Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Holiday Reflections

So, I'm a dork about the holidays. I'll admit it.

Ever since I was a kid, I have loved the "winter" holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve. If I celebrated Hanukkah, I'm sure I'd love that one as well. I love the food, spending time with family and friends, and even wintry weather (as long as it doesn't linger too long after the holidays are over...) I love shopping for gifts and decorating the house and picking out the perfect bottle of wine or appetizer to bring to a holiday party.

I'll even listen to a Christmas carol or two for the week or two before the 25th. I'll admit it.

This year, however, I've found myself thinking a lot about my transition out of academia as I'm going through my holiday to-do list. This was kind of confusing at first -- see, the leaving process just hasn't been at the forefront of my mind in recent months. I've just been concentrating on working and on enjoying my life a little bit, and on getting myself ready for the post-New Year job search again. But suddenly in the past few weeks, I've been reflecting on my decision to leave and have been thinking about what it was like to be on the job market at this time last year.

It's been weird ... and I was getting a little worried, honestly. Oh no ... what if I suddenly turn around after the holidays and find myself wanting to go back to academia?? I was getting worried that my subconscious was trying to reactivate the old academic guilt again. You should just give the market one more shot. ....... Come on, just email your advisor. He'll be happy to hear from you!! ....... You know, this is the best job in the world, right? You'll want to come back again...

But just yesterday, I realized that the reason I've been thinking about academia recently isn't because I'm nostalgic for it, and it's not because I want to go back.

It's because this is the first year out of the last 5 or 6 in which the holidays I love are not tied up in my brain with a giant, all-encompassing pile of academic guilt and work. I'm pretty sure that my brain is now primed to think about academic work when I start preparing for the holidays!

And on the flipside, I think that I almost can't believe that this is really my life now ... that there isn't a pile of endless work waiting for me at home and a lineup of professors ready to nag me for revisions and then reject the pages and pages of writing I come up with. That if I want to leave work today and Christmas shop for two hours, I can. That if I want to go home and do absolutely nothing other than curl up with a book and a cup of hot chocolate, I can.

I don't think my mind is used to it yet!

The past few holiday seasons as an academic have been insanely stressful. I think my mind is finding it impossible to experience this holiday season without thinking back to the last few, and making comparisons.

Last year through the holiday season, I was on the job market. I took the actual day of Thanksgiving off, but for the rest of the long weekend (as well as the week and month before and after), I was frantically sending out job packets - panicking, since I hadn't gotten an offer yet. I sat in my study in front of my printer, printing cover letters and proofreading writing samples while the snow fell outside and the lights on my Christmas tree blinked behind me. After a ten hour day, I'd collapse back onto my couch with a beer and some hastily-made Ramen for dinner, barely able to relax due to stress over whether a school would call (or if I even wanted one to call, for that matter). And the next morning, the cycle would begin again. I had no time for anything else - all I could do was prep job materials and stress over interviews.

I gave myself one half-day off to put up the Christmas tree, and one other day in which I frantically finished all of my holiday shopping at once. I barely noticed the holiday decorations in our town and never took a few minutes to just relax and enjoy the season as I like to.

It was stressful and awful, but I figured it'd all be over soon.

But, you know, when I think about it, the previous years' holidays as an academic weren't so hot either. The year before, I had my first-and-only true panic attack on New Year's Eve, because I was completely overwhelmed by all of the work I had to do on my dissertation and for the impending job market. (Now that I look back, I have a feeling that panic attack was about more than just job stress - I think I knew I hated academia but couldn't quit).

The year before, I scheduled myself 4-6 hours per day of syllabus and dissertation proposal writing while I was at home for a week visiting my family. Every day, while my family sat around chatting or was out returning Christmas gifts, I was locked up in my room, buried in a pile of journal articles.

As others have discussed, bringing work with you on "vacations" is not uncommon for grad students and academics. It's worn as a badge of honor among many people, but I think that's misplaced. It's not only immensely stressful, but I'd argue that it's very unhealthy, both mentally and physically.

It's fine to value work. It's unhealthy to never, ever give yourself a break ... until you have a panic attack or break down crying because you want to go out to dinner with your friend on a holiday weekend but "can't" because you have too much work to do.

There has to be a limit to the work and the pressure and the stress that we put on ourselves. But academia just doesn't allow for it. The outside world, though, (mostly) does.

This year, I can enjoy the holidays. I've been slowly Christmas shopping. I went downtown to watch the tree lighting in our town last weekend - the first time I've gone to see it in all of my years living here! I put up our tree last night, and sat around watching a goofy holiday movie with my partner while sipping on a mug of hot spiked cider.

Then I wake up in the morning and go to work. But at 5pm, my workday is over and I'm free to do whatever I want. My "to-do" work stays on my desk in the office, and I don't have to give a single thought to the things I "should" be doing until I walk in the door the next morning.

And when I go to visit my family next month, I won't take a single scrap of work with me. I'll sit around my parents' house visiting with them, and I'll help cook the holiday meals and spend New Year's Eve with good friends. And I won't have a panic attack, and I won't have nagging feelings of worry about what I "should" be doing. And when I come back in the office after the holidays, I will be busy. But my future career will not depend on how much work I got done while I was on "vacation."

I can enjoy the holidays again. Realizing this over the past week or so has left me so happy and grateful that I could just cry. I finally feel like I've returned to the land of being a normal human being who is allowed to have non-work interests and who earns enough money that I can order a silly Christmas movie off of my cable's pay-per-view service without worrying that I'm either slacking off or going to bankrupt myself.

This holiday season, I'm so immensely grateful that I've gotten my life back by leaving academia. I don't know what will happen after the New Year when I start looking for jobs again ... I'm sure there are bumps in the road ahead of me yet. But in the meantime, this full-on holiday geek is free to enjoy the holidays - and my life.

I'll never go back. Never in a million years.


  1. Congrats, JC. The bringing work on holidays is especially toxic. The best is that the culture of overwork simply supports...nothing. Crap journal articles no one will read or care about. This is what we worry about and work for round the clock? If you're truly passionate about your work, and love it, it's one thing. But even the former True Believers I know don't drink that KoolAid any more.

  2. Yes, exactly. I understand working holidays if you're treating patients or putting out fires ... or hell, even making package deliveries or working at a banquet hall or doing other things to make other people's lives a little better.

    But busting your ass every day of the entire year, including holidays and weekends, for (as you say, accurately) crap journal articles no one reads? Or lessons for apathetic students who will forget them as soon as they walk out the door?

    No thanks. My happiness is too important to me to spend one more moment obsessing and working around the clock for ... absolutely no purpose.

  3. "Or lessons for apathetic students who will forget them as soon as they walk out the door?"

    This is the one that really kills me. I was a lean-forward-in-your-seat and-write-everything-down-and-ask-pertinent-questions kind of undergrad, and only hung out with same. I knew there were apathetic dummies and jerks in the back rows, but you see a LOT more of them from the other side of the podium (and grading pen). And I've come to the conclusion that my life is worth more and should be spent doing something better (anything--organizing the sock drawer comes to mind) than trying to cajole somebody else's shit-eating teenage brats into following the most basic of directions.

  4. or, if the above wasn't cynical enough, i've come to the conclusion that teaching is something one can do to get some money (not a lot, as we know). it's not a noble profession, or even remotely productive or useful in many instances. just a thing you can do, like collecting and recycling cans for money, or paid phone sex.

  5. Wow, you must be reading my mind. This time of year is the worst. I know I'll be taking work to my in-laws over Christmas and I hate it.

    I'm so happy for you that you're enjoying the holidays this year!

  6. Really enjoyed the article..I quit my PhD a month back (long story) and have joined a part-time job. And in my case too, my brain keeps telling me that I'm a slacker on the days I don't 'work' and makes me feel guilty about not having a project to think about 24/7!! Think it will take some time to get used to 'normal' life.

  7. It has taken me quite a while to adjust - really adjust - to the "normal" work cycle. For quite a few months, I felt like I needed to be searching for my next job (or else working on some meaningful hobby or household chore) every single second I wasn't in the office.

    It took probably 4-6 months before I finally felt normal just sitting around on the couch, and didn't feel guilty for just relaxing instead of working.

    I've told my partner a few times ... leaving academia sometimes feels like leaving a cult. Not only are you having to take on a new identity, but you have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about the world and your position in it.

    It's a crazy time ... but you will adjust. Good luck and thanks for reading!

  8. Academia is mental prison.. at least that's what I think of it. Fortunately for me, the sentence is almost over because I'm a soon to be Type-1 leaver