Alt-Ac Realness: On Leaving

 Alt-Ac Realness: Failure, Advice Exhaustion, & Chinese Finger Traps

Previous post: "No One's Interested in Backstories" 

For the past few months, time has gone by in a blur. People keep asking what has happened to me since I posted my story. I am always unsure how to answer that question; the writer side of me says that I can’t respond yet because it’s too soon. There is no neat and tidy resolution to my story yet, which is frustrating in both a narrative and personal sense. But life, for better or worse, exceeds the confines of plot.

So far, my alt-ac story does not read like a victory. I miss the sense of purpose I had when I was researching and teaching. I miss the false promise that academia sold to me for 7 years. It’s a strange thing-- to miss a fantasy. 

About six weeks ago, I landed a long-term temp job in a corporate office as a receptionist (perhaps the saddest bit of all is this: I currently make more money than I have ever made, including when I was a full time instructor).

It is actually the ideal job to have while looking for other jobs, and for getting writing in done my down time. But nevertheless, I feel embarrassingly over-educated. How absurd, a Ph.D. in Art History! I also feel far behind basic norms of corporate office life, which leaves me wondering if it’s just not for me, or if I just have a lot to learn. In general, though, I truly like my coworkers and have made some real friends.

Despite the financial security I now have, I still experience very real and acute panic attacks centered around my fear that I will never figure out the next step. Especially since when I first decided to leave, some of my Ph.D. friends urged me not to take just any job because I’d get stuck there. Advice that I now find absurd, mostly for practical reasons—I have to financially support myself. But the reality is, the harder I try to look for a new track, the more it eludes me.

My career search currently feels a bit like a Chinese-finger trap given out as a party-favor: the harder you pull to free your finger from its confines, the more constricted it gets. Life intervenes at very rude times, and my academic trauma is not the only hurdle I’ve been slammed with recently. This double whammy—career and personal—has led to a profound psychological exhaustion unlike any I’ve ever experienced. So I’m moving slowly, and trying not to judge myself.  

Still, I cannot shake the feeling of failure, and its stench clings to me like the stale smell of cigarette smoke.  This is the real alt-ac life, at least initially. This feeling is why there is such a large online community of ex-academics, and an ever increasing number of career coaches who specialize in the alt-ac transition. In our attempts to support each other, I feel as if the alt-ac process has been given an overly optimistic veneer that can, at times, invalidate the very real trauma that spawned these 'alt' careers in the first place.

A deeply sarcastic person by nature, I find real depth and meaning in irony. For this reason,  I have come to detest these sugary platitudes in the narratives of both academic and alt-ac successes. However, optimism is an incredibly valuable outlook to have as you venture into the great unknown of re-defining yourself, how you see success, and most especially, how you regard failure. Sometimes, unfortunately, optimism can be elusive if you suffer from depression. While rationally I know I am not a failure, I do think it’s important to recognize and validate this feeling of failure, if only to be able to move past it.  

This is how I’ve been trying to explain my thought process to my non-academic (and much more well-balanced) friends of late: Imagine if you were so in love with this one thing, that you were willing to pursue it despite the slim odds of success, despite years of poverty level pay, and despite the ever-increasing amount of bullshit and toxic environments that constitutes academic departments. You gave everything to this one thing, at least 6 years of your life, while your friends got jobs, bought houses, had IRAs, and even free-time. But at least you were doing what you loved. You sacrificed everything for it.

 Now imagine that after all that, after years and years of incredible stress and anxiety over whether you would have funding for the next year, if you would have to move again, if you could afford rent, you found yourself coming up short.

Then you have two choices: you either are landed with a string of adjunct jobs that leaves you with 300 students a semester, no time to breathe, and no way to afford living, despite working intense hours with terribly long commutes. Or you decided to leave, with the vain hope of greener pastures. Your decision to leave what you loved and sacrificed everything for was not an easy one, but a necessary one.

There have been many days when the only victory I had was getting out of bed and going to work, only to return to bed as soon as I got home. The sinkhole of depression is so insidiously all-encompassing that there have been a lot of false starts trying to climb out of it the past few months.

I know that I will find my sense of purpose again. In many ways, this blog, and the community that has so warmly welcomed me, has been a profoundly healing experience.

But, I am also tired of hearing advice. I need a break before I can take all the well-meaning (and invaluable) guidance into consideration again. I imagine a lot of you in similar positions feel the same way—everyone has an opinion about your cover letter, networking, what you should be doing. We are inundated with options, advice, instructions. We are also our toughest critics—we know what we should be doing, but sometimes that is harder to actualize than it may seem. I hope that if you identified with this post in any way, you give yourself a break. And now, in a bout of irony, some 'advice': take a deep breath and remember that this is already your life, you are living it, try not to get too obsessed with the future because it will only drive you insane.

As always, keep reaching out to me, commenting and sharing. I'm listening. 

Next post: "Call for Support: Keep Post-PhD The Blog Up"