Monday, November 14, 2011

Anger, Angst, Apathy, Arrogance, and Other Happy Thoughts

Went to happy hour last week with fellow grad students. This is something of a weekly ritual for us. Everyone (nearly everyone anyway) strokes my advisor's ego and we can all complain together. Something like this seems to be universal in nearly all departments or should be. There's nothing like bonding over misery. Anyway, that's not the subject of my post.

At one point during this happy hour I was deep conversation with two other students graduating, or planning to, this year. They were both staying in academia and on the job market. One works in anatomy and thinks she has a shot at something this year. The other is fairly certain he doesn't stand a chance but he keeps sending out applications anyway. They've both set their sights low and are hoping for something that may come close to paying their bills. And they think I'm the crazy one for leaving this insanity.

Incidentally, both of these people deride the various fields I'm considering for my career change. I'm fairly certain anything other than the faculty-approved post-academic options would cause such a reaction. This angered me, at first. I went home from happy hour wondering if I was making the right decision. So, now I was angry and angst-ridden. What a way to spend a Friday. Thankfully, I also have a large supply of local wine to pass the time.

My advisor, if you're curious, has gone from quasi-supportive to apathetic to actively preventing other grad students from speaking to me. It's the sort of petty power manipulations I've come to fondly associate with my snake-pit of a department.

So why the anger and angst? I do try to be supportive of my fellow grad students' inexplicable hopes for academic jobs and only offer advice on some things they should negotiate for when they finally (maybe) get job offers. I strongly urge them not to become adjuncts. What angered me was the apathy and arrogance I get towards my own decision. I'm starting to get the response many post-acs get: apathy towards anything other than academic jobs and arrogance as they assume I simply couldn't cut it in academia. Considering that I am unwilling to stall my life for another 2-5 years working for sub-poverty wages for the outside chance at a TT job...maybe I couldn't cut it in academia. I've made peace with that. This led to my happy thoughts.

The next day I realized that my angst had passed with my anger. I wasn't annoyed about leaving academia and what people thought of that. I was annoyed that they didn't support me, as I expected friends to do. That's some sort of progress, I think. I care less of others' attitudes about my choice and more with their actions as "friends." Hopefully the next step is full on f!&% it mode. I'll say it again: this is MY life and MY choice. If I want to make a living wage, have hobbies, free time, friends, and a life with the one I love, that's my decision. You can keep toiling in the bowels of the Ivory Tower, if you like. I support your choice. Heck, I'll even buy you a beer and offer you a couch if you need to crash in whatever city I end up in.

Speaking of progress, I've started emailing folks for informational interviews. That definitely qualifies as progress. The best part? Folks are responding. They answer my questions and don't even waste time asking why I'm leaving academia. It's just a lot of "here's what I do" and "here's what we look for in new employees" and "sure I'll pass on your request to other people." Go non-academic network!

I'll keep y'all up to date with the transition - probably sans alliteration and alphabetizing but one never knows.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Lessons of Grad School #2 - Research

I was sick of seeing the last post so I'm posting a new one. So, here's some more thoughts on things I wished I'd known before I went to grad school.

Be Careful What You Research

For those of you reading this and still, somehow, laboring under the delusion that you can research whatever you want in grad school, let me disillusion you. Or rather, let you know of some possible consequences of your choice.

The Set-Up

I planned to research a specific topic when I went to grad school: The Tea Drinking Habits of Dormice. However, after several years trudging my way through classes, dealing with faculty, and surviving comps I found that this topic no longer interested me. I wanted to change my research to the Chair Switching Behavior of Hares in relation to Dinner Conversation. No biggie, right? You can research whatever you want, yes?


My advisor specialized in dormice, not hares or dinner conversation. Ze actually didn't mind my switching research topics. Most of my fellow grad students work on the lack of time management skills among white rabbits. Chair Switching Behavior was at least different. Ze's excited - or at least mildly interested - in the idea. What more could a grad student ask for? Ze gave me the go ahead to start researching. Awesome. I did the background research, created a whole new research design, and got to work. Proof you can research whatever you want, right?

The Fall-Out

I did it pretty much on my own. I couldn't piggyback on my advisor's grants. Ze wasn't comfortable introducing me to people in the field of Chair Switching Behavior, Hares, or Dinner Conversation since ze didn't work in those fields. So, I had to work to get my work into conferences on my own. I didn't even get decent feedback when my grants were rejected. I didn't get the automatic legitimation that comes from putting your advisor's name on your work as an author. I did it the hard way. This has likely advanced my burnout a bit further than usual. And, to add insult to self-induced injury, I now wouldn't trust my advisor to write me a letter of rec since ze has never worked with me nor observed my teaching. What would ze say, "Didn't bonk?"

Why do I call it self-induced injury? As annoyed as I am with academia, academic culture, the Ivory Tower, the fallacious meritocracy, what-have-you, this particular problem I brought on myself. I knew doing my own research was not the easy road. My advisor even told me that not working on what ze worked on was going to be a harder road. I didn't walk into this one blind. I just didn't think it would be THIS hard. The upside is that even after years of research on the topic, 1) I still think it's interesting and 2) writing my dissertation doesn't put me to sleep nor makes me want to do a self-lobotomy with a plastic spork. I would never get a job with my work on Chair Switching Behavior of Hares in relation to Dinner Conversation. It's considered lunatic fringe in my field. Dormice and White Rabbits are much more in vogue. However, since I'm leaving academia for a variety of other reasons, I'm rather happy with my choice of research.

If all goes well, I'll go out in a blaze of insanity that will one day be deemed ahead of its time and cited a thousand times over on Google scholar. If that happens, please let me know. I'll hopefully have a life by then and won't need to check Google for number of citations for a tenure portfolio. Anyway, these days I'm becoming more interested in the Power Dynamics of Tempestuous Authority Figures on Playing Cards and Chess Pieces - but that's a story for another post...and also a subject that would not get me tenure.