Thoughts on life after the PhD
Well, I didn’t leave. Not a hundred percent. But I’ve decided not to take what is usually considered the next logical step in the PhD trajectory: seeking an academic job.
In the end, my decision is less an indictment of a failed system (though I’ve still got plenty of problems with the system) and more a realization that academia just wasn’t a good fit for me. It’s a shame that it took me seven years of grad school to figure that out, but what can you do.
Anyone who’s read this blog–particularly the “grad life” sections–won’t be too surprised at my decision to forgo a traditional academic job search and essentially abandon the dream of a full-time professorship. I’ve been dancing around this decision for the past two years, and in the end it took just a couple of mildly cataclysmic events to turn the dance into a purposeful march.
I suppose the first nail in the coffin came back in early March, with the news that my dissertation advisor didn’t get tenure. Of course I’d known that this was a possibility, but it affected me in ways that I couldn’t have predicted. I was angry–at the opacity of the tenure review process, at what I saw as an unfair and arbitrary decision with no real hope for appeal, at a decision that I suspected had more to do with economics than anything else. I’d been told for so long that the tenure-track job was the golden egg of university jobs, that it was the one thing that I should sacrifice and work myself to death for. I saw an ugly truth up close: that a tenure-track job really isn’t the security blanket it’s made out to be, and that even incredibly qualified, hard-working people can be told after five years that they’ve got just a few months to start all over again. It got me thinking.
Oh, and then there was this earthquake.
For the record, my real “this might not be for me” moment came three days before the quake, when I heard about my advisor’s tenure rejection. For a lot of reasons I started thinking that I wanted to stay in Japan longer, and that looking for a job here might make more sense than looking for one in L.A. I was contacting old friends and even filling out job applications in the days leading up to the quake.
But being shaken like a wooden roller coaster and watching a wall of water swallow whole cities for several days can do things to you.
In my case, it made me realize a few basic things:
1. I’m not willing to make the sacrifices that academia will require of me in order to be successful. Specifically, I’m not willing to move to an unfamiliar city for an indefinite period of time, make a very meager salary in the hopes that I will eventually earn a living wage, and juggle publications / conference presentations / committee duties / teaching / general keeping up with the hourly developments in my field in order to stay on top. Maybe if I were ten years younger–or even five years younger–I’d be up for it. But at thirty-four I’m not.
2. My research won’t get me a good job. No, this is not one of those impostor syndrome-induced “I’m just not good enough” whinges. I think I’m a good writer and a good researcher. I think my research is interesting. But it’s not groundbreaking or paradigm-shifting. It doesn’t make use of enough original Japanese source materials. It isn’t part of a field / specialization that’s in high demand. I know everyone says that the dissertation isn’t supposed to be your greatest piece of work, but if you want to compete in the current job market, it had better be pretty damn good. Mine just isn’t quite of that caliber. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating or falsely modest, I just know what my work is and what it isn’t.
3. I really don’t do well with long-term solo projects without clearly defined goals or deadlines. I’m eternally grateful for this fellowship year, for the opportunity I’ve had purely to write and think and get paid for it. This is what most scholars dream of. But I’m also grateful for what it’s taught me–that I don’t do well in this kind of situation. I need structure and routine. I need short-term projects, preferably collaborative ones with lots of opportunities for feedback. Naturally I’d get a lot of that in an academic job–I’d be teaching, for one thing, which would force a lot of structure into my life. But I’d still be expected to conduct a lot of solo research and to produce articles / books on my subject matter, which would involve a lot of time alone at my computer sifting through endless reams of philosophical thought and trying to make sense of it. Sometimes I love this–love the challenge it gives my brain, love debating with others about it. But it does not work as a full-time job for me.
4. My Japanese isn’t good enough. I’ve been studying the language for 10+ years. I got really good at it. But I never got to a near-native level, which is really the level I need to be at to be successful in my field. I could never read literary theory in Japanese. I could read novels, but I felt like a high school student struggling through their first Shakespeare play. If I were really driven, I could have devoted grueling hours, weeks, months, and years to achieving a near-native level of Japanese ability. But I didn’t have it in me. I had gotten to a point where I found little to no joy in language learning, where learning new vocabulary and grammar and trying to make sense of journal articles just made me want to cry in frustration. I was tired of being miserable in my attempt to achieve something that just didn’t seem achievable in my lifetime.
5. The dream I have allowed to die was never really alive to begin with. My academic dream was always fairly simple–to live in a city that I liked, make a living wage, and teach classes that interested me. Sadly, present-day academia makes this almost impossible. Full-time positions in my field (modern Japanese literature and film) are becoming rarer and rarer. Hundreds of applicants–really good applicants, not just hundreds of random people–apply for a single job. And when they do get that dream job, they may discover that the salary isn’t enough to live on and the workload is overwhelming.
Of course some people–including, I hope, many of my friends and colleagues–will achieve their dreams of a fulfilling career in academia. With determination, persistence, and a dogged focus on my goal, I could probably achieve that dream as well. But I just didn’t have the drive. For me the dream I wanted was too slippery, with too much potential for disappointment. The benefits didn’t outweigh the potential costs.
I don’t plan on changing the name of this blog to “Adventures in (Post) Gradland”any time soon (I’ll hopefully still be a grad student until spring 2012, when I plan to defend my dissertation). I want to remain an active thinker and writer, to keep up with scholarship in the fields that interest me. I want to keep the door open, though academia has a history of slamming that door pretty quickly once you venture outside of it.
Strangely, I feel more excited about writing my dissertation now–maybe because, while it still has to adhere to certain departmental rules, I don’t feel that hypothetical hiring committee staring over my shoulder anymore. I also love the idea of watching movies and reading books because I *want* to, not out of a desperate need to keep up with all the developments in my field.
More updates and thoughts on leaving academia to come. In the meantime, I’m going to make myself a Nutella milkshake.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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