When I saw that tweet this morning, I chuckled, then grimaced. No one bothers to send me academic job announcements, but I know what Kendzior means. Just yesterday afternoon, a friend who was venting his own work frustrations asked me if I thought about trying to get a teaching job at a university. That question comes up pretty much any time I talk to anyone about my career. After I left my salaried job a couple of years ago to try making it as a freelancer, I had a couple of colleagues who kindly tried to guide me toward teaching jobs because, I think, they feared I couldn’t survive professionally without a foothold in academia.
In fact, the answer in my head has always been “Yes, but…” Of course I think about it. I spent five years in graduate school ostensibly training to become a professor, and many from my cohort went into academia. I didn’t, but I’ve spent most of my career since then working with scholars on research that most people would regard as academic. In other words, I do “intellectual” work, and there is a pecking order to intellectual work that is ingrained in the minds of most people I encounter in my daily life, including my own. Unless your sense of self-worth is entirely detached from your interactions with other human beings—and I think that would mean you were a psychopath—it’s impossible not to hear those questions and translate them into reminders that you occupy a lower spot in that order, into hints that you are not quite worthy.
It’s funny, but I used to go through the same thing as a runner. During grad school and for a couple of years after, I was a mediocre but committed road racer, mostly doing 5 and 10Ks. For reasons that elude me now, I spent one season trying to break 2 minutes in the 800m. When the subject of running came up, people would often say something like, “Have you run a marathon? You should do one of those. I have a friend who… ” To runners, asking a middle-distance racer why he’s not doing marathons is like asking a cellist why he isn’t playing the violin. It’s not better or worse, just different. Still, you understand the subtext, and it’s hard not to feel like you’ve just been asked why you’re not a real runner and what you plan to do to fix it. You want to shrug and laugh it off, but you also want the other person’s respect and feel like you’ll never have it if you don’t get with the program as he or she understands it.
And let me be honest: I didn’t go into academia after grad school, in part, because I couldn’t. When I was finishing my dissertation, I applied for a few teaching jobs in comparative politics, but I didn’t even get invited to give a talk for any of them. I was married and needed a job, so we moved to the DC suburbs and I eventually found other ways to make a living.
With the passage of time, those “other ways” accumulated into a career of sorts. Right now, I get paid well to do work that I enjoy from a home office on a flexible schedule. By all rights, this is a dream situation, and still I can’t see Kendzior’s tweet or hear my friend’s question and not think, “I wonder if maybe now I could finally get a real job?”