a 2011/2012 rumination

08Jan12

This is both a look-back and look-forward kind of post.

I’ve been thinking about 2011 a lot lately, for obvious reasons, but I’ve been surprised by how negative my feelings about 2011 have been, certainly more negative than my experience of 2011.

2011 wasn’t that bad: I was away from my grad institution the entire year; I made steady progress on the diss, I did a lot of baking, I got a kitten, I had a pretty great first semester of teaching, and most importantly, I FINISHED AND DEFENDED MY DAMN DISS!!!

So why, when looking back, did I feel so negatively toward what has clearly been a great year relative to the past several?

I’ve been in something of a funk lately. It’s not post-dissertation/grad school letdown. I’m still ecstatic and enormously proud of myself. I have a PhD, and nobody can take that from me. And I earned that PhD under circumstances and with an advisor that would have caused where most to give up. The problem is that I don’t have a clue about where my career’s going. For the first time ever, actually, I don’t have a plan other than wait for others to decide whether I have a career in this profession.

And I don’t do uncertainty well.

Actually, that’s an understatement. I go out of my way to avoid uncertainty. I don’t date because I can’t handle the uncertainty. Yes, I know that sounds awful, but I bring it up because it shows what kind of uncertainty paralyzes me. I can handle a fair amount of day-to-day uncertainty. I’m not at all rigid or regimented in my daily life. For the most part, I’m confident that I’ll get things done. But what I can’t handle is when things are completely out of my control and when those things have significant consequences for the shape of the rest of my life. In other words, things of utmost importance. Hence, my complete and utter inability to even think about dating. In fact, just typing and thinking about dating has turned on the panic, so I need to stop.

Up to this point, I’ve never panicked about my career. From fifth grade on, I’ve always known what I wanted to do. True, my chosen career changed twice, but each time it changed only once I had something else in mind. And once I made a decision, I did everything I could to make that goal a reality. But now, things are different. There is no next step, other than hoping that the gods of arbitrary smile down on me. But I’m a pessimist, so in practice that means waiting for the inevitable failure.

Fundamentally, I’m not cut out for the academic job market. Mentally, I can’t handle years of temporary gigs, because temporary means not permanent and not advancing the career. And while I’m not sneering at postdocs, ultimately they postpone what matters: getting a tenure-track job and focusing on the goal of getting tenure.

This post is a bit rambly and confused, a bit like my state of mind currently. But there’s a reason I find it so hard to sort out what I feel about academia: I like what I do. I like doing research. Well really, I like writing history, which means I tolerate the gathering of sources. I like writing. I like teaching. I think I do most of those things pretty well. I have distinct points of view about my field, my research, and teaching. In other words, I’m down with the raison d’etre of academia. But everything else? The socially awkward people. The not-so-liberal liberals who pat themselves on the back. The outrageous job market. The expectation that we’re supposed to indenture ourselves to adjunct work on the hopes that a few years down the line we might get a job. Or not. All of that makes me ill.

In fact, writing this post is making me ill. I’m stopping.

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5 Responses to “a 2011/2012 rumination”

  1. 1 The History Enthusiast

    I have faith that you will end up in the right place, but I do understand the fear that comes with uncertainty. I totally agree that the process of academic job-hunting is wack.

  2. I finally got my first permanent contract as a history lecturer a few days ago. I finished my PhD in 2004. I will say that my advice is to forget about looking for jobs in the US. I ended up in Ghana. I never thought I would end up in Africa, but I like it here a lot more than I thought I would.

  3. Oh, I am right there with you! I finished my thesis, graduated, and all should have been cheery. But I just have no idea where I’ll be the next 6 months. For the last year, or more, I have not known what the next 6 months will hold. I’m applying for things, but having to work enough to keep food on the table has made writing articles hard, which apparently makes finding an academic job impossible…

    (Just thought I’d check out some of the other people who are doing Dame Eleanor Hull’s writing group. Good luck!)

  4. 4 Contingent Cassandra

    Ugh. I know the feeling. We each have our own ways of experiencing stress; I thought I was doing okay with the job market, but did notice that I didn’t menstruate in December (and only in December; I’m usually quite regular) for quite a few years straight. That stopped once I stepped off the job market.

    The only solution I have to offer (especially since I’m *not* in a tenure-track job, though mine is full-time with benefits and some security in the form of a multi-year contract) is to choose something that you *can* control, and decide to stick to that (at least until you decide to make a change, on your own schedule and for your own reasons). For me, it was geography; I chose to move to a geographical area which offered a lot of opportunities, academic and non-academic, for Ph.D.s, but didn’t have any institutions quite as prestigious as the one from which I graduated in the immediate area. That maximized the value of my degree (which was, at the time, an M.A./A.B.D., though I eventually finished the Ph.D). That worked for me because I like geographical stability; the constant that works for you may be something different. The main trick, I think, is to decide what *your* priorities are, even if they’re somewhat in conflict with what others tell you is the formula for maximizing your chances at a TT job. The problem with that approach is that, even maximize, the chances of landing a TT job may not be good enough to sacrifice other things that are important to you for.

  5. 5 douglas

    Yep, same here… just completed examination successfully, and shortly will get the paper. Another Ph D I know told me it takes 2 years to get over it. Certainly the last 12 months of writing up and examination were the hardest to take so far. Then there’s the feeling that this must be in some way life-changing… but I have a feeling it’s not, and the next thing will be finding another project to create a kind of direction for the next few years.


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