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.  


  1. A PhD makes you unique? In what way? You demostraste to yourself that you could finish a project of life, congrats, but outside of academia the hierarchy is different and instead of professors, deans, (don't forget that male profs. can be jerks, too) you have coworkers, bosses that think they are "life coaches" and they just see you as this newbie woman that it is too soon to include her in the clique, if you have worked retail, you will understand better? Give it some time, but your ideas will never be welcome to "life coaches" the way that you think, but in time, you will see that their walls are going to open, and you will see that academia is still the snobbiest place on earth. Sorry for the harsh words, I do enjoy your blog, but it is time to see where the ego is and enjoy the fact that your work is too easy so you could technically enjoy and scheme your other passions in life

  2. I would agree that having a PhD makes you unique. At least in the US, only about 2% of the population has an advanced degree of this, yeah, while one doesn't have to be an elitist asshole about it (and here I'm not suggesting you are!! please know that!), it definitely does make you a little "different" than the vast majority of your colleagues/folks you meet. I think my perspective is skewed, being in academia for so long, that getting a PhD doesn't seem "special" or "unique"...but it is. And I think it makes sense that you might need to come up with other ways to challenge yourself and stretch your mental muscles--either in learning more skills at your current workplace and transferring them to a new more demanding job, or taking on more intellectually stimulating tasks during your free time (learning a new language, writing a new article, taking a web design course, building something new, etc).

  3. This is a useful post for consideration and I thank you for your honesty. I agree with Currer that considering such a small percentage of the population (I hear it's the same here in the UK) have PhDs then there is a 'uniqueness' about this experience. And remember all the times you've probably heard that the training ground for PhD is so demanding that it takes a hell of a lot of persistence and hard work to finally get through it, not to mention, continue to work in the field after completion. So, I think, yes, this does make you 'different. And I think it can set up an internal working habit that is very difficult to perhaps negotiate with and/or break. We are so accustomed to questioning/criticising everything (the status quo for example)- in ways that many others may not. And the ongoing desire to seek more knowledge and challenges may be what's bugging you. Ana Ana above reminds us that yes, there are horrible men (and women) in academia too, and this is something that I keep in mind in my transitional stage. Currer reminds us of the importance of stretching ourselves outside of the work realm. This is something I'd like to take advantage of too, whether it takes the form of intellectual work, like writing an article, or even doing something fun, like singing lessons (yes, my secret desire!). Good luck with all this.

    1. I can't vouch for lessons, but I'll say I get a rush when I sing with Paul's band!

  4. I'd agree with Jet and Currer about the issue of status. Yes the fact that you have a PhD does make you unique, sets those who have apart from the others. As Jet has rightly pointed out those who have completed a PhD gone through a sort of 'hell' which requires persistence and hard work to get through....and they're accustomed to naturally question the status quo all the time. This second trait isn't considered key in the non-academic world ....and could perhaps seen as detrimental - I've been thinking about this issue. I do think that there are horrible people everywhere and that no one realm is free of them. But I wonder whether there's more of an impetus to cover up the awful things that happen in the academics world since there aren't as many checks and balances. There's also much to loose if someone looses their career/status because of something that they did was bad - imagine..they could lose tenure and have nothing to speak of in terms of their career. I wonder whether the rats in a barrel mentality is rife. Currer and Jet are correct in highlighting the fact that we in fact owe it ourselves to stretch ourselves in every realm of life. Jet, do take up singing. I find it incredible therapeutic!

    1. I do agree with you, but I understand Ana Ana POV, everybody is unique in their own way, does who survive domestic violence, finish a PhD program, can make dunks in basket, does who use their wealth to help others (that is an uniqueness), etc.

  5. I could definitely feel your emotions reflecting on the article you have just written. I could clearly see that you are just trying to express and not to impress.

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