Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Dangers of Being on the Fence

OK, so I'll freely admit that I started this blog over a year ago because A) I was torn between wanting to find an academic job and, at the same time, not knowing for sure if academe was really for me and B) I hoped to meet others facing a similar dilemma.

What have I learned over the past year? A few things.

1. There are lots of like-minded people out there, thankfully. I've always been an introverted loner who prefers to travel alone on occasion and sit quietly and not chat needlessly. Starting a blog was actually completely out of character for me. But I was sick of keeping everything bottled up: my angst about spending my youth getting a PhD, and digging myself into a major hole of debt, and my frustration about the uselessness of my degree. Once I realized (duh!) that I would have to beg to find a job but NOT look desperate, and that it would be nearly impossible to find work in my field, I realized what an idiot I was for having assumed that a PhD=gainful employment. How dumb am I? I mean, seriously, what was I thinking?

2. I am the most indecisive, flaky, weak-willed person on the planet. One minute I'm convinced academe is not for me, for various reasons, and then a few months later I'm flying all over the country interviewing for tenure-track positions. Why? Who the hell knows. Because I'm programmed to succeed? Because I'm deluded and don't know what I want? Because I'm a glutton for punishment? Probably all of the above. Here's an embarrassing old-school cartoon reference for you. In The Last Unicorn the wanna-be magician, Schmendrick, admits to the unicorn that he's finally achieved what he's always wanted, namely respect and power as a "real" magician. The unicorn says, "Does it make you happy?" His response: "Well, men don't always know when they're happy. But I think so." Why is that I still relate to this line twenty years later?

3. I've been on the fence primarily because I either don't know what I want to do with myself or haven't come to terms with it yet. (No, I don't want to pole dance or anything freaky.) But being on the fence is a dangerous place to be. You can jump off willy nilly, one way or another, at any time without thinking. I've interviewed for several jobs but rather than wait for a great nonacademic position to come along, I jumped off the fence the second a couple of academic jobs were offered to me. Why? Why did I jump off the fence right back into the shark tank that has (I think) made me relatively unhappy for the past decade? Who knows. Honestly, it's flattering to be wanted, to be sought after. Who cares why they want me. They want me! If everyone is fighting tooth and nail to get a slice of poop pie but then I'm offered two slices, how can I possibly resist?! That would be nuts, right?

4. Talking to other job seekers and PhDs looking to change jobs has helped me to come to terms with the fact that reading, researching, and writing (mostly quietly) is what many of us love to do. We love the life-long learning aspects of higher ed more so than the actual day-to-day grind of teaching and dealing with duplicitous administrators, whiny students, and backstabbing colleagues. But no one is going to pay us to be, essentially, a research fellow 24-7. We're lucky if they pay us to do anything.

5. I've accepted a tenure-track position and put all thoughts of alternate careers aside--for now. But I'm sill not convinced this is a happily ever story or that I've achieved the dream or whatever. I might just be delaying the inevitable. Of course, I'll try to shut up and just go with the flow for now but I refuse to completely succumb to the system and become a mindless, voiceless cog in the machine.

6. I've still got a lot to learn.


Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD said...

I know how you feel. I was all ready to get out, start a business, and then...I got a full-time position. IT's not on the tenure-track, but it has benefits and reliable pay. Like you, there are days that I love it and days that I loathe it. I'm, like you, still on the fence.

Keep fighting the good fight. I had a TT job and it wasn't the dream I thought it would be. Good luck.

recent Ph.D. said...

Keep reminding yourself of this: "I refuse to completely succumb to the system and become a mindless, voiceless cog in the machine." Print it out and hang it up in your new office.

Nobody's offered me a tt job yet, but I've only been on the market twice (1st time ABD) and will probably give it one more -- albeit it very limited -- shot this fall. The thing that bothers me the most, though, if someone should want to offer me a tt job, even a "dream" job, is that I would get so wrapped up in it that I WOULD succumb, that I would just go back to being the mindless, voiceless cog in the system that I was before I started to take a harder look at it in the last year or so.

Good luck with moving ahead! Staying "on the fence" as you do so most surely helps keep things in perspective.

E.W. said...

Thanks, Lee and recent PhD. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who is disillusioned with the higher ed system, and my place in it, and yet unable to make a clean break.

I can completely relate to your concern, recent PhD, that once you're on the tenure track, you're become completely mind fucked, so to speak, and wrapped up in academe, despite going in with the best of intentions.

My problem is that even though I've wracked up major debt to get where I am today, and spent a decade of my life in grad school/post-grad fellowships and moved all over the world w/ family in tow, I don't really want to get tenure at the place where I'm starting this fall. I need a job for sure, and health insurance, but I wouldn't be too upset if I had to work a "regular" job and write academic stuff on the side. Once you get to that point, mentally speaking, you're unwilling to put up with as much BS. So I don't think it will be long before I shoot myself in the foot.

Tune in here to found out!

Anthea said...

I know how you feel...and I have many friends who repeatedly wonder why stay on the market for 'tt' jobs year after year, moving from from one adjunct job to another all the while with mounting debt. All of them wonder whether life will get better since the higher ed system doesn't look as if its improving..only getting worse. As recent PhD says just keep on refusing to become a mindless, voicless cog in the machine.

WorstProfEver said...

Congrats! And making a clean break is harder than it sounds, even if you're on the impetuous side.

Khia said...

It's been awhile since you posted this blog, but I stumbled upon it... and wanted to leave a comment.

I'm a pretty recent Ph.D. (finished December 2009) and like you, I was on the fence. First I took a research-y position in mental health. Decided I didn't love it. Being outside of my area of interest was like being a fish out of water. Plus the corporate 9 to 5 schedule felt stifling. I was used to some of the freedom you enjoy as a grad student - like writing from Starbucks, which was a no-no, and when inspiration or brilliance doesn't come in your cubicle, you have to come up with something before you leave the office.

I started teaching again. It's been several months but I really realized that I like the "fun" in being a teacher, asking the questions, getting students to really think, and seeing their interest and excitement over the material (well... some of them). (I enjoyed it much more than the reports and graphs I was writing for a living before.)

So I've been on both sides - academic and non-academic - and I'm much preferring the side I'm on now. Even if students will sometimes stomp on your last nerve. There is no harm in trying a new path. I did. And came back to the academic side.

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professornever said...

the thing about taking a job - it's a less permanent move than leaving academe (it's not really possible to go back, except as an adjunct). so i'd say you're making the right move. the best way to figure out if it's for you is to do it. best of luck! and no, don't become a cog! :)

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kwyjibo said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences. I know it's been a while since you last updated your blog, but I was wondering if you're still in academia or did you eventually change careers? I'm currently in a TT position and thinking about leaving. So I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the matter. We can chat over email if it's more comfortable rather than in a public forum.

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