This is a question I’ve been thinking about very deeply lately. The question in my life in 2015. I’m embarking on some new adventures this summer, all of which have grown out of my grad school experience and dissertation research. But what I’m putting together in my professional life doesn’t look like what a typical PhD student or young scholar would do.
This is not exactly academic quit lit, because I’m not quitting scholarship and I’m not cutting ties with my scholarly communities. I have a specific and doable plan in place for wrapping up the dissertation, publishing articles on the most important results, deciding whether I want to publish a book, and giving the academic job market a go or two. And I’m not vindictive or disappointed about taking on new professional identities because I knew what academia really was long before I started my PhD.
Rather, this is a reflection on what it means to be a scholar, a professional, and a human who wants to have a good life.
This, in a nutshell, is the next year of my life:
- Finish the dissertation.
- Present talks and publish articles (one under review, a second to submit this fall) on my dissertation research.
- Work at Allovate, a specialty pharmaceutical company developing new treatments for allergic conditions. My role will be to help develop research collaborations and increase expert and public familiarity with the company.
- Assist with leading the Food Allergic Adults Connection Group.
- Participate in the thriving community of anthropologists and science studies scholars in New York City.
- Stay connected with all of my new friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in the allergy world.
The Crisis of the Humanities (and the rest of academia, too)
Academia doesn’t look too good for new PhDs these days. There are very few jobs in my area that would compensate me for the time and money spent earning this degree. (There are plentiful jobs that would pay me less than a barista with zero job security, but that’s not why I’ve spent 26 of the past 30 years in school.) Of those jobs that exist, most are in places my partner and I don’t want to live in right now – and even decently paid jobs at my level would barely be worth it financially after the hassle and expense of moving across the country or the world. The academic job market, especially in the humanities (which my field is, more or less), is so inhumane that it’s spawned dozens of advice columns, books, and even specialized, former academic career counselors.
And if you do land a job, a good job, it’s really three jobs all at once: a full-time job as a researcher, a full-time job as a teacher of college students, and a full-time job as an event planner and administrator. People burn out early and often. In my first year of grad school, I learned to clear my schedule in weeks 5 through 7 of the semester because I burn out after a month of doing three jobs at once and have some kind of odd and exhausting physical collapse (in order by semester for the first 3 years: series of allergic reactions and chronic GI problems, concussion, oral surgery, 6-week sinus infection, one semester when nothing went seriously wrong, and depression). And don’t complain or seek help, because even having a student or faculty position makes you one of the lucky ones!
I knew all this going in. I knew all this as an undergraduate after working in a plant science lab for a year; it’s why I didn’t pursue a PhD in plant biology right out of college. What I’ve decided to do with the next year of my life isn’t the result of some sudden existential crisis. I went into grad school pretty well informed about the realities of academic life and thus pretty ambivalent from the start about whether I wanted to continue on to professorhood after earning the PhD.
There were moments when I could see myself dedicating my life to the teaching, research, and service of the professoriate, but other times I was just so tired it felt like I was capable of nothing more than getting to the next day, and I might as well just keep drifting in that direction if it minimized the need for creative thinking. I watched my college friends and even my five-years-younger little sister fly past me in life.
The Dissertation as Opportunity
And while I did all that, I woke up every weekday at 7:45am (just before my partner left for work, when he delivered a mug of black coffee to my bedside table) and wrote in bed for two to three hours. Grants, project reports, emails, dissertation, ethics board paperwork – it didn’t matter, as long as I was writing.
So now I know more about my skills, my strengths and weaknesses, and the kinds of people I want to work with, and I have 3 of 4 dissertation chapters fully drafted.
An Anthropologist Walks Into a Pharma Company…
It’s not the research, teaching, service triad of a traditional academic job. Yet it lets me do research, hone some of my research design and strategic thinking skills in a very different context, and, unlike I would do as a traditional humanistic academic, try to directly improve the lives of people with allergies. I’ll squeeze in some pedagogy through scholarly talks and… well, I’ve got some things in the works. I’m excited to see how my anthropological perspective and the things I’ve studied as a grad student – on doctor-patient relationships, on ethics/morality in medical practice, and on patient community concerns about life with chronic conditions – will help my company’s products truly respond to the needs of patients and allergists.
And now for the public service announcement: Although my current pursuits grow out of what I learned and became interested in during my dissertation research, they are separate endeavors. The skills and general knowledge certainly translates, but the data I collected as part of my dissertation research is still, and will only ever be, used for my dissertation and scholarly publications. If you’ve been involved with my research and have any questions, please get in touch.