Post Academic

Taking a time out *after* grad school: The personal benefits

Yesterday, I wrote about the novel–and completely impracticable–idea of taking time off after earning your Ph.D. as a way to take stock of where you stand in academia.  Of course, the kind of ambivalence I described regarding the professional side of a career in higher education might only be the result of being on the ego-bruising job market, and not some kind of existential state seeking out these insights.  Since it’s all-too-easy for soon-to-be Ph.D.s and recent doctorates to get on the academic job cycle hamster wheel, but hard to get off, whether with a tenure-track job or by leaving the profession behind, maybe a cooling-off period wouldn’t be the worst thing to think things through.

Here are a few “life” life things I probably woulda and shoulda appreciated more, if only I took the time and psychic energy to jump off that hamster wheel, even temporarily…

1. Living conditions: Being on the academic job market really warped my sense of priorities, both in the present and for the future.  The odds of the academic job market are geared to failure–in MLA fields, not only are the odds you’ll land a job about 1 in, say, 200 these days, but there’s maybe a 10% chance you’ll even make the first cut of a convention interview–so there’s a baseline feeling of anxiety and miserableness fighting over the few crumbs being offered.  It was easy for me to obsess over the process–or, rather, the Academic Jobs Wiki–as if more attention to it would yield a better result.  As a result, I kinda forgot why it is that I was seeking a job in the first place, and I’m not just talking about whether I liked teaching or research.  For me, the job is a means to an ends of enjoying my life, which, actually, was already pretty great and fun, so long as I didn’t get caught up in the vicious circle of job market-induced self doubt.

Why my life was/is so great, after the fold…

Here’s what I lost sight of being caught up in the Worst. Job Market. Ever:

* I had a great family life and have gotten to spend a lot of time watching, like, the greatest kid ever grow up.

* We have a roof over our heads and are lucky enough not to have to worry about it.

* I was living exactly where I wanted–so why exactly would I apply for jobs in places that wouldn’t suit me or my family as well?  Actually, I did have a little bit of foresight here, since I basically set aside half the jobs in my field in locations that I couldn’t imagine living.  My friends thought I was crazy and maybe my mentors, too, but there has always been a limit as to how far I would chase a job.

2. A sense of accomplishment: One thing I’ve never fully enjoyed was actually getting my Ph.D.  Earning my degree never seemed like an accomplishment, in part because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in a doctoral program, in part because having Ph.D. after my name would never seem complete without the title of Prof. before it.  My attention was divided as I was putting the finishing touches on my diss in December 2006, since I would be interviewing at MLA, plus giving a paper, less than two weeks after filing the paperwork.  Having a little time to catch my breath might’ve given me a chance to allow myself at least a little bit of self-congratulation in a field where there isn’t enough of that.

3. A sense of perspective: Maybe having more time and space to take it all in would’ve given me a chance to appreciate that a lot of the things I might want to accomplish don’t necessarily hafta be tied up with academia.  It’s not just that I really already had the kind of everyday life that I wanted to live, but even professional things like writing could’ve been pursued without the official sanctioning of being a Ph.D. or a professor.  To go back briefly to the “Eliza Woolf” column I mentioned yesterday, I know from personal experience that it’s easy to get into the mindset that an academic career might just be around the corner to solve all your problems–when in fact an academic life might have been the root  of them to begin with!  If you look at her list of 5 reasons to stick it out in academia, 3 of the points–basically different ways of saying you should do what you’ve always done–are premised on the idea that the solution to the difficulties caused by academia is to stay in academia, while the other 2–work flexibility and dealing with student loans–are based on the faulty assumption that you couldn’t find a solution outside of a tenure-track job.

I guess it’s easy enough to see when other people might not have the right perspective on things, but it’s definitely much harder for me to recognize it in my own experience.  So maybe if I gave myself a break, in all senses of the saying, I would’ve realized that I’ve been in a pretty good place all along, whether or not that includes the ivory tower.

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