In the final leg of my PhD, I am nearing a crossroads. Do I choose the academic path I have spent the last 10 years preparing for, or do I choose a different path? I do not want the decision to be made for me. Apparently, I’m not alone in preferring to make the decision ahead of time rather than feeling like a failure if I choose to go the academic route and do not find a job (Trouble with Bright Girls). If nothing else, this is a chance for me to express out loud some of the nuances of this decision.
So many articles and commentaries have come out recently expounding difficulties landing and succeeding in a tenure-track position—due especially to the lack of jobs, gender discrimination, and the defunding of both science and higher education. These articles are disheartening and downright depressing (I stopped reading them as a coping mechanism). On the other hand, several of my friends have recently accepted good tenure-track positions with and without previous post-doc positions. In addition, I know I have a great CV for someone at my stage, including a handful of publications, 2.5 years of teaching experience, and a teaching fellowship under my belt. According to many fellow academics, I should not have a problem finding a tenure-track position. So, what gives me pause as I approach officially being on the job market?
Well, I had a terrible experience as a teaching fellow. I was brought in partly to fill a need in the department, and partly to increase diversity at a rural campus with a 30:70 female-male ratio. The isolation, lack of support, and gender discrimination were a complete shock, which exacerbated the stress and frustration that accompanies developing and teaching new courses for the first time (more on that another time). I survived my two-year contract and turned down an extension in order to regroup and focus on completing my dissertation. Although many friends insist it will be different at a better school, I have to admit, I’m wary to find out.
However, this experience was as valuable for me as it was awful. First, I think I learned more about the content I taught those two years than I had during eight years of graduate school. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but I certainly learned the material more thoroughly with deeper connections than ever before. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I discovered that where I live is more important to me than what I do. I am an urban girl at heart. I knew this before, but had accepted that I would likely have to live anywhere I could get a job to start out, and then eventually find a preferred position in a bigger city/better location. It hadn’t occurred to me to actually look at the possibilities for ending up in bigger city. My ideal academic position is teaching at a small liberal arts college, yet it seems as though these positions are rarely in urban locations, especially within my particular department. Additionally, I now have a partner, who would not be able to find a job in a smaller community. While my (awesome) partner is willing to be the trailing partner, I do have to think about what is best for both us.
Over the last year, I have contemplated the pros and cons of being a tenure-faculty member. (This is based on the context of my experiences and personality, and shouldn’t be taken as a firm list for everyone). Pros: schedule flexibility, engaging in a scientific community, sharing my passion and knowledge while helping students to develop critical thinking skills. Cons: little control over where I live (hugely important to me), constant pressure to get grants and publish in order to keep my job (not always in my control), teaching content I love to gen-ed students (who often don’t care and resist education that isn’t spoon-fed for exams), and internal and external (perceived and otherwise) pressure to be 100% productive at all times. For me, the cons outweigh the pros, so recently I made the decision to start actively looking for possible careers outside of the academy. One lead seems to be panning out faster than I anticipated, which is great, but terrifying at the same time.
For the last year, I have half-heartedly veered myself towards the academic path for fear of contributing to the leaky pipe of academia. For that matter, I am increasingly dissatisfied with the leaky pipe analogy. The implication is that all PhD’s should have the goal to eventually obtain full professorship, but in actuality, only a minority of women (and men) actually end up in these positions. Don’t get me wrong, the gender imbalance of junior and senior faculty is appalling. (Seriously, this profession should be at the cutting edge, not lagging behind industry!!) And although I don’t want to contribute to this statistic, I’m unwilling to sacrifice happiness to be a good example (my teaching fellowship proved that for me).
So, why do I feel reservations in choosing another path? Part of it stems from fact that this is a big decision, and it will likely be hard (near impossible?) to jump back into the pool of ever-increasing applicants without recent publications and grants on my CV should I regret abandoning academia and decide to return. Mostly, I am sad to be leaving behind the science, which may or may not be temporary. I do feel a certain amount of guilt and shame for deviating from the technical skills for which I was trained. Thinking about this for the post, I realized I’ve been in this same spot before. After my undergrad, I didn’t end up in a job related to my field of study, and felt shame about that for a long time. At that point, I still didn’t understand the value or even the purpose of my degree. Looking back, I now realize the value of each degree and the skill sets I developed and polished in each one. Really, the PhD shouldn’t be looked at any differently. The ability to critically think through complex problems, focus on details while understanding their context in the big-picture, communicate clearly, manage large data sets, etc. These (and many more) are skills that I excel in now, on top of the intimate knowledge of physical geography. If you look at it this way, content knowledge is really the framework we use to sharpen these other skills, and is of secondary importance. We (everyone involved in the process of education) need to stop talking about PhD programs as though they are a pipeline in to academia. We need to stop lamenting the “glut” or PhD students and/or resources we “waste” preparing graduates that later opt out of academic career paths. We need to embrace the fact that most graduates, men and women, will end up in a career outside of the academy and actually help foster that transition (e.g., see here).
As for me, I am still on the fence, but leaning towards choosing a non-faculty path. Hopefully I will end up using my science background too. Regardless of the path I choose, I take comfort in knowing that it may diverge again in the future and I will continue to grow and succeed.