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Getting Perspective

I should just stop apologizing for my sporadic posting. As much as I would like to be a once-a-week blogger, it seems to not work that way for me. This process is still all too tied up in complicated and cyclical emotions to make this into some sort of clearly defined project.

Most recently, I found it hard to write because I spent three weeks blissfully avoiding my life. The Flying Buttress and I got to spend all of those weeks together – my home for the week of Christmas, his for the week of New Year’s, and my parents’ house for a week after that. I really really needed a break from sitting in my house and trying to figure out what my life is going to look like. I had a rough patch when we parted ways again. But those three weeks just solidified what I know: that my life is much better around him and academia is not great enough for me to compromise that. Also, he has two job talks coming up in the next two weeks, so there’s a possibility that I will at least have the location piece of the future-puzzle in place quite soon. Fingers crossed.

It was interesting to notice how I felt around MLA. I didn’t go last year because I didn’t have interviews and MLA is sort of a nightmare (unlike American Studies Association, which I plan to keep going to when I can cause that conference is always wicked fun and interesting in my experience). It was awful. And thanks, MLA, for being right next to my birthday. That was a whole set of bad hard feelings in early January, 2011. This time around, I barely even thought of it consciously. I did spend a lot of time hoping that people from my program were getting interviews. Otherwise, I did not even feel remotely weird about not being part of that process.

It did, however, make me think about the way I made a decision to leave academia. Looking back, I wish I could tell a story in which I thought long and hard about it and made an informed, solid decision. But it was so much more haphazard than that. It started with MLA making me so depressed that I wasn’t getting work done. So I decided to take the rest of the year off market in order to focus my energies on writing. And that felt so good that I started toying with the idea of never going on the market again, but that was sort of along the lines of one of those ridiculous fantasies that I’ve developed many times throughout grad school. It was similar to, “I’m going to drop out of this program and open a vegan deli (back when I was a vegan. So glad those days are over. Energy to get through the day is a beautiful thing.) that’s going to be super popular and I’ll learn to wake up early and make delicious food and it will be perfection all day every day.” I’ve had many versions of that dream. So that’s how I was feeling about giving the market the finger when a job ad came up for the LGBT center at my university – where I’d worked before, where I had had more serious and informed fantasies about working full time – and in a move that is totally uncharacteristic of me, or was at the time, I took it as A Sign. The job had been open for a while and they had conducted a failed search and the director had lamented the fact that I hadn’t applied that time and suddenly it just seemed like everything could fall into place so easily. I could have a clear escape route and spend no time wondering what to do with myself. So I applied and interviewed. And, as you can all guess, did not get the job.

I think getting rejected from that job initiated the worst of the panic attacks. I have had some serious mental health low points over my life but I’m not sure I’ve felt quiet that close to losing it before. I think it was because I knew I couldn’t go back. Even though I had not told any of my committee what my plans were and I could have just finished my diss and gone back on the market the next fall and no one would have been the wiser, I had unwittingly pushed myself past the point of no return. I got a taste of what a post-academic life could be like and I liked it. And so I was committed to doing something that now was not going to be in any way easy. I had no idea where to start. I could not see any way out of that pit of panic and dispair and felt trapped there by my own self.

But as much as that all sucked, I could also feel, then and now, proud of myself for sticking to it. I kept going to yoga, which was the only place that I felt like things were possible and sometimes even exciting, and tried to eat well and kept writing (most of the time), and putting what energy I could into relationships with people I love. And that has paid off so much. I am really familiar with my cycles now. I know when F.B. goes back to Sunnytown that I will feel sad for a day and then better, even happy to get back to my routine. And I know how ridiculous I am emotionally about applying for jobs and being able to observe that also makes it a little easier. I may not have a job. But I know myself better then I did a year ago. And I’m sure that will help both with my career trajectory and with my life overall.

I spent a long time talking to a friend about MSW programs yesterday and it was awesome. I feel so optimistic for the possibilities that this career path offers. The only thing that frightens me about it so far is that I might have to do crisis work at least for a while, while I get licensed. I know that that is super hard for me. But I am prepared for it in a way that I wasn’t before. And I have a serious set of self-care skills that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t just been through one of the hardest changes of my life.  So I think I could handle it knowing that it will lead to something that works better for me down the road. And given that, I’m set on applying to one program for next year and trying not to get my hopes up too high again that things will be easy and clearly defined soon. If they’re not, I know now that I can do that. With a little help from yoga, and grass-fed beef, and my amazing friends and family.

The next chapter

I have been struggling to write a post here for a few weeks. I’ve started about ten. Hypothetically, one’s campus might be quite quiet one day and then on national news the next, and then, hypothetically, one might get a little caught up in the aftermath of that, and try to write a bunch of posts about it, but then worry that those posts would get circulated beyond one’s limited readership and that naming said campus would blow one’s cover. Not that I’ve ever experienced that. I’ve simply imagined that this could be one reason for blog-neglect given the national coverage of some campuses lately.

But, fictional scenarios aside, I am no longer ABD. I am officially Dr. DustBiter, thank you very much. It’s been about two weeks. And I am only just now getting through entire hours without feeling like part of my brain is frantically flailing for something to focus on after it checks its dissertation to-do list and finds it blank. It’s a slow process. It’s made even slower by the fact that I’m in a holding pattern, waiting to find out where I’ll be living based on the Flying Buttress’s job search. This Dr. likes a plan and not having a plan makes me a little batty. Also, while I love the town I’m living in and would consider never leaving it (I am going to figure out a way to take my food co-op and yoga studio with me, I swear), it is a bit lonely lately. Most of my friends have moved away, most of the friends left are still in academia, and I haven’t felt particularly motivated to make new connections since I am so focused on getting out of here and starting the next phase of things. So, I’m waiting, and waiting does not make for a good blog post. But there are some little things happening. I have a few informational interviews lined up. I have found a volunteer opportunity that I’m excited about. I’m sending out a few applications to the most likely city of my future residence.

I also, in a bit of a fit, ordered a bunch of career/career-change books to feel like I was making some sort of headway in this whole process. I thought I would put up some posts about those, and what they are teaching me. The preview: I’m feeling more confident about what I want. I’m even considering (gasp) applying to one grad program for next year if things go the way I’m hoping they’ll go location-wise. But I still feel like I need convincing. I’m still stuck with this feeling that I’m going to make the wrong decision all over again, and I’m desperately flailing around looking for something that will make me sure.

But not today. Today, I am just checking in. There are painters outside making my house look pretty so that someone will buy it. And I am cleaning about 5 years worth of junk out of closets and drawers. And I am fantasizing about one of F.B.’s job prospects, which would mean moving to a location that I think most academics would run screaming from. But I grew up on a farm, and as much as I’ve learned to act like a city mouse, I’m a little excited about the prospect of wide open spaces and a minimal cost of living. Maybe in a year I’ll be all, Why did I ever think of being a therapist when I can raise goats? Which could mean all the free goat cheese I could eat. Wait a second, I think I’m on to something. . .

Lessons in Fear

Two pieces of news arrived today. The first, the one I’m focusing on, is that that position that I mentioned a while ago has been filled. You know, the one I was not all that excited about at first but then spent six weeks convincing myself that it would be perfect and that I would be perfect at it and that it would solve all of my problems. And I didn’t even get an interview. Sigh. The second is that my dissertation advisor just sent me an email saying that she finished reading my diss, she has some minor suggestions for revision, and that she’s happy to sign off on it tomorrow. After I found out about the job, I called the Flying Buttress and cried about how tired I was of feeling so much dread and that I really just needed one little piece of good news. So, I think my request was answered. Even though I have ambivalent feelings about finishing my diss, I will accept this as a piece of good news.

But it’s not a job. Not that I’m expecting someone to call me and offer me a job out of the blue (though that did happen to a friend, recently). But I’m realizing through this process how much my self-worth is based in someone paying me with money to do something that they have deemed valuable. I’m doing this teacher training at my yoga studio. And we do a lot of personal reflection, and I am always forced to realize, sometimes against my wishes, that things are going pretty well for me. I have a sort of unbelievably awesome relationship, and I would like for that to not be a long distance relationship, but it won’t be forever, and for now the miracles of skype and unlimited text messaging are making it pretty easy to be apart and still support each other. I have a dog who I love more than is probably reasonable. Yoga saves me every day. And though I am unemployed after spending 8 years earning $16K/year, I don’t have any immediate financial worries.*

So, all those things being true, why does this news feel so devastating? Why do I so frequently feel this way? Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart arrived in the mail today (another piece of good news?). I ordered hoping that it would help me get a handle on the panic, fear and sadness that are taking over lately. She talks about chaos and fear being useful, that they allow for all of our old habits to be shattered, and new ways of thinking and being to form. She describes her own experience in such a time: “All the ways I shield myself, all the ways I delude myself, all the ways I maintain my well-polished self-image – all of it fell apart” (6). This language of shields especially struck me. I know that academia has been a shield for me. I know because every summer for the last eight years, instead of being excited to have time off from teaching, and space to structure my own days, I’ve panicked. For about two weeks I’ve become an emotional wreck because everything that I depend on to maintain my idea of myself falls away and I can’t imagine another existence. So let me get really honest here for a sec about what academia has shielded me from.

Academia has been a shield for this queer girl who grew up in a straight family and a straight world, who has done very few things “right.” Academia gives me something to master, something impressive, and something that not everyone has access to. If I could get an academic career off the ground (as a professional queer, no less), then I might just feel like I’ve proved everyone wrong about all the mistakes or missteps they think I’ve made.

Academia is a shield for this girl who is shy and has some self-esteem issues. Academia gives me something to talk about (with other academics, only, but it’s a start) and a way to be interesting, and to present myself in public without actually having to expose much about myself personally.

Academia is a shield for this girl who is so worried about not being a good enough friend, sister, aunt, daughter, partner – who is scared of letting people down. When I inevitably forget birthdays, or neglect phone calls, Academia is a pretty excellent excuse.

Academia is a shield for this girl who is kind of scared of her feelings, and how intense they can be. Working at a breakneck pace 6-7 days a week is a pretty good way of avoiding those.

There are more, I’m sure. But those are some big ones. And I think the force of the disappointment that I feel when I get rejected from a job has to do with wanting to keep this shield up – to replace academia with some other job, any other job, whether I actually want it or not. But, whether I’m employed or not, I really really want to not run from this fear. I want to see its usefulness, and see if it will get me to a new way of thinking about myself and a new world of opportunities, career and otherwise. Wait, maybe “want” is the wrong word. What I want is for everything to be great and to never feel scared or aimless or sad again. But what sort of life would that get me? Probably one in which I was still a marginally miserable academic. So not an option.

* I have been trying to organize a post about this for a while. Especially because I want to acknowledge that my experiences are really different from the vast majority of graduate students, and I don’t want to pretend that what’s true for me is true for everyone. The cliffs notes version is: I was born into the 1%, I stand with the 99%. Tax me, please!

A Reminder

Dear Future Self:

Many years down the road, you will no doubt let nostalgia cloud your memory of what academia was like, and long for the days when you could sit around writing all day in pajama pants. When that happens, let me remind you of the following.

Working in the house all day has its drawbacks. Sometimes that means never actually getting outside and seeing sun, and realizing after dark that you’re kinda depressed and that a few minutes of being outside and moving around, even if that was just getting to and from work or whatever, would have prevented that. Also, it’s really isolating, as evidenced by getting way too excited about chats with the handyman or co-op cashier. Having regular contact with people is not a bad thing.

More importantly, let me remind you how this work makes us feel. Right now, I have three days to edit two chapters of my diss and get it out to my committee. I have worked on this dissertation for four years, and I should be feeling proud. Most people congratulate me and say what a huge accomplishment it is. But all I can see are the flaws. I feel embarrassed when people congratulate me because it makes me list all of things I wish I had time to fix – I do not feel like I deserve to be congratulated. Let me also remind you that we both know that not all work makes us feel this way. Some work is rewarding, and feels done, and feels good when it’s done. We both know that academia is unlikely to ever make us feel that way. We would not reach some magical moment in which we have faith in our abilities. We would just continue to feel like a fraud, only the stakes would be higher.

So that’s what I think you need to know, Future Self. Now if you would do me a favor and write back, and let me know if everything works out okay, I would appreciate it. Because I know I’m making the right decision in the sense that I can’t keep doing what I’m doing. But I’m feeling terrified these days that I won’t be able to make something new happen after all of this is over. My confidence is waning, Future Self. A little bit of encouragement or hope would go a long way.

Love,
thedustbiter

Hi, all. Just checking in real quick to say that I’m still here. And I still have so much to say. But apparently finishing a dissertation is sort of all-consuming. My life consists of writing, yoga, and watching Grey’s Anatomy, because that show is at just about the height of my intellectual capacity after a day of writing, revising, and polishing up this monster. Which means the brain space that it takes to organize a post around a specific theme and say something that is hopefully mildly interesting is mostly in use until this thing is done. Sometime after Thanksgiving things should be back to normal.

I will say that finishing the diss has been seducing me a bit back to academia. I am not teaching this quarter, so writing is my only task. And since I’m not on the job market, and not pursuing this career long term, I am not cranking out job letters, or trying to keep up with journals, or researching for a new article, or any of the other non teaching and writing tasks that take up so much of an academic’s time. Sometimes I forget that this is not what it’s always like and I sit at my kitchen table, and put the final touches on chapters and think, gosh this is kind of nice. And then I remember how much harder writing is when I have a million other things to do. And that I feel guilty spending time on my students because I’m not spending it on my own work, and guilty when I’m doing my own work because I’m neglecting my students. And then I know I made the right decision. Just have to keep that going and not get sucked back in.

My other little nugget for the day is that I was having dinner with friends last night. One of whom is not an academic, and one of whom is in a science program but thinking of leaving. The Scientist and I were talking about our next career plans and then I whined suddenly and violently about how I didn’t know how much information about a new career would be enough for me to feel comfortable with a decision. He said that that point would never come and eventually you just have to make a decision. And then I whined some more about the fact that that was what I did with grad school and I didn’t want to waste more of my life before I got there. And the smarty non-academic said, “There is no there to get to. It’s all just forward progress, until you die.”

So. True.

 

Here are some things I’ve been doing/thinking:

I had my first information interview with a therapist. It went very well, for the most part. The reassuring things about it were plentiful. Nothing she said about her job, both the good and bad parts, was surprising to me. This, I think, indicates that I have been fairly realistic about what I thought it would be like. I was a bit worried that I’d built it up, or created some fantasy version of the career, but that seems not to be the case, which is great. The other good thing was that I felt excited as she was talking. I have a tendency to imagine a career or look at a job ad and get really excited, and then instantly start talking myself out of it. I list all the things that would be annoying or draining, and I give up. I think this is something about self-protection. I think it’s also something about not wanting to let go of some of the things I love about academia. But whatever the case, that did not happen this time. I found myself instantly strategizing ways to manage potential problems or difficulties, and still felt excited about the prospect overall. The thing that was surprising was how long it might take. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for people who work in mental health having lots and lots and lots of training and supervision. But when faced with the reality of it – spending 2 years in a grad program and then many years of low or unpaid internships – I was devastated. It felt like doing a Ph.D. all over again and that is definitely not what I want. I spent a few days in a funk. But, I’m a bit better now. This person had one kind of degree I’ve been considering. But there is another that might lead to different kinds of internships. So I’m putting off worrying too much until I’ve spoken with folks who have taken that path.

In other job news, it’s not surprising that as soon as I come out here as an aspiring therapist, a totally different opportunity falls in my lap. One of the Flying Buttress’s colleagues heard about an administrative job at his current University and encouraged me to apply along with a giving a heads up to the hiring director.  I know I denounced administrative work in my last post. And in general, I’m not that excited about pursuing a career in higher ed administration for its own sake. But, this particular job sounds interesting. And it pays well. When I think about getting that job, and having a few years to make some money and just relax for a while, I want to cry with relief. So I applied. Which now leads to my usual cycle of getting my hopes up, and planning out what the rest of my life would be like if I got it. This is why I hate applying for things – because I am really good at making it so hard on myself if/when they don’t work out.

Lastly, I made the trip I’ve been dreading all summer: I went back to campus. I did go over the summer with my close friend/office mate, who is also leaving the program, to clean out our shared office. It was cathartic – I brought speakers and we blasted some queercore (Team Dresch, don’t you want to do a reunion tour!?) while laughing about the things we found hidden in our desks and relished putting our comp text books in the “Free Books” pile. But this was the first time that I had to interact with people generally. I spent a lot of time hiding from my program because I didn’t want to explain myself, and I was terrified of what people thought of me for not pursuing this career. Well, thankfully, it seems like the rumor mill has been churning so it was not a surprise to anyone that I’m not on the market. And better yet, it felt awesome to see all these people scrambling to get out applications while teaching and writing, and not be one of them. I’ve talked to a few friends about my fear of telling academics that I am no longer one of them. A few of them have said, “Are you kidding? Most people will be jealous!” And I thought, jealous of what? Being in my thirties and having no idea what kind of work I want to do? Yeah, that sounds like a blast. Or I’ve been worried about what people would think about my reasons. Maybe they think I can’t hack it, or that I’m tough enough, or that I’m a lazy quitter. But something has shifted because when confronted with talking to actual people about this, particularly people who don’t know me very well, I found myself not caring at all what they thought. And then I came home to find this post on my google reader with the proclamation, “What you think of me is none of my business.” It’s so awesome to have the universe confirm what I was already thinking.

I have been neglecting this dear blog. Over the next couple of months, I will be beginning a hard push to finish my dissertation, and I recently started a teacher training at my yoga studio, which I’m sure will make many appearances here. All this is to say, it is fall and therefore, since I am still somewhat tied to an academic calender, I am bound to be flakey. My apologies.

But I’ve been meaning to respond to Recent Ph.D.’s post on how to quit adjuncting and JC’s follow up about marketing yourself as a career changer, because those two posts hit home like whoa.

I cannot verify the validity of this advice (that we fleeing from academia just out of grad school should market ourselves as career changers) from personal experience, simply because I have yet to get a job post-grad school. I do think it sounds like excellent advice. And more importantly, I think it’s an incredibly accurate description of what we’re all doing. One of the most helpful things that a friend said to me during this process, after I spent a whole cup of coffee lamenting the fact that I am spending 8+ years on a degree that I will not use, was, “Dust Biter, you haven’t really been in grad school in the traditional sense. You’ve been in a crappy, low paying, exploitative, entry level position for 8 years and you are simply deciding that it’s no longer for you.” Light bulb moment, folks.

I spent most of the last week working on a master resume*. Writing up everything I’ve done in grad school that wasn’t connected to my research was illuminating. I have done an extraordinary amount of labor, a lot of it unpaid (unless you count a line on my CV as payment), for my university. Seriously. This has been a job. For me, it is freeing to embrace this concept. I had a job in higher ed administration during my time in grad school, and so when I first decided to not going back on professorial job market, I thought that following that track would make the most sense. Even though office culture is totally foreign and stressful for me, my administrative job was soul sucking, and I have serious political misgivings about the growth of administration over actual education in institutions of higher education, I still so desperately wanted to find a job that justified my decision to go to graduate school and to finish despite the fact that it has frequently made me miserable.

But, embracing the fact of a career change frees up so many options. I have felt a lot of shame about the fact that the career that sounds most enticing and rewarding to me so far has absolutely nothing to do with a Ph.D. in literature, at least on the surface. All of the reading, thinking, delving back into my long-term interests, personality tests, etc. that I’ve done keep leading me to the same conclusion: that I should consider being a therapist. I have some experience with counseling, and I expect I will get a lot more to explore whether this is the right option for me before I commit to it, especially since it will mean more graduate school (though, two years sounds like nothing now, let me tell you). But, it has taken me a long time to admit comfortably that I am even at the beginning stages of exploring this option.

But when I think about this through the lens of a career change, it lets me do two things. One, it lets me think that if I’m going to go through all the trouble of changing careers, I should really fucking go for it and change careers if that is what will make me a happy, productive person. And two, it frees me to think of the less-than-obvious ways that my time in a Ph.D. program could actually serve my new career. For example, if down the road I were to become a therapist, I would do so to particularly serve the needs of queer and transgender clients, with a social justice bent and awareness of the ways that sexuality and gender intersects with race, class and dis/ability. Graduate school has directly contributed to my ability to do that. It has also helped me build confidence, hone communication skills, build external support and self-care strategies, develop my research and analytic skills, and become comfortable presenting to groups and managing group dynamics. These are all things that I can see using routinely as a therapist.

I know that when people hear that I have been in graduate school, that they have certain ideas about what that means. But that doesn’t mean that I have to be limited to those expectations. It’s on me to explain why a Ph.D. program is nothing like most people probably imagine. But I am fully capable of explaining that. I’ve worked damn hard at it. And not just at research and writing. And in that work, I’ve gathered more than enough information to know that this career isn’t for me. The more that I recognize this, the more confident I feel in my decision to move on, and to allow myself to dream big about what could be next.

* I’m working with Julie at Escape the Ivory Tower, for full disclosure, which has done wonders for my mental health, and for having hope, and for feeling prepared to make this shift once I finally file.