I spent my 20s in hot pursuit of a tenured professorship. I was in my sophomore year of college when the first person (my undergraduate advisor) suggested that being a professor would be a good idea. In my junior year of college I took a test that suggested what careers would be a good fit: 3 different suggestions were professor (economic professor, sociology professor, psychology professor). It seemed so obvious; it felt meant to be.
Between 2000 (when I graduated from college) and 2011 (when I earned my PhD) I was on a clear, well-trodden path. As long as I was getting closer to a PhD, I felt I could relax. There weren’t any major cross-roads; so long as I stayed the course I would inevitably end up where I wanted to be. Or so I thought.
Once I had a PhD, I got accepted to a post-doctoral fellowship and began to look around. It was time to find that professorship!
Right away it became clear that there were very few jobs… and the jobs that did exist combined really high teaching loads with really low pay.
Part of this was because I was looking for a professorship at the end of the Great Recession and there was a HUGE backlog of PhDs who hadn’t been able to get the job they wanted for the past 5 years. People who would normally have been in Research University jobs were in teaching jobs and people who should have been in those teaching jobs were waiting around in post-docs. EVERYONE wanted the very few available jobs.
Combine that with the fact that I wanted to get back to the East Coast where PhDs flood the market and my odds were very, very slim.
My advisors told me to stay the course. I had a strong research agenda and great letters of recommendation, they argued, and I would be able to find a professorship if I could be patient. But some realities had begun to dawn on me…
- I didn’t want a low paying job, I had huge student loans.
- I didn’t want to live in Nebraska (where the most relevant and interesting job was), I wanted to live in New York City.
- I didn’t want to get caught up in the turmoil of a publish or perish industry with heavy pressure to bring in grants.
It began to dawn on me… did I even WANT to be a tenure track professor right now?
I had been on this path for more than a decade. I had a PhD and a family and massive (MASSIVE) student loans. What do I say when people ask “What’s next for you, Amanda?”
This was a major, tumultuous cross-road for me. The well worn path was headed to Nebraska and I was staring at a wilderness, looking for clues. “What do I really want?”
I began to ask myself hard questions like:
- “To what do I want to contribute?”
- “How do I want to spend my time?”
- “How important is flexibility?”
- “What kind of work could I do that is marketable?”
- “How much money do I really need to make?”
- “What makes me feel passionate and alive?”
I had spent so much time following a prescribed path that these questions were very uncomfortable at first. I’ve found this is particularly true for people on a competitive and grueling path (i.e. PhD, law school, medical school)… there’s a certain amount of mandatory brain washing necessary if you’ve managed to complete something like this. You’ve worked so hard for so long… it MUST have been worth it. You MUST have known what you were doing. It’s terrifying to admit that you might have been wrong about any part of it.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to discover but it seemed clear that I needed to find out. I dug deep and questioned assumptions.
- Do I love reading journal articles? No?!?!
- Could I help actual teachers help actual kids? Maybe??
- And how awesome would that be??? So awesome.
As I dug deep into what I actually wanted to do, a new path began to clear away in front of me, bit by bit.
I found a job in New York City working with the schools that serve the City’s most vulnerable students. Everyone I knew in academia told me it was a mistake to take it. “You won’t be able to get back into academia,” they said. “You’ll miss having the freedom to pursue your own interests” they predicted. “Industry jobs are really shallow and far less value driven than you’re used to,” they warned.
I took it anyway, and I’m so glad I did.
In my three years as a consultant with New York City schools I learned about the real struggles involved in educating urban youth. By partnering with passionate educators, I became informed and savvy about working within a painfully complex system. By working alongside committed people in the DOE, I moved beyond the “us versus them” rhetoric that characterizes so much of the educational policy realm. It was AMAZING.
Ironically, it was this experience working directly with schools and the District in an “industry” role that got me the academic job I recently got as a professor at a School of Education in New York City. It was this hugely risky role on the “path less taken” that I’m told made me such an unusually qualified candidate.
So many of the people I meet in my workshops are at their own major cross roads. They’re looking around at their lives and realizing that the “path” they’ve been following just isn’t working for them. They often have degrees and experience and people all around them are telling them that they are crazy to think about trying something new. They feel drawn in a new direction, but feel pressure from everyone around them telling them to be safe and stay put.
Here’s what I say to that: It’s YOUR life, not theirs.
If you follow everyone else down the well-lit, paved road you’re not going to stand out. Going to where your passion lives and working as hard as you can is much more likely to deliver the opportunities that will fuel your success. Dig deep, figure out what you want and go after it. Make your own place.