Post Academic


How to Deal with Being Home for the Holidays

Posted in Absurdities,First Person by Arnold Pan on December 23, 2010
Tags: , ,

If you’re an academic, being on winter break is, obviously, better than not taking a vacation, but it can obviously be a stressful time, especially when you’re prepping all-or-nothing job interviews coming up right after.  Okay, all the travel, shopping, and small talk can take their toll on non-geeks, but academics can have an even harder time navigating the holiday season, especially gatherings with family who don’t understand how academia works and think you’re *still* in school.

"The Christmas Party" (attributed to Robert David Wilkie) from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Public Domain)

Here are a few things about what to expect and–if not exactly what to do–how not to get embroiled in uncomfortable and annoying situations with your family.  The best thing to do would just be to simply avoid talking to or seeing anyone, but that might be overcompensation and it might get you in such a misanthropic mood that you might not recover in time for MLA, which was definitely my experience in the past.  Those of you who are more savvy and socially clueful than I am (pretty much almost all of you, I’m betting) probably won’t have any problem turning on the charm and sidestepping awkward conversations, but forewarned is forearmed…

Face to Face: The prickliest situation is when you have some alone time with more immediate family members and they don’t understand why you still don’t have a job or are living in who knows where or whatever idiosyncrasies of academic life that those who haven’t lived it don’t get.  The thing is, they actually do care and are worried for you and don’t understand why academia isn’t a meritocracy, when their kid/sibling/whatever has been a good student and a fair person since who knows when.  But even when you’re well-meaning and they’re well-meaning, wires can get crossed and everyone gets more bummed out by the whole thing.  I can’t say I ever learned how to thread the needle, but try and have one good talk with whoever cares and just get all the explanations and miscommunications over with — to the extent that you can.  Even if no one is fully satisfied with the conversation, at least you can say you tried.  And failing that, just let us do the work for you: Have your loved ones read about how being a grad student can make you sick or your prospects on the Worst. Job Market. Ever or any of our stats-y posts, so that you don’t have to explain it all!  (Then again, if they really do care, maybe they shouldn’t know about how dire things can be for you…)

More family dynamics, below the fold…

Unsolicited Advice: Don’t get caught off guard thinking you’re off the hook when you’re at some family gathering where idle chit-chat is all that seems to be required.  If anything, large parties can be more hectic and unnerving, since there are so many different family dramas, dynamics, and agendas going on that you can’t quite grasp.  One holiday, a somewhat competitive, much more “successful” relative who was probably fronting for the other relatives started grilling me out of the blue about my dissertation, under the premise of trying to “help me out” — if “helping me out” means trying to psych me out and show off at my expense, though maybe I was just being paranoid.  Not only is talking about research the last thing I want to do when I’m trying to relax, but it’s not particularly “helpful” when you’re forced to stammer out responses so that your diss makes sense to a non-academic only to have it not sound like it makes any sense at all.  And if I’m not giving you advice on how to run your business or do whatever it is you do, please return the favor.

Have an Exit Strategy: Even if you can’t anticipate when and how you might be entrapped in a conversation you don’t want to have, always try to be as prepared as possible with an exit strategy.  Changing the subject can only buy you so much time usually and you probably don’t want to be stuffing your mouth full of food all the time, so figure out a Plan c or D.  The one thing with the holidays is that there is always something for you to do that others don’t want to do, whether that’s helping out with dinner, picking up after kids, going out to get stuff at the last minute, washing the dishes, so on.  Although that might sound like drudgery, I think any of these chores is preferable to explaining how many sets of interviews you have to go through, why your research is relevant to anyone, why you’re still on the job market, and any of those questions people ask that you don’t really have answers to yourself.

That said, have a great holiday and travel safely!

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