Imagine it. You recently graduated with a doctorate having put in numerous years and huge amounts of effort in academic pursuits ranging from conferences, presentations, to the final dissertation and defense. After graduation, you take a breath of relief. Then suddenly the academic push continues again, yet not in the expected forms of writing, research, and applying/interviewing for jobs, but in a different form—in determining how to respond to everyone who asks, “what are you doing now that you’ve graduated?” The implied message resonates on the lines of “don’t you have a full-time academic job since you spent all this time and money dedicated to getting an advanced degree?”
The last time someone asked me what I was doing now that I’ve graduated, I was a bit shocked with my experience and feelings afterward.
I ran into a former colleague and classmate, someone with whom I used to be quick, open, and relaxed with, but who in this interaction, I felt the need to explain my situation to a extent that no longer fit within friends sharing but within a competitive explanation. After being asked what I’ve been “up to” I explained about my current pregnancy and a forthcoming position, and at first felt good that I had an explanation, reasoning, and something to show for my time in the doctorate program. The image I had created looked good.
After walking a few feet, I started to feel odd, almost as if I had lied about my life (even though nothing I had said had even a hint of exaggeration). I suddenly saw how these types of interactions in academia, “what are you up to?,” are all about one-upping one another.
Yet what’s really strange is that I’m not without a job and I’m not without things to do. I am pregnant with our second child (although not something that tends to be considered relevant after earning a Ph.D.) and I work for and helped found an academic journal. But the idea of a part-time job just doesn’t feel (or sound) like enough in our field. Plus, since I have been working in my current position for the last few years, it means that there hasn’t been a major change evident—for others to see.
Somehow for me it doesn’t really matter whether the person asking is a former professor, a good friend, or an acquaintance, I feel the need to provide reasoning for my current lack of a job. Perhaps the grass does look better elsewhere, yet we have our own lives to live and only know of our own experiences. Comparing ourselves to someone else, asking and waiting to hear if we are better or less than our colleagues doesn’t help.
We hear about someone else’s life and can then make the decision—am I better or worse than them? If we come out “better,” how long does that feeling last and what is the overall point of being/feeling “better than?” On the flip side, if we feel worse—“less than”—how have we come to that decision? Through interpreting someone else’s façade? The details they have chosen to share?
It’s hard to imagine how this could change in academia, but I want to hold out hope that there are situations, locations, where competition is less important and collaborative environments are the norm.
A.S. CohenMiller is an emerging scholar in qualitative research with a focus on gender in academia. She is a Founding Editor and Managing Editor for Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy (www.journaldialogue.org). You can find her on Twitter @annaramona and at the Mother Academic/Academic Mother blog.
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