Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Grasping at Straws

This morning, I was feeling particularly down, ungrounded, uncertain, lost. Mel left a rather perceptive comment to my last post, indicating, with the insight of a counselor, that I just might wish to unpack my unspoken attitudes toward a job, as I repeatedly (perhaps unreflectingly) boldfaced it.

What is work? What is a career? What is a job?

The Rocket Scientist and I have dealt with those questions a great deal in terms of her professional choices. Before we moved to Paradise the first time, as I have remarked before, she was rather dissatisfied with the direction of her career. Recently, we had occasion to revisit the changes in her career over the past years, how she has gone from that dissatisfaction to the contentedness of today.

For one thing, her job in Paradise initially provided her a significant pay raise from what she was making before. The group was smaller, as were the projects she worked on, so she felt she had a greater impact on them. And she was quite frequently acknowledged for little success, in the form of modest peer awards, bonuses, or gift certificates. Her superiors were quite generous with their praise and thanks. She felt welcomed and appreciated. Those positives, despite the clear negatives, have made all the difference.

Now, let's turn to my career. I had quite a few successes as a graduate student. Then, CRASH BAM BOOM, I graduated. PhD in five years. Then what? [SIGH] I never expected the wall to hit me. I was used to coasting off my energy and drive, my ideas and spirit. I've wanted to become a college professor, to teach, to research, to publish. I want to inspire young minds, and have an impact on the knowledge and understanding in my areas of interest and expertise.

Sure, I've continued to write and present since I graduated. But without those little rewards, the fellowships, the grants, what I'll call the applause, I remain in a dimly lit hall, rehearsing my lines, reworking the delivery, trying out new entrances or gestures. The hall remains silent. The audience is absent. Dust lifts and falls. I heave a sigh. No one hears it.

What do I want now? There's a question. I hold fast to my dreams and hopes, in the goals of my 5-10 year plan. Can I achieve them? I don't really see why not. But how do I get there? And how do we as a family take the journey together, fostering our joint career paths?

I can of course continue on the path I'm on. Perhaps with patience and perseverance I'll land the sort of job I want at a university. Maybe this season, maybe next. But what do I do in the meantime? I've begun to be more selective in where I'll apply. I'm committed to giving each application the needed effort and energy. New Kid on the Hallway's recent comment makes good sense. I'll hold out the hope that fewer may mean more. But what do I do with this year, or perhaps the next two, as I wait for a tenure-track job to start?

Yes, there are other possibilities. There's the chance that a post-doc at Huricane Magnet U. will come through. But I'm not terribly interested in commuting to the opposite coast. If it were possible to get at least a two year, or ideally three year commitment from them, and assuming my wife could find appropriate work there, that could serve. But that still takes us out a year, at least until she's fulfilled her 12-month promise at Rocket Central. I'm not looking to move the family or commute long distance, for anything less than a good multi-year prospect. So, one years are likely out for me. In this my third year on the market, I've got to set down limits.

But what do I do? I mentioned this contact from Big Academic Publisher. I had coffee with her yesterday, for about an hour or so. She was impressed. Today, I got a call from her boss, who seemed interested to take it to the next stage. I'm ambivalent about it. Yet, it is education-related. I would have the freedom to schedule my time. And the pay is likely good, certainly on a par or better than what I might be offered as an assistant professor. If I were to take such a post, I'd dedicate myself to maintaining a minimum (likely 8-10 hours a week) for my work: my research, my writing, academic job applications, conference presentations.

Could I do that in 10 hours a week? Why not. How much time would I have as a professor, between new preps, and teaching classes, and service tasks, and office hours? Some have advised me to take full advantage of my time, while I remain in this post-doc limbo. But then, I'm not so productive these days. I've had a year to prove that to myself. I'm paralyzed by the many options, depressed by the lack of applause, and the uncertainty that any particular effort will get me closer to my goals. It's not that I'm doing nothing, for sure. But I've always been more productive, better at managing my time and meeting deadlines, when I'm busy.

Am I simply justifying this in my own mind? Perhaps. I'm flattered and pleased by the attention and interest. Even if this is not a career I would have sought, even if this is not a career I could see myself having in three or five years, it's a welcome change from the silent disinterest I've gotten from faculty search committees. Who knows, maybe the boost to my self-esteem, and the added income, would be enough to lift me closer to those 5-10 year goals, making it easier to take some risks a few years out.

It's amazing how easy it is to impress non-academics, how seemingly easy it is to get a job. You schmooze for an hour or so, no job talks to prepare, no mock classes on unfamiliar subjects hoisted on you to test your mettle and ability to conduct research on short notice. Of course, I haven't been offered a job, but they're clearly interested. It may take one or two months for them to pull together an offer, which suits me fine, as it gives me time to think and rethink this. It'd also give me time to settle into a new life and routine in Rocket City, which just might afford me the satisfaction I'm really seeking. In any case, I'm open to the possibility.

But I'm not giving up on seeking a faculty post, not yet.


Laura said...

I, too, find it easier to work when I'm busy. And it does feel good to get some recognition, financially or otherwise for you work, and that may, indeed, be motivating through the job search.

I guess there's just a glut--in certain fields--of Ph.D.'s and so they (search committees) create these hoops to jump through whereas in the business world, finding an intelligent and adaptable person is more difficult and so they latch on to the likes of you.

In terms of job vs. faculty position, I think, as I've said on my blog before, that when you've been in academia for a long time, you internalize this notion that tenure-track faculty jobs are the holy grail. Everything else is somehow lesser (including *jobs*) even when the reason many people take these *lesser* jobs have to do with a variety of personal needs and desires and the market itself. People *know* that lots of good candidates don't get faculty positions and yet, they still blame the candidate for not being good enough.

Anyway, sorry for going on for so long, but your posts are certainly making me think.

ArticulateDad said...

Thanks, Laura. It's good to make others think, even when I'm denied a classroom. Then again, I'll be guesting a four-hour class in a couple months.
That should be a challenge and a treat.

trillwing said...

Excellent post. You know, of course, all this is on my mind these days.

I agree 100% with what Laura said.