My Career Path

Anna Trester, a.k.a. the Career Linguist, posted yesterday about recognizing the career path you are already on. I’m a big fan of her blog specifically for posts like these.

My favorite kernels of wisdom are the following quotes:

If you learn a great deal about a path you could have taken and ultimately decide not to take it, what you have really done is just learn something more about why you have chosen the path you have chosen.  Isn’t this information valuable?

When you chose one path or another, this is not because you are good or bad person, or because the paths are good or bad, you have just made a choice based on all of the evidence that you have at the present moment about where you are and where your destination is […] And when and if you decide to change course along the way, what you are doing is “recalculating.”

Anna’s post ends with a question for others that I want to answer: “What does your path look like?”

I am so fortunate that no one has ever told me that my choice of career path was “bad”. In fact, some folks I come across seem envious of the way my work and career life is structured. I want to illuminate some of the choices I made along my path and where those choices have brought me.

For those who don’t know, I work a salaried, fixed-hours day staff job in academia. I work for an academic library at a major university doing very academic things involving publishing, disseminating research, helping scholars expand their research impact, and advocating for open access and open scholarship in general. I start work at 8:00 AM and end work at 4:00 PM.  I rarely work outside of these hours. I do not check my e-mail outside of work hours, and although I sometimes find myself talking about the things I do at work, I am never at home working on a weekend evening. This is a far cry from my academic career and graduate school, when at just about any given moment I was working on something — or feeling guilty about not working on something.

In fact, it was that very feeling that made me make the choice I did — to move to a bounded position like this. The endless work weeks and that horribly guilty feeling did awful things to me. I felt bad for having leisurely interests. (Notably, one person in academia once criticized my work ethic because I spent one night a week playing in a community orchestra and could not devote those two rehearsal hours to working on her projects.) It was this feeling, I knew, that contributed to a lot of my friends and colleagues having serious personal and medical troubles during their academic careers. Broken relationships, mental health troubles, hospitalizations from stress — so many wonderful people I saw seriously hurt by this system of endless work expectations and the strain it puts on our lives.

This was not the kind of life I wanted to live, and so when it came time for me to start considering jobs, I started looking for different types of academic jobs than the ones I was perhaps expected to pursue. I had made several friends and professional contacts in non-tenure stream positions – I’m not talking adjuncts, but rather center directors who have a more administrative role but who still teach and advise students. Teaching and advising were my favorite activities in academia — I do love learning and research, but if I had to choose, teaching came first. If I could find a permanent position like that I thought it would be ideal, and I did not even consider for a moment pursuing a tenure-stream R1 research position. I knew it just wasn’t for me.

Unfortunately, it seems like those kinds of jobs are scarce, or worse — on a 1-year contract. The trials and tribulations of being on a contract in graduate school came flooding back every time I saw these job postings. It came to be about July and we would all be anxiously awaiting our official assignments. Would we be teaching a class (a ton of work), TAing for a professor (less work and usually a learning opportunity), holding an administrative position (highly coveted because you usually got time to work on your own projects), or would we get nothing at all? Some students I knew did not find out until the semester began whether they had funding or not, whether they would be relying on loans and borrowing against their future. Fortunately, I always had funding, but the exact assignments were almost always very late in coming. I could not go through that again.

The other problem with these short contracts in academia is that it often requires that you move from place to place. Picking up and moving once every couple of years is not my idea of a good time. I had (and still have) a partner who has children, and moving to follow me through short-lived academic stints is not exactly a good idea for them either. I wanted stability for them, and for me I wanted to not have to worry if I would have a job in six months.

When the advertisement for this job in the library appeared on my radar, I jumped at it. In the text of the job advertisement, I read about things that I had experience with in my academic career even though I had not academically focused on them. I had experience with writing and publishing articles. I had run into the scholarly journal paywall and found extreme frustration with it. I had used some of the technology tools the office deals with. Most importantly, I found something that I could really care about, and something that I could do that could make a difference for people like the graduate students trying for jobs or the new faculty who were trying to make their mark. I saw things I could learn about that I could help spread to them to make their scholarly lives a little bit easier and, therefore, better. Why wouldn’t I?

The reality hit me about two months into the job itself — I had a retirement plan. (A what?!) Health insurance came with the job. There were no more frantic grant cycles or funding disputes. Meaningful work could be done without the endless time commitment. I didn’t have to work on the weekends anymore. I could set aside devoted work hours and do whatever I wanted the rest of the time.

There was no teaching with this job — well, I do get to give the occasional presentation and do workshops — but I have a lot of extra time. With that, I’ve picked up an online adjunct position where I teach one class per term, all online and at my convenience, to get my teaching fix. I still get to travel and go to conferences. And I still have time (and I’m encouraged by my employer) to pursue my own research interests without the “publish or perish” pressure.

This is the path I have walked to get to where I am. I still consider myself a linguist; in my day job I do a lot of meta-academic work, and in my research time I pursue the linguistics and anthropology research and teaching that I love so much. And when I don’t feel like doing any of those things, say on Saturday afternoons, I don’t feel guilty about curling up with a cup of hot chocolate and reading A Dance with Dragons or Assassin’s Apprentice or The Magicians for hours.

The path I’ve chosen was shaped by choices that I made to achieve a work-life balance that was sustainable for me, but I was already firmly on this path when I entered training as an academic linguist. Where I am now, I can do good work during the day and spend my free time doing the things I love — whatever those happen to be — with no pressure on my career.