Post Academic


Taking a time out *after* grad school: The professional benefits? (with poll!)

"Neon Sign: Time Out" by Justinc (Creative Commons license)

Caroline’s post about taking time off between undergrad and grad school got me to thinking about the far-fetched and not-very-practical idea of taking time out from academia *after* completing your Ph.D.  I know, the last thing a new Ph.D. wants to do is delay making sure that tenure-track position wasn’t all a mirage and finally earning grown-up money at least 5-10 years after most of your college friends did.  Plus, there are matters like knowing where you are going to live for a while and maybe moving on with a “life” life.  And a lot of folks finish their Ph.D.s after lining up a job, not vice versa, so they’re already pursuing the next stage of their professional lives.

But let’s say that there was some kind of magic or funding source that enabled you the time and freedom to consider what they wanted to do after your Ph.D. and just to recharge your batteries, like if you had a year of dissertation fellowship at the very end, but you were already finished.  It might help someone like myself and the pseudonymous “Eliza Woolf”, who addresses her own career crossroads in a new Inside Higher Ed column, “On the Fence”:

Why? What’s so great about academe?

I can think of quite a few things, but my inability to abandon ship boils down to these five factors:

1) Academe is the devil I know, and being a professor is what I’ve trained to do.

2) The promise of autonomy and a flexible schedule is awfully tempting.

3) Research and teaching feel like a career, not a job (service not so much).

4) How else will I pay off my hefty student loan debt?

5) I am terrified of starting over when a tenure-track job could be around the corner.

These are as good as any reasons to stay in academia, I guess, but having some space to deal with these uncertainties and mental blocks might help folks like us unthink some of the career assumptions above and rethink our expectations of life-as-an-academic.  Those of you who are sure that being a prof is all you ever wanted can stop reading now, although maybe that destiny is a prophecy fulfilled after the fact, since I probably wouldn’t have thought about this if I had a tenure-track position.  For a lot of us, though, it’s probably not an awful idea to have some distance from academia, especially since many of our people (like “Eliza Woolf”–and like myself!) have never or barely left a college campus after age 18.  It might not be a bad idea to look at what else is out there between our late teens and our early-to-mid 30s, huh?

Below the fold are some considerations on how I could/would/should use my (ahem, not-so) hypothetical year off…

Based on my own experiences, I got on the hamster wheel of the job application cycle as I wrote my diss and never really thought about not staying on until the very hard nudges I’ve been getting from the Worst. Job Market. Ever. With a little pyschic time off, maybe it would be easier to get perspective on the professional aspects of my life as an academic:

Teaching: It may or may not be the reason you got into this line of work, but it’s the one thing you know you’ll be doing the rest of your career.  That wasn’t something I was consciously conscious of in my decision-making process as I applied for full-time jobs, then adjunct positions to keep myself a viable tenure-track candidate: Once you get on the teaching treadmill, you just keep going like it’s second nature.  All I knew I needed to pick up some classes as I continued my academic job search and went about teaching as a necessity, rather than thinking about whether I even liked what was only the largest part of the vocation I was seeking–which, I hate to admit it, wasn’t so much most of the time.  Maybe it was the structural condition I was stuck in as an adjunct (more on that later this week), but I learned the harder way that teaching isn’t really my strength, letting lecturing put me in a bad mood and take its toll on the much better things in my life.

Rather than put myself and those around me through that, I probably should’ve taken a deep breath and realized that my teaching experiences as a grad student showed that I let classroom annoyances bother me way too much, at least more than the enjoyment I did get out of teaching.  Maybe my time off would have been better spent if I simply asked myself whether I would miss teaching or not, rather than worrying about it and forcing myself to do more of it.

Research: One thing I do know about why I want/ed to be an academic is that I enjoy writing and doing research.  Right?  What would I do with my hypothetical time off?  Start on some of those projects I’ve brainstormed and blurbed on a MS-Word file that I can’t quite find on my computer, and try to complete at least some of them–one year (or more, actually) is a lot of time, at least to most folks.

So what did I do with my actual time off?  I got caught up sweating professionalization, without any of institutional structures to support my research.  I kinda worked on my half-baked ideas, usually in the form of conference paper abstracts, and tinkered with my dissertation, trying to revise the best parts into publications with mixed success (as I’ve discussed).  But none of the pretty interesting ideas I had turned into much of anything, either because they got nixed at the abstract (in both senses of the word) stage or I was still hung up reworking my dissertation.  What was worse were the occasions when my conference proposals were accepted and then I found out that I could barely squeeze 8 pages out of a topic that seemed to have so much promise!

The more I think of it, getting tangled up with my diss might have been a crutch not to pursue my new research and a way of repressing that maybe I wasn’t so much into research and academic writing as I thought?  Either the semi-formed conference papers weren’t really great ideas to begin with or maybe I was too burnt and too stressed out by academia to follow through with them.  Or maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it any more.  If I looked at it the right way, spending time just pursuing new research without the baggage of the job market or my dissertation could’ve helped me in at least two ways.  One, it might’ve boosted my chances as a job candidate through the back door, by showing that I could do fresh work beyond my diss.  Two, in a more self-reflective way, it might have clarified just how interested I was in academia, trying to do, you know, the thing that I (thought I) wanted to do all along.  Without actually enjoying research, it’s probably just going through the motions for me.

Looking back at the last few years and my ad-hoc attempts to professionalize, I’ve learned a few things about myself as an academic that betray an ambivalence that might not suit me well for the one-track mind the tenure-track probably takes.  Or it’s rationalization, though, even if it is, I might be better off in the long run either way.

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