Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In

kendzior tweet 20130919

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?”

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  1. Oral Hazard

     /  September 19, 2013

    There you stand in your wedding dress
    You’re so beautiful that I must confess
    I’m so proud you have chosen me
    When a doctor is what you want to be

    You know I want to be a painter, girl
    A real artistic snob
    But I guess we’ll have our children first
    You’ll make a home, I’ll get a job

    And so you and I
    We watch our years go by
    We watch our sweet dreams fly
    Far away, but maybe someday

    I don’t know when
    But we will dream again
    And we’ll be happy then
    Till our time just drifts away

    -Harry Chapin, “Dreams Go By”

  2. Michael Kleinman

     /  September 19, 2013

    “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…”

    That made me laugh out loud.

  3. In case anyone’s wondering where the title of this post came from…

  4. Sorry to hear you feel that way, Jay. For what it’s worth, while you’re absolutely right that they’re simply different things, insofar as they’re similar, I find your work far more interesting, persuasive, and well-executed than that of many people who have “real” jobs.

  5. Cristy

     /  September 23, 2013

    Like this a milion times over. Thanks for sharing your experience and validating “other” career paths that are just fine and won’t cause a PhD to spin out of control down a rabbit hole of failure and unrealized potential. 😛

  1. Most Popular Posts of 2013 | Dart-Throwing Chimp

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