The End of Summer Vacation: A Tale of Ambivalence

Since my last post, I spent five weeks being quite ill with a virus/infection that would not end.  I am just about feeling normal at this point two months later.  That was so not fun.  In my malaise-laden illness daze I managed to send out an application to an interesting alt-ac position.  I heard back fairly promptly with a request for a phone interview and then had an in-person interview.  After one more call-back and a background check, I was offered the position.  I start this week and I am currently experiencing a potent cocktail of emotions.

I am a bit surprised at how sad I feel.  Accepting this position, which I think is a good fit, makes the end of my academic career feel so final.  All of the years of struggle to complete my degree was fueled mostly by faith (and a love of the ideas in the discipline) that it somehow would work out.  And in the end this hasn’t happened.  It has been a long and bitter road.  Securing this position has allowed deep feelings of disappointment and fear to surface.  I actually think that this is healthy for moving on with my life which has been difficult because I have been caught in a cycle of mourning for years at this point.  I fought the fight for so long because I enjoyed many aspects of academic work and its more flexible lifestyle.  The work didn’t feel like work (except when grading large stacks of student work) even though it was certainly challenging.  I fought the fight so that I would have self-directed, engaging work that would keep me out of a cubicle from 8:30-5:30.  And this week I find myself figuratively returning to the cubicle.  I worked my way through undergrad and grad school, so I am no stranger to this schedule, but I remember how it felt a bit like handcuffs.  I worked very hard to avoid those handcuffs.  So as I share the news with friends, family, mentors, I am greeted with hearty exclamations of congratulatory wishes, but I don’t feel like celebrating.  This was not my life long dream.  In addition, I think part of the reason for my less than celebratory mood is the compensation.  I would not be able to support myself on this salary in the expensive region of the country in which I live.  I tried to negotiate salary, an earlier start of retirement benefits, more vacation days, but nothing was negotiable.  Higher-ups recognize that the position pays 20%-30% below other similar positions and work is being done to rectify this discrepancy, but I was assured that nothing would change before the new fiscal year (next July).  I feel a little defeated in the face of what would appear to be a victory.  I spend upteen years working on developing skill sets and I can’t support myself with my job.  I didn’t go into academia to get rich, but it would be nice to think that I could sustain myself with the skilled work required of this position.  Despite its salary, I accepted the job because it potentially offers an opportunity for later transition. It is a foot in the door or a well-paid internship with benefits.  I think (I hope) that the work will be interesting as well.  Much of today I spent reading post-ac blogs to help assuage my fears about post-ac transitions.  Thanks to all of the bloggers for sharing their experiences.

After years of resistant independence (and summer “vacations”) it will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

The Critical Difference Between Failing and Being a Failure: How I Realized That I Have Not Wasted My Life

One of my most important “aha!” moments during this post-ac transition was when I was able to distinguish between my failure to reach a goal and being a failure.*  The distinction between the two is nothing less than recognizing the difference between invalidating your whole person, entire self, and all of your achievements and, instead, recognizing that something you tried didn’t work out the way you anticipated.  Most of us view our work as academics as being personal; we often view it as an extension of ourselves.  We place our ideas and writing out there and in the process, we share very intimate parts of ourselves.  We expose to the world, like some peer reviewed diary, how we think and how our mind works.  These are ideas that we have spent hours crafting, mulling, and honing which we then publicly display for the world (or the five readers in our niche subfield) to judge.  It is understandable how blurred this line between self and work becomes.  The thing is, that work does not sum up who we are.  It is a part of us, but not all of us.

This is “easy” for me to write now after years of believing that I was a failure.  And sometimes I still slip.  Thinking of my academic experience in terms of this distinction is still new for me.  In some sense, it is such an easy thing to do, to conflate my academic career and my self identity but it is also so wrong.  I was the first person in my family to go to college.  I worked my way through college and then graduate school.  I earned a Ph.D. in one of the most rigorous programs in the world.  I won a prestigious award for a published article.  I had my work debated by a national government, resulting in a response paper.  I mentored and inspired students and asked them to consider thinking about the world that challenged their assumed understandings.  For all of these reasons I am proud and have a huge sense of accomplishment.  For years I did not allow myself to enjoy these accomplishments because I did not land a tenure track position.  I thought everything was a waste because I didn’t achieve that goal, a goal that was largely out of my control.  I framed all of these things as incidental to the goal, but in reality I was living the life of an academic.  I accomplished so much.  I taught; I got to know students; I changed students’ lives; I advised; I researched; I helped students reach their goals; I made an impact on the field; I published; I mentored.  I did not get an opportunity to shape departments or university trajectories.  And I did not get the opportunity to make this enterprise a life long career.  This is regrettable and sad.  For me, living life as a contingent faculty member is not sustainable.  I am not sure that the tenure-track would suit me well, but I wanted the opportunity to make that decision for myself.  I didn’t get that opportunity, but that doesn’t mean that I am failure or that I wasted my life.

*Therapy helped me to make this distinction.

Post-Academic Job Search Advice in the Chronicle

Recently, I read an interesting article in The Chronicle written by a scientist who decided to skip an academic career and head straight into industry.  The author offers his perspective 10 years later as a person who both made the transition and now is in a position to hire others.  While based on the author’s experience in the hard sciences, there are several useful bits of advice for anyone planning or currently in the midst of a post-academic job search.

The most thought-provoking and useful part of the article for me is a discussion of how fear, regret, or second guessing one’s decision to leave academia can be detected in application materials:

It is my job to hire people who will succeed and thrive in my company’s environment. And you cannot do so if you are hesitant about stepping out of the ivory tower, or are constantly looking back over your shoulder at the life you had, rather than looking forward. So I probe for both the ‘push’ factors that are motivating job candidates to leave the bench, and also the ‘pull’ factors about why they are interested in my industry or my company. If either factor is unclear, or if I see telltale signs—such as the ubiquitous lists of laboratory skills that show up on academic CVs—then I know that the candidates aren’t quite ready to step into the nonacademic world.

This paragraph got me thinking.  How does one gracefully transition out of academia?  It seems in poor taste and unprofessional to speak too negatively about one’s previous career, yet it is its shortcomings that are my “push” factors.  In my letters I tend to focus on the “pull” factors of a position.  I wonder if this is convincing enough?  In any case, it is worth thinking about the subtle (perhaps even unconscious) messages that we transmit through the formatting of our credentials and how we sell ourselves through cover letters.