materapaso/istock/getty images plus
I sat there in a restaurant, wondering when I was going to summon the courage to actually get to work again on my long-overdue dissertation, when the strangest email arrived in my in-box. An academic journal was requesting that I serve as a reviewer for a submission.
I wondered if it was some sort of mistake. Don’t they know I haven’t even finished my degree? Don’t they know I only have a handful of publications to my name? Don’t they know that I abandoned academe and am currently working for the IRS, for goodness' sake? OK, so they probably wouldn’t know that last one. But seriously, how could they think that I’m qualified to be a reviewer?
And yet, there the request sat. I thought about it for a minute. Am I qualified to review an article? Well, yes, actually, I am. I read the abstract and saw some intersection with how I approach my own work. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got.
Soon I was feeling something I hadn’t for such a long time: I felt like a scholar again. Like a real scholar -- not like a failed scholar or a used-to-be scholar, but a for-real, actual scholar. Not only did I realize that I hadn’t felt that way for a long time, I realized that I wasn’t even a little bit surprised that I hadn’t.
My love-love relationship with academe devolved into a love-hate relationship around the time I started my Ph.D. program, and not coincidentally, around the time my first child was born. For several years, I struggled to balance career, jobs and family, while watching my chances of success on the job market decline year after year.
It wasn’t long before the love-hate thing pretty much became just a hate thing. I felt burned-out, disenchanted, almost betrayed -- even though I went into grad school knowing the odds were long against succeeding in a career as a historian. My own work went from something I was excited about to something I was a bit lukewarm about to something I began to dread, a distasteful task I just had to try to get through. I was unable to escape the knowledge that I picked my family up and moved them away from our friends and family back home in pursuit of this dream of mine.
I was beginning to recognize, however, that not only was the dream increasingly unlikely, but I also didn’t even want it anymore. For a while, I continued to pursue it, because I didn’t want to abandon something into which I’d put so much time, effort and money. I’d made promises to my wife and my family that the cost, both financial and otherwise, would be worth it in the end. The pressure I heaped on myself was enormous. As my mental health deteriorated, I found myself looking around at my slice of the ivory tower, wondering what all the fuss was about. Was any of this actually worth it?
Finally, when I overstayed my welcome and my Ph.D. program stopped funding me, I made the extraordinarily difficult decision to abandon that dream I’d been working toward since I was a wee undergrad, and we moved back home. I would just finish my degree remotely, while figuring out how to start a new career.
Unfortunately, I soon discovered that I was simultaneously under- and overqualified for every full-time job opening I discovered. Turns out, a Ph.D. program in history prepares you very well to be a historian but not so well to be anything else. I had a good CV full of skills and accomplishments only dubiously relatable to the real world, and an alarming paucity of experience to go with it.
I found myself working for the National Park Service, a job that actually aligned fairly well with my training as a historian. But it was seasonal. As the season drew to a close, I saw a posting for the IRS. Enticed by the idea of good benefits and job security, it wasn’t long before I was on a phone answering my fellow Americans’ tax questions.
I’d journeyed a long way from my life as a scholar, both physically and psychologically. I was still working on my degree, but my dissertation at this point felt like some kind of vestigial appendage that I couldn’t shake off and was doomed to carry around with me everywhere, despite its complete lack of applicability to the life I was living. For the past couple years, semester after semester, I planned to defend my dissertation but was ultimately talked out of it by my committee.
They’re right of course, my dissertation is flawed, but I just don’t really care anymore, I just want to be done with it. Flaws and all, isn’t it at least good enough? No. No, it is not. It had become the proverbial millstone round the neck, the 10,000-pound gorilla on my back -- a burden I could never set down, because rather than a physical one, it was mental and emotional. I’d left the toxic world of academe behind, but I carried with me this one little piece of it, a tiny outpost of the ivory tower in my mind, continuing to poison me. My relationship with my dissertation devolved badly. I know that as soon as it’s done, I’ll be free. But every time I even think of it, I’m snowed under by an avalanche of negative emotions and associations. Guilt, fear, anger, frustration, feelings of inadequacy -- like impostor syndrome on steroids.
So there I was, sitting in that restaurant, where I feel comfortable, where I’ve always done some of my best work. I was wishing I could recapture some of the excitement and intensity of my earlier academic career, although I was willing to settle for just enough impetus to actually open the document and work on it. Instead, of course, I sat there with my laptop inert in front of me, playing a stupid game on my phone, trying not to wonder if, after more than seven years in my Ph.D. program, this dissertation might defeat me after all. That’s when I discovered that strangest of emails.
It’s only by describing how thoroughly I’d turned my back on that part of my life that I can explain the stunning impact of being asked to review an article. Since I couldn’t be a professional scholar, I convinced myself that academe held nothing for me and I just didn’t want to be a scholar anymore. In doing so, I eased my transition into a field so alt-ac it’s really just alt.
But I was lying to myself. And this invitation out of the blue showed me how badly I miss truly feeling that “scholar” is an integral part of my identity. It also showed me that by shunning that part of myself, I was making the completion of my degree difficult -- bordering on impossible. This invitation, while certainly small potatoes to any established scholar, forced me to contemplate what I still have to offer in the scholarly world. In fact, nothing could have been better calculated to rekindle that joy that I get from the communal activity of the production of knowledge. In the space of a few minutes, my dissertation transformed from a painful vestige of a former life into an opportunity -- and perhaps a final one.
This experience served as a reminder to me that the career we choose does not define us. Ending my quest to obtain a tenure-track job does not mean that I am no longer a scholar, and it does not mean that I cannot still educate. Ultimately, all that matters is who I am to myself, not to others.
I’m sure the authors of that simple email would laugh if they knew it was like a lifeline thrown to a drowning man -- in this case, a man drowning even though he knows perfectly well how to swim. And now, as a wise fish once said, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”