Sunday, April 29, 2012

Status anxiety

It might just be me, but it seems like my status has dropped somewhat. Once upon a time, when I talked, people listened. They either responded in kind (if interested in the topic) or they suddenly found somewhere else more interesting to be (most academics will be familiar with that one). Now, I find that I am routinely criticised, put down, talked over and not listened to. In short, I am now supposed to be "the little woman".

Now that I am a nobody, nobody cares what I think, what I do or what I have to say. This is somewhat unnerving.

I am not super sensitive to people not wanting to talk to me because they'd rather talk amongst themselves, but I am used to people at least expressing some polite curiosity about my work, my life or my opinion of stuff when they do choose to talk to me or are forced to sit next to me at some dreary function.

I do also like to consider that my social skills are not that bad. I try to be inclusive, empathetic, interested, and non-judgemental. I invite people into conversations, I don't play with my phone while I am talking to them, and I listen to what they have to say. I am also reasonably good at picking up queues that they would rather be somewhere else or that they don't want to talk about certain things.

Given some of the behaviour I have witnessed recently, I think many of these skills are a product of my academic career. All those awkward conferences and seminars etc where you're forced to try and meet people while stuffing your face and carrrying an overly heavy handbag at the same time. Whereas I always thought I was terrible at it, apparently I have better networking skills than many. I did of course observe some appallingly boorish behaviour at conferences by esteemed Professors, but I had always just assumed they were the cliched "awkward academic". However, perhaps they were more normal than I realised.

In my current role, I have witnessed a range of obnoxious behaviours that I won't go into. Of course, not everyone is like that, and I must confess, my heart leaps with joy each time I find someone capable of conversing like a normal human being. I hope I can continue to meet with more normal people instead of feeling like I am being walked all over by a badly behaved (usually) male.

When I started writing this post, I was wondering if these experiences were related to not being widely known as "Dr" anymore (in that I don't have it on my email signature and try not to refer to once being an academic). Yet now that I am writing about it, maybe it's actually a function of the environment I am working in instead. I never used to think anything of being "Dr" and generally consider myself to be quite relaxed about status and heirarchy. I like to think that I treat everyone the same, whether they are a student or a very senior colleague, a friend, a child, or a stranger (obviously though, with varying degrees of intimacy and conversational topics). But now that I am not an academic, I do feel somewhat at a loss about "what" or "who" I am, and I think this is playing out in my perceptions about what's going on around me.

I also can't help but feel that my job is somewhat beneath me. Now that does make me sound a snob when I put it that way, but what I mean is that it really is very easy. I remember being somewhat bemused at my interview when they kept on insisting how difficult working in the organisation was, but all I kept thinking was "I am sure it can't be any harder than what I have been doing". And while originally I thought they were possibly breaking me in gently, I actually now think that the job is waaay too simple for someone used to what I have been doing.

I have also had a few pangs of regret too, about the other road not taken when I was offered another job in a different sector entirely just before Easter. Opting to stay where I was (the reasoning was, and still is, sound), a small part of me can't help but wonder if perhaps the other role would have, in fact, suited me better. The first few weeks in any job are completely overwhelming, so it's impossible to decide if the job is really ok for you or not, but now that I am less overwhelmed, I realise that I have given up a lot in making the transition out of academia.

The work itself is actually ok. It serves an important function and I get to focus on something that I feel strongly about. But in terms of challenges, well, I don't think there are any. Oh my colleagues will bitch about the challenges for hours on end, but what they see as challenges I just think of as details. Maybe it's too soon to tell. Maybe I will be sucked in to the nitty gritty and find the everyday as overwhelming as everyone else. Maybe I am missing something. But then again, maybe this job really is as simple as I think it is.

So I don't know what to do about all of this for now. Part of it is just learning to unwind and realising that I don't have to push myself 24/7 in order to pay the rent (novel experience for me).  Part of it too, is learning to recognise that having a PhD does in fact make me unique and that I should be looking for ways of building more challenging work opportunities for myself. At least having a job has allowed me to gain some perspective on the academic experience and recognising what skills I do have.  

Saturday, April 21, 2012

On feeling ambivalent

I won't lie - some days I STILL wonder WTF I am doing with my life.

While most days are fine and good and I am learning new things, other days I am racked by the self-doubt and torture of a mind more used to working towards very long term goals. Despite the wonderous event of having the universe confirm that I am actually highly employable, every so often I find myself wondering: Is this it? Do I just do my job and go home at the end of the day and not think about it? What will my future hold? What else can I do? How do I know that I haven't made a terrible mistake? Am I "wasting" my PhD or am I building new skills?

Perhaps I need to acknowledge that ambivalance has always been a significant part of my life. For the entire PhD and post-doctoral years I was always wondering if I was doing the right thing. Sure, there have been very happy times when I have felt sure about what I was doing, but then other times when I questioned whether continuing in that path was a good thing. I was going to say that this ambivalence started well into my PhD, but then I had a flashback to my first six months and feeling bored and lonely and yearning for adventures instead. Sometimes now, in my darkest moments, I think, if only I knew then what I know now, I would have followed my instinct. Instead, I marshalled myself with cold hard discipline and worked hard to finish the damn thing. But then, other times (most of the time) I think, I have had really amazing opportunities to live the life that I had always dreamed of. It's just unfortunate that it didn't work out according to plan.

Once the thesis was done and dusted, as my  employment prospects lagged more and more, the ambivalence would grow until I had something else to do. At different times over the years I have had plans to break away from academic, but I was always sucked back in to the academic life for one more contract. This was always gainfully assisted by the fact that I was inevitably in the middle of retraining or I was only working casually. Whatever the contract, I happily chucked away all my alternative plans in order to feed the beast/return to the cult of academia. Twice I have deferred law school.

Yes, I know, everyone says that more school is not the answer to the postacademic transition. More debt, more studying, potentially just as insecure unemployment etc etc. So in my last period of ambivalence and unemployment, I said "no more school". No matter what. I focused on shanghaing my existing skill set into another role.

But now that I have navigated that tricky gap (ok, terrifyingly tortuous and uncertain time) between academic life and non-academic life, every so often, the ambitous, career-driven, soul-searcher in me that changed undergraduate programs twice, worked their arse off to get a scholarship for graduate school and would actually have a very successful academic career if only there were more jobs, interrupts my idyllic day-to-day existence to push me into thinking: where the f*ck is this going?

Some days it does make me a little disappointed to think that after all that time spent working towards my goals that I have now got an ordinary old job. While my new work colleagues are very impressed by how quickly I have come to grips with my job, I do also sometimes think, "well, I do have a PhD - WTF did you think I was going to do?" Of course, I don't say anything out loud. That would be rude. Not to mention make me sound like a total wanker.

So while I struggle with these occaisional days of feeling ambivalent, I keep trying to remind myself that one of the best things about being free from the academic trap is that my future is my own. It will be what I make it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Non-academic work is fun. Mostly.

I missed my regular Friday posting (that discipline comes from being an academic and having to make myself do things that otherwise wouldn't get done), so I feel a bit out of kilter.

But I did just want to let all the post-academic job searchers out there know a little known fact - that not doing academic work is much better than you might think. I have read in many other comments/posts on other people's blogs/reflections (sorry, proper referencing is beyond me at this point) that there is a fear/misapprehnsion that if you have spent so much of your life dedicating yourself to the relentless pursuit of one topic that you always felt was your life passion, that nothing else can possibly be the same.

Well, obviously this is just another example of the totally deranged and narcisstic thinking that academic cultures need to prop them up. You can have a perfectly satisfactory job outside of academia that provides you with all the things you need to make you happy. Apart from a salary and a roof over your head that is. I mean, the things that you need to make your working life happy. Whatever they may be.

Another point that I think is important to mention too, is that your working life will in fact have a better quality to it because no-one is walking around thinking that what they are doing is a calling that they must suffer for or any of those other deranged things. They are normal, everyday people, who are thoughtful, capable, competent and articulate. They get things done and have fun weekends and interesting holidays. They take a proper lunch break and talk a load of crap about whatever they watched on TV/did on the weekend/something funny that happend to them, not more work.


Of course there are the boring parts too, like the colleague who doesn't pull their weight or the interminable meetings where nothing is resolved, but on the whole, the good FAR FAR FAR outweighs the bad.

So chin-up anyone who is feeling demoralised about career dreams not coming true, for you never, ever know what the future will hold. You may in fact realise that your true calling actually wasn't in academic after all. I think that the concept of 'flow' is important here (correct me if I am wrong, but was that Bourdieu on work?) - if you find something that engages you so thoroughly that you lose track of time then that's a sign that you have found your true vocation. So the theorist's say. I would also add, if you find something that you are good at without too much effort, but enough effort that you grow and are challenged to do your best, then you're probably on to a good thing. No grades or fear of failing or insecurities involved. Just the luxurious feeling of knowing that you're doing a good job and you're getting the rewards you deserve for it.

BTW - I can't recommend how much I LOVED Leslie Shimotakahara's The Reading List, from the blog of the same title: I was so excited that it arrived in such short time all the way from Amazon Canada that I stayed up way past my bed time reading it as soon as it arrived. I felt woolly headed and exhausted for the first time at my new job, but it wasn't because I was up all night marking or working on a conference paper - it was because I was actually reading something for pleasure!

Now that my guitly secret is out - that I can't put a good book down even when I have to go to work in the morning - I can't wait for more late nights with my favourite writers. Another perk of non-academic work :)

Friday, April 6, 2012

decisions, decisions...

Not to brag or anything, but I have been offered another job.

When it rains it pours, as the saying goes.

It's nice to know that all that hard work writing applications etc has paid off, and I have been offered two equally good jobs in each of the areas I was targeting. One, kind of related in content to my research area; and the other, education focused, drawing more on my teaching experience.

So take heart career changers - this will happen to you one day too.

Luckily, many years of seeing friends go through retrenchment, unemployment and job searching had prepared me for the scenario in which I would be offered more than one job. For some reason, it seems that almost everyone I know who has made a serious effort to find a new job, has ended up agonising over a choice of between 2-4 offers at the same time. (4 is kind of extreme, I admit, but the person in question gives GREAT interviews. Seriously, they could run classes they're so good).

Anyway, so be prepared to make a tough call. And it is only you that can make that decision. For some, it might be job security, for others it might be career prestige. Alternatively, it might be a choice between companies, or a chocie about benefits. Location and accessibility are also high up on the list too. Do you want to be able to get home quickly or do you not mind commuting?

But the best part is - it really doesn't matter. For all the people I have seen agonise about the decision, I know that once they've made the decision they've never looked back. Ultimately though, the best part about not being an academic, is that you can change your mind again further down the track. Sure, you have to write a heap more applications and go through the whole job search process again, but hey, once you've been offered one or more jobs, you know you will get another one too.

That much definitely is not true of the academic track, that's for sure.

So which choice will I make? I don't know yet, I am still deciding. But really, who cares in the end? I am not making a committment to move to some awful town in the middle of nowhere to work with colleagues I might end up hating in a desperate bid to secure tenure in 5-7 years that might never happen in any case. I am simply making a decision about which job I think will be best for me given my circumstances right now. I am not obliged to accept either job, and at any point I can move on to something else without my colleagues feeling like I've stabbed them in the back, regardless of which job I end up with.

How refreshing.