Monday, October 15, 2007


I've been thinking a lot over the past day or two about Life Choices. I grew up believing that education gives a person more choices. I think most of us probably did. Most of our students probably still do. This is one of the driving forces behind the expansion of higher education: higher education gives you a wider range of choices for careers that you might pursue, places you might live, houses you might buy, conversations you might have.

In my life, "choice" was always framed in these terms, and the alternative, the closing off of choices, was framed in terms of my mom's life: growing up in a family with a bunch of kids where her parents never owned a home, being the only one in her family to get a high school diploma, getting pregnant at 19, getting married because she "had to," and having life "happen" to her. The idea was, I'd go out and get this education that would mean that my life wouldn't "happen" to me. And, you know, in many ways my life hasn't "happened" to me, not in the way that hers did. I avoided those things that would mean that my life would "happen" to me, and instead, I made a lot of choices that ensured that it wouldn't. Good, right? Except.

This idea that the more education one gets the more choices one has seems to me, now, actually pretty bogus. I think if you get just enough education, that this may be true. (I'm thinking in particular here of my friends who got 4-year degrees in "regular" majors that translated into jobs out of college.) In some ways, at least, yes, it is true that those people have more choices than they would have had without getting a college degree.

But more and more I think that there are very few choices, ultimately, for most of us who've pursued the whole higher education thing to it's furthest conclusion. Choices become fewer as one becomes most highly educated. I can't "choose" to change jobs, the way that I would be able to do if I had gotten a "regular" degree and chosen a "regular" career path. With the glutted market in English, I'm "lucky" to have any job at all. Indeed, I can't even "choose" the kind of institution that is the best fit for what I want to do in this particular career. Indeed, we are "chosen," and we do not choose. We can apply, and hope for the best, but those decisions aren't really in our own hands. (Although if one has an independent source of income, and doesn't "need" a job immediately, one does have a bit more room for choice in this area. As a kid from a working class background, I did not have the choice to apply selectively when I was ABD. And so here I am.)

And even if there weren't constraints based on the market, the reality is that we wouldn't get to "choose" location. People often talk about this in terms of the "two-body problem," but this is a problem whether one is part of a "two-body problem" or whether one just has a "one-body problem." People want to live in various locations for various reasons. You want to be close to family and friends. You want to live in the same place as your partner. You want to live in a small town/big city - just based on personal preference. But in this field, those choices aren't really yours to make. You take what you get. And doing that actually can limit your choices further, because the mobility, in this profession, it is not easy to achieve. On the tenure-track, the whole thing is "fitting" at the current institution. If you "fit" there, and achieve there, it can mean that your prospects elsewhere actually decrease. (She does so well where she is! She's not right for us!)

And let's say even that you could make the above choices. You still can't choose how much money that you will make in higher education. Not really. The range of salaries is pretty limited, even across various kinds of institutions. Take a look at this wiki. It gives a sense of the starting salaries for people hired last year in English, based on location and type of institution (though, clearly, given the length of the list, it's in no way comprehensive). Most starting salaries come in at around 50K. I came into my current position at just about that, and that was in 2003. So did other friends of mine, in different (higher cost of living) places, at other types of institutions, at around the same time. The market, my friends, is stagnant. Even if you try to make more money, you really probably won't. Which means more education doesn't really mean that you can live in any kind of house you want, which might soften the blow of not being able to live where you want if you could.

And then there's the personal life stuff. Let's say that you get all this education, and you sacrifice your personal life in order to do so. Because, remember, in doing this, you are not just letting your life "happen" to you the way that your mother's life and your mother's mother's life happened to them. This is the "right" thing to do, in order to be independent and a feminist and all the rest of it. But so then here you are, with a successful career (that doesn't really mean that you necessarily mean that you get to have better conversations, it turns out, and doesn't mean that you make boatloads of money, and doesn't mean that you get to choose where you live, either locally - in terms of house, apartment, whatever - or nationally - type of town or city or region of the country). Where is your personal life? What options do you have?

Well, if you're single, and if you're a woman, those options are - depending on location, for sure - limited. However open-minded you might be when evaluating potential suitors, potential suitors will see you in a certain way. So, for example, the likelihood of Trade Union Guy from High School dating me would be very, very small, whereas TUGfHS has no problem dating my friend who makes the exact same salary that I do, but who isn't "threatening" because she's not educated herself out of his realm of possibility. (Let's forget for the moment that I don't live in Hometown and so couldn't date that guy anyway, because that guy is dating girls from high school who live in Hometown and not weird transplants to Current City. I'd never even meet the equivalent in Current City.) And so, you say, well, the single female academic just needs to find guys who are not threatened, who either make enough cash or have enough professional success not to be castrated by the PhD or who have a similar level of education. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, perhaps not so much. Perhaps you live in an area of the country where those people are likely to have gotten married in their 20s. Perhaps you live in a place where people tend not to be highly educated - indeed, where the highly educated tend to move away. Perhaps your colleagues don't associate with single people who might serve as potential suitors for you, or perhaps your work-related socializing consists entirely of work people, and remember, English is a pretty feminized field, and so you're not likely to find many prospects there, especially if you're at a very "family-friendly" institution that tends to hire partnered people (for this is one way to keep people here).

And so, maybe meeting people in traditional ways won't work. So you enter the realm of online dating (perhaps the most depressing realm in creation, even more depressing than the realm of "the bar scene," where at least there is alcohol). And that's not so hot, so you expand your realm even further. You meet people online in other ways, or at conferences or what have you, and you entertain things that are practically very difficult to achieve, but yet even with the practical impossibility seem infinitely more doable than what's available locally. (Hee! Infinitely more doable! I'm so Beavis and Butthead right now!) But then we enter the realm of the two-body problem, and again, it's all about location, location, location. And so where can that really lead, if both people have worked really hard to make themselves successful in a profession where relocation is damn near impossible? And so then you can't even call on the phone the person whom you most want to talk to, because you're doing the "right" thing and you're drawing a line. Oh yeah, that's satisfying.

So. Life Choices. One of the things that I'm actually really good at is making choices. I am really good at making decisions, and at seeing the big picture. I'm really good at being decisive. So the question I have, in my current mood, is what fucking decision is it even possible for me to make? I can't choose where I live, I can't choose where I work, I can't choose to be in a relationship that works. What, exactly, is there for me to choose? Because, dude, I'm ready to make the choice. It's just there aren't any choices there.

All there is to do is to choose exactly what I have, and that choice is no choice because at the end of the day, I feel like to do that is settling, and while settling is great when you like the choice that settling indicates, it really sucks when you're not satisfied with what you're settling for. And you might say, well, you need to learn to be satisfied with what you've got. I've been busying myself with that project for years. I'm not satisfied. So what is the choice then? Do you give up the career? An easier choice to make when you have something concrete to give it up for. Do you give up wanting to be in love and to be in a relationship? Is that really an option? I so feel like it's not!!!!!

I've said to my mom that I'd quit my job tomorrow if it meant that I was going to mean that I could have a family. That's true. Her response is, always, how could you give up all of what you've worked for?!?! On the other hand, when she was here this weekend, the reason I had the meltdown was because she basically said that I'd be alone forever if I didn't learn how to compromise. (She says this because she doesn't acknowledge that it's a real possibility. I freak out, because I totally fear that it's the realistic possibility given the current realm of possibility in my life.) The thing is, there is no room for compromise if I'm supposed to be achieving in this job. It's one or the other. Which is it? Do I do everything in the service of the career, or do I give it up to have the "normal" thing? You can't have it both ways. Not if you don't have it figured out before you get more than halfway through the tenure-track. Something has to give, and it's either going to be the job (which I'd be more than willing to have be the thing that gave) or it has to be the personal life stuff. Because neither "just happens" at a certain point.

As I look at my students, I often think I'd have been better off to let my life "happen" to me. Why? Because you can get an education at any time. You can get an education after you have your 11 kids, you can get an education after your divorce, you can get an education after you have a parent die. You can choose education, whatever you've done before. By choosing education first, it means I've not chosen other things. And it means that it makes those other things harder. And that is a rude fucking awakening.

Am I "lucky"? In a lot of ways, sure. Am I responsible for the choices that I have made that have led me to this point? Of course I am. But so the fuck what? Knowing those things doesn't make this make sense. And that's the thing that pisses me off. Being more thoughtful about my situation, or being more deliberate in my actions doesn't make any difference in a lot of these areas. Sure: I could be working digging ditches or in some minimum wage job somewhere, and that would totally suck. But I've done a fuck of a lot of work so that I'm not in that position. And yet, I'm supposed to feel grateful for the position that I'm in. Why? Why can't I be dissatisfied? Why can't I legitimately have an ax to grind? Why can't I wonder whether there is some better possibility than what I've currently got on my plate?

A lot of people would say that I can't feel these things, or wonder these things. Those people are assholes.


RunningRedLettered said...

those people who say you can't feel this are horrendous.

as a grad student in the humanities, you express so many of my greatest fears. yet i suppose we do this because we feel a calling to our jobs. i do hope and pray that my "calling" doesn't interfere with my ability to make other choices in life.

thanks for sharing.r

BrightStar said...

This post... It resonates so much with me that it's almost too painful to read, because you articulate emotions that I feel SO WELL that the emotions come to the surface.

My boyfriend and I have tried to live in the same city -- applied for jobs in each others cities, applied for jobs in the same city -- and it hasn't worked, so I fear we have educated and worked ourselves into our specific jobs and now... we're too specialized to be together. That sucks. It's like by default choosing our jobs over our relationship, and that's just not what we mean to do, yet we need to work to support ourselves financially, so... I'm scared about my future.

I agree, I grew up with the perspective that more education leads to more choices, since my parents were the first in each of their respective families to get bachelor's degrees. So, I figured, the more school, the better, right? Nope. Not necessarily.

I agree that this problem of not having a say over one's location is a problem whether or not you are already partnered.

I don't know what the solutions are, if there are solutions, but the idea that I have chosen this job over a personal life is not setting well with me, but it's something I've been thinking about for the last several years.

chris said...

based on what you've articulated in this (and other) posts, academe is clearly not compatible with your life goals at this particular moment in your life. sounds like you're more than considering walking away.

this emotionally abusive relationship that you have with your "work", "job" and "choices" (i.e. over-education) clearly is unhealthy for you. if you were with a man who once a week beat you down physically or emotionally i'll bet you wouldn't stay with his ass.

just b/c you've "worked hard" to achieve the things you have, so what?! if you're from a working class background, chances are you'd be working hard anyway - no matter what you're doing.

and just b/c you might choose to walk away from academe does not necessarily mean you're walking away from all that capital you've accrued from all that hard work. right?

invest in a condo in a big city near you. go there on weekends. fake an illness. take a "research" leave. get a year off. join a salsa club...

DO something. by doing nothing you ARE making a choice.

is it that easy? maybe yes. maybe no. when it comes to situations like this my friends frequently accuse me of being "simple." probably they are right. even so, i'll leave you with this:

live NOW! take a risk.
regret or rejection: which is going to be more difficult to live with in 20 years?

p.s. it's not that i can't empathize. b/c i can. but no situation is impossible. that's what i believe anyway.

whatever you choose, good luck!

Anonymous said...

getting an education after you have 11 kids sounds like a bloody nightmare.

that said, I think you're dead on about what it means to let your life happen to you at a certain time and place, rather than investing yourself in education, which will limit your choices after you've done it. and nobody talks about how an academic career limits those choices.

i feel this at some small level-I've invested the last 10 years, also the first 10 years of my adult life, in forming friendships with grad student colleagues and folks from our church. The grad school friends have all gone to the four winds and as much as they beg, there is very little chance we'll be able to stay here, so all those relationships...? I wouldn't say for naught but I did work really hard to build a community here in this town that had no way of lasting.

MaggieMay said...

I rarely disagree with you Crazy, but I do disagree with parts of this post. I think we *always* have the choice to not have life "happen" to us.

This doesn't mean I think we've got it free n easy, or that somehow your feelings about this are illegitimate, but I think academics (and I include myself here) (1) love the predictability of the hoops we jump through to get to where we are; and (2) eventually fetishize these hoops and this predictability, to the point where we THINK we have no choices. We also come to identify with our jobs (our "calling") in a potentially very unhealthy way.

Academics change jobs, go into administration, and leave their jobs for other careers all the time-- and they survive. And flourish. I have friends working in publishing and for nonprofit groups, friends who chose the admin route, and friends who work in corporate america and they're all fine. Their reasons for making change range from getting denied tenure to wanting to be with a partner to deciding that place was more important than their job.

And I have a couple friends who-- finding themselves in their mid-thirties and not in relationships, but having always wanted a family-- have chosen to have children, one via adoption and the other via in vitro.

I don't mean to sound preachy, and god knows I've struggled with some of this same stuff, but I think that we are always making choices. NON-choices are also choices (i.e., if we're still in the same career we were 10 years ago or whatever, and we're just as unhappy as we were, that's still a choice.) We don't have limitless options, to be sure, but we do have a range of things we can do.

This is all NOT to say, btw, that there are no axes to grind here! There are axes aplenty! I think the tenure track makes these things especially difficult, and especially for women. The ridiculous humanities job market is another ax, for sure. As is the model of career that assumes one has a spouse (read: wife) at home to take care of our daily needs. This ALL SUCKS-- there's no doubt about it.

But within this landscape of suckitude, we have choices about how or if we want to participate in it.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hmmm... are you being simple, Chris? Well, I think your analysis leaves out the fact that I'm really good at what I do and that I really like my job. If other parts of my life worked, the job wouldn't be a problem.

As a single person, in a city without family support, I'm not entirely certain what a career change would look like. I certainly can't afford not to work for a year, or even a semester. And, I don't mean to be a bitch, but everything isn't going to be magically better if I join a salsa club. I see what you were getting at, but that suggestion paired with the others really minimizes what I'm exploring here.

You know, I'm just trying to work these things out, and I've chosen to include a discussion of that on the blog, not because I'm so desperately unhappy every second of every day but because these things I'm thinking about speak to things that other readers of this blog also feel. One of the things that's interesting to me is the way that it's taboo to have the conversation - that I'm in an "unhealthy" relationship with my job just because I'm recognizing that some of my career choices haven't been a hundred percent positive in their impact on the rest of my life.

Yes, I want a different job. But I really don't want a different career. I've done all of the things that one does to make oneself marketable for a different job, at a different kind of institution. And I'm sending out applications, and that's where my choice in that area ends. Will I leave academia ultimately? Maybe. Other things are more important to me than this profession. But is that what I want? No. I just want more control over how my job fits into the rest of my life. The problem is, that may not be a reasonable thing to want.

Ok, I'm hogging my own comments. I suppose this is just to say, Chris, that I don't believe the situation is impossible, but part of finding possibilities is talking honestly about the situation and examining one's feelings, even if that examination isn't all positive! and shiny! and happy!

Dean Dad said...

They'll rescind my doctorate for saying so, but...

It's just a job.

It's not a calling, it's not a priesthood, it's not sacred. It's a job, to be judged like any other.

If it isn't worthy of you, or doesn't let you live the life you obviously want to live, find another one, even if it's in another line of work.

I went the admin route, which is one option, but there are others.

What I really like about this post -- aside from the fact that it's beautifully written -- is that you're coming to grips with what YOU actually want.

Best wishes. And tell the "you have no right to complain" folks to back the #$%# off.

Dr. Crazy said...

Gah! I just responded to you MM, but the comment got eaten. I agree that even not choosing is a kind of choice. I suppose I will say this, though: I'm not yet at the point where I know how to turn my entire life upside down and take a leap toward something else, all on my own. The reality is that it's easier to make the choices that you describe if you've got a partner and/or if you have a strong network of family/friends where you live. Neither of those are true for me. Also, those sorts of changes cost money, and the reality is that I don't have the money to make those changes right now.

I don't think this job is my calling, but I do think that I'm very good at it and I do find the work that I do satisfying. The post isn't so much about unhappiness with being a professor. It's about the fact that happiness in that one area just totally isn't enough. Honestly, it would be easy if I just hated my career. The problem, in many ways, is that I don't.

MaggieMay said...

Dean Dad said exactly what I was trying to say, but in 95% fewer words. I guess this is why he is a Dean.

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I'm not sure if the comment form ate my comment or whether this is one of those moments that it'll appear posted six times two hours from now, but for what it's worth, I'm with you, Dr. C. It's pretty much why I started blogging - you shouldn't have to choose between a job you're good at and that you enjoy and all those other things.

Kate said...

You say what I've been trying to articulate to my family for a while now. They think I am "leaving them" because I'm going to MRU, when they don't understand that if I want this particular type of job -- a faculty job -- these are the constraints that I have on my choices. Dean Dad's right, it's just a job, but it's a a job I happen to want and happen to think I can make a difference in. But just because doing so constrains me doesn't make me unable to compromise. This is just the reality of the situation... though it is up to us to figure out how to change it. That's in large part why I started blogging. I don't want to accept things as they are and give up on what I want, while at the same time trying to have a real perspective on the state of academia.

gwinne said...

Oh, I hear you, Crazy. I left a job I loved in a place I hated for a place I love and a job I'm at best ambivalent about (moved to be closer to family). Some days I wonder if I made the "wrong" choice, but it seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I agree, there's not a lot of choice at all, and the problems you mention are particularly tough for single women. My own choice was to raise a kid on my own.

Flavia said...

Reading your post I had moments of strongly agreeing and moments of strongly disagreeing. In many ways you're right about the lack of choice that a humanities PhD gives one (relative to, say, a JD); if you want to be a Professor of X, you really do have little choice over location and salary. But like Maggie, I know plenty of people who have left academia to work for nonprofits or arts organizations or in publishing or think tanks or whatever.

If you're not happy, there are options. You can choose to leave, and leaving for personal reasons is perfectly legitimate.

But I'm not sure that one gets to "choose to have a personal life," if by that you mean finding a partner. This is something that I've been thinking about a lot myself, so please don't take this as my preaching at you--it's just that when I've had moments of saying, "I'm never going to meet anyone in [city]! Maybe I need to look for a job in [one of the big cities where I have friends]!", I've remembered my beautiful single friends who live in those cities. Sure, the odds are better--and living in a city where one has friends and there are lots of places to go and things to do is a draw in its own right--but that's nothing like a guarantee. I have several fun, successful friends in Boston and New York, who are actively out there on the dating scene, who aren't difficult or "too picky," who don't have geographically limited jobs--and who have been more or less single for years.

I guess that's not comforting. But what I'm saying is that I think we do have more choices in academia than you're implying--but those choices may not be relevant to one of the central problems you're talking about.

Dr. Crazy said...

I think the thing that I'm trying to consider, though, is whether there are options that don't include leaving the profession that I really do love. See, that's the thing: I don't want to stop being a professor. I just don't want to continue to be a professor with a 4/4 teaching load in one of the worst places for single people in the country (according to Forbes). So sure, I could opt out of the profession, but I'd be opting out of the one thing that's actually going pretty well in my life just based on the hope that other things would fall into place if I did that. This seems insane to me.

As for the personal life thing, you're totally right that finding a partner is a much more complicated thing than being in a different location. I suppose related to the partner question, though, what if you find a likely candidate for that position, but they are 2K miles away? The issue isn't finding a person, then, it's that you find a person who's completely geographically impossible, and it's difficult to make the commitment to try to be with a person when you've never really been in the same place to figure out whether it would be worth it to do the long distance thing. That's more the sort of thing I've been thinking about lately related to partnering... the fact that finding local people is ridiculously hard, but finding people elsewhere is totally easy and yet impossible.

But really the personal life stuff is broader than that. It's that marrieds that I know tend to do stuff only with other marrieds, it's that in spite of my best efforts I've never really found a posse in my current location, and for that reason I don't feel terribly at home here. The answer really is to move, aside from any romantic considerations, but I don't know whether I will have the option to do that within the profession.

sheepish said...

While I take the point, I think to say that you have other options is unrealistically playing up what those other options are - for example the option to go into administration. It's nearly impossible to do as junior faculty, and even then there are only a couple of positions that one could realistically take (Chair, Dean, Dean of Undergrads, only a few others).

Of course you always have options, but you don't always have good, realistic options, and it would be nice if you had choices that actually included the career path you have been pursuing for the last decade or more.

chris said...

i'm down with the "honest conversation." and i warned you i was being simple: of course there are going to be things that i/we elide.

and in fairness to me - the salsa club idea shouldn't be dismissed so flippantly. the point i was getting at was something along the lines of investing energy in other hobbies and not letting academia dominate your life. i know you're good at your job. from what i've read/seen, it sounds like you're GREAT at your job.

i didn't come here to give my .02 to pat you on the back (your abilities, intelligence, competence are not under scrutiny). i too am interested in an open/honest conversation that explores this issue in depth, and i appreciate that you're having it here, b/c (and i only feel safe saying this deep in the comments section on a pseudononymous blog) once i finish my dissertation i think (based on how i feel right now teaching a 4/4 while dissertating) i'm gonna be fleeing academia like the World Trade.

probably i really shouldn't be saying anything about the matter. b/c really i don't have any answers. only feelings and desires of my own at this point.

didn't mean to ruffle your feathers with my simplicity.
my bad.

Dr. Crazy said...

No need at all to apologize, Chris. And I knew what you meant about the salsa dancing suggestion - I was just taking issue with it (and yeah, my feathers were probably a little ruffled) because I've DONE that crap and it just hasn't worked and only has left me even more frustrated. I mean, that's the advice that everybody gives you about how to make yourself at home in a location, and the advice is well meaning and I believe it does work in some places. I'm a friendly and outgoing person, a social person, and I'm willing to give whatever a shot. I've got TONS of friends all over the damned place. But here? Yeah, it's been very, very difficult. And so the well meaning advice about getting involved.... Well, I've done that, and yet here I am.

But anyway, again, no need to apologize at all :)

chris said...


w/o elaborating, let me say that i more than empathize...

MaggieMay said...

This may seem simple too, but... if you really want to be with someone, can't you commit to trying out the partner thing with them? Like, living with them over summers, spending breaks together, etc? I'm not saying this would expand your range of choices (because I understand situations like B*'s), but at least then you would know exactly what your choice is? And whether the job is worth it?

(I admit I am not operating with Full Information here...)

phd me said...

Oh my god, I had this exact conversation with a colleague last night. When I got to the "some days, I think I'd walk away if that's what it took to have a family of my own," I thought she was going to choke. Happily married people expecting their first child don't quite get it.

Some people are completely fulfilled by their work. I'm not one of them. I made choices - hard ones - that allowed me to get the education I wanted. I doubt that any other profession would fit me so well. I do feel lucky that my choices have allowed me to own my own home, earn a decent salary, do a little travel, work with interesting colleagues. All of things are good.

But the personal life stuff isn't. I'm alone and I'm lonely; I don't want either of those things but there's nothing I can do about it. Your assessment of being a single woman with "too much" education is dead right; in locations like ours, the odds of finding someone remotely interesting/interested fall into the slim to none range. I can't change my educational level (nor would I want to, just so you know). I can't change where I live. I can't change where my family and friends live. I can't change the availability of interested gentleman. I know I'm repeating what you've already written but it's just so true!

Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with is that, whatever the choices we make, some things are still out of our control. And now I'll shut up, since I'm just rambling at this point.

g said...

Hi, thanks for writing about this! It resonates deeply, across departmental/discipline lines. I still cant believe how hard it is for 2 PhDs to get a job in one town! And so here I am, staying 2K miles away from SO.

I think that academics (incl. I) are too deeply invested in our "job". Other people love their jobs too....but would be able to leave them. When I think of leaving my tt-job, its either kicking or screaming (i.e. tenure denied) or in a body bag. that can't be healthy, can it? I think part of it is the academy's Tom Sawyer-like trick of making the tt look so cool.

And its this "coolness" of unattainability that also might make one a little snobbish towards other career choices. In my field, there are quite a few research oriented consultancy jobs in big cities (where SO is) but while I was on the JM, that would have been one of the "worst" outcomes that I could have imagined. Why?

Just beginning my second year tt at R1 in midwest, I wonder if consultancy would be so bad. So you would have to wear nice clothes everyday and spend time doing pointless reports/meetings etc.........but can it really be more time-consuming than teaching? And imagine coming home to someone at nite!

But I LOVE what I do right now! Sometimes I think this is what I was born to do! And I am pretty ok at it too.

So to sum up, choices (consultancy vs. tt) can be hard too. And they can make you unhappy through other ways - guilt that you chose the tt rather than being near SO.

Thanks again for writing about this. I look forward to more discussion/discourse on this.

BrightStar said...

living with them over summers, spending breaks together, etc.

(I know Maggie May said that she understands... yet I still feel like saying...)

You can try all of these things and then also try to be together because you realize that being together is great, yet all of the attempts you make may not work, and sometimes you get *so close* only to still be so far. And that sucks. I have to believe that we all eventually figure something out... but it's the getting there that's rough... and the compromises don't feel so great.

MaggieMay said...

Re: B*'s comment. Yeah, I know. But I just think that we're always making choices all the time, and none of them -- for anyone-- feel great. Some of those choices are harder than others (I think the two-body problem for academics is one of the most wrenching for academics), but even if you're married and in the same place and tenure track, the choice becomes (for example): do I have a baby now or wait until tenure? If you have kids, it becomes: Do I try to leave this position for a better one, or will that uproot my family too much? My friends are struggling with these choices now. They are not any easier (or harder) than the kinds of choices you and Crazy describe.

I'm coming across in these comments as much more "pro choice" (hee) than I probably am in general, but I guess I am very resistant to the idea that somehow this is unique to academics, or to single women, or to two-body couples, or whoever.

Instead, I think it's endemic to adulthood: making hard choices, and living with the consequences. (When we're younger, we don't think much about consequences... or at least I didn't!) And if you have a partner or kids or close family, those decisions and consequences affect more people than you.

sheepish said...

Re: choices about babies, kids, and so on

Everyone has tough choices they have to face. But choices about timing of families and things like that sure seem like a luxury to people that can't figure out what choice will even leave them within a hundred miles of their partner, or moreover can't find a partner due to location, education, etc. People in those latter categories aspire to being able to agonize over the choices about family and kids.

life_of_a_fool said...

I think maggiemay makes a good point that part of this reflects the difficulty of adulthood (which also correlates with Flavia's example of her cool single friends living in "good" places -- and this is a group to which I think I belong(give or take the coolness factor), and yes, it's still hard).

However, I really related to your post. I don't think you're really saying we don't have choices, just that these are really difficult, and, and the choices are often within pretty narrow constraints. Yes, you could change careers, even though you love it (and it's telling, I think, that many of the suggestions have been to do just that, even though you're happy with and successful in your career, if not all details of your current institution). But, that certainly doesn't feel like much of a choice most of the time, even though technically it's there. And yes, there are things to try to meet people, but there's no guarantee they will work, so again it's very easy to feel like these things are out of our control. Plus, to some degree, all of these things are out of our control. We can try, but we can't guarantee success (however defined). And a lot of people face similar struggles, and yet this career path shapes the struggles. And sometimes that just gets *tiring.* Which is why I loved your last paragraph so much.

MaggieMay said...

Nicely said, LOAF. I think it's the "out of my control" thing that is the most frustrating for *me* when I think about stuff like this. As someone who has worked so very hard to shape her future in her career, it's almost inconceivable to me that so much of this I don't control.

But I guess I think there's the presumption that somehow if you have the "partner" thing worked out with the "career" thing, one's choices are easier, or that everything will be a bed of roses. There are ALL KINDS of variations in our lives that make us make wrenching choices, that don't at all feel like "luxuries."

Second Line said...

Side stepping the limits on personal choices here. When I started reading Dr. C., I thought you wer going to talk about the limited alterantive professional choices for the highly educated, because they *are* very limited.

I tried desperately to get out of academe and adjuncting, but was unable to. Why? Because I am flagrantly over qualified for entry or near-entry level coporate positions -- and as a result of all those years in grad. school, I am in possession of a very specialized (read: limited) skill set.

I have friends in HR positions who confirm what I learned via experience. The _______ department does not want jsut a qualified person to perform the tasks required of the position in the ________ department. They want someone who will be satisfied and happy performing said tasks. And say what you will of HR people or the department heads doing the hiring, they're not so blind or stupid to not see that a guy with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature is likely going to be less than satisfied doing a job in the _________ department.

And if you respond by saying, 'but a steady pay check and health insurance will make me happy as a clam, and I'll be the most conscientious and hard worker you've ever had', the HR folks will point you toward the door leading back onto the street.

Yes indeed, our choices are limited.

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I've been thinking about this off and on throughout the day. As a single male, I find myself in the same boat. I've landed in a part of the country where my age bracket has largely fled. I wasn't wild about the area, and I'm less wild about it a few years into living here.

It's true that there are careers that are similar. My last longterm relationship was with a woman in publishing, and the biggest factor in the relationship fizzling was the complete difficulty in planning how to even potentially get to the same place. I'm on the market and won't know where/if I'm going to land for several more months, and the stress of that uncertain was more than the relationship could take.

As for finding a new job, between the Ph.D. which makes finding careers difficult outside of academia ("You're overqualified and will want too much money."), relative inexperience within academia ("You? An administrator? But you're in your 30s and have barely been involved in the University."), combined with a theoretical perspective that is enough to scuttle conversations ("A simple search in Google showed your research is on...")makes changing jobs a problem.

What frustrates me is the "love it or leave it" attitude in an area that on the face of it is about learning from and adapting to situations.

BrightStar said...

There are ALL KINDS of variations in our lives that make us make wrenching choices, that don't at all feel like "luxuries."

I get that... I get that those wrenching choices do not feel like luxuries when you're making them. Yet to those of us who WANT to be in the same city as our partners, yet are struggling to make that happen, to us, those other decisions (when to have kids, whether to uproot your family) appear to be luxurious because we, too, wonder about those things, yet we don't even have the opportunity to seriously consider them.

I take your point that life will not all of a sudden get easier... I consistently find that once I work out one dilemma, another one presents itself. However, I find that it's really rough for me not to be very jealous of those who can live within at least 100 miles of their significant others, and I am willing to change jobs to move! Seriously! I work hard to contain the jealousy, because it's not the problem of others that I chose to be in a LDR, yet it is still hard, and I have to think that some degree of why it is difficult is because I chose to pursue this profession. I mean, if I was still a junior high math teacher, it would be TONS easier to pick up and move. No doubt. So, I made that choice, to become an academic, and it constrained my other options. And I know that others have a lot of constrains, too, not just me. My immediate constraints are really weighing on me, though.

bonnie lenore kyburz said...

it's all just hard. academic life and what people think of your choices (including -- maybe especially what we think of our own choices).

i do like what Chris (the optimist) said about DOING something. for me, living in Utah, i found my work with Sundance, and it has made things soooo much better for me ... to remember that i am not my job, my title, my rank, my salary, etc.

that said, did i expect to end up better off? sure? did i expect to be respected and well-paid and to have a sense that i would be desirable beyond Utah? sure. but hey, this is what it is (don't you hate that saying?! i do, but sometimes it applies ;)

it sounds as though i'm just blowing happy smoke your way, but i'm not. actually, the promises of education need to be examined, frequently and vigorously. we're in it (or not).

i have a friend (a student intern who helped me w/ my first film) who was contemplating going back to college vs. continuing to work on films in his various capacities (many skills, he has). he loves film. wants a career in film. has opportunties now. i don't think i did him a disservice by suggesting that his education could wait. and then, i arranged to get him class credit for the work he did for/with me. he didn't even fill out the paperwork (which frustrated *and* delighted me ... i mean, he's got priorities, *right now* ... he's living his life, not imagining the life he wants to live).

but it's all hard. i constantly question what i'm doing. constantly.

i don't know if this helps, but i hope things look up for you soon :)

Dr. Crazy said...

Dude, I go out for two hours to beautify and look at the flurry of comments! The discussion! Looking at the number of comments in this comment thread, I'd almost think that this was a conversation over at the Lounge! So thanks, all, for commenting. This has been such an interesting discussion to follow, and really, reading all that you've written in response makes me feel INFINITELY better than I was feeling last night.

One thing that I think got lost in my pessimism throughout the post was that I wasn't actually saying that there are no choices, but that the "more choices from more education" thing is just not true. And this is where I often find myself feeling frustrated - because people in general (like my mother) tend to believe this and so act like my complaints are in some way about personal failing or personal inability to cope, because really, education means more options not fewer options. Not so, in my experience. So yes, we all have options, choices that we can make. And yes, we all just try to do the best we can. And lots of times things can turn out great with a little ingenuity. But some of the structural things that define one's choices within academia are ultimately pretty brutal, and surviving them is inherently easier if one is in a very traditional personal-life set-up, even though most of us don't have that. That can put one in a downright pessimistic frame of mind.

One thing I'm seeing is a certain amount of grass-is-greener-ism going on, and it's not my intent to foster that... It's not about measuring pain, saying that partnered people necessarily have it easier than single in all areas, or vice versa. (or men than women, or people with kids vs. people without. Whatever.) Not so. The terms are different, but pain is pain.

I will say that it's easier *whatever* one's situation if one has a strong support network, and I do think that this is easier to achieve if one is partnered with somebody who lives in the same place. That said, if I lived nearer to close friends or nearer to family, if I had a crew of local peeps, I'd be more centered than I currently am, whatever the boyfriend situation or the specific job situation. It's difficult to know what to change or how to change when one feels as if one is operating without a net.

As for the specific situation with the dude, well, there's a bit of a power struggle occurring at the moment, and there's a lot of doubt on both sides about entering into what amounts to a committed thing when the chances are so slim for it to work out and when certain kinds of information aren't available. In many ways, the situation demands putting the cart way before the horse - you've got to think about living together (even if only for a month-long stretch) before you even know if you could stand being in the same place for regular dates. You've got to negotiate things like what the fuck to do with your cat should you be gone for a month-long stretch, or should you be traveling regularly. Because, indeed, the Man-Kitty needs a great deal of attention. Such a situation can mean that you achieve a kind of emotional intimacy that usually doesn't happen until after you've spent long stretches of time together with a person. I'm not saying it can't work, but there are a lot of variables that one can't predict, not in the way you could if you met in a more conventional situation. My non-academic friends liken my current situation to being one of those women who falls in love with a death row inmate she's never met in person. This analogy is not totally off the mark.

I also like the comments about professional choices (Second Line, Curmudgeon) and the limitations on those. You know, the thing is, I think the options can be greater than we think they are in those areas, but I also think that there is a good deal of luck involved in making such options a reality. The fact is, I could go into administration at my current institution, and in fact there are a number of people who want to see that happen. The thing is, I don't think it would really make me happy, not without a bunch of other things happening that are utterly beyond my control. And even then I'd miss just professing, and it would mean giving up other dreams that I'm not willing to give up :)

Here's where I'd consider a career change: I'd consider it for marriage. In the fantasy-land version of what I'd do, I'd quit the job to move elsewhere to be with a person. I'd get a lecturing gig for a year or two, and while that was happening, I'd start writing a novel. And then, finances and relationship permitting, I'd quit the lecturing, devote myself to the novel and to having a baby. And then I'd become a bestseller, natch, and life would be bliss (hee!)

Now. Let's say no partner is on the horizon. I wouldn't quit my job. And I can't start the novel while on the tenure-track. But post-tenure, if I were at my current institution, I would totally slack with the research and service and I'd start the novel. And if things fell into place, I'd get a contract for it, and if it went really well and I became some sort of super-best-seller, I'd quit the job and move someplace more hospitable and just be a novelist. This is a plan B that I actually can imagine for myself, and while ambitious and perhaps insane, it does seem realistic to me. The problem is, it is a very long-range sort of plan, and if I want to have kids, it puts that at least 7 or so years down the road. And it might mean doing it on my own, which I'm not sure would be what I'd choose, given my druthers.

Now, that's the fantasy-land plan. The option I'm actually pursuing right now is that I'm applying selectively this year for things, and I'm hoping that the book will be the thing that makes the difference. All of the jobs would be an improvement on the current one in terms of balance of teaching/research. Two of them get me closer to family and would be in more hospitable locations. One would get me to the location of the dude. One would get me to the location of my high school BFF. One would get me to a city I really like, where there are family connections, and that is within a few hours not only of high school BFF but also of grad school BFF. If any of these worked out, I wouldn't even consider leaving the profession. But we know the market, folks, and I'm not holding my breath.

So yes, there are choices. And I'm thinking and plotting and planning, and I'm going to figure it out. But sometimes, well, knowing that intellectually and *really* knowing it - like, deep down - are two very different things. And so thus, the pessimism of recent posts.

Also, remember: I'm finishing a book, I'm on the market, I'm crazy with a new prep and with other research commitments, and I'm PMS-y. There's a lot going on over here :)

That said, my hair, it is fabulous :)

Sisyphus said...

Crazy, this post resonated so much with me. I'm not with anybody and can't find anybody right here. I'm going on the market and who knows where I will end up. I worry that I will get a job in some isolated place where I will never find anyone and have a hard time making friends. And that, compared to all the shitstorms and work levels I've been dealing with while dissertating that have left me feeling too busy and overwhelmed to create a personal life, the actual job will be even worse and more work. I am very afraid of this.

On the other hand, I'm watching you deal with this, and watching you survive it. You're planning, you're living, you are assessing the options (and calling out the profession for its problems and lack of options) and you are showing us all that it is not the end of the world, that it is, as other commenters have been saying, life.

So I'll keep reading and see what decisions you make next.

Marcelle Proust said...

I have only one dumb pragmatic suggestion (dumb because it may not be possible--don't know your actual situation): move house. Keep the job, try a different town or different neighborhood. If you're truly in the middle of nowhere, this isn't an option. But for some people, some places, commuting is possible and opens up new . . . choices (that word again). You have my sympathies.

Billie said...

Thanks for posting this. While I won't repeat what others have said . . . what YOU have said has resonated with so many people . . . you are experiencing some deep frustrations and anxieties, and on so many levels you are dead on right about the choices/non-choices we make for ourselves. But what you (and we) need to realize is that your experience is not so different from our experiences. While we have chosen the "good" life (culturally defined), in so many ways, it's a "hard" life, it's a limited life, and it can be a lonely life. Most of us aren't living out of cars and we hae enough food to eat, there are those other basic necessities of life that are hard to come by when in this profession (significant others, relationships, home, children, families). We need those things just as much as we need shelter and food. (IMO) ... and we are not wrong in wanting them or searching for them. Not at all.

Anyway, thanks for posting this. Really.

trillwing said...

This weekend, I went back to my undergrad alma mater for an alumni volunteer weekend. I talked to alum from many, many classes. When I mentioned my Ph.D. and my job, one woman from the class of 1953 looked at me over her glasses and said, "You know you've educated yourself out of many opportunities." And she made this stacked pyramid motion with her hands, indicating that the higher up one goes, academically speaking, the more tapering of options.

Where was she when I was just starting my cultural studies Ph.D.?! (I probably wouldn't have listened.)

As far as spouses go, I totally lucked out. I took a year off during grad school and worked as a staff writer at a community newspaper. I met my husband there. On paper, we're nothing alike: he barely graduated from high school, he used meth for 10 years, he's a (sober) alcoholic, yada yada. Yet he's one of the brightest people I've ever met. Placing myself in a totally different atmosphere allowed me to meet people I wouldn't normally have considered to be spousal material.

And so now I have the husband, the toddler, and the Ph.D. And no prospects, really, for a tenure-track job because I'm hesitant to leave this great town. But because I'm at a very large university, there are a ton of interesting staff jobs. So I've tried out a couple, and I really like the one I'm in now: helping faculty improve their teaching. The work is as challenging as I want it to be, the starting pay is equivalent to an assistant prof's salary in this area, and I never think about work after 5 p.m. or on weekends.

I pick up a class now and again when I feel I miss the classroom. But when it's time to grade papers, I remember why I decided to make the change. I don't regret it at all, even though at first I felt like a total failure.

Eddie said...

Thank you for this. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Earnest English said...

I tried to leave a comment before, but it gotten savagely eaten by an oversensitive keyboard. (That's what I get for thinking of commenting on blogs when at work anyway.)

What I most admire in this post is its fearless fierce honesty. I love that you said that you would give up your job in a minute if it meant you could have a family. And that you acknowledged that one of the things that really influences us in our choices is feminism. Lately, I feel like the worst feminist in the world. I want to be with the man I love. Period. My desire to make a life with him trumps my the adventurousness that led me to take the job I have now. I didn't know I would be this kind of person -- and I'm a bit embarrassed about it, to tell you the truth. So hearing you, Dr. Crazy, reveal such things made me finally sigh out a breath I didn't know I was holding. (I hope that makes sense to somebody.) Thanks as always, Dr. C. Now if you'd like to 1) sign me up for your fantasy plan complete with rollicking toddler and book deal; and 2) talk to my chair for me -- that would be great.

m. minkoff said...

This post and conversation are really fantastic. Thanks to all for the honesty.

I am in in a healthy, happy, and supportive long-term relationship. Funny thing, sometimes I resent how wonderful my SO is, because I *can* rely on that support being there. I am sorry, because I know this sounds insanely selfish, but sometimes having that relationship is a difficult thing. It allows you to stay in that cushy, safe realm. Even among two independent-minded, independence oriented people, a long-term relationship can coddle you, make risk taking seem infinitely *less* desirable. (Why would I want to go to grad school with full funding when it is so far away? How can I spend a year in a foreign country volunteering/teaching, when you are here? Why would I go to dinner and a movie alone, when I could go with you?) At this stage, you don't make decisions for just one person. You may ultimately make a decision for you-singular rather than you-plural, but it's a decision to be made, one that can feel like an incredible burden.

I'm not trying, in any way, to say that you have it better if you are single . More that there are treasures to being single are different than for those partnered. And in our hetero-normative culture, the treasures of being single are shoved under the rug.

Being lonely is a heavy burden that I *don't* mean to take away from anyone. However, being single also allows you more of that very choice you are wishing for. If you had a family the choice of changing career and/or changing location would not exist in the same way, if at all.

Flicka Mawa said...

Wow, I tried to read most of the comments, but there are so many! What a conversation you have going here.

I understand some of the things you write about, and other things I don't. I think this is largely because I am much younger than you and more of these choices are still to be made for me, and so I have the sense that, well, I get to choose when I get there. So I'm not going to go off on how you actually have choice, or had choices, etc., but I just want to say this.

I totally disagreed with your paragraph on online dating. I met my husband on there, my brother met a great girl he dated for over a year on there, my mom found her first relationship out of a nearly 25 year marriage on the internet, and last but most exciting, my advisor, a female professor on the tenure-track who to me seemed so committed to her job that I thought she might fall into the single forever place, just got engaged to a man she's been dating for a year whom she met through a dating site. I'm so excited for her!!!

The reasons to internet date are many. For me, it wasn't a last resort. I went to it first. I just don't understand why you'd want to try and hit it off in a bar with a random stranger who most likely you're only talking to because you think is physically attractive, when you could read a whole page of information about the person before you decide if you want to contact them!

I know that distance is tough and maybe you've tried online dating in your area and it's not working, but I would just encourage you to not be disheartened - stay on the sites over time and keep looking - eventually you may find that great match!