Recently, I was talking to a postdoc, a philosopher who had been looking for a permanent position for a while. He is well recognized in his field, has several papers and a well-received book, and as is the custom in Europe, has also received several prestigious grants. Yet, the job market being what it is, he hasn't been able to get a permanent or tenure track position. He said that after several years of searching for the elusive permanent job, he was re-evaluating his priorities, as he felt that job market had taken over his life. "Not that I spend so much time working per day. I don't think I put in more hours than people who have a regular job. But I want to find a way so that my job is not the only thing that matters to me".
This reminded me of the following wonderful blogpost by Marcus Arvan, where he writes
I was watching the film Zero Dark Thirty on TV this weekend, and was struck by a particular scene where the main character is asked by the CIA Director what else she had been working on the past decade besides attempting to track down Osama bin Laden. Her response, delivered flatly and without hesitation is: "Nothing. I've done nothing else." It struck me that something similar--though a bit less extreme for sure--has been true in my case.
As my postdoc friend pointed out, if you have children or a partner, or both, you are in a sense forced to have other priorities--you have to spend some time with them. He worried, being single and childless, there was no external force that sorted priorities for him. This may be true, but as a parent (and being in a relationship), it can also be the case that one feels terribly torn: one feels both a bad parent (and looks with dismay and envy at parents who seem to be so good at it, who organize wonderful playdates where your child carves pumpkins, or bakes a cake, and you think, why don't we do that?) One feels at the same time that parental duties get in the way of work in a frustrating way (toddlers are sweet and adorable, and there are so many lovely moments, but still, taking care of a young child and churning out papers, grant proposals, doing service, and doing a decent job at teaching is all incredibly stressful). So while I think that my friend is right that being a parent sorts your priorities, being an academic parent comes with its own challenges.
So how do we make sure that we can make things besides our jobs matter?
I had expected things improve once one has a permanent position, but this is not necessarily the case. Being on the market for years, it's easy to continue with habits where every free moment is spent writing, or where - if one is not as productive as one hopes one could be - one feels guilty and useless.
Perhaps it is not just the search for a permanent job, but academia itself with its striving for excellence, where everyone, alas has to be above average that instills an unhealthy outlook towards life. When I interviewed philosophers outside of academia, one recurring thread in their responses was the tremendous sense of liberation: yes, you can be excellent in your job, but being merely good is OK too (note: I'm going to extend this project with a permanent website, testimonials, podcasts, and a mentorship program since I find it important for philosophers to have alternative options than academia, which can be exploitative). Academia drives on fear and emotional rollercoasters: the expected rejections of journal papers and grant proposals, the fear of inadequacy. All these things make us emotionally invested so it can easily become that one's academic successes and failures (largely outside of our own control, as a search committee member again emphasized) become the sole focus of one's life.
I've heard the following suggestions of things that help:
- Protecting some part of one's time (e.g., weekend) as being non-job related
- Engaging in meditative practices
- Making nature walks
- Exercise regularly
- Taking on a new hobby and making time for it
- Trying to meet people in meatspace (old friends, making new friends)
- Making new friends is a big challenge for academics, who relocate frequently. Some tips for making news friends I've heard are: volunteering, acquiring a dog (or walking someone else's)
- Joining a church, choir, or a secular movement which provides plenty of opportunities for interaction
I'd be interested to hear other suggestions from Cocooners, and especially, would love to hear from people who managed to break out of the vicious cycle of being so much invested in academia that nothing else seems to matter.