Monday, November 22, 2010

When Your Loved Ones Don't Get It

Now is the time: make a decision already!

"Why are you still torturing yourself about whether or not to stay in academe? Just make a decision, now; please let us move on with our lives. I'm sick of waiting, the kids and/or pets are tired of moving every summer, and your mom's concerned phone calls are getting really old . . ."

During this week of Turkey eating and family gatherings, why don't we pause briefly to consider the following: For every indecisive Ph.D. or A.B.D. currently contemplating whether or not to leave the ivory tower or quit grad school sans Ph.D., there must be a partner, spouse, parent, friend, child, sibling, or some other loved one who is sick of waiting, wondering, and living in a state of (impoverished) limbo.

Continuing to operate in the midst of seemingly perpetual ambivalence, torn between multiple paths, isn't easy, but for the people closest to us it must really suck. Their lives are on hold, too. Our toment is their torment. Either that, or they're just tired of listening to the same story over and over again or concerned about how much time and $ we've already sunk into our career paths. They wish we'd just make up our minds already and stop the madness. (Don't we all?)

And, no, I am not talking about current or former dissertation advisors here. They might lord over us 24-7 and pretend like our decisions impact their lives and reputations in some profound way, even years after we've graduated, but I'm not interested in their feelings right now. Let's focus instead on the people (and or furry friends) who usually get ignored, esp. in academe: the loved ones.

But what if they've got set ideas about what we should be doing with ourselves, based primarily on what we've done, or said we'd do, in the past? What if their vision of our professional future doesn't jive with our own? And, finally, what if the decision we're inclined to make will almost certainly impact their finances, view of us, personal comfort level, or geographic location in a negative way? What then? It's clearly not so simple as just deciding between A, B,  or C career path if the people in your life have an investment in one or more of these options.

Having loved ones, even pets, makes things tricky. It's not just your career and personal happiness on the line; it's their's as well.  It took me a long time to realize how much of my decision to get a Ph.D., finish the Ph.D., and stay firmly within academe after graduation was based on my perception of what I thought my partner, parents, and best friends would want me to do. I wanted to finish, there's no doubt about that, but why I didn't immediately start looking for non-academic work after graduating remains a mystery to me, even now. Perhaps because my partner urged me to think long and hard about what exactly I'd be throwing away if I abondoned the ivory tower without at least trying to land a tenure-track job. This tactic works really well on someone with an anxious personality, by the way.

Whenever I discussed leaving, or dare I say, quiting, the ivory tower for good, my loved ones seemed supportive but doubtful, like they wanted to but couldn't believe me. Or like they felt slightly sorry for me. They'd heard it all before, the back and forth, the "if this" or "if that", but I'd yet to make a firm decision one way or the other. (And look at me now! I'm still on the fence!! Don't you feel extra sorry for my loved ones?)

The sobering truth is this: People who know what they want and simply go after it, just like that, are so much easier to be around. You can make plans with those people; you can rely on them. They may not be as fun in an existential "what if" role-playing career game, but in real life there are certain benefits to being partner to, spawn of, parent to, or friends with someone who made a right turn, career wise, and never looked back.

So, this week, as we find ourselves around dinner tables, eating and drinking with well-meaning but often irritatingly opionated friends and family, when our loved ones just don't seem to get it, can we really blame them?


Caroline said...

What a great post! It's so true that academia has an impact on loved ones. Of course, academia also encourages martyrdom in that you are often expected to give up everything for advisors, students and the life of the mind. The mere fact that you are thinking about loved ones is rebellious in its own right. Good luck with Thanksgiving ... and if career topics come up, maybe it's best to change the subject to football!

Caitlin said...

What spoke to me most in your post was not just the academic job market's impact on a young academic's loved ones, but the loved ones' impact on what an indecisive young academic THINKS she wants.

One of the greatest insights of Herminia Ibarra's book on career change, _Working Identity_, was her observation that your nearest and dearest are often the LEAST useful people for discussing a major career change. Even if they don't know it, they have a lot invested in your existing professional identity. They will resist your efforts to change, probably through the best intentions in the world. My husband, bless his heart, isn't even an academic and he spent five years discouraging me from leaving the professor-track. He reminded me of the sunk costs argument; of how much I loved archival research (and still do; just don't want to make stupid trendy arguments about that achival material). Who wants to feel responsible for quashing someone else's dream?

My solution? Don't rely on friends & family in this process. Find some new friends. Try out introducing yourself as someone else--the professional identity you'd like to have. Informational interviews filled this role for me. It was amazing to find out how it feels presenting this new, aspirational self to someone who doesn't have a kneejerk negative reaction to it.

And as for family members outside the nuclear unit, I'm dispensing information on a need-to-know basis. I'm in negotiations for a little-more-than-entry-level permanent job (sigh) but I'm not telling my mother that. I'll let her continue telling her friends I'm still "consulting with historical museums" and "teaching some classes" Bragging rights matter too much in certain comfortable suburban communities!

WorstProfEver said...

Great advice, Caitlin. I have ridiculously supportive parents, who have told me over and over again that all that want is for me to be happy -- so it was a major shock to find out how many fellow PhD's had, um,
'concerned' (read: hyperdriven) parents who seemed more invested in titles than their own children. Not everyone is like that, of course, but it's amazing how much people buy into the prestige of academia as advertised, rather than listening to the less glamorous realities.

I will also say that it seems being partner-free (for the moment) has made it much easier to know what *I* want -- though there some serious drawbacks too.

But after hearing me talk about how much I hated my life for so many years, the people who really loved me were totally supportive when I announced my decision - maybe because I announced it as a matter that was NOT up for discussion and laid on the 'support my personal happiness' bit pretty thick.

Otherwise, I say go with Caroline's idea and talk sports or parade! Good luck!

alternative phd said...

@Caitlin -- what great advice! I think I've definitely been leaning too heavily on those near and dear. I never thought about their investments in my professional identity, but that totally makes sense. And realizing this makes me even happier that I've found such great blogs, communities, and advice online! (Cheesy, I know. But true!)