Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We Will be OK

A friend of mine brought this great Salon thread to my attention today, "If I don't succeed in academe, I'll die!" and I wanted to pass it on to anyone who stumbles across this site.

http://www.salon.com/life/since_you_asked/index.html?story=/mwt/col/tenn/2011/01/23/academe

In a letter seeking advice from columnist Carry Tennis, a failed anthropology PhD seeking tenure-track employment has come to the following, heart-breaking realization: "I've given it everything, and I want it more than anything, but it looks like it will never happen." Ouch.

I can really relate to her predicament and self-imposed drama and feelings of inadequacy. We've all been there. This particular PhD and ex-academic is wallowing in despair, asking herself over and over again: Why, oh why, did I F--K up my life and waste more than 15 years pursuing something pointless? I should have just moved to L.A. and tried to become an actress, like I wanted to back in high school. Of course, her parents told her then that acting was an impossible industry to break into and that she would never be able to support herself. A PhD in anthropology, on the other hand, promised to lead to a rewarding and realistic career as a professor. NOT.

Intellectually she knows the race for tenure-track employment is over but she just can't let her dream die. Or, rather, she refuses to allow herself to move on and find joy in life. She refuses, on many levels, to accept the reality of her situation:

"The problem is that emotionally, I can't drop it. It's like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue -- all day, every day, I'm angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can't get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I'm so consumed with jealousy. The workload of a professor is far more brutal than many realize -- 60-hour workweeks are the norm, and actually you don't stop working over the summer, you just stop getting paid -- so my husband naturally has little time and energy left over for any housework, which naturally falls on my shoulders. And this ENRAGES me -- it's like I'm not just unable to get my dream job, I'm doomed to 1950s housewife drudgery while my husband does the important stuff. My resentment toward my husband is on the verge of causing me to leave -- and it's not his fault."

So what does the wise Cary Tennis have to say in response? In a nut shell:

"You are not one-dimensional. Of course you have academic talent as well as other talents. Of course you have a good mind and many skills. But where is your power? Where is your center of gravity? . . . You must be a free human being. That is your first priority. You do not have to be a professor. . . . You know what the situation is. You just have not yet marshaled enough concrete evidence, on a consistent basis, to counter these core beliefs that are ruining your life. I think you can do it. I think you can undertake to undo this set of beliefs, and that will free you to be a human being who can choose whether she wants to be an academic or wash pots and pans.


I assure you, nothing terrible will happen to you if you do not become an academic. To know this is literally to get your life back. . . . That is the most valuable thing of all, to know that we can be OK. That is priceless. That is my wish for you, that you will find a way out of this terrible, stifling belief that you must be an academic, that you will regain the freedom to dance and sing and fling elaborate gestures to the crowd."


I'd say this is pretty good advice; although it's a shame he didn't offer any perspective on the husband-housework dilemma.

5 comments:

Caroline said...

I just scheduled a response to the latest academic query to Cary Tennis. Your title says it all. I really wanted to hug the writer hard and say, "Let it go." Easier said than done, but if she did, she'd be way happier.

Anthea said...

Another point that needs to be acknowledged is that while she might not be working as an academic with a 60 hour week..she doesn't have to produce large quantities of work under pressure. She can have a life and continue to write and do research if she wants...on her own terms. She's a free individual and really doesn't need to be part of the 'Academy' to be allowed to do research if wants to do that. Yes, nothing terrible will happen to her given that she's not part of that entity called 'academia'.

Anonymous said...

Good article, thanks for sharing. I identify fully. I'm also on the fence, feeling resentful, filled with self-pity, shame, more shame...since the job prospect has been eluding me..eh, for three years now. But my academic mentors continue with theiridealistic, feel-good "but you are talented, our discipline needs you" and continue patronizingly (this is so very awful somehow and makes me feel incredibly shitty) to lavishly praise me for presenting at good conferences, publishing in B journals. The Ivory Tower fucks up with our self-esteem and identiy in deeply distirbing ways.Thomas Benton is onto something when he wonders whether academia is a a kind of cult.

Eliza Woolf said...

I agree with you fully, Anthea: "Unhappy PhD" can still have a life and do research, and even publish, while not actually working as a full-time academic. It's entirely possible and there is no reason she should feel like a loser, even if her husband did attain the so-called academic dream.

But, honestly, I think it takes time to get over one's dreams and find a new focus. I was so wrapped up in my academic goals after graduating (and the time/$ I spent getting a PhD) it seemed depressing to contemplate another future. Now I am much more open to alternate career paths. It just takes time.

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