions as well as old, hidden problems that may be affecting how you live.

Would you consider working with a psychotherapist who can help you get to know yourself better? You don’t sound like someone who likes herself very much. You also don’t sound like someone who has a lot of experience identifying your needs or caring for yourself. Therapy can help bring your most cherished values forward so you can live your life with more authenticity and contentment.

If you’re concerned that therapy costs money, know that many therapists have sliding-scale fees.

If you wish to start your life over, you can. It starts by learning the many ways a meaningful life can be lived. On your terms.

As I read your letter, I found myself wondering how old you are. Then I realized your age doesn’t much matter. What does matter are your connections to life, feeling needed, and being an integral part of a whole, an important member of a community. That makes a difference—and it makes a difference whether you’re teaching or pursuing a new path.

Thank you for writing.

Take care,

Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT

Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Kellen

    June 11th, 2018 at 9:21 AM

    You have to love what you do. It sounds like you love teaching, but it is not paying the bills. So you either have to find a better-paying teaching gig or find another passion, unfortunately. Colleges are making it harder to get tenure anyway.

  • Pauline

    July 4th, 2021 at 10:41 PM

    Dear BbB, I had a professor try to warn me away from applying to a Ph.D. program. He was a person who saw early on that things were shifting in academia and that this was going to effect Ph.D. students the hardest. He told me there were already job shortages due to various factors in the economy. He foresaw this situation only worsening.
    I stayed committed but only because I am ethnic. I am Asian, Mexican and American Indian. So I saw my outlook for work as pretty good, since that feature was always mentioned in jobs ads for teachers. For my particular case, that proved to be too true, but in a negative way. For those who are white I can only think the outlook would have been more grim. Schools are having to really tighten their belts. I’m sure you’ve already heard this but for every Baby Boomer retiring from academia, schools are not replacing them, but opting to hire 2 or 3 adjuncts instead. Then they don’t have to offer the big wage. insurance, and retirement. Then for some of those retiring they are not hiring replacements at all. I participated in an event that my school was holding called, “Reinvisioning the Ph.D.” So, I suspect some of the higher ups saw this coming. But, more to the point you are wondering what you can do to mend this problem. The main thing I would do in your shoes, is supplement my income. Then I could continue teaching but hopefully have enough income to live as I want. I am clueless in what a historian often does that compels their research. One of my MA’s is in English. English academics often write. I know with working 3 jobs finding the time and energy to do something like writing would be quite a stretch. But that is what those in English often do. I write poetry. I have always been gifted at that. But there isn’t income generated from poetry. So I would look to writing fiction or the new non-fiction stories, in addition to writing for a newspaper or magazines. You may consider giving talks. At first you may only make a pittance. But after your voice became recognized as someone on the talk circuit you could get a few hundred a month. For example, though he is considered a rock star, Richard White is a historian who must command a good price for a talk. I would think if you created an impressive looking introduction flyer sort of thing, along with a one page vita, you could distribute those to bookstores, etc. And hopefully, someone would bite. What do you do or know that is unique or timely? Even if it is something like crocheting, you could do a talk on the relationship between crocheting and being a historian. I hope it works out for you. I am older now and don’t teach. Politics in academia ran me down. But oh well. It sounds like you really want to stay a teacher, which is a gift in itself. So, again hang in there and put your brain to work! You’ll think of a way!

  • Chris

    May 8th, 2022 at 7:28 PM

    Dear Brilliant, if possible, I would look for something in the history field like at a museum or something that will pay you a full-time livable wage. I would then select the school that pays the most as an adjunct and keep teaching there since you enjoy teaching. I just have 2 masters degrees and never thought of adjunct teaching as a full-time career path because you don’t get paid enough. Maybe shifting the focus on adjuncting from a major to minor role in your life would be a good thing. I would use it to leverage getting something else where they like seeing that employees have teaching experience. Honestly, there is a toxicity in academia. The ivory towers are no longer ivory with the drama. It costs way too much to go to college and yet they pay faculty particularly adjunct faculty peanuts. I would not give up totally on teaching, but I would shift it to a minor role in your life. BTW, I adjunct as well so I know how it goes. Best of luck in trying to figure things out. I’m in the same boat sort of. I want to get a doctoral degree, but do not know what that should be.

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