All this reading, reflecting and writing about my professional profile brought me back to the fundamental question: What do I want to be when I grow up? I hear a voice inside me saying “Time’s up, Dissenting Scholar. You said you wanted to be a Doctor
of philosophy, but that’s a title, not a profession.* You also said you wanted to be ‘not an academic’, but that’s not really something you can make a living out of. You are a grownup NOW, so… what’s it going to be?” I am overwhelmed. Maybe I stayed in school precisely to avoid having to answer this question? What if I make the wrong choice and hate my job?
The truth is I’m getting sick of all this pondering and soul-searching. Last year was full of that. Plus, the blogroll spoke: based on other brave post-acs’ experiences, I probably won’t land my dream job this year. PAINNYC’s relation of her temp job at The Skyscraper Office (you can read it here) is a good example. Rumination doesn’t make sense anymore: I’ve finished the PhD and moved away from TNRU. A job will be the most visible sign that I’ve moved on from the Ivory Tower, but I felt like I needed to move on mentally. Stop thinking about the decision; that’s done. Just get a job. I really need one. What I need is to find out the steps of job-getting and execute them.
This probably put me in the wrong mood to find out what color my parachute is. I was looking for a vocational horoscope. Instead I got a really long workbook with interesting factoids about the job market and a few introspective exercises. Spoiler alert: the parachute is a metaphor. Ask a Manager’s post, recommended by Another Post Academic (http://anotherpostacademicblog.wordpress.com/) and Toonces was more what I was looking for.
In this job search process, I think there is an ontological gap between this book and post-academics/recent PhDs. We are trained to specialize, to possess a knowledge or skill that makes unique and original contributions to humanity’s understanding of things. It feels like the post-ac job market, in contrast, is about how anyone can do anything, about how skills are so nimble and adaptable to so many different industries and jobs. So the job search requires some re-branding. Initially, my (very academic) approach was to think of myself as an expert on my dissertation topics. This type of analysis. This really cool social science topic. I taught a college-level course on Something Moderately Interesting three times, so I guess that makes me an expert on that too. I … am a PhD.
That means nothing and wastes everybody’s time. In my job search now I emphasize what I can do. At a higher level, I’m a professional learner: I am trained to figure things out. As a PhD, I know how to look at a big picture (ie an entire social science) and then zoom into it from all angles until I find the one tiny spot where paint is missing (my dissertation topic). And then I won’t sleep until that spot is painted, even if that means I have to literally make paint (ie field work). More practically speaking, as a professional learner I can pick skills up pretty quickly and independently, like the time when I taught myself Python for a conference paper. I’m really good with deadlines and have never asked for an extension on anything in my life. I multitask. I’m great at explaining stuff.
The attitude makeover has been accompanied by a bigger emphasis on networking. My biggest lesson learned is that a successful application process doesn’t start with an application at all. In the academic market, good advisers will do some of the work for you, by talking about you to other academics, presenting at conferences with you, keeping an eye out for openings… their job is to get you the interview, and your job is to close the deal. In the post-ac market, you have to be your own adviser, networking and surveying the market before applications are due. So… networking meetings, introductions, meetups, social media, company referrals… like this post says, you gotta hustle.
* except, of course, if you become a college professor, in which case Doctor is often used as a synonym of Professor. But you literally just left that career path. So…. yeah.
It’s over. I’m done. I made it! So many times I felt that this day wouldn’t come. But it did. Now, I’m officially Dr. Dissenting Scholar. YES!!
Lately, I question my decision to leave academe as much as I question every sentence in my dissertation. Am I sure post-academia is the right path for me? Even just now, typing the question, I feel a knot in my stomach. I mean, I got this far. Almost PhD at TNRU. I’ve been a good student and I worked hard to get to this point. A few months ago, before announcing that I was done with this, I had job offers. It looked like I was off to a good start as a young academic. Why did I hate academe so much? How did I reach this decision?
I’ve been reading On the Fence, the chronicles of a fellow academic who struggled for months between academic and postacademic career paths. I understand what ze is talking about. I’ve hated research before. I’ve hated academic institutions before. I have thought about leaving before. Hell, I didn’t even apply to that many graduate schools because I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted to do. All those times, I pushed through the misery and kept working. Why don’t I do the same right now? Maybe I am just tired. Maybe once I defend my dissertation, I’ll forget about all this nonsense and be happy and in love with the research I produced. Or maybe that’ll happen once I teach my first class as a tenure-track professor. My point is, what if I’m quitting just when things were supposed to get better? It’s that feeling that I can’t look away from the TV because it’s the bottom of the eighth and if I do, I might miss that defining home run.
…and so I fear… I really, really fear the dissertation afterlife. It’s been a huge part of my life for the past two years, plus that year when I pretty much searched between furniture cushions and under rocks for a topic. For the past 750-or-so days I have woken up thinking about the dissertation: a work-in-progress, a huge mess, a to-do list that never ends. In a few days, it will be submitted. A few weeks later, I hope to successfully defend it. What will it be like the day after that?
Before facing that question, I’ve been working on the idea that the dissertation will never really be finished. There will always be a to-do list; things I’d like to improve about it, things I’d like to do differently, possible extensions… I feel like I owe it to myself to leave academe on a high note. If this is the last mark I make in social science research, I’d like it to be a damn fine one. Besides, I’m a perfectionist. I like to get it right. I’m always aiming for the best. I can’t deny that a few times, I’ve liked being the best more than I’ve liked an activity itself. That’s probably what got me into this mess in the first place. My perfectionism affects the dissertation through an incessant urge to check my data for coding errors, daily Google Scholar searches for papers contradicting my theses, countless paragraphs obliterated and then rewritten with the same idea. Sometimes I wonder how different these paragraphs are from each other. I suspect not much. In any case, there is a tension between this feeling and my urge to move on and put this PhD thing behind me.
There’s also the insecurity that comes from having so little feedback from my committee. Before, I was their top priority. Their reputation and TNRU’s reputation would have benefited from my performance in the
academic job market and as a researcher, so I had their full attention. Now, because they are disappointed, because they don’t see how my future career could benefit them, and because there are so many other promising students in the department who have not betrayed them like I have, I got moved to the back of the classroom. The bottom of the pile.
My new position has taken a while to get used to. My committee’s evaluation of my research has determined my PhD path, but my opus magnum is being made in the dark. “Popping in” to talk to committee members has been a small-talk disaster. Scheduled meetings haven’t been better –my questions are shrugged off or dismissed with dull comments. Emailed drafts have gone unacknowledged. Before, I thought that dissertation writing was a very lonely experience, but this new loneliness doesn’t compare. I don’t resent this. I really don’t. I understand why I am no longer a priority. I’m just saying it’s tough. Ultimately, I’m afraid that one day they will decide to see my work and be even more disappointed, or find horrible mistakes.
Side note: I think it’s funny that dissertations are so frequently viewed as opera magna. Haven’t we all heard someone say “it’s not like this is a dissertation!” when someone is putting too much thought into something? Academically, though, the dissertation seems to be a huge deal and the one printed piece of research all scholars wish to keep out of everyone’s sight. Everyone I talk to hates theirs, and some will admit to these being less-than-ideal works that were approved because of a job offer.
In closing, this “finishing up” stage of the PhD took me by surprise. I think it’s the down side of my “one day at a time” approach to my past years in academe. From now till D day, I repeat:
Don’t get it right. Get it written
A good dissertation is a defended dissertation
Hey, you’re okay. You’ll be fine. Just breathe
(the last one is from Ze Frank’s “chillout song”. It’s here)
One of my best friends says ze would be an academic even if they didn’t pay hir. If the job market goes wrong, and ze does not land a post-doc, adjunct, visiting, or assistant professor position anywhere, ze will go home and continue to do research from there. I would love to feel that way, but I don’t. Never have.
I’m not saying that this is an easy conclusion to get to. When, before I started the PhD program, I couldn’t really see myself in academe in the long run, I told myself I was afraid of the unknown. When this feeling came back at the end of each term, I told myself I felt that way because I wasn’t doing a good enough job. I reasoned that if I worked harder and better, that thought would go away. In short, for me the “academic calling” was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The point is that a few months ago I decided to stop chasing it. I am certain I will never get the calling, and I don’t say it in a disappointed or nostalgic way. It’s OK. I feel proud and relieved to have “come out” and to have stood up for what I want for my life. Great, yes?
No. Changing career paths is not that simple. My advisers were very clear about this. They warned me about everything that can go wrong after parting with academe, and how “you can never come back”. The response was right on the border of “We are seriously concerned about your professional future and wellbeing” and “We expect you to follow this career and will use any tactic –even scaring/intimidating –to get you there”. Their messages worked: I told myself that it couldn’t hurt to explore all possible options, and that I’d rather be employed than unemployed, so an academic job was better than no job.
This is how/why I ended up travelling to remote corners of the US of A like a salesperson, selling my academic potential and ambition. I nearly lost my mind in this process. It was an intermittent out-of-body experience. When I was out of my body, I observed myself talk to professors, deans, graduate students. Apparently, at some point during my stay at TNRU, the interview performance got embedded in some previously unchartered part of my brain. First, I don’t have an academic ambition, and I don’t know how one projects “academic potential”. I couldn’t recognize myself. When I was in my body, though, I was incredibly confused. Most evidently, most of what I was saying was a lie. If I taught a class on this field, I would use this book. My mentoring style would be this way. I cannot wait to continue my research in this teeny tiny subfield. At the very least it was all true, but founded on a false premise: that I wanted those jobs. The fact that everyone at the universities I visited was so encouraging of my academic career plans and interested in learning about me only added to the confusion: what if this is what I am supposed to do? Will interviews in any other field go as well? Played.
I met with a professor to “talk about the job market”. I brought up my post-academic job search, and ze looked perplexed. Ze explained the surprise came from the idea in the department that I had already been “talked off the ledge” and had forgotten all the post-academic nonsense once the interviews began. In other words, my big bold meetings from a few months ago were a panic attack, a tantrum. Sure enough, once the offers came in I was flooded with recommendations on how to negotiate a better contract. I said I was still waiting on post-academic job news. They said there was no need to do so anymore because I already had the offers here. Played.
One friend’s response to my “I am leaving academia” speech was “Why did you come to grad school at all? Why have you stayed in the program this long?” I kept thinking about this question and came up with what follows.
In a word, I came to graduate school by inertia. There were three sources of inertial energy.
First, my academic environment back then. At some point in the last two years of college (a research university), my professors started saying “You are smart enough to go to graduate school”. I thought their research agendas were fascinating because I am (let’s face it) a nerd. I was flattered to hear that I was smart enough to potentially be like them because I was young and insecure.
Two of them were young assistant professors who had just recently been in graduate school and on the job market. They were young, passionate about research, and friendly. Their practice was to tell the smartest students in each class that they were good enough to go to graduate school. Don’t worry: we’ve kept in touch and they have changed their views on this over time. They are now very cautious about telling all smart people to get a Ph.D, and even then, they say they recommend getting some real-world experience and researching all programs extensively before making any decisions.
Older professors also thought that Ph.D was the way for me. They paid attention to my honors thesis, invited me to the department seminars, introduced me to professors who gave talks. All this attention because they thought I was smart enough to be like them. The “enough” part made me feel like I had accomplished some kind of mission.
That brings me to source number two: myself. I admire the graduate students who, in addition to their academic genius, have exceptional talents, like running 10k races in less than 45 minutes, playing a musical instrument like a pro, being parents or creative writers. I am not multi-talented. I am not even very outgoing or physically attractive. For a long time, I have felt like I just have my intelligence and academic achievements. I have always been a good student, and now I was hearing that I was finally good enough. So I, like so many of you, fellow bloggers, saw in graduate school a safe step. By then, I knew how to be a good student and how to show it. I enjoy learning, but back then I also enjoyed “winning” in school. To me graduate school was the ultimate school challenge, the Everest. Plus, I was trying to work in the real world and didn’t know how to make my usual strategies (preparedness, study time, research) compatible with the winning strategies of the corporate world (team work, boldness, confidence, instinct). I honestly didn’t even think about what graduate school meant in terms of a life decision or a career decision. I think I just wanted the safety of the classroom.
Finally, my family. My father went to graduate school; the first person in the family to do so. My mother is a teacher. In my family, academic achievement was equivalent to personal achievement. Successful parenting meant having children who did well in school, and to me this meant that being a good student for the longest possible time was the best way to get my parents’ approval. Unconsciously, of course. I have only younger siblings and younger cousins, so I am programmed to “set an example” for them. If I am smart enough, then they all are too. I will be the first woman PhD on both sides of the family, and I don’t know why yet, but I feel a special kind of pressure because of that. It’s like I am proving that our family is progressing, or something.
I had a specific and very different dream for myself. I wanted a postacademic-world job. I had wanted the same thing since I was 15 years old, and I walked away from it because I didn’t stand up for myself; I didn’t dare to jump or be free. I let inertia take over and landed an offer of admission to Top-Notch Research University (TNRU).
At some point I had vowed never to have a blog, but now I decided to do it. I always thought I didn’t really have anything interesting to say. In fact, I thought I was very original about the “Recovering Academic” concept, but so many people have thought of that before me! It was a similar feeling to believing you have a brilliant new paper idea, and Scholar Google reveals to you that it is actually a sub-sub-subfield of your discipline. I still felt very relieved to know a) there are so many of us b) we struggle with similar, strong feelings about it.
Why did I change my mind about blogs? Leaving academia is as lonely of an experience as staying in it. The decision to jump off the “from-here-to-tenure” wagon is as difficult as it is lonely because of the fear of being ostracized in the department and the PhD program. In my case, it’s hard to explain to my colleagues, and talking to faculty members about it is unthinkable. This feeling of loneliness and hopelessness went away for a little bit when I discovered the blogs of so many people out there who, like me, are leaving/have left the research vocation in search of a different future. I sympathized with their anonymous stories, and felt that my feelings and thoughts about this were validated. I hope this blog can pay it forward one day (or pay it back!).
About me: I am a PhD candidate in a certain social science at a Top Notch Research University (TNRU). After many years apart, I finally moved far away from campus, to live with my significant other who has a “real job”. I hope this is the last year I spend as a student.