I got sucked in.

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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.

A Good Time in My Field

My broad field is public health.  It’s a good time to be a scholar in public health.

As universities are expanding and sort of adopting business models, more and more of them are trying to open programs that will attract paying students and more notoriety.  One of those ways is business schools; I read an article the other day about Johns Hopkins University opening a new business school with a sort of unusual MBA program.  Another way is schools of public health.

Public health is beginning to boom because of a variety of things.  The nation has turned its attention to health; since ACA passed and as we gear up to insure millions of Americans who weren’t insured before, more information and research needs to be done.  We’re more interested in prevention, since prevention can hold down costs and since preventative services are free or low-cost under the insurance plans.  We’re also more interested in policy and implementation.  We’re still trying to solve the problems of HIV and AIDS.  Obesity was recently declared a disease by the American Medical Association, but we don’t really know what causes it.  Cancer is still a specter in our lives.

The other thing is that health has long been touted as a “recession-proof” field, so more students are interested in non-clinical ways they can be involved in it.  An MPH degree is a easy turn for some of them.  MPHs have the potential to be cash cows for universities, since they are usually financed completely with loans.  Also, schools of public health can bring respectability and prestige to a university.  They also tend to attract a lot of research money, particularly from the NIH.  The SPH at my university is actually the highest income generator in terms of research grants at our medical center, surpassing the medical and dental schools (which you wouldn’t expect).

So many universities are establishing schools of public health or expanding existing programs.  Georgia State University is turning their Institute of Public Health into a full-fledged School.  NYU is expanding their Global Institute of Public Health.  Brown is transitioning their MPH program into a full-fledged school.  And I saw a job ad today from University of Nevada at Reno that they are also planning to establish a school of public health, and are hiring a flight of professors to that end.  Many undergraduate colleges are beginning to offer majors or minors in public and/or community health for their students, as they become more interested in it.  Lehigh University is hiring 3 new professors in their Health, Medicine, and Society program; Tufts University has a community health program for undergrads; and American University has a 3-year community health BS.

Yeah, what comes with new schools of public health?  NEW FACULTY.  AKA jobs for me and my colleagues!

Meaning that I’ve seen a spate of pretty cool jobs in desirable places in the last 3 years that I’ve been casually looking (obviously, I still need to write this dissertation, but I look to see what’s around).  Add to that that most public health scientists can also look for research scientist positions at a variety of universities, government agencies, think tanks, and NGOs – and our field isn’t doing too badly.