Alt-academic careers #2: Adam Riggio

By Adam Riggio 

When I decided to leave a career in academia behind, I felt betrayed. Since my early twenties, I had received nothing but encouragement from professors in my own program and at conferences where I’d present.

I met some stodgy profs, whose advice sounded more paternalistic and condescending than inspirational. But most of the professors I met and worked with said that my philosophical writing, research, and thought was valuable and would achieve great things for the discipline.

McMaster University, where I did my doctoral studies, supported my trips around the world to present my work at conferences. I knew the job market was tough, but I had every reason to believe that my work was unique and strong enough to withstand those challenges. I would make my mentors proud, and honour the legacies of my mentors who were no longer alive to see it.

Then I received my doctorate, and everything fell apart.

I never heard back from tenure-track positions I applied for, even though my mentors assured me that my publication and conference presentation rate during my doctorate (finished on time in four years) surpassed that of some long-tenured professors.

Adjunct positions in my region of Canada, which has 12 university campuses in commuting range, were all closed to me because they prioritized seniority in hiring. The head of one adjuncts’ union told a relative of mine that his job was to protect his members’ jobs by keeping applications like mine from being read.

Over three years, I received only one job interview, which turned me down because I said, like an honest professional, that when the contract ended, I would consider other opportunities as well as that of renewing the same contract.

Yes, I feel betrayed. But turning away from the university system for my employment isn’t the same as turning away from reading and writing philosophy.

Philosophy is more than an academic discipline, despite these institutions and norms for writing and argument having become so dominant that a philosopher outside the academy is inconceivable. Or else, such a philosopher is pathetic, a pitiable “independent scholar” who attends professional conferences in universities only to be mocked and spat upon. “If you were worth talking to, you’d have a university post.

When I started working out what my new career after academia could be, I went to Versatile PhD, and was horrified by the first forum I read. It was a chain of joyfully bitter people celebrating having sold all their books, set fire to print-outs of journal articles and their old drafts. Even their printed and bound dissertations themselves. I broke down crying. Was all that work, the dedication of the bulk of my twenties, nothing more than a waste of time fit for a bonfire?

I was sure that philosophy wasn’t worthless, that it was more than a few increasingly insular profs desperately trying to keep their departments alive in the face of growing disdain for humanities education among university administrations, government, and the wider business world. Philosophy is more than what philosophy professors in universities do.

Philosophy is a tradition of creativity, developing concepts which we use to understand the world where we live, who and what we are, and what our purpose in life should be.

Such an approach to philosophy – the underlying goal it has always had – would make philosophy an artistic tradition. The philosophical works that have a heritage beyond the fragmenting schools of humanities academia read more like artworks than disciplinary research.

I trained in communications for my new private sector career, and am working on building that career in the non-profit, charity, and social activism sector. My current position with Toronto’s Syria Film Festival and its affiliated refugee charity, Lifeline Syria, is a first step in that.

But I have always been driven to produce creative works, and what drew me to philosophy was the creative spirit that drives its landmark works. My work in universities existed in my life alongside my artistic projects, and now I carry out my philosophical research and writing as an artistic project as well.

Last year, I published a science-fiction novel, Under the Trees, Eaten. It’s a feminist take on Lovecraftian style, with a small Canadian company. I’ve published short stories through writing contests, and am preparing a collection of social realist fiction stories about growing up in contemporary Newfoundland that I plan to shop to publishers over the next year.

Palgrave MacMillan will publish Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, which began as my doctoral dissertation and is now a polished, popular intellectual book on how philosophy, science, and art can inspire ecological activism and the transformation of humanity’s self-image and society. I regularly contribute to the open-access Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, an international group of researchers and thinkers.

My philosophical writing includes regular updates and discussions on my blog, where I track the development of all my artistic work idea by idea. This is where I develop the ideas for my next major work of philosophy, an exploration of utopian political thought from just after the First World War to the present. I adapt ideas from this project to other literary works, which right now includes a screenplay for a science-fiction feature, in collaboration with the young Canadian director, Lee Skinner.

It’s a more difficult and diverse career path than the comfortable university office of a philosophy professor. But I think my work will have a wider social impact than it ever would from behind those walls.

Adam Riggio is on facebook at and tweets at @adamriggio

Categories: Higher Education

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1 reply »

  1. Hi Adam,
    I’m a PhD(c) with an awesome full-time job in the NGO sector that I’ve started while writing my dissertation. A lot of your points resonate with me. A colleague of mine told me his mentor worked 15 years in government before having the chance to transition into a tenure track position. During those 15 years she made it her goal to publish 2 papers per year. She told him that this would never have happened had she not published 2 papers per year. So maybe your employer will allow you to protect some time for independent research and scholarship–or, more likely, you’ll find ways to publish ideas that generate from your interesting work. Whatever the case, just remember that you never know what will open up for you in the future.

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