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Moving On

Lessons from My First Year Post-Grad

May 24, 2019

Alexandra (AJ) Gold earned her Ph.D. in English at Boston University. She currently teaches as a Preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program. Follow her on Twitter @agold258 or check out her website.

May has always been a particularly hard time of year for me as, I suspect, it is for many of us in academia. May (or June) typically marks the end of the school year and a time for celebration―end-of-the year awards and receptions, promotions, graduations, just making it through. It is also a time for retrospection: What worked (or didn’t) for a class? What research was accomplished or left unfinished? What are my goals for the next year?

For some―for too many―it’s also a time for grief. Indeed, the end of the school year is a transition as our attention shifts to the next thing (a new project, school, locale, or even career) and our typical schedule is upended. It can feel both deeply unsettling and incredibly welcome.

This year is no different. Though I’m fortunate to be headed into summer secure in my current job situation with an attendant sense of relief I cannot overstate, I still feel a bit unnerved. For one thing, I’m sad to see my students move on, though I’m excited to see the amazing things I know they’ll accomplish in the next few years. I think, perhaps, that you feel this with particular acuity when you teach freshman or seniors, because they themselves are making a big transition. For another, to be in any kind of contingent faculty position, even a good one, is to be routinely unsettled. And last but certainly not least, this post will be my last as a regular contributor to GradHacker.

When I started writing these posts a year and a half ago I was trying to finish my dissertation and knee-deep in the job market. It was one of the most stressful times in my graduate school career, so naturally I needed to take on another task. Jokes aside, writing each month became an outlet that I didn’t know that I needed, a way not just to connect with fellow employees at GradHacker HQ but with graduate students and sometimes even established scholars nationwide. Reading comments (the not sexist ones), receiving response emails, or seeing the Twitter engagement with my posts has been more rewarding than I could’ve imagined.

And though it feels like the right time, relinquishing this outlet now isn’t easy. Perhaps most of all, it feels hard because it signals the last true tie to my graduate student identity. Yes, my Ph.D. diploma has been framed. Yes, my dissertation has been printed, bound and embargoed. Yes, I’ve now completed a year at a full-time teaching job. But this is where I hang my “grad school” hat. Because I defended well into the summer and my university only has one convocation, in May, I never walked and wasn’t hooded. My Ph.D. ended unceremoniously. So maybe this post constitutes a virtual graduation of sorts. Consider it my valediction.

In honor of my last post (and in keeping with the reflectiveness that May provokes) I want to offer a glimpse into what I’ve learned this year in the transition from graduate school to my first full-time academic job: the ups, the downs, and the surprises. Of course, this post can only reflect my own experience and a particular set of academic circumstances; nonetheless, I hope something here will resonate, whether you’re about to embark on a new phase of your career or are still several years away from the dissertation defense.

It Takes Time
Arguably, this can be said of a lot things in academia, from the process of drafting an article to the Ph.D. journey itself. Still, allowing myself time was something I struggled with the most in adjusting from grad life to a full-time job. It takes time to create and launch a new class or two. It takes time to assess what’s working and what needs to be adjusted. It takes time to acclimate to a new campus (or state/city/town), to understand an entirely different student body, and to navigate a new program ethos. It takes time to figure out how to balance a full-time teaching schedule with a research agenda. It takes time, in short, to develop a rhythm, particularly after 5-8 years with more or less established timelines, particular expectations, and a limited courseload. Throughout the first semester of my job, I found myself struggling to balance these demands.

The truth is, I wanted (and perhaps expected) to adapt seamlessly and put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to produce scholarship at the same rate that I’d become accustomed to in grad school even as I was implementing new classes and adapting to a new teaching load. I soon realized that that was not only going to be impossible but that I had to give myself a break. I had to adjust my expectations; I had to be ok, for instance, with mostly neglecting my research some weeks just to get through grading and student conferences and stay moderately sane. While this may be a particularly pronounced problem for faculty with large teaching loads or writing-intensive courses like composition, I think it’s also a universal experience.

I needed to give myself time to figure it out and to recognize that everything might not happen the way I wanted it to at once. I had to adjust my own timelines and come up with longer-term plans. It’s still something I struggle with daily, but once I finally accepted that the only real solution to some of these issues was time, things seemed more manageable.

We know that
isolation can adversely affect grad students’ mental health. I certainly experienced it. What I’ve found in my first year in the new job, however, has been less a feeling of isolation, per se, than of alienation. I’m fortunate to be in a supportive department where collaboration is the norm. I’ve had the benefits of welcoming colleagues, a more senior officemate who has provided some great advice, and an excellent cohort of new teachers who, like me, appreciate a post-grading sojourn to the bar. This has been tremendously helpful.

What I didn’t quite bargain for were some of the persistent feelings of alienation I’ve felt in the first year, particularly from other English scholars on campus. At times, it felt and still feels like the gulf between me and the English Department could not be wider ― like I lived on a secluded island or in an alternate universe, working on a poetry book project into the abyss, lacking the immediacy or frequency of the (often spontaneous) conversations about literature I’d been used to in graduate school. I didn’t and still don’t have the same ready-built network of readers and thinkers to share my work with that I’d probably taken for granted; it felt like my scholarly identity had been pulled out from beneath me. I should note that conversing with people in my field on Twitter and attending a conference or two during the semester has helped to an extent, and one of my personal goals for next year is to try to be more proactive in connecting with the English Department on campus. Still, though working in a stand-alone Writing Program has its rewards, including its interdisciplinarity―and I should stress that I absolutely love teaching writing―it can also feel like you dwell in a forgotten academic silo cut off from the teaching and research work that other faculty, including those in your home discipline, are doing.

Indeed, perhaps the gulf I’ve felt even more acutely than that between me and the other English scholars on campus has been the one I’ve felt between contingent and tenure-track faculty. I know I’m not alone in this feeling. There were so many instances (some subtle, some overt) that seemed to aggrandize the difference between us: routinely getting email invites, for instance, to “new faculty” lunches with featured first-year teachers (read: new tenure-track faculty) or trying to apply for a faculty development grant to support a small article publication fee to find it was available only to TT faculty. The implicit message of these things felt clear enough: I didn’t count as “real” faculty. I wasn’t a “real” researcher. I may be internalizing this too much, as my own program couldn’t be more supportive and I wouldn’t trade my close relationships with the students for anything. But the pervasive feeling of being peripheral, ancillary to, or unacknowledged by the university power structures wasn’t something I’d expected (naively, no doubt) to be so demoralizing or hard to shake.

If there’s been one upside to the first year out of graduate school, it’s the sheer sense of freedom of not being beholden to grad school politics or a small set of advisors. In fairness, I had excellent advisors who always allowed me to develop my work as I wanted and rarely forced me in a particular direction. I was
fortunate in that regard. Even so, being able to go back to my dissertation and tear it apart was an incredibly freeing thing. The prospect of writing for a new audience in the book project and discovering some new sense of direction for its development has been exciting. I felt free from the limitations of being beholden to an imposed series of hurdles (orals, prospectus, dissertation) and could instead chart my own course. It’s hard to put into words exactly what the freedom felt like, but it felt, finally, like I wasn’t jumping through a series of hoops and had more autonomy over my work and career.

Sure, there are always hoops to jump through, but they’re less proscriptive, it seems. I also felt free of the departmental politics that, by the end of my graduate career, had really taken their toll. Again, I’m all too aware that no departments are immune to politics, but I also often felt stymied or frustrated in my graduate school career by issues of (departmental) favoritism, a lack of transparency, and more than a little insufferable posturing, among other things. Some of these issues inevitably plague every department, but after a few years, especially in a relatively small department, you just need a change of pace. Though it has its fair share struggles, there is at least some freedom―a breath of fresh air―in starting over or starting anew: new challenges as much as new advantages.

In January, I stumbled across this piece
on transparency by “Junior Prof” and it was exactly what I needed. Though we’re in different positions within the university, much of what Junior Prof said felt intimately familiar for reasons I’ve begun to elaborate. Following their lead, I committed myself to being more transparent in my teaching in the second semester, using some of the methods the article describes and others I developed. In particular, a big part of being more “transparent” for me simply meant being myself.

My first semester was attended by no small degree of imposter syndrome. While imposter syndrome is common in graduate school, it was something that I found I suffered less toward the end of my time there, especially and perhaps ironically once I got into dissertation writing. Starting the new job, however, brought back some of the worst feelings of imposter syndrome I can remember. I felt so much pressure to prove myself because I still couldn’t believe I’d been lucky enough to get a job. I felt like I needed to really “wow” my students so they’d take me and my class seriously, especially since I was teaching a required writing course that doesn’t have the greatest reputation. I felt like I had to exert an enormous amount of energy to make a 9:00 a.m. class work (the students were not thrilled about the time slot). I felt like I had to succeed no matter what or else I’d risk being jobless the next year. I also felt like I had to, but couldn’t, succeed research-wise (see above). All of that combined started to feel paralyzing. I was working hard and devoting all my energy to work, but it felt forced and unproductive.

Reflecting on the semester and prompted by Junior Prof’s article, however, I realized that because of this pressure, I couldn’t relax. I just wasn’t myself. I like to think I have a fairly quick, dry sense of humor (if I do say so myself), but it was something that I’d found myself stifling in a misguided effort to seem “professional.” I felt like I was more rigid than normal, perhaps because I felt inexperienced and uncomfortable, despite teaching and tutoring writing for several years. Everything just felt off.

So I made a commitment to myself to loosen up as much as possible. To crack jokes. I shifted my focus from what I was doing toward devoting most of my attention to building a classroom community. I figured if everyone felt as comfortable as possible, maybe I would too. I tried to be vulnerable, when and if necessary. I shared more of my own experience and my life (within reason). In general, I tried hard not to take myself or the class too seriously or feel like I had to be something that I wasn’t. It’s not a radical solution, but I couldn’t believe how much it changed my whole outlook and approach. I often couldn’t wait to get to my classes this term, and I was less terrified or paralyzed by trying to live up to some idealized version of the teacher I thought I had to be. In the end, I think it paid off and I can’t wait to continue to improve on next year!

As a final note before I sign off: I want to extend my sincerest thanks to all who have read and engaged with my posts and to all of you who continue to be a vital part of the GradHacker community writ large. To Heather VanMouwerik, our fearless Editor-in-Chief, and the other rotating editors I’ve had the pleasure of working with—you’re the absolute best!  Thanks for all you do.

Got any tips for adjusting to a phase in your career? Excited or scared about the prospect of the next transition? Tell us in the comments below!

[Image by Flickr user Astrid Westvang and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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Alexandra Gold

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