#WithaPhD Update: 18 months in
This week marks a strange anniversary for me; a year ago, I walked into a temping agency to apply for a spot in their labor pool. At the time, I went filled with a strange mix of excitement and shame. I was excited to finally being doing something after two months of actively searching for a job, but shame. I had a PhD! I worked so hard during that PhD to have marketable skills! I networked! This wasn't supposed to be me! Deep down, I imagined myself in the future, telling the tale of temping to friends and colleagues as a humanizing anecdote in the face of current success.
When I put this post on the schedule for myself to write, I hoped to have some wisdom to share. I've had my degree in hand for 18 months. I've launched my own business. I'm building a client base and working on new projects that I'm excited about. I'm investing in life in a new city, in my family, in my hobbies. But, I'm still sitting solidly in the "figuring it out" stage of my #withaPhD life.
No really, here are some things I feel on a regular basis:
- Excited about how my business is growing
- Scared that my business isn't growing fast enough/in the right direction
- Totally energized by working on teams and collaborating on new projects
- Worried that I'm not a good teammate because I haven't had a lot of practice
- Intellectually stimulated by learning all sorts of new things all the time
- Like a fraud because I'm not a professional in any of those things
- Proud that I've found a way to be part of academia in a way that fits my values and makes me feel like part of the support and solution to a flawed, if not broken, system of graduate education
- Shame that I wasted my degree and am not contributing to my field
- Relief that if I don't want to read/watch/engage with a TV show or film I don't have to
- Grief that no one is asking me to read/watch/engage in any conversations in my field unless I insert myself
- Supported and uplifted by a new #WithaPhD community
- Isolated from my old academic community
- Grateful for all the work experiences and legwork that I did during and after the PhD to build my resume, CV and professional network
- Frustration that none of that work counted towards my degree, or was considered part of my degree
- Overwhelmed by the infinite number of paths that this life and career of mine can take from here, and the options I have to build and grow and try and fail and succeed
- Deeply sad about losing the chance/choosing not to pursue a tenure track faculty path
Mostly, I am searching for the words write my #withaPhD narrative. I want to tell the story of where I was, where I am, and all the steps I took in between. I want a beginning, middle, and end. I want it to be worth it. I want it to make sense retrospectively, because it really didn't make sense as I was living it.
And if I'm being really, truly honest, I want a neat narrative that I can send back to my department, a report from the wild of "everything else you can do with a media studies PhD." I want credentials and accomplishments and media coverage that I can point to and say "LOOK GUYS I REALLY DID DO SOMETHING WITH IT." I want to be part of the broader story of the department, and what its alumni go on to do. I want to be a resource for those who come after me to help navigate the scary and tricky parts of the transition out of the degree, to pay forward the great advice and support I got from some that came before me. I want my committee to be proud of me, and feel that I took what I learned from them and the program writ large and used it for good.
I need to let that go.
At 18 months in, I can finally see that despite not being on the job market, or seeking out a tenure track job, my degree has, and will continue, to have value. The neatness, or prestige, of my career path does not reflect or impact the quality of the work I produced to earn my PhD. My career choices have value regardless of their place in academic conversations about "what you can do with a PhD." Just like I got to build the job I wanted, I get to build the system with which I evaluate it. Acknowledgement, direct or indirect, of my career and status within my home department cannot be a healthy and sustainable way to measure my professional success.
In the words of my current favorite show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, "life is gradual series of revelations that occur over a period of time." [Here's this brilliant song, some spoilers to early S3 plot lines but it's too good not to share] My career path is not a plotted narrative - it is a sequence of revelations I've had over time.
List of revelations:
- My ability to be happy in my personal life (and live in the same house as my husband) is a priority for me, and that isn't something to feel guilty or shameful about.
- Careers don't follow paths as much as they form networks - networks of roles, networks of skills, networks of colleagues. There is no perfect job, but I can always move towards the roles, skills, and networks that align best with me and my values.
- Just because I'm not a professor doesn't mean I'm not a teacher. I can teach in so many ways, in so many places.
- Just because I'm not a professor doesn't mean that I'm not a scholar or an intellectual. That knowledge and those skills didn't disappear the first fall I wasn't on the academic job market.
- I can keep learning and build opportunities for myself to be intellectually, emotionally, and personally challenged if that's what I want.
- You can keep reading academic books and articles just to read them if you want! Consuming knowledge for its own sake is a valid and enriching activity - it does not need to "turn into something" to be valuable.
- You can feel a lot of things at once about your degree and what it means - none of them are binding. Your relationship to your degree will grow and change as you grow and change.
- Build the community you want instead of waiting to be included in another.
I feel all this pressure to have an #altac narrative because I was lead to believe that the tenure track position is in itself a contained, clear narrative. I want something to compete with that. But the reality is that the narrative is never clear, it only becomes so in the retelling. I'm naive to put that narrative onto TT job seekers and holders, and I'm only hurting myself by holding myself to that imaginary standard of clarity and cohesion.
I'm building it as I go, 18 months in. I look forward to what I build next.