i need to figure out my life


Over at Chronicle Vitae there is an article called “Stripping Was the Easiest and Quickest Solution.”  It is about a woman who got a PhD in English, but instead of deciding to go into academia, she decided to become a stripper.  She cites a variety of reasons, but chief among them is that she didn’t want to move away from her city and force her husband to go through a job search with her, that she has a three-year-old child that she didn’t want to be in day care all day, and that she finds academia to be tiresome and full of struggle.  In the article, she says this:

I don’t feel like a failure or a waste. Indeed, I felt like I would be living a less meaningful, more wasted life if I forced myself into the academic path that I now regarded as unduly stressful and all-consuming, not to mention a sinking ship. Would it be more “respectable,” more socially acceptable, for me to adjunct my ass off all across this state for peanuts and gray hairs? Sure it would. Will I live my life according to the judging eyes I feared might be watching? No.

I find myself identifying with this.  When I first began my PhD 6 years ago, I didn’t intend to become an academic at all.  I wanted to be a researcher at a non-academic institution, primarily a government agency or think tank.  My specific area of social science happens to be one that’s pretty hireable outside of academia.  I didn’t want to be a professor.

Sometime in the middle of my program, though, I began to consider it.  That’s the thing about getting a PhD, especially at an R1.  My advisor says that that’s the way it’s supposed to work out – you’re around these very successful academics all day, and they teach.  They went into the enterprise because they wanted to be professors at a top research university, and they got it.  In some ways, they’re a little bit disconnected from reality, so maybe they don’t realize how difficult the job market is – or maybe they do, but they believe that their students are the “special” ones who will make it.  So everything you do is geared towards turning you into an academic and you’re discouraged from doing things that won’t turn you into an academic.  Summer corporate internships?  Frowned upon. I kind of laugh a little when I see us sneaking around career services.

Now I’m just confused, which is why I opted for a postdoc.  I am by no means only considering academic careers, and in the back of my mind, I know that if I never get an academic career I won’t shed a tear.  I can stay connected to what I value about academia by adjuncting while holding a full-time job and/or volunteering with organizations that help high school and college students achieve.  But I wonder how far am I willing to go?  I really want to stay within research, if possible, but could I go to market research?  Consulting?  Something that’s basically not academia but not non-academic “acceptable” research?

Because I agree with her on many levels.  There are certain places I would like to live, and my husband also needs to have a meaningful career.  I don’t want to move to the middle of nowhere just to have the opportunity to call myself “professor.”  I want to make a lot of money.  Okay, I don’t have to make six figures (yet), but I’d like to be close.  I mean seriously, after this postdoc, I’d like to start out around $70K.  And there are certain things I’m not willing to give up – a family life, comfort, my sanity…


I got sucked in.


I know I haven’t posted to this blog in a long time.  Believe it or not, I was actually dissertating for a good deal of it.  I also had surgery and was out of commission for a while, so when life got busy I unfortunately stopped doing the whole point of this, which was chronicling my dissertation year!

Several things happened between December and now, though.  I know where I’ll be next year (I will be a postdoctoral fellow at a research university); I finished a draft of another chapter (RESULTS!  YES!) and I’m about halfway done with a draft of my literature review chapter.  No defense date yet, but I anticipate defending at the end of June.  I also went to a conference a few weeks ago, and this post is about that.

I got sucked in.

When I first started my PhD, I told my adviser two things: I wanted to finish my PhD in 5 years, and I didn’t want to be an academic.  I wanted to do research at a national agency for government, or at a think tank or something.

Both of those things have changed.  I decided to take a sixth year to finish, and I had an epiphany after this conference: after six years in academia, I totally got sucked in and I do, in fact, want to be a professor.

I realized that there are so many aspects about the academic lifestyle that I have come to love and get used to.  I like the flexibility – the ability to set my own hours, and I’ve gotten much more used to structuring my own time (which I used to hate).  I like the autonomy; while I could work under the direction of others, it’s actually kind of exciting to direct my own research and answer my own research questions.  That’s why entered the field in the first place, honestly.  I really love doing research, and I love most aspects of that.  I love sharing my work with others at conferences (I thought I hated them, but I realize that I just really dislike the large conferences.  I like smaller ones).  I love writing papers, and I love collaborating with others who have interesting and intersecting research questions and coming up with an innovative way to answer our questions together.  I think my work is important, and I like the idea of pushing forward the social sciences in my field.  I don’t mind writing grants so much anymore; furthermore, I think I can be pretty competitive for grants because I’m a good writer.  I like reading academic papers.

But probably most of all, I like teaching.  I thought I would dislike teaching, and my first teaching experience was pretty neutral, but as I’ve gotten more experience I realize that I really love teaching and mentoring students in my field.  I’m super passionate about my social science and I like to share it with other students, and teach them how they can use it in their own work (regardless of whether they pursue graduate school in my field).  As you can probably see here, I’m a statistics nerd, and so I like teaching statistics to students as well.  I like working one-on-one with students and giving them career advice, and I like helping make important decisions about curriculum design and learning outcomes.  I even like grading papers (although not stats homework!)

I think what I would like best of all is a job at a small, elite liberal arts college.  I’ve been reading some testimonials from current professors at SLACs, and the environment is pretty much exactly what I want.  Lots of personal relationships with students, small seminars and discussion-based classes, expectations to mentor students and supervise senior theses and independent study projects, and the expectation to be involved with the college in a really meaningful, deep way – attending speaker series, organizing those events, advising student groups, attending student productions and such.  I would really love and want that!  But I know that elite SLACs also offer a balance between research and teaching; their professors all conduct research and are expected to publish, and I know some even get grants.

I could also see myself at a smaller research-intensive (RU/H or R2) university like a regional branch campus of a state system (e.g., UNC-Greensboro or Asheville, or a CSU campus).  The upside is that many of those institutions are more diverse and I would love to work with a diverse population of students.  Many of these campuses also have small master’s and doctoral programs, and while supervising master’s and doctoral students is not a major priority for me I think I would like it.

But I realized that I was denying my desire to do so because I was scared – scared of the freaking job market, which is terrible, and scared that I wouldn’t be able to hack it as an academic – that I wouldn’t be able to get the grants, get the publications get tenure.  But you know what, I think I’m actually a pretty competent and competitive academic, and I think I COULD get them.  I’m excited and passionate, but more importantly I’m motivated and pretty hard-working, and I’ve realized that I don’t mind working a lot of hours if I get to mostly determine what I am doing with them.  So I’d definitely want to be somewhere with good work-life balance, because I want to give time to my family and friends and personal interests…but also somewhere I can really dig in, too.

And now, oh god, I have to face the academic job market.  Great.