My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable. In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.
My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.” Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could. So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major. I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.
Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.
I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools. I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.
Then, There Was Grad School…
I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation. As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist. But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically. Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.
I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.
I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days. I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.
Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work! I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4. I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health. My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed. One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity. I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.
Three Funerals And A Wedding
While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation. I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas. I felt the presentation went well. But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used. The paper seemed hopelessly doomed. But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!” I felt reassured. When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!
That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away. But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference. I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.
Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family. At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard. At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then). I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.
The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport. I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving. I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily. But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual. So, we became official.
Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status? No!
In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US. So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer. “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages. Department funding was not guaranteed. And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.
Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding. Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.
At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then. Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?
A New Perspective
I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment? Why let a career control my life?
In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career. I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die? I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)
I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick? Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?
I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.
It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so. It would make academia a healthier and happier place.