Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Diving for Icebergs

Icebergs have always freaked me out. You can only 10% of an iceberg above the surface. The rest is beneath the surface and you can only tell what's there either by diving into frigid water...or running into it a la the Titanic. The same principle applies to most of human society. You really only see 10% of what's going on. The other 90% takes a bit of diving. Unless, of course, you prefer the collision method in which case, I suggest you stock up on life boats.


The first step, according to pretty much every book, blog, and website about career transition, is to identify why you want to change careers. Using a variety of metaphors and anecdotes, many strongly urge diving below the surface to see the rest of the iceberg - before you run into it. What are the real reasons for wanting to change careers? The big ones? The small ones? Do they matter? So, let me tell you about my iceberg.

As I said in my first post, I decided I didn't want to be a professor because I had seen how a professor lives I wanted something else. That's the 10%. Here's the rest:

The people I distrust most are those who want to improve our lives but have only one course of action. -Frank Herbert

1. I want a different life. Many faculty are often accused of having only one goal, one measure of success for a Ph.D.: a tenure-track faculty job. I thought the same thing long before I ever met college faculty. The faculty are not to blame. It's the kool-aid. Many of the newer faculty haven't yet succumbed to the kool-aid. They will at least admit that there are few jobs, you have to work like a dog to get them and to keep them, and getting a job is not entirely the result of merit. Does that count as progress on the system?

As I mentioned in my first post, my advisor told me honestly about the job market early on. I thought that I still wanted to be a professor, so off I went. Several years down the road, I realized what all was needed to succeed as a professor, a good one. You need to be able to come up with original research that will be funded by grant agencies, preferably ones with lots of money. Your research must be published, published, published. This research should preferably lead to projects for lots of grad students whom you're mentoring to become professors like you. It's helpful if you're also a good, engaging teacher but that's not essential. You also need to sit on committees: university committees, department committees, student committees. You need to be active in your field, including sitting on committees there too. You should also be chairing sections in conferences. All this and you should be doing outreach with the community too. You must be willing to make your work your life.

As a result, a work-life balance, particularly in the first few years is highly unlikely. Hopefully, you like your job. As much as I like my research, and as much as I enjoy teaching, I'm not willing to make the sacrifices needed to be a professor. I want a life to call my own. I want to spend time with my significant other and my dog. I want hobbies. I want to see my family. I respect those who choose to be professors, but I am not one of them. I want a different life.

No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path. -Buddha

2. I want to control my destiny. The academic job market is an interesting place. Many claim it is based solely on meritocracy. This is a lie. If it were true, you can hire someone based solely on paperwork and that doesn't work in any field. A meritocracy is good in theory; however, human psychology renders it an unattainable utopia...or a sure road to a dystopia depending on one's viewpoint and grasp of history.

On the academic job market, positions are listed for various places around the country. There are not many. Your best chance at a job requires you to apply to any and all you may have a chance at. Limiting yourself to some desired geographic area(s) will severely limit your options. So you don't get much of a say in where you live.

The academic job market is also a weirdly passive place. You send out your applications. These usually entail 2-3 page cover letters, long CVs detailing your entire grad school and post-doc life, a teaching philosophy, potential syllabi, etc. And then you wait. There's little to no follow-up. You just wait. If the department is polite, they'll may send you a really nice rejection letter, or any rejection letter. Usually you get nothing. If you're lucky, you'll get an interview that lasts 3 days where you have to be on and functioning for nearly the whole 72 hours. I've always been a bit disturbed that the highest compliment that can be paid to a job search committee is that its process is humane.

I wanted more control than this. I wanted to choose where I live. I want to know that my success or failure is my own doing. It should never be placed in the hands of others who may never meet me, may never speak to me, may judge me, my worth, and my potential based on little more than paperwork and their perception of my department and faculty. In the academic job market, my future could potentially be tied to strangers' perceptions of other people. I cannot live that way. I have to know that my path is decided by me. Not by the geography of any given year's job market. Not by granting agencies. Not by the reviews of an ever more apathetic student body. By me. Only me. I know that the environment one lives in, professionally, personally, etc. is not entirely under one's control. However, that is only the raw material you work with, not who your are. My success or failure should be based on my will, my desire, and my effort. I need to control my destiny.

The first quality that is needed is audacity. -Winston Churchill

3. I need hope. The last few years have been rough. I've come to accept that I've been battling depression...and losing. Having been depressed before, I recognized the signs but couldn't find the source. As the possibilities of finding a life outside of academia began to emerge, my depression lessened. As a scientist, this evidence led me to conclude that trying to force myself into an academic life was causing my depression. Somewhere in my mind, my heart, I must have known that the contortions needed to get a job in academia would cost me too much. My personality doesn't subordinate itself to others' desires particularly well.

The beginning of this journey has already taught me much. It showed me how much I gave up to survive the last 9 years. I used to be willful and wild. I could feel myself losing this, diminishing, in order to survive. But this is not surviving. You must live life with your whole heart. You cannot live a half life. You cannot lock part of yourself away. Never let anyone tell you that you are not good enough as you are. That you are too much. Too strong. If that means you must chew through the leash and knock over the fence to be free. Do it. Try not to set the barn on fire but if that's your only option - let it burn.

So, I have decided to return to myself. I will not be the same person I was. Grad school has changed me. But I still remember the better parts of me. I'm going back to get them - and to find a new path. I no longer wake up dreading each day. I've stopped thinking about my more self-destructive tendencies. I have hope again. I didn't know that I had lost that. I didn't know how much I needed it. I need hope and I've found it in the sheer possibilities outside of academia.


It's not going to be easy. Change never is. But it will be fun. A new adventure. A chance at a new life. One I can be proud of. One I can live with. As me. How cool is that? Stay tuned. This is going to be one wacky trip up the rabbit hole!

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy [or gal] who'll decide where to go. - Dr. Seuss

6 comments:

recent Ph.D. said...

Congratulations on your decision to leave, and welcome to the post-academic club, which I'm happy to see seems to be steadily growing. I look forward to future posts!

JC said...

Echoing recent Ph.D. - welcome to the club! These first few posts are great ... your comment about your entire academic future being shaped by "strangers' perceptions of other people" is ... wow. That's an incredibly insightful critique of the academic job market. I'd never thought about it that way before.

I'm glad you're feeling good about your decision to leave ... I haven't regretted it for a moment either. Welcome to the blogosphere and I'm looking forward to reading more!

postacademicinnyc said...

Great post! God, the endless academic committees! They NEVER end. Good luck to you, and I look forward to reading your posts.

anotheracademicbitesthedust said...

This is all so familiar to me! Especially the part about finding who you were before academia. I'm experiencing the same thing now, and it's great. I experienced something similar when I ended a 7-year relationship a while back that had stopped working many years before. It's frightening to see how I've lost parts of myself when I was trying to make myself fit into a life that didn't work. But it's also so nice to know that it comes back.

Congratulations for having the courage to make this decision.

Pi said...

Thanks all for the warm welcome and for your blogs! It's been really helpful to know I'm not alone in this transition. I hope I can match the standard you all have set with your posts. If not...meh, at least me dog thinks I'm awesome.

Here's to good friends, good food, good wine, and good luck!

humairahamid said...

Just stumbled on this post today and I want to say congratulations on slamming on the brakes, looking at the big picture, figuring out what you want out of a career and choosing what's best for you, even when it's the hard thing.

Anotheracademicbitesthedust said it so well: "It's frightening to see how (we can lose) parts of (ourselves) when (we try) to make (ourselves) fit into a life that (doesn't) work."

I wonder how you're doing nearly a year later... wish you nothing but the best.