Monday, May 16, 2011

On Explaining Yourself to People Outside the Academy

Over the last few weeks, I've run into a number of friends and acquaintances in the town I live in as well as in my hometown while visiting my family a few weeks ago. As always happens when you run into old friends and acquaintances, the conversation switches quickly into "what I'm doing these days," which leads me to have a couple of conversations that I don't really know how to navigate smoothly at this point. One conversation relates to what I'm doing with this job search, and the other (which I'll post about next time) involves whether I think they or their friends/siblings/partners/children should enter a Ph.D. program.

First, I'll address the "why are you leaving and what are you doing next?" conversation, which is really causing me some mental distress. Basically, I feel a growing sense of self-doubt and shame whenever I have these conversations, and it's driving me nuts. I'm still so happy to be leaving, don't get me wrong. But it's already hard enough to make this transition without having to struggle with how to explain this to people in a way that doesn't make me look like I'm just throwing a temper tantrum over not getting a job ... or like I'm some kind of flake who has no ambition.

(My partner is always telling me that I shouldn't worry about what people think of me - and I agree. Most of the time, I don't. But I pride myself on being smart and level-headed, and talking to people about my career change makes me feel ditzy and flaky. Since this hits at some core things I like about myself, it causes some anguish).

Anyway, it's true that I've had awkward conversations about this career transition with current grad students and academics, which is hard in its own way. Trying to explain why you're deciding to leave your chosen field to people who work in it and love it is tough in itself. I've had currently faculty members try to tell me how much they love their jobs and how it would be totally worth it if I just went back on the market next year. I've had current grad students try to talk me into staying one more year - I have no doubt at least partially because seeing and hearing me wanting to leave probably throws at least a twinge of doubt into their career goals.

But these conversations are easy to deal with. This may sound a little rude, but I can rationalize it one of two ways: either they've already drunk the academic Kool-Aid so there's no convincing them that other careers are valid, or else that they're fundamentally different people than me (thus explaining why academia is right for them but not me).

But even more awkward is the conversation with people who aren't in academia. Sure, it's easy to explain to anyone that after a few years' of doing your job, you've decided you don't like it anymore and want to change careers. That's simple - everyone understands a career change. Occasionally you'll get someone who says something like "...but I thought you loved teaching??" That's annoying too, but it's easy to counter - in my case, I just explain that getting a faculty position would likely mean I would be working in some rural middle-of-nowhere town. My friends and family know me well enough to know that I'd be miserable in a small town, so this makes sense to them - I like teaching, but don't like it enough to do it anywhere.

But for me, the worst part comes when I get the question " what are you going to do now?"

Because, wow, I really don't know. I know what jobs I'm qualified to get with my degrees and graduate training, but I'm not sure I actually want any of them. At this point I'm thinking that I might want to change directions entirely and try to find a career completely unrelated to academia/research/etc. But I don't really know what that would be. I feel like there are a million things I could be happy (or at least content) doing. At this point I'm looking for my next job, not my career job.

And I'm okay with that, internally. I realize that academia has somewhat brainwashed me ... that up until last fall, the academic world had convinced me that an academic career is the world's greatest job and that anything else is mindless drudgery. As a result, for the past 6-7 years I'd never so much as considered any career other than being a professor. And my grad program and advisor didn't help with this, since they have never emphasized transferable skills I was gaining during graduate school or any other careers I could pursue with a graduate social science degree.

But in my mind, I sound like a total flake to the outside world. I mean, what kind of person seriously never considers alternate career options, and/or lets their school advisors brainwash them into thinking they can't/shouldn't pursue any other career paths than one very narrow job? I feel like I'm making excuses or lying about what this graduate school experience has been like - after all, for years I've had a more flexible job than any of my friends, and I've made it this far toward being a professor! How could I have secretly hated it? Alternately, sometimes when having these conversations I feel like I'm some sort of unmotivated flake who just wanted to be in school forever and never wanted a serious job - so that once it got time to "get real" and get a faculty job, I quit instead.

Obviously, I don't really think those things are true - I have plenty of backup for the "academic brainwashing" that happens in these postacademic online communities, and I've had a part-time job for the last 5-6 years while in graduate school (so clearly I am not lazy).

But the self-doubt and second-guessing persists anyway. Man, has this ever been tough.

Thank God for my "pay the bills for now" job ... that's all I have to say. I have no idea what I'd be doing if I didn't have it.


  1. Again, I definitely understand. I thought I had explicitly explained my choice to leave academia entirely to my boss only to have him open a conversation with, "So, is there anything we can do to help you as you go back to working on your dissertation now that your contract is over?"

    It feels really hard for me as well, because I'm not stopping becaause of the job market (though that's a factor I've considered) but because of a combination of lack of resources - without grants, I can't go to Spain to get dissertation research - and the fact that my priorities changed. My mom and two aunts got cancer, I got engaged, and I realized I honestly didn't care enough about the dissertation to sacrifice the next 3 years of my life to it. And that almost no one understands... I usually just get, "But you've wasted so many years in grad school, you can't quit now!"

  2. Oh, wow. I'm sorry that your boss is being difficult. But do I ever hear you on people saying that you should just "go ahead and finish since you've spent so much time in school."

    I really wish I could explain to people what "finishing" would entail at this point - me giving up all of my evenings and weekends for the next year to work on a project I don't care about, all while trying to track down my advisor (who has gone completely MIA this semester).

    I really wish more people understood what getting a Ph.D. - specifically, doing a dissertation - entails. If it was just a matter of taking a couple more classes and a final exam, no problem. But unless I need it for my job, I'm just not willing to devote the time to it. As you say, I have other priorities ... my partner, my family, my friends, and my free time.

  3. i am struggling with this decision right now. i am almost abd, but am having a lot of problems narrowing down a dissertation topic. i also want to have a baby with my husband. i'm starting to realize that this only gets tougher, not easier, as time goes by. i'm never not going to be burnt out; if and when i finally get my topic worked out, then i have to apply for grants....and then write the dissertation....and then apply for a postdoc....and then a faculty position.....and then try to get tenure while teaching 3 classes and writing grants, etc. i just don't think i can do it. my family is in science; my step-dad is a professor at an ivy league institution. and he's miserable, but stuck. my advisor gave up time with his family to pursue his career, and is now divorced and living alone. i crave a 9-5 job and stability.

  4. Tks very much for your post.

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