March 7, 2011

Academic jobs and The Future

Long time readers know that I have always been ambivalent about Becoming A Professor at the end of my graduate program. For years, I have responded to questions of "what will you do when you graduate" with stammering incoherence along the lines of "I will assess my options when they become options, in the distant future, which is very far away, and you can't expect me to have an answer before then."

My working decision was to prepare as though I were planning on going on the academic market so that I would at least have the option when I was ready to graduate. I co-authored a few publications, presented at conferences, chose a relatively marketable dissertation topic. When my advisors talked with me about preparing for the job market, I didn't interrupt to explain that I was actually a conflicted mess of fear and uncertainty about my future career. I nodded and took notes.

Now, I'm talking like I've decided to do it. In some ways, it's the path of least resistance, to stay on the train, to keep doing what's next. But it's also that I'm not ready to quit what I've been working on for the past five years. I want to publish some version of my dissertation as a book. I want to keep working on my question, and the only way to get paid for that is to get an academic job.

I also feel like this is my only chance to try it. It's much harder to return to academia after quitting than it is to work as a professor and then transition to a normal job. I don't want to give up this opportunity forever before I get a chance to look at the options (job offers, if any) and see how it goes. I'm not one of those people who would have an identity crisis if I decided to leave the academy. I feel confident that if I get an academic job and then regret it, I can look for something else with my sense of self-worth completely intact.

My main reservation about the academy is that while I enjoy research and teaching, I am a social person who thrives on teamwork and team goals. I spend a lot of time watching various TV dramas, the kind where the characters convene in a room and say "Oh my god, how are we going to deal with this?" -- and I feel jealous. I wish I worked with other people on a daily basis, that I had an office and coworkers, and we would solve problems together.

I also have a hard time feeling motivated to advance my own career. I enjoy my dissertation, and I'm motivated to work on the project. But I have never been a particularly ambitious person, and I have never cared about getting a prestigious job or becoming well-known and important. I don't have the same drive to build a strong resume and promote myself that I see in some of my classmates.

So there are times when I feel depressed that ultimately, the only thing I'm really working on is my own career. My dissertation will help me to get an academic job, and my future research will help me to keep it. I believe my question is important, but realistically, my work will only be read by other academics. My work probably won't solve problems or help people, and if it does, it will be in some very indirect way that I can't anticipate.

Getting paid to explore interesting questions and write papers is truly an awesome thing, and there are days when I'm so grateful that I'm here. Sometimes I'm reclining on my couch with a cup of coffee and my dissertation, with total freedom to think and learn and analyze and write, and I feel like my life is amazing. Other people have these soul-crushing corporate jobs, while I get to be independent and creative on a daily basis. When writing and data analysis are going well, I feel energized and excited about my work. I don't want to stop, don't want to sleep until I finish what I'm doing.

Other times, I'm sitting on my couch with my laptop, and I feel like I don't have a purpose, don't really have a life. This is my contribution to society, a hundred-page research paper that nobody will read except my advisors? It's 2 p.m. and I'm still in my pajamas. If I went back to bed for the rest of the day, nobody would notice or care.

I know this feeling is partly, or maybe mostly, due to the isolation of a research fellowship year. I go out with my friends, and I play team sports, but socializing can't make up for the fact that right now my only job is to sit at my computer and work alone. It's incredibly lonely, and it's not representative of what it's like to be a professor. If I get a real academic job, I will have an office, and students, and colleagues, and some of these needs would probably be met. That's another reason I feel like I should at least try being a professor before I decide that it's too isolating for me. What I'm experiencing right now is not what my whole life would be like.

So I guess I have made a decision, for now, to finish my project and apply for academic jobs and see what happens. I'll keep doing what they tell me, keep doing what's next in my six or seven year graduate program, and I'll see where I end up. I'm following my interests and a really amazing career opportunity that could turn out to be the best decision I ever made. And it's not like there are no exit options if it doesn't work out. It's not like I'm signing a lifetime commitment to never do anything else.


  • Hi Friends,

    Academic jobs usually require you to plan the curricula, develop materials and present instruction, conduct research and publish it in professional journals. Interview for a job requires you to present your skills and experiences. Thanks a lot...

    By Anonymous Search Jobs Colleges, at 5/16/11, 3:55 AM  

  • I have a question. I'm trying to publish my dissertation, but it's 20 or so years late. It's completed, but I've never had the money to publish. What should I do? I'm Ph.D (ABD), obviously, and because it's so outdated, I'm afraid I'll have to start over.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/20/11, 6:46 PM  

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