June 17, 2010

Reflections on an Academic Life

If there's anything that a combined 10 years as a graduate student have taught me about the academic life, it's that it's not easy. I try to convey this to undergraduates who want to go on to be researchers, so they're not unpleasantly surprised by grad school. It may be wildly presumptuous of me to offer unsolicited advice to undergraduates and to reflect on my time as an academic when I haven't yet landed a full-time job, but graduation and other liminal rituals always make me a bit maudlin. So here goes...

The problem with pursuing a career as an academic in the humanities is that research in them largely serves to explain and interpret the world around us rather than to make specific, lasting changes that directly impact the lives of average people. Funding is thus contingent on a person's ability to eke some sort of relevance out of research that they feel passionate about but that, in the grand scheme of things, makes the world a bit more nuanced but not easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis. This profession, then, sometimes requires a researcher to capitulate to the vagaries of funding and the whims of academic popularity of subject matter and approach. We no longer live in a world where foppish dilettantes with oodles of money are the only people to study the classics or excavate a burial mound or live among a foreign population. But we also no longer live in a time where that kind of investigation is seen as important in and of itself.

As an anthropologist who has skirted the line between humanistic and scientific pursuits, I can say that it is easier to gain funding (and thus achieve the academic standard of success) when I am more sciencey and when I invent scenarios in which my research about long-dead people is relevant to the current world situation. But it's still extraordinarily difficult to be an academic and to put up with all the roadblocks to what is, deep down, simply a life-long curiosity about people's innards.

The academic job season has officially opened, and as I begin applying for these positions, I constantly ask myself if it's worth it. All the stress, all the teaching, all the worrying about funding... for what? Will my research really yield new information about migration in antiquity that can be applied to today? Maybe, maybe not. Would taking a full-time job as an editor or research support staff member provide more job security, more money, and more tangible results than the academic career I've set myself on a path towards? Probably. But when I ask myself if I want to deal with churning out articles and conference papers, teaching thousands of students, doing unpaid committee work, and submitting scores of grant applications for the rest of my professional career, I keep coming down on the side of Yes. I'm eager to convince others of the importance of my research so that I can be a voyeur to the past, peering into the bodies of long-dead Romans.

A friend asked me a few months ago if it was silly to move on from an incomplete dissertation based on seemingly random events in her life. I don't think it's silly at all to pause at these "signs" and take a moment to reevaluate where you are and where you want to be. Scholars need to engage in this activity constantly in research, as well as in their career paths. If you start answering No more often than Yes to the question of whether you are willing to put up with job and research hurdles, then academia is not the place for you. What you do with your degree is entirely up to you, so remember that a career in academia is not the only path.

We all struggle with academic careers, and it's particularly difficult when life - in the form of a spouse, kids, and social commitments - complicates what sometimes needs to be a single-minded pursuit. It's up to you to find the balance, and whatever you decide to do to find that balance in your life is a valid choice.


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