Image: The Bourne Identity (2002)
If there was one thing I knew as a graduate student, it was that I would do anything for a tenure-track job.
I mean, I already had. I’d attended four different universities in four different states, abandoning friends and possessions each time. I had asked my then-husband to put his own career into a kind of limbo, never allowing him to stay at one company long enough to move up in the ranks. With each move, we were further away from our families and friends.
Eventually, we landed in Houston. I had never set foot in Texas before, but was willing to relocate to work with one of my dream advisers. I set about taking the steps I deemed necessary to make myself competitive for the academic job market: presenting at conferences, networking, applying for grants, reading, and more reading.
I worked every day but Saturdays, usually about 14 hours a day. That’s not an exaggeration. I taught myself Japanese (with the help of some intensive programs), in order to do my fieldwork in Japan. I stressed. I fussed. And then I left for Japan.
Around that time, everything began to unravel. Professionally, I threw myself into making my research time in Japan a success. But personally, I felt small. Alone in a country where I (initially) knew almost nobody, I didn't feel the romantic sense of adventure I had expected. I just felt isolated. All the more so when I returned to Texas and found myself craving a greater balance between work and life. With my marriage a casualty of both my fieldwork and my relentless focus on my career above all else, I was also back on the dating market at age 35. In the months that followed, I finished my Ph.D., found myself unemployed but for copious adjuncting offers, and involved with a new man. When a local design firm offered me a job as a researcher, I caved because I needed the salary and benefits.
I'll skip ahead here for the sake of your patience. Eventually I went on the job market for the first time as a postgraduate, but by this time I had remarried and was expecting twins. And here is where, in a sense, my past and present broke apart. I was no longer willing to do anything for my career.
You see, my husband has children from a previous marriage. His divorce decree stipulated that he and his ex-wife would remain in Houston. We agreed to a policy for my job applications: If it was a tenure-track job so amazing that I simply had to try, I should apply regardless of location. Otherwise, I would pass. I only sort-of followed the rules, but fortunately for spousal harmony, the next position for which I was a finalist was one of those amazing jobs. I was in labor during my job talk, and I didn't tell them. I'm not sure why, but I didn't want to make excuses or talk about my body even though I couldn’t concentrate on the committee’s questions. I didn't get the job.
I discovered that it was nearly impossible to keep up with academic writing while taking care of infant twins and working full time. I never really fit into the corporate environment anyway— I was too used to self-managing, and too unfamiliar with contemporary business culture and jargon. So I left the design agency and became primary caregiver for the twins, which made it even harder for me to remain productive as a scholar.
One of my academic mentors had stopped talking to me by that time. Another gave me a stern lecture about why I should be willing commute from one coast to another — visiting my husband, babies, and stepsons only on the weekends. She nonchalantly listed the relationships she'd abandoned over the years in pursuit of academic success.
I know several other academics who live that way.
But as I wrote in my field notes while living in Japan: “I am no longer willing to sacrifice my family and relationships for my work. This is a transformation, a reversal of my priorities.” And as I cried to a friend: “It's not worth it to me to put so much into my career that when I come home at night it's only to the clinking of my keys in the bowl by the door, my own voice echoing in the silence.”
I wanted a family. And I didn't want to — don't want to — live on an airplane. I hadn't started my academic career as a 22-year-old with plenty of time to establish myself professionally and then reproduce. I was already of “advanced maternal age” when I got pregnant (at 37). I had to choose. Years ago now, a grad-school friend told me that everyone considered me to be the most likely in our department to succeed because of my limitless ambition and sheer determination. I remember the way my advisers treated me, as though they were certain of my future in the field. But I have let them down.
Recently, I was offered the tenure-track job of my dreams, in my hometown in the Northeast. I loved the people who would be my colleagues. I loved the department and the opportunities there. But I declined the job offer. The decision made me nauseous, but I don't regret it per se. Moving doesn't work for our family at this point in our lives.
I'm adjuncting right now (something I swore I'd never do again), as I try to figure out my future— and our family's financial health is suffering as a result. I am one of about 60 adjunct faculty members in my current department — 60!
I applied for a lecturer’s job in sociology, teaching five courses each semester, but I didn't get that one either, because my doctorate is in anthropology. I am dependent for my academic future on something opening up locally, and I'm not sure how to find the time to do research and publish while working two compromise-jobs and/or taking care of the 11-month-old twins.
I asked my husband: “What other line of work encourages you to train for as much as a decade, and leaves you potentially without an opportunity for local work?” It's a difficult thing to ask a single person in their 20s to move around the country for year-long postdocs, let alone someone in a situation like mine.
I don't feel sorry for myself. I made a very specific set of choices. But I wonder: Is my situation just the story of what happens when you stop saying, “Yes, whatever it takes,” in academia in 2017?