Don’t worry: this isn’t yet another rant about why academia is horrible and no one should ever go to graduate school. Yes, the ivory tower has its problems. But that’s not why I’m leaving.
Speaking openly, frankly and with optimism about “alt-ac” or “post-ac” careers is becoming increasingly common. But, with some notable exceptions, the conversation still seems focused primarily on how to use these careers as a back-up option when the academic track turns out to be terrible–the thing we do when we’re exhausted, buried under debt, and can’t get a good tenure track job. The thing we do only when Plan A goes horribly awry and gets too awful to deal with.
Even Karen Kelsky–who chose to leave her great tenured position because it wasn’t what she wanted–frames the decision to leave in this light:
“It’s OK to quit. It’s OK to decide to move on and do something else. What started out as an inspired quest for new knowledge and social impact can devolve into endless days in an airless room, broke, in debt, staring at a computer, exploited by departments, dismissed by professors, ignored by colleagues, disrespected by students.
It’s OK to decide that’s not what you want.” (The Professor Is In, p. 385)
I can hardly fault her for this. For countless scholars, these are the reasons for leaving. Framing “leaving the cult” this way also makes a lot of sense in the context of Kelsky’s (excellent) book, which focuses in part on the exploitative labour relations inherent to academia. What she says here is absolutely, unquestionably important for academics to hear.
But I found this passage thought-provoking because, for the most part, the horrors Kelsky describes have not been my experience.
Over the course of my PhD, I’ve enjoyed plenty of funding, great colleagues, helpful professors, rigorous classes, useful resources, good TAship experiences, and a wonderful, supportive adviser. I’m about to graduate from the top program in the country for my field. I have no reason to believe my committee members won’t approve my dissertation. I’ve had the opportunity to study what I wanted to study, and to write the dissertation I wanted to write. I’m broke, but I have no debt. I’m no scholarly rock star, but I’ve done reasonably well for myself, and it’s possible that, with a few more additions to my CV, I could eventually snag a decent (or good?) tenure-track job. I have been profoundly lucky.
I have everything a graduate student could dream of, which I think is one of the reasons I’ve had such a hard time deciding to leave after finishing my PhD. Hearing about the horrific circumstances many graduate students and professors deal with makes me bitter about some aspects of academia, but they also make me feel a bit ungrateful and overly picky for thinking about calling it quits. I keep thinking maybe I should just give it a try for a little bit longer, and at least see what being a professor is like. Maybe turn my dissertation into a book, to make all that work seem a bit more worthwhile. Maybe not “give up” so easily, when so many scholars have endured so much more just for the privilege of writing and teaching.
…Which brings me to the Gilmore Girls.
(I am convinced that most of the important things in life can be explained via references to Star Trek or Gilmore Girls. Don’t judge. You know it’s true.)
Season two, episode three. Lorelai is about to marry Max. At her bachelorette party, her mother Emily fondly reminisces about her own wedding experience:
“…the thing I remember most was that for the entire week before my wedding, I’d wait ’til my mother went to sleep, and I’d sneak out of bed and I’d put on my wedding dress and my tiara and my gloves, and I would stare at myself in the mirror and think how very safe I felt. How very right and wise and honored.”
The next day, Lorelai suddenly cancels her wedding. When Rory asks why, she explains:
“I didn’t want to try on my wedding dress every night.”
And then Lorelai and Rory go on an amazing road trip involving a horrible bed and breakfast called the Cheshire Cat. Which I suppose isn’t relevant here, although I do like the idea of escaping my career path by way of a road trip to nowhere. Note to self.
The point is, there wasn’t anything terribly wrong with Max. He had no major character flaws; nothing to make him hate-worthy. He was generally good to Lorelai, and some might say she was lucky to have him. But the thought of marrying him wasn’t exciting or comforting. It didn’t inspire the kind of joy or anticipation she needed for a life-long commitment.
That’s more or less how I feel about being a professor. When I picture myself in a comfortable, tenure-track job, I feel no excitement or joy or anticipation or comfort. I don’t daydream about what a nice life that would be. It doesn’t feel right.
I’ve felt this way for quite a while, but I’ve insisted on remaining open to the possibility of the academic life anyway. This is in part because I’m stubborn and don’t like to quit things, in part because I don’t want my eight years of graduate school to be for naught, and in part because I couldn’t tell whether my occasional feelings of anxiety and dread were indicative of my incompatibility with academia, or just my fear of failure. Did I want out just so I wouldn’t have to find out, after years of work, that I’m not really cut out for this–that I make a decent graduate student but an awful professor? Was I just afraid of the inevitable impostor syndrome, and of the hard work it takes to get tenure?
The dissertation-writing process has been kind of miserable for me. I’ve found ways to make it more pleasant and more doable, and it’s certainly had its moments. But despite all that, it’s still mostly pretty miserable. But what if all the anxiety and dissatisfaction I’ve experienced while writing is just me? Maybe I’m just like this, and I’d feel the same way about any other job? Or maybe this is something I could fix. After all, I did successfully emerge from what from Inger Mewburn calls the “Valley of Shit,” and managed to make writing a bit more enjoyable. Maybe, with enough work, I could learn to really love it? I mean, sometimes I feel like I do. Every so often.
Before Lorelai decides to call off the wedding, she keeps trying to tell herself that marrying Max is the right decision. “People can evolve together, don’t you think?” She has to expend such effort to convince herself that marrying him is the right thing to do. There seem to be a lot of reasons to stay with him, but she keeps having to remind herself of those reasons because her gut is screaming at her to run the other way.
I think I’ve been doing this with my academic career. I keep going over and over the reasons to stick with it. Every time I think I’ve decided to leave, I’ll have a good writing day or a great class or a mentor I admire will praise my work, and I think… maybe I should just give it a shot. Maybe it will be better than it’s been. Maybe it’ll turn out that I love lecturing. Maybe I’ll feel more motivated when tenure deadlines are looming. Maybe I’ll like scholarly writing better when my job is so busy that writing is a luxury, rather than a thing I’m stuck doing every single day. Maybe I should stay just to prove that I can do it. I object ethically to some of the inner workings of the university system, but maybe I can help change that. Maybe I can make a difference in students’ lives. Maybe!
“Maybe things will be different.” I sound like I’m trying to fix my relationship by marrying the guy. I’m pretty sure that’s a bad idea.
And yet, the annoying, doubtful voice inside my head persists: “Marriage isn’t anything like your career! Becoming a professor isn’t legally binding. You can leave at any time. What’s the harm in just trying?”
But this isn’t the kind of career you try on for a bit because there’s a chance you might like it. It’s an enormous amount of work–not that I’m opposed to working hard, but I’ve learned that work-life balance is something I need. It requires you to move to wherever you’re lucky enough to get a job. If that turns out to be a university in rural Nebraska, that’s where you go. (No offense, rural Nebraska! You’re just not for me.) The road to tenure is grueling and stressful. Even just the process of applying for jobs is grueling and stressful. Some academic jobs are much better than others, but they pretty much all share these characteristics. It’s a labour of love, and for many people, it’s entirely worth it, because they can’t imagine doing anything else.
But I don’t love this job. I love parts of it, sometimes. But sometimes I don’t even like it, let alone love it.
A lot of the time, I don’t like who I am when I’m doing academic work. I don’t much care for this anxious, unmotivated, self-deprecating and somewhat self-absorbed version of myself who emerges when I don’t reach my own (often unrealistic) standards. But I also don’t much care for the obsessive, insomnia-ridden, and very self-absorbed person I sometimes become when I’m working 12 hours a day and can’t stop thinking about it. Every so often my academic self is fascinated, confident, rigorous, helpful, caring and creative. But that person doesn’t come out as often as I would like.
I think these less-than-pleasant versions of myself emerge mostly because I never quite feel like I’ve done enough. No matter how much praise I get for my work quality or productivity, I rarely feel like I’ve achieved anything. Whether I write zero words or 3,000, at the end of almost every day I feel unaccomplished. I know in theory that, little by little, I’m contributing to our understanding of our world and our past. Someone might even find it a little bit helpful for their own projects. But I need more tangible evidence that my work has some kind of small effect on the world. I need someone to say, “thanks, that thing you did was really helpful!” I need to finish something every so often–to have proof that I made something, and that it does something good.
Despite the fact that I like writing and I like my dissertation topic, I’ve had a really hard time motivating myself to write at all. For a long time, I thought I was just lazy. Then I thought I just didn’t like the way I was working, and needed to find a way to make the process more enjoyable. The latter turned out to be true, but even now–even after I’ve worked so hard to find a process I don’t hate–I still have trouble dragging myself out of bed to work on my dissertation. I think it’s because, whether I write a whole chapter or nothing at all, I know I probably won’t feel accomplished at the end of the day.
Let me be clear: I do think humanities research is worth doing (if any government agencies are reading this: please keep funding the humanities!). I know all those small contributions lead to big changes in our thinking, and I believe those changes are essential for humanity’s continued development. And I hope my dissertation will be a part of that in some small way.
But it turns out I need frequent, tangible affirmation that I’m doing something helpful. The thought that maybe, one day, the work I do today might have some tiny, intangible effect on the world just isn’t enough. Somehow, even doing one small thing that one coworker finds helpful feels more rewarding to me. I’m aware of how irrational that will sound to some, but I think that’s just the way I am. I can’t just hope I’m doing something helpful; I need evidence, and I need it often.
The internship I did last year as a nonprofit grant writer made me feel more fulfilled than graduate school ever has. I wasn’t changing the world or anything, but I was both helping my team and raising money for educational programs in underfunded schools. There was frequent, obvious evidence that I was helping someone, if only my coworkers, and if only in some small way. I went home every day with a sense that I’d done something. With the exception of the occasional frustrating day, I usually went home relaxed and happy, feeling like I’d earned my break that evening.
Not so with academic writing. Sometimes I’m pleased with myself when I have a good idea or when someone praises my work. But the sensation is often fleeting, and it almost inevitably leads to feeling like I need to work more, or I need to work harder, or I’m not sure what I’m doing really matters, or any number of not-so-positive reactions. When I won an extremely competitive national fellowship, I thought, “Do I really deserve this? Have I really done anything award-worthy?” I was glad to have the money, but I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished much.
I want to really care when I achieve something big. I want to like who I am when I’m doing my job; I want that to be the rule, not the exception. I want to be excited about my work. I don’t want to have to work so hard to love it.
After doing that internship, I think maybe I can have all this while also getting to choose where I live and take weekends off. Maybe also while feeling challenged and intellectually stimulated at work. I think that might be possible. At the very least, I feel like I owe it to myself to strive for that–to stop blaming myself for not enjoying academia enough and go figure out what I really want.
So, I’m going to be something other than a professor–not because I can’t or it’s horrible or it’s treated me terribly, but because it’s just not what I want. I know I can use what I’ve learned in graduate school in other settings, and I think I can find intellectual fulfillment elsewhere. I can’t just stick with this because it’s what I’m supposed to do, or because it hasn’t all been bad, or because I dislike the idea of “giving up,” or because there are some things I’ll really miss about it. Those are bad reasons to advance a relationship to the next level. They’re also bad reasons to stick with this career. Ultimately, I’m a lot more excited to see what I can do beyond the academic bubble.
Sorry, ivory tower. We’ve had a good run, but I don’t want to try on my professor suit every night. It’s time to call off the wedding.