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More Than R1, One Year Later

Last year, I wrote blog posts recounting my experiences on the academic job market and the ultimate decision to accept my current position. The job search was tough, as it is for any job candidate. But, I had the added stress of being pressured to pursue jobs at research-intensive universities or, more colloquially, to “go R1.” Now, one year later, I am content with my decision, and am optimistic that I will love my job once the adjustment period has ended. But, it has not been a “happily ever after” fairytale (yet).

The Job Search

As a rising high school senior, I had my heart set on attending a small liberal arts college (SLAC) within my home state. On a tour of one campus, my mother teased me about wanting to be a “big fish in a little pond.” But, as she saw the small scholarships that these expensive schools offered, she began encouraging me to look at state schools. I resisted initially, but fell in love with UMBC and the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which offered a full scholarship. I decided to attend UMBC, becoming a medium-size fish in a medium-size pond (or, so it seemed from my perspective). I tucked away my liberal arts dreams for future chapter of my life.

As an eager, yet naïve first-year graduate student, I announced my plan to become a professor at a liberal arts college to an advisor. I was encouraged to “aim for R1” instead because that career path would be the hardest to obtain; if I changed my mind, other paths would be easily pursued. After a couple of years in grad school, I learned such a strategy was not enough; one also had to keep liberal arts dreams secret, for some advisors might invest less time and energy into your training. The more I opened myself up to research-intensive training, the more I felt favored by the faculty, and the more doors opened to me in the department and beyond. At times, I was convinced an R1 job was best for me, even if it meant being miserable, unhealthy, overworked, and devoting my energy on research at the expense of teaching and advocacy.

When I successfully pushed to go on the job market, I was asked, “you’re not applying to liberal arts jobs, right?” The possibility seemed quickly and offhandedly dismissed. By that point in my training, I had become so successful at conforming that I meekly responded, “right.” But, when I secretly applied to a liberal arts job, which erroneously automatically sent requests to my advisors for recommendation letters, my interest in liberal arts schools was outed (again). I was hesitantly allowed to apply to liberal arts schools, then to interview with them.

By November 2012, the call with the offer for my current position came. Once I was off of the phone with the dean, I paced around my apartment, crying happy tears, tears of relief, and chanting, “omigod omigod omigod.” This was my first job interview, and I fell in love with it on the campus visit. But, the celebration would have to wait. I was encouraged to meet with each of my four advisors about taking the job. Their advice ranged from “do what you want, it’s your damn life!” to “decline the offer” in hopes of something better (i.e., an R1 job). I had to go to family and friends if I wanted to share my excitement about landing the job that I wanted.

Am I A SLACer?

In addition to the pressure from my department to continue my search in hopes of an R1 position, I found little help in assessing if a liberal arts position would be a good fit for me. It seemed no one could tell me what working at a liberal arts college would entail, except the potential risks: becoming irrelevant in the profession; slowing down on research; and, being at a disadvantage if I applied for an R1 job later on. I struggled to find role models and stories of sociologists who worked at liberal arts colleges, particularly those who remained productive as researchers and visible in the discipline. How could I justify accepting my current position without having attended or worked at a liberal arts college in the past? What made me think I was a SLACer at heart besides my college dreams as a naïve 18 year old?

Fortunately, I found a few blog posts that helped me to make my decision. I found that research actually does occur at liberal arts colleges! But, many of these stories and essays hinted that some scholars know deep down in their heart/soul/mind that they are a SLACer. I have to admit, I did not feel naturally inclined toward any particular career path, whether R1, liberal arts, or maybe even applied jobs. I applied to both liberal arts colleges and research-intensive universities, as I assumed most candidates did in this tough job market, and entertained the possibility of shifting to applied jobs if tenure-track positions did not pan out. It seemed that so much stock has been placed in a R1/liberal arts dichotomy, but I could not find a professor who was truly an R1er at heart.  Maybe most people follow the expected R1 path without questioning it, or accept other positions if an R1 job does not come along?

Personally, the R1/liberal arts distinction was an inaccurate way of categorizing job possibilities. I was pretty damn sure that working at an R1 meant continued mental health problems, feeling disconnected from the community and advocacy, and working in a cut-throat and competitive climate. But, I was open to an R1 job that would afford a sense of synergy between my teaching, research, and advocacy – the qualities that attracted me to my current position. And, I needed to be in a place that, at a minimum, would not force me to hide that I am a blogger. I doubt I would ever find a fitting R1 job, but I am also aware that not ever liberal arts job would be a good fit either. In other words, there are so many other factors that make up “fit” other than, or maybe even instead of, the R1/SLAC distinction. Ultimately, I made a relatively blind leap of faith, resigning myself to the possibility that this would be my mistake to make, if it were a mistake.

One Year Later

One year into my position, I am definitely content, and optimistic that I will love this job once the adjustment period ends. And, I lived happily ever after…

Well, not quite. The conciliation prize from my graduate department that, “ultimately it is your life,” has arrived. No one has questioned my decision to accept my current position since I began. Well, no one except for me. Every once in a while, I hear my advisors’ voices in my head (which, I heard jokingly stated as a goal of graduate training) saying, “you know, you could still ‘go R1.’” And, when the spring semester ended, and I turned my attention (almost) exclusively to research, those voices grew louder. That is, along side amplified anxiety about tenure expectations and fears that I would not maximize my first summer on the tenure-track.

Unlearning the R1 bias has been a slow process. That question, “are you sureeeeee????” has prevented me from fully appreciated my current position. I am at the start of what ideally will become a very productive research career – shouldn’t I be at an R1, then? Did I take the easy route? What will I miss out on from the R1 world? I hate it, and I am disappointed in myself for letting questions that are no longer asked externally to continue to bounce around in my head one year later.

One mid-summer day, I went for a hike alone. My partner and I had a silly fight; rather than resolving it, I fled to clear my head. I stopped to sit on a rock, either to pray or meditate or some combination of the two. The first thought that popped into my head was to resolve things with my partner. I was being silly and stubborn, wasting time away from rather than with him. Then, I asked, “please, once and for all, let me have some sort of sign that I am on the right (career) path.”

Since I have been so critical of my graduate school experience, am I a coward for choosing against an R1 career, in which I would mentor future scholars? Uh, I have had it with this doubt, and guilt, and bitterness! I opened my eyes, and decided to call my partner to reconcile things.

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

On my phone, I saw that I had an email from a grad student thanking me for my post, “More than R1,” and being a role model for her and other grad students who hope to pursue liberal arts careers. Wow. I had my answer. I can mentor grad students from anywhere; and, the bonus for me is being able to do so without the departmental constraints, norms, and traditions of a graduate training program. More importantly, if I finally conceded to the pressure to “go R1,” even if only self-imposed nowadays, I would be asking my partner to move and start his career over again. Since he is returning to school this fall, it would be incredibly selfish of me to interrupt his life (again) to appease the internalized R1 bias. There really are more important matters in life. I have a job that I like, in a place that I like.  Why the hell would I walk away from that, especially for a job that I already know will make me sick, dispassionate, and cranky?

So, I do not regret my decision. Unfortunately, I still carry some resentment that my search had to proceed as it did. But, I am working on relinquishing that resentment, and all of my bitterness from graduate school in general, to focus fully on appreciating this chapter of my life. I am fortunate to have a job, a good job, a job that I like. And, I do recognize that I received great training overall, which opened multiple doors to me. I hope, though, that graduate students are no longer pressured to pursue one career path over others, or feel that information about alternative paths is not available to them. We are overdue for becoming realistic about (and better prepare students for) the current job market, anyhow.

Find Your Own Pocket Of Protection In Academia

It is too easy to look back on stupid things I said, did, or thought in my youth.  But, at times, I can look into my past with pleasant surprise regarding a thought or action.  “Wow — how did I know what the heck I was talking about then?”  Since I started the countdown to finishing my PhD around this time last year, I have been reflecting a lot on my college years.  Maybe I am looking back to compare my experiences as a college student to what I imagine my students experience.  There is also a bit of nostalgia because — well — graduate school was just a different beast.  Related to that aside, I also find myself reflecting on the past because I actually knew things before grad school (despite the implicit messages I received)!

A Culture Of Opposition

One memory that, now, looking back surprises me is giving advice on navigating what I called a “culture of opposition” in academia.  As a graduating senior, having served as president of the student activities group that year, I was invited to give parting advice to incoming student leaders.  In planning events on campus, involvement in other organizations, and advocating for greater services for LGBT students on campus, I had amassed experience in working with students, staff, faculty, and administration.  Through my experiences, it seemed you could assume most people were either not interested or invested in your efforts, and a few even took an extra step to get in your way.  So, while attempting not to be a pessimist, I emphasized that one should not be naive about others’ willingness to support you.

A Pocket Of Opportunity

In the picture above, you can see the poster I created as a visual aid for my advice to incoming student leaders.  That is me on the right, going through my South Pole clothing phase.  The ominous mass on the outside is the aforementioned “culture of opposition.”  I recall seeing a shocked face on one staff member’s face when I misspoke, saying “culture of oppression.”  (I thought it was funny.)

On the inside of the circle, in the center, is what I referred to as a “pocket of opportunity.”  I made an attempt to draw a pants pocket that is releasing little hearts into the air.  For me, this pocket was student life.  The fellow students with whom I worked, but more so student affairs staff, offered a safe, encouraging space that provided what felt like limitless opportunities for me to pursue my passions.  They, along with a few faculty and administrators, supported me in my efforts to create a campus resource center for LGBT students.  Within an otherwise disinterested and, at times, oppositional culture on campus, I found this small pocket of protection, encouragement, and support.

Find Your Own Pocket

I am reemphasizing a (provocative) point I made before: we, as marginalized people, do ourselves a disservice by buying into the fairytale of academia as a safe, inclusive, and equal place.  Despite my wisdom about the “culture of opposition” as a graduating senior, I made the mistake of assuming the best about academia as I entered graduate school.  And, I embarrassed to admit I did so again as I started as a professor (albeit to a lesser extent).  There is no place that I can think of that will automatically be “home” for me, that will automatically be welcoming and encouraging for people like me.

In order to survive and thrive, we have to find our own pocket of protection/opportunity/support.  Unfortunately, I do not have advice beyond knowing that we have to search, for it is not a given for marginalized individuals.  I cannot say that I have readily known where to look, but it became clear that I had to look for allies, mentors, sponsors, and supportive communities.  This has meant broadening my search beyond my own cohort, department, university — and, outside of academia.