If I could say anything to a grad student, it would be this: that the only thing that is worth anything in this world is love. (Obv I can’t say this)."
The comment didn't receive all that many "thumbs up" or much discussion. Nevertheless, it spoke to me in a very personal way. It got me thinking not only about a recent experience I had as a mentor to another early-career philosopher, but also about own personal path and second-hand experience of other people's paths. The more I reflected on these things, the more it occurred to me that there are a lot of really important issues worth discussing here that seem to be rarely discussed publicly: namely, how academics (particularly early-career academics) can often be torn between personal relationships and their career, and indeed face agonizing questions about how to resolve these conflicts.
Anyway, I have never faced the kind of choice--between love and career--that they faced. As I mentioned here, I did make one career decision on personal grounds: the choice to leave a VAP at an R1 for a VAP at a teaching school so that I could be together with my then-fiance (now my spouse). While as I noted that choice may have had consequences for my career (viz. my "career trajectory"), that wasn't something I realized at the time--so, at the time, the choice was easy: I moved jobs without much thought, simply because it seemed best for my relationship. However, what if I had known the move might affect my "trajectory"? In that case, I may have very much faced a choice between "doing what is best for my career" and doing what is best for my relationship. I also had a number of much closer calls with having to make agonizing choices, such as being a finalist for TT jobs abroad, literally half a world away from my spouse (who would have had to stay in the US). Although I didn't end up getting the relevant offers, simply being a finalist did lead to a lot of difficult preemptive discussions with my spouse as well as a lot of rumination about what to do if I did receive the relevant offer (would I accept the position if I received an offer?, what would we do as a couple?, etc.).
Although these were just (relevantly nearby) hypothetical cases for me, I've known people who have faced these kinds of decisions. Further, the dreaded 'two-body problem' is faced by many people in the profession, and is one of the most unique things about academia. And of course there are other, more mundane conflicts between love and relationships, such as how much one works versus how much one devotes to others. Whereas other careers can require choosing between relationships and success in other ways, academia is relatively unique in terms of job-mobility (whereas in many other lines of work, one can have reasonable career prospects wherever one moves, in academia one is lucky to have one place one can move and have gainful employment). I've also seen the kinds of downstream consequences different 'two-body' choices here can have, such as the strain of being apart straining or even ending relationships or marriages, and on the other hand, career consequences (such as passing up a person's last real chance for an academic job).
How should people facing these kinds of situations arrive at decisions? Because there are doubtless readers out there with far more experience here than I--people who had to make very difficult decisions, and then experience the consequences of those decisions--I'd like to ask willing readers to weigh in:
- If you had to choose between what seemed best viz. love/personal relationships or what was best for your career, how did you think about it, and what choice did you make?
- What were the apparent consequences of the decision you made? If you could go back in time and make the same decision again, would you? Why/why not?
I do hope some people with experience weigh in, as I suspect there are many other people out there--present and future--who will face difficult decisions like these who could use experienced insight.
Before opening things up for discussion, allow me to briefly share how I think about these matters (and what I told the friend I mentored). I've spent all of my adult life doing philosophy. I became a philosophy major my first semester of college, at the young age of seventeen. I'm now forty-one. So, I've now spent over well over half of my life doing philosophy. I truly love it--as much if not more than when I began so many years ago. In this regard, I feel very lucky. Be that as it may, a career in academia has been a very hard road, and in many respects my relationship to philosophy has been a one-way street: I fancy I have given far more to it than it has given to me. Further, philosophy is just an inanimate object. It has no hopes, fears, pain, joy, or love. I may love it. But it does not love me back. And while I have known many good people in philosophy--indeed, people who matter very much to me and who I am lucky to call my friends--true friends are of course just as possible outside of academia. In contrast, my spouse is a living, breathing human being I love who does love me back: someone who has been there with me and for me the best of times and the worst of times. Putting all of these things together, the counterfactuals seem to me quite clear. If I were to choose what is best for my career but endanger or harm my relationship, I could well enjoy professional success--but the cost would not be worth it: I would at best be a successful person whose choice jeopardized, harmed, or in the worst case scenario destroyed the best thing that ever happened to me. I am not sure I could live with that (indeed, I don't think I could). If, on the other hand, I chose to prioritize my relationship over my career, I could very much wonder about what could have been (viz. career success). I could at times even be resentful of having to pass up career opportunities or having to change professions. But I think I could live with that. I would, at least, still have and be with my spouse--a living, breathing person I love and who actually loves me back: a person who has given my life happiness and meaning philosophy never has. And, as much as I love philosophy, I think I could be happy enough doing something else (not to mention the fact that I think one can still be a philosopher without being an academic).
So, for me the choice seems clear: if I had to choose between love and my career, I think (I hope) that I would choose love. Which is why Old Prof's comment spoke to me. A while back I read some stuff on people's deathbed regrets. Not surprisingly, from what I read people's deathbed regrets tended not to focus on career success. They tended to have to do with personal relationships: wishing they had been a better spouse, parent, or friend. Although there are of course stories of people prioritizing their work right up to the end--Einstein, for instance, was literally still working on a unified theory of everything on his deathbed--for my part that is not the kind of person I envision myself or want to be. If I had to choose between writing in a notebook alone on my deathbed or being surrounded by loved ones, the choice again seems clear. Careers are replaceable. People are not. And, to me, given my experience in life thus far, that says it all. If/when I face conflicts between my career and the people who matter (and should matter) in my life, I think (and hope) I should choose the latter.
But again, these are just the thoughts and ruminations of a fellow who hasn't had to make these kinds of choices yet (well, aside from the daily ones). What are yours?