There Is Life (And Happiness) Outside Of The Tenure-Track

julie-shayneNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Julie Shayne is a senior lecturer in interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and affiliate associate professor of gender, women and sexuality studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies, as well as faculty associate, at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington Seattle. She was born and raised in California and seems to be living happily ever after with her family in the Pacific Northwest.

“Off Track, On Point”

I should be an advanced associate professor by now. I am not. I should serve on tenure review committees. I do not. I should have had one sabbatical at my current institution by now. I have not.

I earned my Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2000. I cannot lie; I do feel a twinge of frustration watching assistant professors whom I helped to recruit and mentor earn tenure while my position stays relatively unchanged. I have one tier above me on my track (principal lecturer), for which I recently became eligible. But after that, I hit a glass ceiling.

I certainly feel that I am long overdue for a well-earned sabbatical. And I do wish that my primary title were associate professor, not senior lecturer. I am confident that I have the academic qualifications congruent with that title: three books, decades of teaching and service, awards, yada, yada, yada. The longing for a title that equals my years and accomplishments post-Ph.D. is fleeting, especially when I reflect on why I am where I am today.

In 2006, I resigned from my tenure-track assistant professor job about a year before I submitted my tenure portfolio. Yes, I wanted tenure — who doesn’t, especially after going through the hell of the tenure track? But I wanted a happy family and personally rewarding life, as well. And being a West Coaster living in the Southeast made the nonwork happiness an unattainable reality, tenure or not. So I resigned. (I discuss that decision and move in an essay called “Mother’s Day,” which is the afterword in my newest book, Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas.)

When I resigned, I had no idea how things would work out. As a straight, white, upper-middle-class woman, I had the privilege of knowing that my family and I had my husband’s salary and health insurance to fall back on if my career move proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, I had very good timing. I showed up at the University of Washington Bothell just two years after it started admitting first-year college students (as opposed to just transfers), and the campus needed people to teach new freshman classes. I am now housed in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, a unit that encourages me to frame my research, teaching and even service in a way that prioritizes passion and social justice over the treadmill of self-doubt and limiting professional norms. (I have written about this part of the story here.)

Like many academics, I was a professional organizer before I was a professor; that is, a grassroots leftist turned institutional leftist. I became an organizer in 1984 as part of the U.S. sanctuary movement and Salvadoran solidarity movement, working with the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador. I started as an undergraduate student at University of California at Santa Barbara. But not long after getting sucked into the movement, I decided to drop out of college. (Every Jewish parent’s dream: a child who’s a college dropout, right?) I moved to Washington, D.C., ironically, to be CISPES’s full-time national student organizer. I went across the country, campus to campus, traveling with Salvadoran refugee activists, in order to inspire college students to organize on their campuses in solidarity with the Salvadoran revolution. It was a heady time, to say the least.

Health issues forced me to reroute my path, and eventually I returned to college, this time at San Francisco State University, where I earned a B.A. and M.A. in what was then called women’s studies. During my very first semester there, I decided that I wanted to be a professor. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in rooms full of leftists, mostly women, discussing things like black women, music and politics with Angela Davis (who taught at the university at the time) — and I was getting credit for it! Who would leave that reality? Plus, the institution was full of nontraditional students like myself and had great ethnic studies departments and a wonderfully diverse student body. (Very sadly, the future of ethnic studies at San Francisco State is presently under attack.) I wanted to teach at a place like that. And as many of us probably know, when we decide we want to be professors we are not thinking about writing books, academic service or moving to the middle of how-the-hell-did-I-end-up-here U.S.A.

After San Francisco State, I went back to the University of California at Santa Barbara to earn a Ph.D. in sociology. The longer I stayed in academe, the more I could feel my passion being pushed to the margins. I landed my tenure-track job and read the memo all lefty academics get: leave your politics at the door. I didn’t quite realize what was happening as it was happening, because when you’re on the tenure track, you’re not given a lot of time to stop and think, let alone second-guess any earlier decisions.

But leaving the tenure track allowed me to remember why I wanted to be a professor in the first place: to teach about and inspire social justice activism, especially feminism. The longer I teach, the more invested I become in this profession as my locale for social justice activism. In having Latinx students who have never seen their histories taught in a class, I know that fleeing the tenure track for what I originally thought were incredibly personal reasons was also my way of bringing my long-buried activist back to the surface.

And the longer I stay at an institution that lets feminists reshape old and build new degrees to center intersectional analyses, the more I am convinced that prioritizing personal quality of life is invariably connected to our political sanity. It is actually quite embarrassing that it took me so long to notice this.

Colleagues, including feminist colleagues, have invariably looked down on me for presumably prioritizing family over career. Put another way, happiness over self-implosion. In retrospect, I think others have mocked me because I haven’t played by the rigidly outlined rules, rules that say profession first, family and activism, at best, next. I don’t like those rules. I decided to be a professor to teach and do social justice activism, and I am grateful that I have accidentally figured out a way to make that a reality.

But I cannot lie: I do still wish my primary title was associate professor and that I would be submitting my dossier for promotion to full professor in a few years, as many of my grad school colleagues probably will. But not if that means exchanging the emotional and professional satisfaction that I experience in my current reality for what, in the end, is only a title.

I suppose my message here is to ask, why did we decide to become professors in the first place? Did we even know which titles and tracks existed? (I certainly didn’t; I didn’t know what tenure was until a few years into my Ph.D. program.) Are we really advancing a social justice agenda if our so-called professional pursuits are forcing us to abandon our convictions?

I am not suggesting everyone jump ship. As I said, I am very privileged to have the family resources available that allowed me to take the risk, combined with impeccably good timing. From where I sit now, I am quite confident that if I showed up unannounced at my university today, as I did eight years ago, the trajectory would be very different and far less secure.

That said, I do think it’s important for people to pause and ask themselves, “How did we end up on the path we are on, especially if it’s not where we hoped to be?” Although we do not often talk about it, the reality is that there is more than one path through academe. Despite the dominant professional narrative that suggests otherwise, all of us are not meant to be on the tenure track.

Should You Become Chair(?)

spotlightNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Professor Plainspoken is the pen name of the writer, who has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She has published and held leadership positions here and there. Ever loyal to her institution and colleagues, she is unwilling to provide more information on her background and work. However, she is perpetually dieting and is a fan of comedian Paul Mooney.

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Once I was a faculty member who nurtured warm and fuzzy feelings for my colleagues. I spoke with them daily about things professional and personal. I knew their partners and children and socialized with them outside of faculty events. So, when asked to serve as chair of my department, I said, “Yes! Of course, I will be chair!”

Thus began my descent into the ninth circle of hell. My trust and relationships with my colleagues and my health headed for ruin, despite my pure intentions. I tragically underestimated the effect of my race, gender and age on my ability to facilitate faculty governance. Writing this bit of advice to other academics is one of the ways I found to reconcile my heart and mind with my experiences.

How did a well-seasoned, bald and jolly fat black woman academic ever happily take on the task of heading a department? I accepted the position out of a sense of duty and the prime directive to demonstrate my race’s competency and willingness to work hard. But alas, the intersectional space I occupy would make chairing a department harder than I imagined.

I had ideas to improve the departmental climate and to shepherd the junior faculty through the tenure process. More than a few made that journey during my first several years as department chair. I believed that the tenure process did not have to be a hazing ritual. If we supported candidates emotionally and professionally, it would make their lives easier. Ultimately, we all might have a healthier work environment because newly tenured faculty members could avoid that awkward period right after receiving tenure — that period, you know, when you sort of hate everybody, but you don’t know why. Everyone who came up for tenure received it, and I felt good about it.

As it turned out, warming the tenure pool up enough to stop freezing the candidates was not difficult, but other tasks proved to be my undoing. During the first year that I was chair, new orders came from on high regarding merit reviews, which prompted revisions to the tenure process. I was responsible for bringing the updates to faculty regarding the proposed changes. They were angered and upset by those changes, and they transferred that exasperation to me — plus a little extra!

In addition, I undertook a tiny revision in our curriculum, one that my colleagues said that they wanted. I reasoned that if I were to facilitate this change, they would be pleased. It was a terrible idea. Each meeting designed to work out the changes ended in raised voices and comments aimed straight at my self-esteem. There were too many changes going on at too many levels. I thought I was helping make the department better. I was too deep into the process before I realized that they did not need or want my help. Oops.

What went wrong here? Some parts of managing an academic department are like managing any workplace group, and other parts are distinct to academe. Some of my colleagues outranked me, which is awkward. Unlike corporate managers, who never have to manage the CEO, you have to figure out how to lead, or cooperate with, people who do not have to do anything you suggest. In fact, only junior colleagues are so compelled — even your equals have no incentive to cooperate. You cannot sack, suspend, sanction or slap anyone. You need their good will, respect and loyalty if you can get it. Subconsciously, it may be hard for your white faculty members to respect you or be loyal to you. They may believe that they have good will toward you, but they are probably delusional.

One way to handle a position without power is to use your analytical tools to figure out which faculty member is the most influential. You can solicit help for your tasks and projects from this faculty member, who in turn helps to sell it to colleagues.

While developing a relationship with the faction leaders in your department, stay authentic. Don’t pretend to be fond of them if you are not. You can take them to lunch or dinner as you build what is a necessary professional relationship for the good of your department, and ultimately for the good of students. As chair, I did not create any of the proposed changes on my own. They became mine when I introduced them without privately soliciting support. And so we come to the lesson for today:

Understand the nature of your position. Be careful about implementing changes of any kind during your first year. If you do, do your homework and be a smart and politically savvy chair by courting the power brokers in your department.

Every black woman occupies the intersectional space of race and gender. Think of that as the base model. For me, include the following characteristics: a strong black identity, a forthright style of communicating, extra weight, very short hair and grandmother eligibility. I could not be more of an affront to the standard for academic leadership and womankind. In all fairness, I was aware of this going in, but I believed that my colleagues respected me, were fond of me and had faith that I would do right by them. They probably felt that way before I became chair. Taking on the position meant restructuring, redirecting and reassuring colleagues that I would not become giddy with power.

There ends a key lesson in chairing from Professor Plainspoken: proficiency in politics encourages peace and prosperity for you and your colleagues.

Defining Your Academic Career On Your Own Terms

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Sophia Sen (a pseudonym) is a type I diabetic. She is also a woman of color in a doctoral program in the social sciences.

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“Externalities And External Validation”

At the end of my first year in graduate school, I had worked myself into the ground and become dangerously sick. Between proctoring an exam and giving an end-of-the-semester presentation, I cried in a study room in our department and then on the floor of a bathroom because I felt terrible.

I thought I felt sick because of how stressed the program was making me and not because my insulin pump was malfunctioning. Sometimes when my blood sugar is too low or too high for too long, I reach a mental status in which I can no longer recognize that my diabetes is making me sick. I did not realize that I should have gone to the hospital. I threw up on the bus home and had to call a nurse for emergency care.

After that scare, I decided that if I had to have external recognition to feel good about myself in this doctoral program, then I should leave. But, if I were to stay, I had to do it on my own terms. Making this decision into a practical reality is a daily struggle that I continue to fight.

Growing up, my father never let me forget that I was worthless, incompetent and stupid. Maybe in a world that did not support his claims about women, money and power, I might have found the strength to believe in my inherent worth. As a girl, I was already a disappointment. As a girl with diabetes, I was assuredly a failure. I had to prove to everyone, especially my father and the rest of my family, that not only did I deserve to exist, but that I was valuable. As long as I could ignore the violence at home, I would be accepted at my expensive prep school. As long as I could win awards at school, I would be accepted at home. Yet, conditional acceptance, like the model minority myth, assumes that you are always at risk of screwing up, or that something is wrong with you before you even started.

For those of us who have a choice, how do we choose our careers? Most of the interactions that I have had in the academy feel like secondary victimization. If I came to the program with some self-esteem, perhaps I would have risen to the challenge of critical training between graduate students and professors. However, self-esteem and body integrity are stratified privileges. The ability to take risks and never question the security of your being is taken for granted by some and a rarity for others. I was not prepared for people with power and authority to train, or rather as Michel Foucault might say, discipline me into the social sciences by telling me that my ideas were not good enough. I did not know that there could be a distinction between mental productivity and self-worth.

People look down on “me-search,” but as Patricia Hill Collins has argued in Black Feminist Thought, research that is personally and practically important to me and the communities with which I work should not be undermined by external elitist demands for greater theoretical import. The usual silences and gaps exist for a structural reason. The population I am studying almost never shows up on syllabi or in statistics, and I could list a plethora of experiences that Derald Wing Sue would code as microaggressions, honest mistakes or both. The gray area between microaggression and mistake remains an undeniable externality of the world we live in; the marginality of that correlation results in systematic harms that keep me up at night and determine my career trajectory.

I question myself every day as I reconcile with a workplace that is toxic for me and glorifies some of the worst lessons of my childhood. All I can think about and feel in my body — as my eyes fill with tears — is how I do not fit in. More important, I do not want to fit in. I am not radical enough to look down on other people because they have privilege or because they lack or do not engage in certain kinds of knowledge. I have not figured out how to convince myself that I am smart enough to be here or smarter than other people, in general. When my father treated me badly, I thought that I needed to be like him so that I would not be a victim. When my program treated me badly, I thought that if I became like the people who had power, then I would not be a victim.

Yet if you do enough internal work, at some point you realize that you need to be the person you want to be no matter what the circumstances. Because if you aren’t the victim you just might be the perpetrator, and the problem with being the perpetrator is that you are also hurting yourself.

Some people may think that disciplines that study inequality and injustice are somehow better at addressing these social problems. Yet, these disciplines are born from an unequal, unjust, racist, sexist, homophobic, all-kinds-of-messed-up world — a world with a history that does not account for externalities in its assumptions of meritocratic competition and productivity. If we listen to what this capitalist and neoliberal society tells us, anyone carrying anything that is not normative — like marital transitions, family problems, health issues, dependents or discrimination — is made to see these parts of their lives as burdens. These externalities are not burdens; they are the consistency of contemporary human life. When I listen to the internal voice that recognizes truth in these externalities and speaks back to external judgment, these externalities become the core strength and motivation for my life and its work.

My advice to graduate students who feel cumulative disadvantage weighing upon you from previous trauma, illness, poverty, discrimination and anything else that has taught you that you are only as valuable as your publications or your eloquence in academic discussions: create the opportunities and a career that you want — and on your own terms. The late activist Grace Lee Boggs said that individual struggle against institutions is not sufficient for a revolution to happen. Rather, revolutions happen when individuals struggle to transform themselves from within into more human humans.

I look to the countless other women of color who have struggled but managed to carve their niche in the system on their own terms. And, in that struggle, they have made a path for others. If you do not like the way people treat each other in your department, be the person you wish your department had.

Should I Go Back On The Academic Job Market?

Photo by kate hiscock

Photo by kate hiscock

At a recent conference, three colleagues asked me whether I was currently on the academic job market, and revealed their own ongoing job searches.  Their questions echoed a voice in my own head that I’ve almost successfully silenced: am I supposed to go on the market now, in my third year on the tenure-track?

Initially, I felt offended that they would ask.  Their questions about changing institutions were innocent enough — even based on good intentions; but, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because my career choices have been questioned since I added my current position to the list of jobs to which I would apply.  I had to push back against my grad school professors’ “encouragement” to pursue a career at a research I university.  Since then, I have, on occasion, been not-so-sublty reminded that “you can always go back on the market” (to get a “better” job).  As early as spring of my first year, I heard that there were rumors that I had been applying for a new position — in my first year.  So, I haven’t really had a moment yet in which I wasn’t being asked (or asking myself) whether I could or should go back on the academic job market.

By the end of my first year in graduate school, I became aware of the narrative — perhaps even expectation — that professors, at some point, pursue a “better” job.  In just my six years as a grad student, four professors left for new positions, typically right after earning tenure.  Initially, it seemed these professors stuck it out to get tenure at that school to then move to a school or location that might be a better fit for them.  I’ve never had a chance to actually ask any of these professors why they left and why, specifically, they left when they did.  But, rumors among fellow grad students were that some left because their families were miserable and needed a new location, some threatened to leave to get a raise (but didn’t get it, and then had to actually leave), and some left because of the “two-body” problem.  These caveats made it seem as though going back on the job market was not solely about the job or institution itself; however, these moves were not driven exclusively by personal reasons, either.

What about assistant professors who change jobs — and not to be immediately promoted to associate professor with tenure at the new institution?  That never happened while I was in grad school.  But, while on the job market myself, I saw what seemed to be just as many assistant professors vying for jobs as I did grad students.  One speculation I commonly heard was that these were “underplaced” scholars who had to take a less-than-desirable job initially owing to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession on the academic job market.  Since then, I have seen a couple of colleagues move to higher-ranking institutions, and a few others who moved to accommodate the needs of their partners or children.  Generally, I’m not sure that it’s a common occurrence.

Aside from moving to advance one’s professional status (i.e., because one was “underplaced”) or because of personal or family needs, there still seems to be an expectation to move — and soon.  In hopes of softening the blow that I had decided to accept a position at a liberal arts college, I offered to my advisors that it would be my mistake to make; more explicitly, I noted that I could always go back on the market, which meant staying active on the publication front (thereby exceeding my own institution’s expectations).  Two of my professors told me moving happens a lot in academia.  (Ironically, they have only been professors at one institution for their entire twenty-plus-year careers.)  The three colleagues I mentioned at the start of this essay have their professional or personal reasons for returning to the market; but, I also sensed that they felt they needed to move just because we’re expected to move once we hit our third or fourth year on the tenure track.

The short answer to their question is no, I have no desire or plans to apply for other academic positions (or non-academic positions for that matter). But, what the heck, I’ll give the long answer, too.

Potential Drawbacks Of Applying For (And Starting) A New Job

  • There is no real reason to leave.  Outside of the academy, I’ve observed that friends and family begin searching for a new job for practical reasons — that is, I’ve yet to hear “should” or “supposed to” or “expected to.”  They look for a new job to get promoted; that is, when one cannot move up the hierarchical ladder in one’s own workplace, one has to take a higher-level position elsewhere.  They simply get sick of their current position, owing to boredom, need for change, growing hostility or bias, etc.  They cite non-work-related needs like health problems, the needs of their partner/kids/parent (especially if dependent or sick), or having to or want to move to a new city.  Fortunately, I accepted a position that brought me closer to my family, offers the pace and expectations I’d like at work (and that are helping me get a handle on lingering mental health problems), and supports my approach to being an academic.  My partner has finally started working as a fifth-grade teacher; a move would mean asking him to pick up his life and start over again.  Since work is good, why would I disrupt my (and my partner’s) life and career just because of some informal expectation to change jobs?  That’s foolish and selfish.
  • I like my job.  Unless it’s not clear from the previous point, I actually like where I am.
  • Starting a new job is hard.  Starting a new job, in a new department and school, in a new city was incredibly hard.  Sure, this time I wouldn’t also be new to being a professor; but, that’s still a lot of new-ness to which I’d have to adjust.  I’ve finally made genuine friendships — those kind in which you hang out outside of work, and have other things besides work to talk about.  It only took me two years to find them!  And, I’m beginning to feel like a member of the communities in my department, university, and to a tiny extent in my local community (at least among those working for the LGBTQ community).  Others may feel invigorated by the adventures of moving and starting a new chapter of their lives, but I dread the idea.  The world is not filled with people willing to have genuine friendships or positive working relationships with an outspoken Black queer scholar-activist; my energy is better spent on building community where I am.
  • Starting over is worse.  I am too early in my career to realistically hope to take an associate professor position with tenure at a new institution.  So, I’d be starting a new tenure-track elsewhere, with a different set of expectations (formal and informal, transparent and not).  Worse, I may “lose” some or all of the years I’ve already completed on the tenure-track.  That is, there is a good chance I would have to start over.  No thanks.
  • The job market takes up a lot of time.  Starting the application process again would take up a great deal of time.  All of my application materials would need to be revised because I can no longer sell how awesome my dissertation is (was).  In my job talks, I would need to present new work that, ideally, will last me through tenure.  However, I’m currently in the thick of polishing the last couple of chapters of my dissertation and sending them out for publication; I don’t have anything really “new” at the moment.  And coming up with a new project and rewriting my application materials will cut into time I’m spending to finish work based on my dissertation.  I just don’t have the time (or energy) to present myself as a new shiny package again.
  • It’s too late.  Even if I were interested in applying for other jobs, it’s already too late in this year’s job market season (in sociology).  And, I think it would be foolish to devote any of my year-long research leave next year applying to jobs. By that point, I would be in my fourth year (two years shy of filing for tenure); I would start the new position in my fifth year — the year I would actually begin putting my tenure dossier together.
  • I need to work on my health.  I still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and recently discovered I was traumatized by graduate school.  (The latter falls into the category of complex trauma, which doesn’t appear in the DSM, but its symptoms are no less real for me.)  Thanks to these ongoing mental health issues, I was recently diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  Wonderful, just wonderful.  All of this oversharing of health problems is to highlight that taking care of myself and getting healthy is of far greater importance than worrying about and attempting to appease some informal expectation to find a “better” job.  Indeed, my colleagues are aware of my ongoing health problems, and have been incredibly understanding and supportive.  Again, why would I give that up?  Health wise, it doesn’t make sense to reintroduce the stress of applying for jobs, going on interviews, losing sleep because of uncertainty, moving, and starting a new job into my life if it is not necessary.  I’d go as far as to say moving around so easily is a luxury for those in good health.
  • The job search is an awful experience.  As I’ve noted above, the stress of being on the market alone is enough of a deterrent.  My anxiety was at its worst while I was on the market in my final year of graduate school.  I was moody and self-absorbed.  It seemed every conversation I had was about how the market was going — and, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t help but bring it up.  I imagine doing so with some level of secrecy at my current job would be even harder — especially because I have many more demands on me now than I did as a dissertating grad student who wasn’t teaching.  My job would have to be bad enough and/or the need for change would have to be severe enough to even consider sticking my toe into the turbulent waters of the job market.
  • I’ve got baggage.  And, not in that romantic, magical way like Mimi and Roger in Rent.  I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms of the academy, specifically sociology, and most specifically my own graduate program.  Do I dare to ask my dissertation committee members for recommendation letters?  Would they even say yes?  Would they be positive in their letters?  Do I even want their letters?  With little contact in three years, would their letters even be useful or appropriate?  (Baggage aside, I really don’t know to whom assistant professors turn when they go on the job market.  Asking your current department colleagues seems like a risk if you’re secretly apply for jobs, are leaving on bad terms, or don’t want to disappoint or hurt them.)  Besides the letters, I imagine a number of departments will want nothing to do with me because of my blogging and public presence.  Staying active on the research front can only trump concerns about “fit” so much.
  • There are few places that would be a good fit for me.  I am of the mindset that my happiness, health, and quality of life are more important than the prestige of a school.  That means I prefer to work at a school and live in a city that is safe and inclusive for gay interracial couples (my partner and me).  Realistically, no place in the US deserves such a characterization, but there is variation.  Since climate matters (in the department, on campus, in the city, in the state), that rules out most (all?) places in the country.  The odds of finding a good school in a hospitable city for me, an outspoken Black queer man, are too slim to waste my time even looking.
  • There are no guarantees on the job market.  Let’s say I went on the market next year.  I would be limited to the positions that are advertised in that year.  They may not fall into my areas of specialization.  They may be in undesirable locations.  They may include schools for which I don’t want to work.  I could, in the end, not want to accept any position or, worse, I not receive any job offers.  That is time, energy, and hope I can’t get back.  And, what if word got out in my department or college?  Unless I was dead-set on leaving because I had legitimate reasons to do so, it would be incredibly awkward to continue to show my face after the failed job search.  I worry, too, other colleagues might consciously or unconsciously hold it against me.  Maybe they wouldn’t invest as much in me because they assumed I’d be gone the first chance I could get, or that I was never truly invested in staying.
  • Greener grass is deceptive.  I’m going to quote lyrics from two songs.  In the song, “Better Than” by The John Butler Trio (JBT), there is an incredible lyric: “All I know is sometimes things can be hard // But you should know by now // They come and they go // So why, oh why // Do I look to the other side // ‘Cause I know the grass is greener but // Just as hard to mow.”  And, as Big Sean says in Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” “the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, it’s green where you water it.”  JBT’s wisdom points out that a new job may appear better from your current location, but it won’t necessarily be easier.  And, Big Sean’s career advice suggests staying where you are to make the job better, rather than jumping ship when things get tough.  My current job, department, and university aren’t perfect — and, I’d be surprised if any of my colleagues are surprised to hear me say that.  But, as I surmised from my campus interview when applying, and in the two-and-a-half years since, they are all willing to change and grow.  I’m in a place where colleagues don’t remind me of my “place” as a junior faculty member; rather, I’m encouraged to have a voice and be an active member of the campus and department communities.  (We’re simply too small to go 7 years of having any faculty members simply “seen but not heard.”)  It would be naive of me to think I can just shop around for a problem-free, egalitarian, truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-cissexist, anti-fatphobic … institution.  But, it was certainly worth finding a place that is trying to become that, and working within it to make real change.

Potential Drawbacks Of Staying (And My Responses)

  • Don’t settle.  I can already hear concerned voices shouting at their laptops/mobile devices, “NOOO, ERIC – WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”  I’ve heard the advice to treat the tenure-track like dating.  There’s no ring on this finger (for now), so perhaps I’m naive to settle in this position and, worse, to publicly declare that I’ve settled.  (I mean “settle” in the sense of getting comfortable, not as in lowering your standards.)  I agree that it’s healthy to know that there are other options and, more importantly, to keep oneself competitive (to an extent) in case the time ever comes to apply for a new job.  But, I have learned from experience that a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude in a relationship takes a toll.  It makes others resentful, just waiting for the day that you finally leave or quit; and, you don’t fully reap the rewards of being committed to something/someone, even through the tough or uneventful times.  So long as my institution is committed to me, I will commit to it.  I sense that we both share the goal of making it a lifelong commitment.
  • Being taken for granted.  I suspect the underlying concern with the previous point is that your colleagues or institution will take you for granted.  The best way for them to bow to your feet is keep them guessing whether you plan to stay.  If more is desired, you can actually actively seek out a new job — thus, the threat of leaving.  Fortunately, I’m in a place that respects and values me because I’m here and committed; I don’t need to play psychological or emotional warfare to demand respect and attention.  (Frankly, that seems really unhealthy to me.  Imagine if I had to threaten to dump my partner every time I wanted him to buy me flowers.)
  • Know my value.  I’ve heard, on occasion, it’s good to toss an application or two (or 20) out just to see your value (presuming your department or university isn’t valuing you at your actual worth).  You can get a self-esteem boost from getting interviews, or even offers.  Nah, I’m good.  I’m working to get to a place where I don’t derive any of my self-worth from an institution.  That means not suffering six months of depression if I were denied tenure, nor throwing myself a party because another school said they like me.  I do not intend to criticize those who use this as a power-play or even a self-esteem boost.  I just feel I have better ways to use my time, like pursuing the things I value, rather than playing games at work.
  • Increasing my status.  Related to the previous point, I never set out to land at the “best” (i.e., highest ranking based on some convoluted way of placing schools in a hierarchy) school.  I don’t want others to give a damn about me because I’m at Harvard or Wisconsin or UT Austin.  I prefer to be recognized on my own merits, for the specific kind of work I do.  At conferences, when eyes gloss over “University of Richm…” on my name tag, and then dart to find another, more worthy person to talk to, they’ve saved me 15 minutes of meaningless conversation.  I’ve always been skeptical of academic fame because it seems we go out of our way to make ourselves feel important because, at some level, we realize we’re not seen as important in the rest of the world.  Being a “somebody” to other (elitist) academics seems at odds with making a recognizable contribution to the community.  With few exceptions, the more popular you are among academics, I assume the less you and your work matter to the world outside of the academy; the more involved you are in your community, the less other status-obsessed academics care about you.

Closing Thoughts

“Okay, so you’re not leaving,” you might say.  “Why write a blog post about it,” you might even be asking.  My intention here is to highlight the unspoken (though sometimes explicitly stated) expectation that, on top of trying to earn tenure at one institution, junior professors should also be looking to start a “better” (i.e., higher-status) job.  The question, “are you on the market,” doesn’t come from prior knowledge that I’m unhappy, that the job is a bad fit for me, or that I or my partner need to move.  It doesn’t suggest that applying for a better job is the only way to get promoted because I’m already working my butt off to get promoted in my current position; leaving could actually set me back and introduce new challenges.  Rather, at the root of it, the question just reflects pressure to advance one’s professional status (even if it’s at odds with your personal needs).

In the spirit of promoting self-care in academia, I ask that others rethink this mindset of going after “better” jobs purely to advance your status. Specifically, I mean not relying heavily on your institution to signal your worth to other academics.  You can do so by publishing another great article, or winning a teaching award, or being awarded a fancy grant, or putting research into action (either in the classroom or in the community), etc.  I think a healthier approach is to 1) think long-term to advance professionally and 2) place your professional status in the broader context of your life.  On point number two, I worry, for example, about those who neglect their health or continue to be single and miserable as they jump to a better job; I doubt there is any direct (positive) relationship between the status of one’s institution and one’s own happiness/health/self-esteem/purpose.  But, I’m aware this all depends on your values and goals, particularly as it relates to your career.  I just don’t see the point of being at an Ivy, for example, if I don’t have a community, am miserably single, in therapy, and am far away from family; the status alone isn’t enough to sustain me.

I can’t help but think about a romantic relationship as a parallel here in my suggestion to consider staying — or, at least consider not automatically leaving when the getting isn’t necessarily good.  If we constantly look for a “better” romantic partner, then we are taking energy and investment away from our current relationship.  We’re not fully committed, and thus our partner may not fully commit to us because they can sense we’ve got our eye on the door.  (I know this from a past failed relationship, unfortunately.)

I should note that I’m not naive enough to ask that others commit to a department or institution while they are on the tenure-track; don’t commit to an institution that hasn’t fully committed to you (yet).  But, by hiring you, they’ve made some level of a commitment; your colleagues are “dating” you and, in places that aren’t sink-or-swim or practice academic hazing, they actually hope dating becomes marriage for life.  You can, however, make a commitment to make your job more satisfying for yourself.  To the extent that you can without jeopardizing tenure, take on fun projects, teach fun classes (or at least a few lectures within a class), make at least one friend on campus (there are faculty in other departments and, gasp, there are staff members, too!), or volunteer for a community organization.  Outside of work, join a club, take a class, make an effort to find community, get an account with MeetUp/OkCupid/Tinder (whatever other apps kids are using these days), go to a community event, etc.  Even if you one day leave, at least you’ll have made an effort to make your present situation harder to leave without saying goodbye or shedding a few tears.

Additional Resources

If you are considering going back on the job market, or at least open to the possibility, check out what others have had to say about it.

Figuring Out Where You Want To Land After Graduate School

Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae.

If you’re in a doctoral program, you’re supposed to want to work at a research university. But when I was mulling my career options in graduate school, what I mostly felt was uncertain. In fact, the only thing I knew I didn’t want was a job at a research university.

My secret desire was to teach at a liberal-arts college, but I had plenty of doubts about that, fueled by my advisers’ antipathy toward the idea. Ultimately, I did “come out” of the liberal-arts closet. But it was only when I asked my professors — “How did you know where you wanted to work?” — that I realized how few of them could answer that question with certainty.

The (Myth of the) R1-Liberal Arts Dichotomy

A few years ago, when I was plotting my own future, I spent some time asking Ph.D.s what motivated them to pursue one career over others. Many fellow students, and even some of my professors, said they pursued a job at a research-intensive university (especially an R1) simply because it was the expected path, and the most valued. Sure, you might apply for positions at liberal-arts colleges — just to be safe — but that was merely a backup plan. Even if you accepted a position at a liberal-arts college, you only kept that job long enough to get the kind you really wanted (meaning one at an R1 university).

I also noticed that the distinctions people made between R1 universities and liberal-arts colleges seemed based more on limited knowledge, or even stereotypes, than on actual knowledge and experience. Many seemed to think in black-and-white terms: If you want to do research, take an R1 position; if you like teaching, work at a liberal-arts college. Indeed, when I mentioned my plan to accept the tenure-track job I’d been offered at the University of Richmond, one of my advisers responded, “But you’re good at research!”

It’s worth stating what should be obvious: Faculty at both types of institutions do research and teach classes, albeit to varying degrees. Too many academics erase the variation among Research I universities and among liberal-arts colleges — not to mention the similarities between those types of institutions. For example, research expectations have grown for faculty at liberal-arts colleges (too). However, you may face less pressure to secure a research grant if you teach at a private liberal-arts college with a sizeable endowment than if you are at a public institution strapped for funds.

Another example: While it’s true that liberal-arts faculty teach more classes than R1 faculty, we don’t necessarily teach more students. For example, I teach five classes a year, with enrollment in each course capped at about 15, 20, or 24 students. Even if I taught five classes at the cap of 24 students each, I would still only have a maximum of 120 students. Meanwhile my counterparts at a large research university — teaching three classes with at least 70 students in each — would have 210 students. Since my institution is exclusively undergraduate, I also have the good fortune (in my opinion) of not having to serve on master’s theses and dissertation committees (or help those students navigate the academic job market) but, I do serve as an honors thesis adviser for one or two undergraduates each year.

Of course faculty advisers often ignore all the other options for a faculty career, too, including community colleges, historically Black and Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges — not to mention careers outside of academia.

What If You Don’t Have A Clue?

In the spirit of sharing advice that I had to learn the hard way, I’d like to offer some tips for finding the career path that feels right to you. If you’re 100 percent certain of the path you wish to pursue, good for you! But if you’re conflicted, as I was, then testing out other options along the way is a must, and will make you a more well-rounded academic. How else are you going to make an informed decision?

During grad school — no matter what your advisers are telling you — try to pursue a variety of opportunities to gain training in research, teaching, and applied work. Serve as a research assistant and a teaching assistant (and teach your own classes if possible), but also seek out internships and opportunities to gain experience outside of your university. Take advantage of whatever pedagogical and teaching training your department and university has to offer; attend pedagogical workshops at professional meetings or other universities. While you’re at it, consider which aspects of academic work you excel at and like best. Don’t wait until you finish grad school to discover that you loathe teaching or that spending time alone in an archive gives you hives.

I highly recommend doing a research and/or teaching fellowship at an institution that is different from the one where you’re earning your Ph.D. Having that experience not only makes you a better candidate, but it’s one of the best ways to get a sense of what life’s actually like at other types of institutions.

Short of that, look for opportunities to visit different institutions — attend talks, stay with friends, or, better yet, shadow a faculty member at another campus for at least a few days. If your program or university does not have a formal shadowing program, make your own arrangements to do so.

And don’t limit your forays to academic institutions. Consider doing a summer research internship for a nonprofit or think tank.

My brief stint working at a nonprofit agency during college turned out to be less enjoyable than I’d hoped. I hated doing anything that felt like busy work (e.g., filing, copying), and I hated having a boss even more. Worse yet, the office attempted to maintain a politics-free environment, despite advocating on behalf of LGBTQ professionals. Yet that internship experience reinforced my desire to work in academia, so even a bad experience can lead to something good.

Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to work or observe faculty at a liberal-arts college before I accepted my current position at the University of Richmond. But working as a diversity fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee the summer after my third year in grad school gave me a taste of faculty life at an urban research university and a chance to teach students with different backgrounds than those at my graduate school.

Make connections with Ph.D.s on various career paths. Get to know people at academic conferences, and ask them what life is like at their institution. Talk to recent alumni of your program about their jobs and ask how they came to the path they’re on. The danger of relying exclusively on the advice of professors and students currently in your Ph.D. program is that they’re unlikely to know much about life outside a research-intensive university. (And, no, studying at a liberal-arts college is not the same as working at one.)

Do your homework. After finding that people in my Ph.D program had little useful advice about life at a liberal-arts college, I turned to the Internet for others’ reflections on careers in the liberal arts. (Later, I added my own post— along with a link to this handy chart by Terry McGlynn— to the small chorus of voices on the subject.) I also took time to read some stories of Ph.D.s who had pursued alternative careers (#altac). It was reassuring to know that the choice to work at a liberal-arts college, or a research university, or outside of academia wasn’t so obvious, and it was extremely helpful to find others had talked about it publicly.

Finally, before the time comes to apply for jobs, assess your personal needs and those of your family. If you are pursuing a faculty career, identify which attributes of a job, department, campus culture, and community you care about most — and worry about institution type later. Remember that within each of the Carnegie Classification categories, institutional culture will vary greatly. You might find a Research I university where faculty members genuinely value and reward good teaching and where the work environment is comparable to that of a liberal-arts college. Likewise, some liberal-arts colleges place a premium on strong research and scholarly productivity and will offer resources akin to those of a research university. Treat each campus visit as an opportunity to investigate if the department, institution, and city would be a good fit for you. Interview them.

And if you wind up in a position that’s not your ideal fit, remember, it’s not the end of the world. Treat it like what it is — a learning experience and a temporary chapter in your life.

Life’s Turning Points And My Academic Career

"Crossroads - Cruïlla" by MorBCN

“Crossroads – Cruïlla” by MorBCN

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.

College

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.

Reflections On Pursuing A Non-Traditional Academic Career

Chris WhiteDr. Christopher White is one of a growing number of academics who have pursued an alternative academic career (or “Alt-Ac“).  In this guest blog post, he reflects on the uncertainty and self-doubt, as well as the joys and triumphs, that he has experienced in defining his academic career on his own terms.  See Dr. White’s full biography at the end.

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I’m Such A Loser (But My Life Is Fucking Fantastic!)

For the past decade or so, I have spent the first weekend of every November at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS – pronounced “quad ess”), a place that has become my academic home complete with a wonderful group of friends who have become a family of sorts for me. It has become one of the most important events of the year for me because it is not only a time for me to learn about the latest work in the field, but also a time to recharge through the love and camaraderie of some of my closest friends.

In a sense, all of us “grew up” together professionally, regardless of our ages. I met most of these folks while we were in graduate school or shortly thereafter as “young professionals.” Over the years, I’ve watched these men and women transition from graduate assistants to junior faculty to settling into their tenured positions. At SSSS, we served the organization as student leaders, on various committees, and most recently we all filled or are currently filling various roles on the Board of Directors. I’m sure that we will continue to do so and will eventually move into the “elder” categories of “past presidents” and such – but let’s rush anything. We’re still relatively young… I think.

Earlier this month, we joyfully gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, spent time catching up over too many cocktails, laughed, maybe even cried, and shared out latest successes and frustrations. I felt incredibly lucky and fortunate to have been surrounded by such amazing, bright, and supportive friends, as I always do when we’re together. This year, though, I felt something else – sadness, envy, and jealousy. It bubbled up in moments when I heard about someone’s latest achievement – a published book, tenure, and new grant award. I wasn’t unhappy for them, quite the opposite. But I felt the creep of self-disappointment, self-criticism, and whole heckuva lot of self-doubt.

 “I’m a failure.”

 “I’m not as smart as these people are.”

 “I’ve accomplished so little.”

 “What have I done with my life?”

 “I shoulda, I shoulda, I shoulda…”

You see, after I completed my PhD, I made the decision not to pursue a tenure-track position in academia. I moved against the stream and chose a job, no, a career that was not “on track” with what I was supposed to do. I consciously made this decision. I wasn’t interested in the game, the scam – the seemingly never-ending treadmill of writing stuff that no one was going to read to impress the right people into giving me a permanent job with “academic freedom” – whatever the hell that really means. At least, I think I consciously made that decision.

Half-Assed Job Searches And Knowing People

The truth is that I spent a year applying for academic positions right before and after graduation. I got a few nibbles, but the big one always eluded me. I had set parameters that made it difficult for me to land the type of job that I thought I wanted. Maybe I should have followed the advice of my mentors and done more quantitative work, toned down the sexuality stuff, amped up the health education work, and applied for jobs at smaller universities in Podunk towns.

Instead, I pushed my qualitative research agenda and only applied for jobs in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. When I didn’t get the jobs that I wanted, I said, “fuck you and fuck the capitalist system of academics and research.” I was a rebel and was going to do things my way… yeah, that’s it.

Then I got a call from a “prestigious” academic in San Francisco. He’d heard about me from a grad school peer of mine. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him at his center. No academic appointment, no tenure-track, just a job. I said yes.

Let’s fast-forward about seven years. I am the director of a CDC-funded project at a youth-focused, LGBTQ organization. I’m adjunct faculty at three universities and enjoy teaching undergraduate and graduate classes. And I feel like a complete failure – at least, I did a couple of weeks ago when I returned from the SSSS conference in Omaha.

Hearing my friends’ stories about being awarded tenure or about their latest publication made me feel like a complete loser. I’m happy for them, and I want them to be successful. At the same time, with each success that I heard about, a voice in my head said, “You made the wrong decision. You are a loser.”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP! Leave me alone. Go away,” I screamed silently to that other me. The doubter. The critique.

Wait A Second…What’s That Smell?

Then something happened. I got on a plane and flew to New York City to attend a training of health teachers and Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisors and to meet with NYC Department of Education staff. I spent two days talking about the work they are doing to support not only LGBTQ-youth, but all marginalized young people, and looking for opportunities to support and grow their work. Then I went to Boston and did the same thing there. Next, I talked to some colleagues about a conference we’re organizing to work with 20+ school districts across the US to do the same. And I realized something… I’m really fucking lucky to get to be part of something so amazing, so life-changing for so many people.

So, I may not be getting that letter from the Dean saying that I’ve been awarded tenure, and I may not have my face on the back of a book jacket (yet!). But I am working on an important project, which was funded because of a proposal that I wrote. I travel around the US to major cities and talk to high-ranking school district officials about LGBTQ youth. I get the privilege of training teachers on how to make their lessons and their schools LGBTQ-inclusive and friendly. AND, I get to teach classes, and hear from students that my courses made a difference in their lives. On top of that, I make a decent living and can afford a fairly nice life. Oh my god, wait, the fuck, I AM successful – although writing that makes me feel foolish, but fuck it.

So maybe I’ve lied to myself a little bit about why I chose not to go the traditional/expected route after I finished my PhD. I still got to where I need to be… and I’m not done, yet.

If anyone reading this is questioning their decisions or considering doing something other than what they are “supposed” to do, my advice to you is to find a way to make your career what you want it to be – maybe that’s tenure, or maybe that’s hodgepodging the job you want. Whatever it is, celebrate your friends’ successes, and don’t forget to celebrate your own.

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Biography

Christopher White, PhD, is the Director of the Safe and Supportive Schools Project at Gay-Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco.  He teaches courses in health education and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, and occasionally at Widener University in Chester, PA.  His primary interests are in developing LGBTQ-inclusive sexuality education, creating supportive schools for LGBTQ students, and promoting gay and bisexual men’s sexual health and well-being. When he’s not working he can often be found “werq-ing” it on stage as his drag persona, “Crissy Fields,” or performing with the dance troupe, Sexitude, as “Daddy Sparkles.” Chris is working on becoming a BodyPump instructor, a health coach, and is an avid cyclist – he’ll be riding in his third AIDS LifeCycle (545 miles from SF to LA) in June 2015. Got a question or suggestion for Dr. White?  Drop him a line at christopherwhitephd [at] gmail [dot] com.