When you finish your PhD, there’s a sort of clarity about the path to tenure-track faculty positions, which crystallizes further as you continue your training. The path is by no means easy or simple or even straightforward. But it’s something of a known quantity. Your advisers and committee members have traversed that path. You’ve seen and talked to candidates seeking positions at your institutions. And it seems that no matter the venue where someone’s offering advice – whether conferences or online, peers or total strangers – the default framework is faculty track (and most typically research-intensive).
So there’s a certain familiarity with what you need to do to follow that path. Postdoc. Publishing. Fellowship and grant applications. Networking. Collaborations. You know the typical application cycle timeline. You have some general idea of what goes into the application and interview process. You know the lists or accounts to follow, the searches to set up. The prospect and process may very well be terrifying, daunting, and anxiety-provoking. But you basically know where to start and talk to people every day who know that path.
Deciding to pursue another path can feel a bit like plunging into the dark, the unknown. I’d paid attention to those “alternative career”* discussions. I knew people who “left academia”*. I knew some of the options out there. I knew that there were more to uncover. Nonetheless it was still still jolting to turn that corner. I’d been steeping in academic culture and conversation for years. I had been pursuing the faculty path for quite some time. There’d been a plan – and I had just chucked it out the window.
I now had to come up with a new plan.
While coming up with this new plan, I also had to deal with letting go of the last one. This is not an easy process for me. I feel that I don’t make decisions lightly, and that when I truly commit to something, I do my best to see it through to the end. Call it tenacity or strong will or just plain stubbornness.
Admitting that it’s time – either out of necessity or desire – to abandon that commitment is hard for me. It can feel like a betrayal – to myself, to other players on the stage, to those who have watched and encouraged and supported me. There are spaces of silence in life, often in the night, when I’m alone and I have no work or friends or other things to distract me. And the questions – even accusations – come slinking out from the corners of the mind.
What was the point all this time? You’re just going to throw away all those years you’ve been working toward this, all that time other people invested?
Why did you stick out [that really difficult time] just to give up now? Can’t hack it? Maybe you were never really committed… Maybe you really were never good enough…
What if you regret this? What if you never find what you’re looking for? What if you’re never satisfied?
I’ve experienced this in my professional life and my personal life. Some decisions are difficult, even when my answer becomes clear. I still wrestle with doubts and questions, even when I’m certain I’m taking the step that’s right for me.
It’s largely driven by fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown.
During those times, it’s been tempting to stay where I was, at least for a little while longer. And to be honest, there were times I did. Ignore the nagging feelings. Stick to the plan. So things weren’t going quite the way I expected… So I was dissatisfied with my current state. But things could change, right? And if they didn’t, at least I knew what to expect now.
I wish I could tell you that fear goes away. I wish I could say I figured out how to vanquish the doubts, embrace the uncertainties. I wish I could claim that once I’d done my “soul searching” and committed to a change, that once I started taking action, all those anxieties disappeared.
I can’t. That’s not how it works for me.
But I’ve learned to also consider the other side of the fear and uncertainties. With uncertainty comes anticipation. With fear, excitement. And the gratification – even pride – that I decided to build a life and career around my interests and needs, rather than just plodding forward for the sake of sticking to the plan.
* I use these terms because that’s the common framing, especially in academic circles. I’m not a fan of the terms, for various reasons, but that’s a discussion for another day.