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At a recent conference, three colleagues asked me whether I was currently on the academic job market, and revealed their own ongoing job searches. Their questions echoed a voice in my own head that I’ve almost successfully silenced: am I supposed to go on the market now, in my third year on the tenure-track?
Initially, I felt offended that they would ask. Their questions about changing institutions were innocent enough — even based on good intentions; but, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because my career choices have been questioned since I added my current position to the list of jobs to which I would apply. I had to push back against my grad school professors’ “encouragement” to pursue a career at a research I university. Since then, I have, on occasion, been not-so-sublty reminded that “you can always go back on the market” (to get a “better” job). As early as spring of my first year, I heard that there were rumors that I had been applying for a new position — in my first year. So, I haven’t really had a moment yet in which I wasn’t being asked (or asking myself) whether I could or should go back on the academic job market.
By the end of my first year in graduate school, I became aware of the narrative — perhaps even expectation — that professors, at some point, pursue a “better” job. In just my six years as a grad student, four professors left for new positions, typically right after earning tenure. Initially, it seemed these professors stuck it out to get tenure at that school to then move to a school or location that might be a better fit for them. I’ve never had a chance to actually ask any of these professors why they left and why, specifically, they left when they did. But, rumors among fellow grad students were that some left because their families were miserable and needed a new location, some threatened to leave to get a raise (but didn’t get it, and then had to actually leave), and some left because of the “two-body” problem. These caveats made it seem as though going back on the job market was not solely about the job or institution itself; however, these moves were not driven exclusively by personal reasons, either.
What about assistant professors who change jobs — and not to be immediately promoted to associate professor with tenure at the new institution? That never happened while I was in grad school. But, while on the job market myself, I saw what seemed to be just as many assistant professors vying for jobs as I did grad students. One speculation I commonly heard was that these were “underplaced” scholars who had to take a less-than-desirable job initially owing to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession on the academic job market. Since then, I have seen a couple of colleagues move to higher-ranking institutions, and a few others who moved to accommodate the needs of their partners or children. Generally, I’m not sure that it’s a common occurrence.
Aside from moving to advance one’s professional status (i.e., because one was “underplaced”) or because of personal or family needs, there still seems to be an expectation to move — and soon. In hopes of softening the blow that I had decided to accept a position at a liberal arts college, I offered to my advisors that it would be my mistake to make; more explicitly, I noted that I could always go back on the market, which meant staying active on the publication front (thereby exceeding my own institution’s expectations). Two of my professors told me moving happens a lot in academia. (Ironically, they have only been professors at one institution for their entire twenty-plus-year careers.) The three colleagues I mentioned at the start of this essay have their professional or personal reasons for returning to the market; but, I also sensed that they felt they needed to move just because we’re expected to move once we hit our third or fourth year on the tenure track.
The short answer to their question is no, I have no desire or plans to apply for other academic positions (or non-academic positions for that matter). But, what the heck, I’ll give the long answer, too.
Potential Drawbacks Of Applying For (And Starting) A New Job
- There is no real reason to leave. Outside of the academy, I’ve observed that friends and family begin searching for a new job for practical reasons — that is, I’ve yet to hear “should” or “supposed to” or “expected to.” They look for a new job to get promoted; that is, when one cannot move up the hierarchical ladder in one’s own workplace, one has to take a higher-level position elsewhere. They simply get sick of their current position, owing to boredom, need for change, growing hostility or bias, etc. They cite non-work-related needs like health problems, the needs of their partner/kids/parent (especially if dependent or sick), or having to or want to move to a new city. Fortunately, I accepted a position that brought me closer to my family, offers the pace and expectations I’d like at work (and that are helping me get a handle on lingering mental health problems), and supports my approach to being an academic. My partner has finally started working as a fifth-grade teacher; a move would mean asking him to pick up his life and start over again. Since work is good, why would I disrupt my (and my partner’s) life and career just because of some informal expectation to change jobs? That’s foolish and selfish.
- I like my job. Unless it’s not clear from the previous point, I actually like where I am.
- Starting a new job is hard. Starting a new job, in a new department and school, in a new city was incredibly hard. Sure, this time I wouldn’t also be new to being a professor; but, that’s still a lot of new-ness to which I’d have to adjust. I’ve finally made genuine friendships — those kind in which you hang out outside of work, and have other things besides work to talk about. It only took me two years to find them! And, I’m beginning to feel like a member of the communities in my department, university, and to a tiny extent in my local community (at least among those working for the LGBTQ community). Others may feel invigorated by the adventures of moving and starting a new chapter of their lives, but I dread the idea. The world is not filled with people willing to have genuine friendships or positive working relationships with an outspoken Black queer scholar-activist; my energy is better spent on building community where I am.
- Starting over is worse. I am too early in my career to realistically hope to take an associate professor position with tenure at a new institution. So, I’d be starting a new tenure-track elsewhere, with a different set of expectations (formal and informal, transparent and not). Worse, I may “lose” some or all of the years I’ve already completed on the tenure-track. That is, there is a good chance I would have to start over. No thanks.
- The job market takes up a lot of time. Starting the application process again would take up a great deal of time. All of my application materials would need to be revised because I can no longer sell how awesome my dissertation is (was). In my job talks, I would need to present new work that, ideally, will last me through tenure. However, I’m currently in the thick of polishing the last couple of chapters of my dissertation and sending them out for publication; I don’t have anything really “new” at the moment. And coming up with a new project and rewriting my application materials will cut into time I’m spending to finish work based on my dissertation. I just don’t have the time (or energy) to present myself as a new shiny package again.
- It’s too late. Even if I were interested in applying for other jobs, it’s already too late in this year’s job market season (in sociology). And, I think it would be foolish to devote any of my year-long research leave next year applying to jobs. By that point, I would be in my fourth year (two years shy of filing for tenure); I would start the new position in my fifth year — the year I would actually begin putting my tenure dossier together.
- I need to work on my health. I still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and recently discovered I was traumatized by graduate school. (The latter falls into the category of complex trauma, which doesn’t appear in the DSM, but its symptoms are no less real for me.) Thanks to these ongoing mental health issues, I was recently diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Wonderful, just wonderful. All of this oversharing of health problems is to highlight that taking care of myself and getting healthy is of far greater importance than worrying about and attempting to appease some informal expectation to find a “better” job. Indeed, my colleagues are aware of my ongoing health problems, and have been incredibly understanding and supportive. Again, why would I give that up? Health wise, it doesn’t make sense to reintroduce the stress of applying for jobs, going on interviews, losing sleep because of uncertainty, moving, and starting a new job into my life if it is not necessary. I’d go as far as to say moving around so easily is a luxury for those in good health.
- The job search is an awful experience. As I’ve noted above, the stress of being on the market alone is enough of a deterrent. My anxiety was at its worst while I was on the market in my final year of graduate school. I was moody and self-absorbed. It seemed every conversation I had was about how the market was going — and, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t help but bring it up. I imagine doing so with some level of secrecy at my current job would be even harder — especially because I have many more demands on me now than I did as a dissertating grad student who wasn’t teaching. My job would have to be bad enough and/or the need for change would have to be severe enough to even consider sticking my toe into the turbulent waters of the job market.
- I’ve got baggage. And, not in that romantic, magical way like Mimi and Roger in Rent. I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms of the academy, specifically sociology, and most specifically my own graduate program. Do I dare to ask my dissertation committee members for recommendation letters? Would they even say yes? Would they be positive in their letters? Do I even want their letters? With little contact in three years, would their letters even be useful or appropriate? (Baggage aside, I really don’t know to whom assistant professors turn when they go on the job market. Asking your current department colleagues seems like a risk if you’re secretly apply for jobs, are leaving on bad terms, or don’t want to disappoint or hurt them.) Besides the letters, I imagine a number of departments will want nothing to do with me because of my blogging and public presence. Staying active on the research front can only trump concerns about “fit” so much.
- There are few places that would be a good fit for me. I am of the mindset that my happiness, health, and quality of life are more important than the prestige of a school. That means I prefer to work at a school and live in a city that is safe and inclusive for gay interracial couples (my partner and me). Realistically, no place in the US deserves such a characterization, but there is variation. Since climate matters (in the department, on campus, in the city, in the state), that rules out
most (all?) places in the country. The odds of finding a good school in a hospitable city for me, an outspoken Black queer man, are too slim to waste my time even looking.
- There are no guarantees on the job market. Let’s say I went on the market next year. I would be limited to the positions that are advertised in that year. They may not fall into my areas of specialization. They may be in undesirable locations. They may include schools for which I don’t want to work. I could, in the end, not want to accept any position or, worse, I not receive any job offers. That is time, energy, and hope I can’t get back. And, what if word got out in my department or college? Unless I was dead-set on leaving because I had legitimate reasons to do so, it would be incredibly awkward to continue to show my face after the failed job search. I worry, too, other colleagues might consciously or unconsciously hold it against me. Maybe they wouldn’t invest as much in me because they assumed I’d be gone the first chance I could get, or that I was never truly invested in staying.
- Greener grass is deceptive. I’m going to quote lyrics from two songs. In the song, “Better Than” by The John Butler Trio (JBT), there is an incredible lyric: “All I know is sometimes things can be hard // But you should know by now // They come and they go // So why, oh why // Do I look to the other side // ‘Cause I know the grass is greener but // Just as hard to mow.” And, as Big Sean says in Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” “the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, it’s green where you water it.” JBT’s wisdom points out that a new job may appear better from your current location, but it won’t necessarily be easier. And, Big Sean’s career advice suggests staying where you are to make the job better, rather than jumping ship when things get tough. My current job, department, and university aren’t perfect — and, I’d be surprised if any of my colleagues are surprised to hear me say that. But, as I surmised from my campus interview when applying, and in the two-and-a-half years since, they are all willing to change and grow. I’m in a place where colleagues don’t remind me of my “place” as a junior faculty member; rather, I’m encouraged to have a voice and be an active member of the campus and department communities. (We’re simply too small to go 7 years of having any faculty members simply “seen but not heard.”) It would be naive of me to think I can just shop around for a problem-free, egalitarian, truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-cissexist, anti-fatphobic … institution. But, it was certainly worth finding a place that is trying to become that, and working within it to make real change.
Potential Drawbacks Of Staying (And My Responses)
- Don’t settle. I can already hear concerned voices shouting at their laptops/mobile devices, “NOOO, ERIC – WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” I’ve heard the advice to treat the tenure-track like dating. There’s no ring on this finger (for now), so perhaps I’m naive to settle in this position and, worse, to publicly declare that I’ve settled. (I mean “settle” in the sense of getting comfortable, not as in lowering your standards.) I agree that it’s healthy to know that there are other options and, more importantly, to keep oneself competitive (to an extent) in case the time ever comes to apply for a new job. But, I have learned from experience that a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude in a relationship takes a toll. It makes others resentful, just waiting for the day that you finally leave or quit; and, you don’t fully reap the rewards of being committed to something/someone, even through the tough or uneventful times. So long as my institution is committed to me, I will commit to it. I sense that we both share the goal of making it a lifelong commitment.
- Being taken for granted. I suspect the underlying concern with the previous point is that your colleagues or institution will take you for granted. The best way for them to bow to your feet is keep them guessing whether you plan to stay. If more is desired, you can actually actively seek out a new job — thus, the threat of leaving. Fortunately, I’m in a place that respects and values me because I’m here and committed; I don’t need to play psychological or emotional warfare to demand respect and attention. (Frankly, that seems really unhealthy to me. Imagine if I had to threaten to dump my partner every time I wanted him to buy me flowers.)
- Know my value. I’ve heard, on occasion, it’s good to toss an application or two (or 20) out just to see your value (presuming your department or university isn’t valuing you at your actual worth). You can get a self-esteem boost from getting interviews, or even offers. Nah, I’m good. I’m working to get to a place where I don’t derive any of my self-worth from an institution. That means not suffering six months of depression if I were denied tenure, nor throwing myself a party because another school said they like me. I do not intend to criticize those who use this as a power-play or even a self-esteem boost. I just feel I have better ways to use my time, like pursuing the things I value, rather than playing games at work.
- Increasing my status. Related to the previous point, I never set out to land at the “best” (i.e., highest ranking based on some convoluted way of placing schools in a hierarchy) school. I don’t want others to give a damn about me because I’m at Harvard or Wisconsin or UT Austin. I prefer to be recognized on my own merits, for the specific kind of work I do. At conferences, when eyes gloss over “University of Richm…” on my name tag, and then dart to find another, more worthy person to talk to, they’ve saved me 15 minutes of meaningless conversation. I’ve always been skeptical of academic fame because it seems we go out of our way to make ourselves feel important because, at some level, we realize we’re not seen as important in the rest of the world. Being a “somebody” to other (elitist) academics seems at odds with making a recognizable contribution to the community. With few exceptions, the more popular you are among academics, I assume the less you and your work matter to the world outside of the academy; the more involved you are in your community, the less other status-obsessed academics care about you.
“Okay, so you’re not leaving,” you might say. “Why write a blog post about it,” you might even be asking. My intention here is to highlight the unspoken (though sometimes explicitly stated) expectation that, on top of trying to earn tenure at one institution, junior professors should also be looking to start a “better” (i.e., higher-status) job. The question, “are you on the market,” doesn’t come from prior knowledge that I’m unhappy, that the job is a bad fit for me, or that I or my partner need to move. It doesn’t suggest that applying for a better job is the only way to get promoted because I’m already working my butt off to get promoted in my current position; leaving could actually set me back and introduce new challenges. Rather, at the root of it, the question just reflects pressure to advance one’s professional status (even if it’s at odds with your personal needs).
In the spirit of promoting self-care in academia, I ask that others rethink this mindset of going after “better” jobs purely to advance your status. Specifically, I mean not relying heavily on your institution to signal your worth to other academics. You can do so by publishing another great article, or winning a teaching award, or being awarded a fancy grant, or putting research into action (either in the classroom or in the community), etc. I think a healthier approach is to 1) think long-term to advance professionally and 2) place your professional status in the broader context of your life. On point number two, I worry, for example, about those who neglect their health or continue to be single and miserable as they jump to a better job; I doubt there is any direct (positive) relationship between the status of one’s institution and one’s own happiness/health/self-esteem/purpose. But, I’m aware this all depends on your values and goals, particularly as it relates to your career. I just don’t see the point of being at an Ivy, for example, if I don’t have a community, am miserably single, in therapy, and am far away from family; the status alone isn’t enough to sustain me.
I can’t help but think about a romantic relationship as a parallel here in my suggestion to consider staying — or, at least consider not automatically leaving when the getting isn’t necessarily good. If we constantly look for a “better” romantic partner, then we are taking energy and investment away from our current relationship. We’re not fully committed, and thus our partner may not fully commit to us because they can sense we’ve got our eye on the door. (I know this from a past failed relationship, unfortunately.)
I should note that I’m not naive enough to ask that others commit to a department or institution while they are on the tenure-track; don’t commit to an institution that hasn’t fully committed to you (yet). But, by hiring you, they’ve made some level of a commitment; your colleagues are “dating” you and, in places that aren’t sink-or-swim or practice academic hazing, they actually hope dating becomes marriage for life. You can, however, make a commitment to make your job more satisfying for yourself. To the extent that you can without jeopardizing tenure, take on fun projects, teach fun classes (or at least a few lectures within a class), make at least one friend on campus (there are faculty in other departments and, gasp, there are staff members, too!), or volunteer for a community organization. Outside of work, join a club, take a class, make an effort to find community, get an account with MeetUp/OkCupid/Tinder (whatever other apps kids are using these days), go to a community event, etc. Even if you one day leave, at least you’ll have made an effort to make your present situation harder to leave without saying goodbye or shedding a few tears.
If you are considering going back on the job market, or at least open to the possibility, check out what others have had to say about it.
- “How To Apply for Your Second Job” by Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In
- “Switching Institutions? Here’s What Your Progress Toward Tenure is Worth” by Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) on Chronicle Vitae
- “How to Hop From One Tenure-Track Job to Another” by Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) on Chronicle Vitae
- “Should You Switch Tenure Tracks?” by on Chronicle of Higher Education
- “Faculty Movers” by Female Science Professor (summary: moving jobs is controversial)
- “Academic Shopping Around” by Female Science Professor
- “Starting over on the tenure-track” by sciwo on Tenure, She Wrote
Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae.
If you’re in a doctoral program, you’re supposed to want to work at a research university. But when I was mulling my career options in graduate school, what I mostly felt was uncertain. In fact, the only thing I knew I didn’t want was a job at a research university.
My secret desire was to teach at a liberal-arts college, but I had plenty of doubts about that, fueled by my advisers’ antipathy toward the idea. Ultimately, I did “come out” of the liberal-arts closet. But it was only when I asked my professors — “How did you know where you wanted to work?” — that I realized how few of them could answer that question with certainty.
The (Myth of the) R1-Liberal Arts Dichotomy
A few years ago, when I was plotting my own future, I spent some time asking Ph.D.s what motivated them to pursue one career over others. Many fellow students, and even some of my professors, said they pursued a job at a research-intensive university (especially an R1) simply because it was the expected path, and the most valued. Sure, you might apply for positions at liberal-arts colleges — just to be safe — but that was merely a backup plan. Even if you accepted a position at a liberal-arts college, you only kept that job long enough to get the kind you really wanted (meaning one at an R1 university).
I also noticed that the distinctions people made between R1 universities and liberal-arts colleges seemed based more on limited knowledge, or even stereotypes, than on actual knowledge and experience. Many seemed to think in black-and-white terms: If you want to do research, take an R1 position; if you like teaching, work at a liberal-arts college. Indeed, when I mentioned my plan to accept the tenure-track job I’d been offered at the University of Richmond, one of my advisers responded, “But you’re good at research!”
It’s worth stating what should be obvious: Faculty at both types of institutions do research and teach classes, albeit to varying degrees. Too many academics erase the variation among Research I universities and among liberal-arts colleges — not to mention the similarities between those types of institutions. For example, research expectations have grown for faculty at liberal-arts colleges (too). However, you may face less pressure to secure a research grant if you teach at a private liberal-arts college with a sizeable endowment than if you are at a public institution strapped for funds.
Another example: While it’s true that liberal-arts faculty teach more classes than R1 faculty, we don’t necessarily teach more students. For example, I teach five classes a year, with enrollment in each course capped at about 15, 20, or 24 students. Even if I taught five classes at the cap of 24 students each, I would still only have a maximum of 120 students. Meanwhile my counterparts at a large research university — teaching three classes with at least 70 students in each — would have 210 students. Since my institution is exclusively undergraduate, I also have the good fortune (in my opinion) of not having to serve on master’s theses and dissertation committees (or help those students navigate the academic job market) but, I do serve as an honors thesis adviser for one or two undergraduates each year.
Of course faculty advisers often ignore all the other options for a faculty career, too, including community colleges, historically Black and Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges — not to mention careers outside of academia.
What If You Don’t Have A Clue?
In the spirit of sharing advice that I had to learn the hard way, I’d like to offer some tips for finding the career path that feels right to you. If you’re 100 percent certain of the path you wish to pursue, good for you! But if you’re conflicted, as I was, then testing out other options along the way is a must, and will make you a more well-rounded academic. How else are you going to make an informed decision?
During grad school — no matter what your advisers are telling you — try to pursue a variety of opportunities to gain training in research, teaching, and applied work. Serve as a research assistant and a teaching assistant (and teach your own classes if possible), but also seek out internships and opportunities to gain experience outside of your university. Take advantage of whatever pedagogical and teaching training your department and university has to offer; attend pedagogical workshops at professional meetings or other universities. While you’re at it, consider which aspects of academic work you excel at and like best. Don’t wait until you finish grad school to discover that you loathe teaching or that spending time alone in an archive gives you hives.
I highly recommend doing a research and/or teaching fellowship at an institution that is different from the one where you’re earning your Ph.D. Having that experience not only makes you a better candidate, but it’s one of the best ways to get a sense of what life’s actually like at other types of institutions.
Short of that, look for opportunities to visit different institutions — attend talks, stay with friends, or, better yet, shadow a faculty member at another campus for at least a few days. If your program or university does not have a formal shadowing program, make your own arrangements to do so.
And don’t limit your forays to academic institutions. Consider doing a summer research internship for a nonprofit or think tank.
My brief stint working at a nonprofit agency during college turned out to be less enjoyable than I’d hoped. I hated doing anything that felt like busy work (e.g., filing, copying), and I hated having a boss even more. Worse yet, the office attempted to maintain a politics-free environment, despite advocating on behalf of LGBTQ professionals. Yet that internship experience reinforced my desire to work in academia, so even a bad experience can lead to something good.
Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to work or observe faculty at a liberal-arts college before I accepted my current position at the University of Richmond. But working as a diversity fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee the summer after my third year in grad school gave me a taste of faculty life at an urban research university and a chance to teach students with different backgrounds than those at my graduate school.
Make connections with Ph.D.s on various career paths. Get to know people at academic conferences, and ask them what life is like at their institution. Talk to recent alumni of your program about their jobs and ask how they came to the path they’re on. The danger of relying exclusively on the advice of professors and students currently in your Ph.D. program is that they’re unlikely to know much about life outside a research-intensive university. (And, no, studying at a liberal-arts college is not the same as working at one.)
Do your homework. After finding that people in my Ph.D program had little useful advice about life at a liberal-arts college, I turned to the Internet for others’ reflections on careers in the liberal arts. (Later, I added my own post— along with a link to this handy chart by Terry McGlynn— to the small chorus of voices on the subject.) I also took time to read some stories of Ph.D.s who had pursued alternative careers (#altac). It was reassuring to know that the choice to work at a liberal-arts college, or a research university, or outside of academia wasn’t so obvious, and it was extremely helpful to find others had talked about it publicly.
Finally, before the time comes to apply for jobs, assess your personal needs and those of your family. If you are pursuing a faculty career, identify which attributes of a job, department, campus culture, and community you care about most — and worry about institution type later. Remember that within each of the Carnegie Classification categories, institutional culture will vary greatly. You might find a Research I university where faculty members genuinely value and reward good teaching and where the work environment is comparable to that of a liberal-arts college. Likewise, some liberal-arts colleges place a premium on strong research and scholarly productivity and will offer resources akin to those of a research university. Treat each campus visit as an opportunity to investigate if the department, institution, and city would be a good fit for you. Interview them.
And if you wind up in a position that’s not your ideal fit, remember, it’s not the end of the world. Treat it like what it is — a learning experience and a temporary chapter in your life.
My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable. In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.
My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.” Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could. So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major. I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.
Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.
I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools. I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.
Then, There Was Grad School…
I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation. As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist. But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically. Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.
I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.
I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days. I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.
Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work! I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4. I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health. My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed. One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity. I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.
Three Funerals And A Wedding
While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation. I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas. I felt the presentation went well. But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used. The paper seemed hopelessly doomed. But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!” I felt reassured. When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!
That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away. But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference. I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.
Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family. At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard. At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then). I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.
The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport. I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving. I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily. But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual. So, we became official.
Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status? No!
In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US. So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer. “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages. Department funding was not guaranteed. And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.
Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding. Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.
At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then. Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?
A New Perspective
I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment? Why let a career control my life?
In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career. I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die? I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)
I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick? Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?
I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.
It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so. It would make academia a healthier and happier place.
I have bought into the ego-driven status game in academia. Hard. I find myself sometimes wondering more about opportunities to advance my reputation, status, name, and scholarship than about creating new knowledge and empowering disadvantaged communities. Decision-making in my research often entails asking what will yield the most publications, in the highest status journals with the quickest turnaround in peer-review. I often compare my CV to others’, wondering how to achieve what they have that I have not, and feeling smug about achieving things that haven’t. Rarely do I ask how to become a better researcher, but often ask how to become a more popular researcher.
I drank the Kool-Aid, and it is making me sick. Literally. The obsession with becoming an academic rockstar fuels my anxiety. I fixate on what is next, ignore the present, and do a horrible job of celebrating past achievements and victories. I struggle to accept “acceptable.” I feel compelled to exceed expectations; I take pride when I do. “Wow, only six years in grad school?” “Two publications in your first year on the tenure track?! And, you’re at a liberal arts college?”
When did I become this way? Sure, academia is not totally to blame. My parents expected me to surpass them in education (they have master’s degrees!). I also suffer, as many gay men do, with the desire to excel to gain family approval, which is partially lost upon coming out. Excelling in college, rather than becoming an HIV-positive drug addict, helped my parents to accept my queer identity. In general, I compensate professionally and socially for my publicly known sexual orientation. It is hard to unlearn the fear one will not be loved or accepted, especially when homophobes remind you that fear is a matter of survival.
Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man. It is not simply a bonus to be an academic rockstar of sorts. My job security actually depends on it. And, it was necessary to be exceptional to even get this job. And, it matters in other ways that indirectly affect my job security, and my status in general. You can forget being elected into leadership positions in your discipline if no one knows you. “Who?” eyes say as they read your name tag at conferences before averting their gaze to avoid interacting. I have learned from my critics that one must be an established scholar before you can advocate for change in academia.
The Consequences Of Striving For Academic Stardom
I am giving up on my dream to become the Lady Gaga of sociology. I have to do so for my health. I have to stop comparing myself to other scholars because so many things vary, making it nearly impossible to find a truly fair comparison. Of course, I will never become the publication powerhouse of an Ivy League man professor whose wife is a homemaker. Even with that example, I simply do not know enough about another person’s life, goals, and values to make a comparison. I do not want others to compare themselves to me because my level of productivity also entails Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good model, either!
Dreams of academic stardom prevent me from appreciating my present circumstances, which were not handed to me. Sadly, voices, which sound awfully similar to my dissertation committee members’, have repeatedly asked, “are you surrreeee you don’t want to be at an R1?” I have zero interest in leaving, and negative interest (if that is possible) in enduring the job market again. But, I fear that, as I was warned, that I will become professionally irrelevant; and, this has made it difficult to fully appreciate where I am. I have acknowledged the reality that no place will be perfect for an outspoken queer Black intellectual activist. But, I have found a great place that holds promise for even better.
Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world. Impact factors, citation rates, and the number of publications that I amass all distract from impact in the world and accessibility. It is incredibly selfish, or at least self-serving, to focus more energy on advancing my own career rather than advancing my communities.
Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition. My goal is to demonstrate what I do is better than them in my research. In doing so, I fail to see how we can collaborate directly on projects, or at least as a chorus of voices on a particular social problem. Yet, in reality, no individual’s work can make a difference alone. I also fail to appreciate the great things my colleagues accomplish when I view it only through jealous eyes.
When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job. Ok, end of rant.