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.


  1. I think it's totally natural to question your "path"--Is there anything else I can do with my PhD? Is there something I'd rather be doing? Is there some other educational/professional goal I'd like to shoot for? etc.

    I think it's great to have some free mental space to consider this stuff, at your leisure, while you now have a paying job to support you as you ponder. My gut instinct is that many of the folks who find themselves leaving academe will not stick with the first, second, (heck even the) third job they take. They'll look to move around as they figure out what they want from life outside of their long-held academic ambitions. I think it's nearly impossible to figure out your "calling" (if there is one), get a paying job, and transition out of academe all at the same time.

    1. I found my way here via a comment at New Kid on the Hallway and this is exactly what I needed to read. I just defended my dissertation a few weeks ago and need a job to pay the bills ASAP. I've been looking at staff positions at local universities, but the job descriptions seem rather meh. I need to remember that this first post-academic job is just the first step, not the last. And I do pick things up quickly, which is a huge asset to an employer. That first job may lead somewhere else quite quickly because of that ability. Now if only I could remember that one...

    2. Yes definitely - one step at a time is enough. It is very trying going through that whole 'how the hell i am going to pay my rent?' business and i think I need to remind myself that I can relax a little now. I don't need to do anything other than hold down a job. It's taking me a long-time to get over the constant push to do more. (nasty habit created by academia).

  2. Such a nice post and so thought provoking. It first takes me back to my own hesitations when I signed up and started PhD study. I too felt ambivalent but carried on ('Keep Calm and Carry on!') and completed because I felt I needed to show that I could sweat it out and be victorious! I beat myself up constantly and convinced myself that if I backed out I was showing weakness and just giving in to insecurities about my abilities. I was also encouraged by husband who is a successful academic (not Arts and Humanities!) who's been in the game a long time. Of course, when it came to lots of practical issues like the day to day headaches of childcare for young children during school holidays he was off again to another important conference that couldn't be missed...

    But another thing your post also brings to mind is the author's assertion in the book What Color Is Your Parachute, which I am happily reading right now, that we need to remind ourselves that our next job will probably not be the last one (those days are gone he says), and that the minute we start our new post, we must keep a good record and inventory of what we are achieving so that we can be ready to recognise our strengths and skills for the next move.

    Let's tap ourselves on the shoulders in recognition of all of the amazing things we have achieved through our academic persistence and bloody hard work all these years! Yes, we are good at what we do and what we will do. It's not surprising to hear that your colleague congratulated you on the fact that you've pick so much up so quickly. That's a thanks to your PhD study, as you say, and professional background, which has trained you to get to grips with difficult concepts quickly and teach others and so on. Of course, I know that you know this, but I just want to say well done you. At least your non-academic colleagues can appreciate your talents in ways that academia hasn't. Smart and interesting people will always wonder about the future and how they can play an active role in it. What's great is that now you are free from the shackles of academia, the world is your oyster and you will do amazing things.

    1. I think the PhD experience here (australia) and there (the UK) are very similar! The beating yourself up part about whether or not your good enough is so entrenched in the culture here that it's almost a compulsory part of the process. It's like, if you can't be bothered gritting your teeth to do it then you don't deserve the award. I think the US system is more collegial and there are more hoops to get through in regards to committees, pre-dissertation work etc that it doesn't quite feel about "am i good enough?" but more about "am I doing enough?". just a feeling - probably lots of US based folk would have a lot to say on this point