High heels beat flats: Why I left (tenure track) academia (Perspective Essay from PAW [Princeton Alumni Weekly])

A very personal essay on why I have opted out of tenure-track academia was just published by my graduate school alma mater’s alumni magazine, PAW (Princeton Alumni Weekly).  You can read it in full HERE.

It goes without saying that if I was in a tenure-track job at this moment, I wouldn’t have this Little Man. So even if I didn’t love the writing and speaking as much as I do, life would still be pretty good…

“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.




  1. 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.

  2. Maria Rendon, Seng-Dao Keo, Mimi Dalaly and 16 others like this.
    1 share

    Sean Bennett I left to pursue business applications of my academic ideas after a shall-remain-nameless professor slammed his hand down on the table at Harvard and insisted our team make up data if necessary for an upcoming funding renewal. He got very angry at me for questioning academia’s ability to support cross-disciplinary studies or promote out-of-the-box thinkers. I realized the thumbs of industry and funding power were firmly on most social scientists at that point — and that there wasn’t a lot of point for me to perpetuate that system. My favorite “defector” is Grigory Perelman — look into him.
    March 13 at 1:52pm · Like
    Kristin Turney Love the article!

    As an aside that may make you laugh (or cringe), I was recently questioned by a senior (male) academic about how I thought I could possibly be taken seriously as a sociologist given that I was wearing nail polish.
    March 13 at 1:58pm · Like · 4
    Hilary Levey Friedman ‎Sean Bennett, Perelman sounds fascinating, at least based on his wiki page. I have to say I have better hair though (ha ha, this is a joke!)! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grigori_Perelman
    Grigori Perelman – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman (Russian: Григо́рий Я́ковлевич Перельма́н, English …See More
    March 13 at 2:02pm · Like · 1 ·
    Hilary Levey Friedman ‎Kristin Turney The important question is: What color was the nail polish?!
    March 13 at 2:02pm · Like · 3
    Carla Chugani Great Essay! 🙂 I have the opposite of this problem. I am way more academic than the rest of my colleagues. They’re shipping me off for doctoral study.
    March 13 at 2:02pm · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman Carla- Congrats– and enjoy the stimulating and torturous path to the magic three letters…
    March 13 at 2:03pm · Like
    Celia Jones Love this! People ask me if I’m “allowed” to wear bangles ( I wear a few colorful bracelets every now and then) all the time like they are the statement for the way I do my job. This is something that’s extremely present in the Federal Government as well.
    March 13 at 2:04pm · Like
    David Johnson I had always been amazed by your prolific writing on your blog, HuffPo, etc, because I knew you were at Harvard and assumed you were working towards the tenure track, as well. I wondered how the non-academic pieces would count toward your review. Now things make a bit more sense, though I’m no less envious of your writing talents.
    March 13 at 2:05pm · Like
    David Johnson There is a definite need for what you do; it’s important to have smart writers reaching mass audiences and encouraging them to really evaluate the sometimes-crazy decisions they make when raising children. I don’t always share the same enthusiasm for reality TV as you do (ok, maybe just different reality shows), but you have a rare gift to draw genuine insights from them. That needs to be shared outside of niche journals, so I think you’re doing a good thing.
    March 13 at 2:08pm · Like
    Patrick E. Lynch HH, I love your writing, and believe you are doing exactly what you do best; sharing your wonderful insights. You are a credit to your generation.
    March 13 at 2:16pm · Unlike · 3
    Becky Yang Hsu I also love pop culture and clothes, so I hear you. I am fighting from within academia by wearing as much DVF as I want.
    March 13 at 2:19pm · Like · 1
    Devra Jaffe-Berkowitz Love it. From an academic with a closet full of Jimmy Choos and no intention of ditching them 🙂
    March 13 at 2:20pm · Like · 1
    Keri Monteleone Great article Hilary! And Amen sista. I do not miss academia one bit. 🙂
    March 13 at 2:27pm · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman Thanks everyone, I was very nervous about it, so means a lot to me. Also, as I just wrote over on my blog (http://hilaryleveyfriedman.com/high-heels-beat-flats-why-i-left-academia-perspective-essay-from-paw-princeton-alumni-weekly/), it sadly goes without saying that if I WERE in a full-time tenure track job right now I wouldn’t have Little Man.
    High heels beat flats: Why I left academia (Perspective Essay from PAW [Princeton Alumni Weekly])
    A very personal essay on why I have opted out of tenure-track academia was just …See More
    March 13 at 2:38pm · Like ·
    Marit Rehavi Love the piece! I wore the requisite untailored Ann Taylor pants suit for the job mkt. I bought a drab unflattering muddy green Eileen Fisher outfit when I got my first job, but i could only bring myself to actually leave the house in it once=) So now I wear whatever I want. I figure any male economist who knows what red soled shoes are is too into fashion to hold it against me=) In my experience its the women who are the most judgmental about it and there still aren’t that many in Econ, so…
    March 13 at 2:47pm · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman ‎Marit Rehavi Well I am now officially a mother in her 30s because I am SO grateful for Eileen Fisher’s spring line… I think it is easier in some ways for female economists (from what I can tell) because the standards of the discipline are much more standardized. So wearing red soled shoes, or your hair in a slicked back bun, doesn’t matter next to the scholarship.
    March 13 at 2:49pm · Like
    Kristal Sergent Boulden Great article Hilary Levey Friedman. I have applied to a PhD program and am still waiting to hear if I have been accepted. I want to become a professor but I already realize that my personality and experience may not fit in with the culture of certain academic departments. I’m hoping to find a department that appreciates innovation, new ideas and is both student and research focused. But I am completely comfortable with the idea of branching out on my own as a researcher, writer or consultant.
    March 13 at 3:11pm · Unlike · 1
    Sarah Anne Carter Great essay, Hilary. While my own challenge may be less high-heel oriented, this hit close to home for me. I’m glad you wrote it and shared it. Thank you!
    March 13 at 3:16pm · Like
    Jessica DeMink-Carthew This is very compelling and strikes a chord with me too. As a PhD student in education, the theory v. practice divide is a great concern of mine and resonates with your concern regarding the relevance of your work to a wider audience and the willingness of academia to accept the value of that goal. I wonder, however, if leaving academia because of this tension doesn’t actually perpetuate the problem and if instead what is required is some push-back in the form of a high-heeled kick in the pants. In other words, if everyone who wants to reach a wider audience leaves academia, then what hope do we have in closing the theory/practice divide?
    March 13 at 3:48pm · Like · 1
    Jessica DeMink-Carthew And while we’re on the subject. .. I have a few colleagues I would love to sign up for an aforementioned “high-heeled kick in the pants”.
    March 13 at 3:51pm · Like · 1
    Heather Halabu Love this, Hilary. Congrats and enjoy all the wonderful roads ahead of you as a mother and a professional! It’s no easy balance.
    March 13 at 4:24pm · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman ‎Jessica DeMink-Carthew, I thought that way for some time! But there are two issues here. The first is that I obviously didn’t WANT to be in a place where I couldn’t be myself. And, frankly, they didn’t want me either. So there’s that. Compounded with the dismal academic job market due to the economy and it’s a bad combo. Then, there’s being a mother. If you stick with all this and you’re a woman, you’re looking at tenure in your late 30s, most likely. Is it worth risking a lot of fertile years for something that a) isn’t a sure thing and b) isn’t exactly what you want to do anyway? Teaching, writing, research, mentoring can all be done in non-tenure track environments as well, of course. (PS. They should have an all-academic version of What Not to Wear!)
    March 13 at 4:55pm · Like · 1
    Alexis Spiro Bailey BRAVO woman! Yet another reason why I think you are just. so. awesome.
    March 13 at 7:14pm · Unlike · 1
    Bert Vaux there was a great article in the harvard alumni magazine about 9 years ago on why there are so few tenured female profs at harvard. the things they identified matched perfectly with my own experiences behind closed doors there.
    March 13 at 7:35pm · Like
    Mary Anne Richey So gald you found “your way.” It took courage to step out and claim your own territory. You have lots of wisdom!
    March 13 at 8:57pm · Unlike · 1
    Sara Goldrick-Rab Hilary, it is an interesting piece. Be careful about painting with too broad a brush- while on the tenure track, I wrote for a broad audience, blogged, had two babies, and wore heels once a week. I’m tenured, my kids are 2 and 5, and last week my best friend who did exactly the same got tenure too. I’m glad you found your way. But it isn’t that academia forbids it. Not anymore.
    March 13 at 9:42pm · Like · 1
    Hilary Levey Friedman ‎Bert Vaux, I think this is the piece to which you refer? http://harvardmagazine.com/2002/03/faculty-diversity.html
    Faculty Diversity | Harvard Magazine Mar-Apr 2002
    When alumni, after a long absence, stroll through Harvard Yard or return to any other university campus, two questions usually come to mind:
    March 13 at 10:05pm · Like ·
    Hilary Levey Friedman ‎Sara Goldrick-Rab, everyone’s circumstances are definitely different. I’ve tried to be very clear to everyone who read it (especially before it was published) that this is just my personal experience. So many factors come into play in these decisions, but some seemed universal from my experience to others. For instance, my husband and I really wanted to live in the same place– and many joint-location issue academics make different choices. It’s not right or wrong, but it can complicated matters even further. In general, a concatenation of universal and personal choices/preferences/dilemmas!
    March 13 at 10:07pm · Like
    Emily Kluczynski Guy Stick it to ’em, Nublevooous! If cute Kade Spade shoes aren’t a “pro”, what is this world coming to?!?! You have inspired me to wear these to my next job interview, no matter where or when it may be: http://pinterest.com/pin/145100419214378236/
    Emmy Likey
    Very Galaxy, and Very Me.
    March 14 at 2:02am · Unlike · 1 ·
    Maria Rendon Awesome piece. All I have to say is that being six months pregnant did not stop me from wearing heels last year on the market! I did get the comment “oh! Most women wait after tenure to have children” from a female professor. I opted to omit that was my second of course. Now I’m here, doing as best as I can . We’ll see how the tenure thing goes — in the meantime I still have my heels and I’m enjoying my beautiful girls 🙂
    March 14 at 2:36am · Unlike · 1
    Bert Vaux I think that’s the one! Well found.
    March 14 at 6:45am · Like
    Meredith Schloss Maczka I am thankful for the decision you made!

  3. Donnell Butler
    I admit I feel the pull to return to academia almost on a daily basis. I still believe there is a happy medium where I can have the best of both worlds. And, I will find that rainbow connection. Cheers to Hilary Levey Friedman for continuing to inspire since the days when we were sharing pain during our dissertation support group meetings.

  4. Garlia Cornelia Jones-Ly
    Gives me hope! thanks Hilary Levey Friedman 🙂
    Name: Princeton class/affiliation: E-mail: Comments: Enter the word as it appea
    Unlike · · Share · March 15 at 2:35pm ·

    You and 2 others like this.
    Hilary Levey Friedman Thanks, fellow new momma!
    March 15 at 2:47pm · Like · 1
    Susan Laing Loved this! Support for my thesis on Mormon Cinema was slim and the main reason I changed career paths. (Also, wishing you and your growing families all the best the world can offer!)
    Friday at 10:52am · Like
    Ron Laing Good article, I left sociology for similar reasons. I felt that I would either be a social worker or a professor who taught obscure topics such as “womens fertility in western africa.” While doing this I would never have the oportunity to wear a suit. Which I am a firm beleiver in ordinary men wear t-shirts and jeans, while extraordinary men wear suits.
    Friday at 12:30pm · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman No, no that is no obscure ENOUGH! You need to study the fertility of women aged 32-33 in Mali. Love a man in a suit– one of many reasons though that sometimes it’s harder to be a woman (much easier to find nice-fitting suit if paired with a tie).

  5. Ashley Mears
    as someone recently headlined in the BU paper for “high-heeled scholarship,” I say hurray for Hilary Levey Friedman
    Princeton Alumni Weekly: High heels beat flats: Why I left academia
    Unlike · · Share · March 13 at 2:40pm ·

    You and 6 others like this.
    Ernesto Thanks for sharing
    March 13 at 3:33pm · Like
    Michael McQuarrie that woman is clearly crazy.
    March 13 at 3:56pm · Like
    Katie Bolzendahl Very interesting. I definitely see where she is coming from. I think the other side is that academia can stop taking itself so seriously and if you want to wear heels, do so!
    March 13 at 5:37pm · Like
    Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur Reason number 8 gazillion why I am happy to pursue my research and my teaching well outside of the prestige game: praise rather than disparagement at cool shoes.
    March 13 at 6:02pm · Unlike · 2
    Roman Galperin I’m working on my high-heeled scholarship, but those high heels are pricey! No wonder one would quit academia.
    March 17 at 10:32pm · Like

  6. Thank you for this great personal essay. I’m also leaving academia after completing several post-docs and having no tenure track job prospects. Fatigue with the hostility and posturing of the industry also pushed me over the edge.

    I’m scared, relieved, excited and sad all at the same time? Anomie? 😉

    Stories like yours make me excited about the possibilites.! Again, thanks so much!

    • Sonia-
      And thank YOU for writing to me– means a lot when I know what I wrote touched someone.
      I wish you the best of luck as you pursue your passions (yes, they exist outside the academy!)…

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