Leah K. VanWey is a displaced Southerner who has spent almost a third of her life outside of her North Carolina home. She has no intention of returning until hell freezes over, AKA North Carolina legalizes same-sex marriage. Dr. VanWey teaches Sociology and Environmental Studies at Brown University, and researches human migration, agriculture and development, and land use and climate change in Brazil. She also runs the interdisciplinary graduate training program in Population Studies at Brown, and currently mentors 5 graduate students and 3 postdocs.
Below, Dr. VanWey has offered her reflections on what a “good job” in academia is.
A good job? Depends who you ask.
Every year the job market comes around and we talk about “good jobs.” Are there many good jobs out there this year? Anything good enough to apply for? Did you/your student get a good job? I’m a positivist social scientist, so I like to think that I can tell you what a good job is and set up some crisp measurement criteria. But after doing this for more than a decade now, I am farther from that point than when I started.
I have a good job but not for the reasons I first thought, and not for the reasons you might think. For those who care about such things (I don’t), I teach at an Ivy League university. I get to teach about things I love to students who are future world leaders, I do research that I find intellectually stimulating and practically important (even if talking about soybean farms in Brazil is a sure conversation-stopper at a cocktail party), and I can give back to the university through various service work.
But those things aren’t enough. What makes my job good are the relationships. I have strong relationships with graduate students, postdocs, and colleagues around campus and beyond. The one-on-one aspect of these relationships gives me energy and makes me happy, while the broader network makes my job feel more meaningful. Nothing makes me happier than getting people together and figuring out how the right kinds of relationships make us together more than the sum of our parts.
It took me a long time to realize this was my “good job,” and I was lucky enough to realize it by getting and growing in my current job. When I went on the job market in graduate school, my goal was a tenure-track job in a top 10 Sociology department. I wanted to do research and I wanted the prestige of an academic job rather than a pure research job. I came close to that goal, landing a job at a school that was arguably indistinguishable from the top 10. I liked my job and my colleagues, but I felt like something was missing and decided that something still had to do with the substantive part of the job. I left that job in part because my family was not thriving in small-town Indiana and in part because I decided the good job was in a university with a strength in population studies. The intersection of population center with a place that my family would be happy brought me here to Brown. This year I received an invitation to apply for what I would have considered a “good job” 10 years ago: higher ranked sociology program, population center, great colleagues, probably a lower teaching load. I didn’t hesitate in replying that I am in the perfect job for me and I wouldn’t move.
It has also taken me a long time to realize that the “good job” for my students is just as variable and has little to do with the quality of their work or their confidence, and little to do with me. A colleague recently told me that she thought the way to motivate graduate students to want R1 jobs is to consistently tell them that they are good enough and they can do it. I have no doubt that any of my current and former students and postdocs are good enough or smart enough, but thus far only one seems poised to follow my path toward an R1 job. All of the others have said at one time or another that they have watched me and don’t want my job.
This isn’t a failing on my part, nor is it something that I should have worked harder to change. It is the reality that a “good job” means that something gets you up in the morning even if the day is full of unpleasant tasks, and that something is different for all of us. For one of my students, the “good job” lets him integrate undergraduates into his community-based research locally and in Brazil. For another, the “good job” lets her balance quality of life with the opportunity to make one corner of higher education a more diverse place. Lucky for me, part of my “good job” is working with students and postdocs on the path to find out what makes theirs. Lucky for them, I’m slowly figuring out how to think about this beyond teaching loads, salaries, prestige, conference money and other easy metrics.