It’s fairly cliché to say that we are all built of layers; most people liken themselves to onions when referring to the layered nature of subjectivity. While still cliché, I’d like to claim the status of a gently-sweetened, buttery, and flakey apple pie. Equally layered and full of depth, I’m finding that the sweetness lurks beneath the crispy exterior.
Those who follow me on social media might be aware of my continued introspection about this odd period of life I find myself navigating. I’m almost done my PhD, and I am currently applying to many fellowships and jobs and thinking about what’s next for me. I’m moving beyond the “tenure track or bust” orientation while also applying for tenure track positions. I’m building relationships with prospective supervisors for post-doc positions while often asking them to write me letters of reference for full time positions. I’m working as a part of a different grant team on a larger-scale project that, if funded, would be pretty game changing. I’m actively seeking paid writing and speaking gigs in health and mental health, building the contingency that I might end up freelancing or consulting. I started a free month of Linkedin premium.
That last item demonstrates the depth of commitment I have to this search. I’ve never been a fan of the platform, finding it ill-suited to capturing academic jobs and pursuits. And yet, here I am.
These are all things that I’m doing, but they don’t capture the work that’s going on behind the “hustle” (oh how I hate that word). Beneath the 50-100 page applications lurks a deep sense of self-exploration—the cinnamon to the apples of my hustle. Throughout my academic career thus far, I’ve mostly known what comes next. Undergrad moved into Masters, which flowed even more seamlessly into PhD. I felt comfortable in grad school—nestled in a familiar environment, yet challenged by the collaborations I sought out, encouraged by my mentors, and enthusiastic about the changes I could make.
Over the course of the past few months, I’ve grown tired of being a student, yet equally uncertain about what is next. I initially framed this as an anxiety about the future—and it is that, too. But I’ve been increasingly thinking about how I can allow my values and desires to drive my pursuits in and beyond academia. It’s becoming about more than securing a tenure track position; it’s becoming more about whether that position would afford me the chance to collaborate with interesting and inspiring people. Whether I would be able to support students’ growth. Whether I would be able to do work that has relevance to policy and social systems. Whether I would be able to research and write without getting sucked into a competition for scarce resources.
I’m probably imagining an academic utopia, but I’m doing it pragmatically. Hold your scoffs at my contradiction of terms: I really do think it is possible to do collaborative, ethical, and impactful work. I’ve seen it happen. This work isn’t free from mess, and often bumps up against the strictures of institutional bureaucracy. But it is human.
The human nature of the work I want to do is sometimes missed in the continual funding applications, the peer reviews that feel more like attacks, and the siloing of disciplines. But ultimately, we are humans, doing work with humans, for humans, amongst humans… and I believe we can do this work for good. When I think about the values that guide my pursuits, I think about connection, community, compassion, and curiosity. (I’m sorry about the alliteration, Glen.) I think about love and loyalty and learning. I think about respect and relationships.
I’m making this sound easy, and I’m getting away from the heart of the matter. I’m experiencing existential uncertainty that makes my days somewhat unpredictable. I wake up some days so excited by the possibilities that lie before me; some days I feel like no matter which path I take, it will be the right one. Other days, I find it hard to get out of the house, or to get motivated to do the most straightforward work-related task—particularly those that involve abstract or creative thinking. On these days, I do a lot of cleaning, or baking. These tasks have the kind of discrete end point I am seeking when I have wandering days. Put some flour, butter, and sugar together, add a bunch of apples and cinnamon, and bake at 350, and you have a pie. There’s a reason my kitchen overflows these days.
I’m trying not to judge myself for this lack of motivation. Ultimately I know that it is part of the ebb and flow of life, and I’m being gentle with myself. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that sometimes I want to run away, sell my pies, teach pilates and ballet, and write inconsequential things like this blog post.
But even if I ran away, I would still value connection, community, compassion, and curiosity. Love and loyalty and learning. Respect and relationships.
There would just be more pies, and fewer grant applications.
[Salted Treacle Butter Apple Pie from the Half Baked Harvest cookbook (which I highly recommend -- it is spectacular.]