Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Non-Academic Day-to-Day Debunked

From what people tell me, life as a tenure-track professor isn't all that different from life as a PhD student, especially with the increasing expectations that grad students will be presenting at conferences, publishing, and doing service activities. Sure, you teach more. The pressures to publish increase. You add supervision and more service to the mix. But the job is fundamentally still flexible (in terms of focus, hours, and location), self-directed, and performed in the same environment with the same types of people. Transitioning from the day-to-day of a PhD student to the day-to-day of a faculty member sounds pretty easy.

One of the consequences of the way that grad students are indoctrinated into the conventions and customs of academe is that the day-to-day realities of working life outside of the academy seem a bit strange, a bit scary, even a bit unsavory. I know lots of us have had these thoughts: Working in an office from 9-5 sounds like a prison sentence. Non-academic work and co-workers can't possibly be intellectually stimulating enough. No boss is going to tell me what to do. I'm nearly three month into my new administrative position, the amount of time conventional wisdom suggests it takes to settle into a new job, and I've been reflecting on what life is like in the #alt-ac compared to my initial fears and expectations. So, what's it like, you ask, and what did I think it would be like?

Belief: There's no way I can spend two hours a day commuting.
Reality: Yes, commuting kinda' sucks. I spent twenty very cold minutes in an extraordinarily long line for the bus this afternoon. But most of the time, it's actually very pleasant. Sometimes I write, or crochet. Mostly I read. The commute is so automatic now that I'm mostly unaware that I'm doing it at all, and I've read more books in the last month than I probably did all of last year.

Belief: I like sleeping in and starting my day when I choose.
Reality: Most mornings, I get up a 5:15 and go to the gym before work. I leave the house at precisely the same time every day, and I have no choice about when I start my day--everyone in my office works the same hours. I don't mind in the least. It's actually easier for me to get up at 5:15 than it is to get up later, probably because I'm in a lighter part of the sleep cycle.

Belief: I've spent five years working from home, mostly alone, and I'm a total introvert. There's no way I can be productive and sane working in an office full of people every day.
Reality: I love working around people. I love my cat, but spending my days only with him were making me a little crazy. When I need to focus, I put on my headphones and/or shut my office door. I love office gossip, and that when something isn't going well (or when it is), there's always someone to vent to or celebrate with. And you can't beat co-workers who buy pizza for everyone when their back-pay from a contract negotiation comes in.

Belief: I'm too independent and self-directed to report to someone on a regular basis.
Reality: Probably because my job is pseudo-managerial (I'm staff, but my position used to be management level and mostly still resembles a management role), I have oodles of autonomy. But I like reporting to someone. The PhD is a whole lot of delayed gratification and feedback, whereas office life provides tons of both. It also helps that my boss is straightforward, reasonable, and practical, as well as someone I actually like talking to. 

Belief: I treasure my flexible schedule too much to work a 9-5 with only two weeks of vacation a year.
Reality: Yes, I miss weekday lunches with friends and Friday afternoon movies. But it turns out that a flexible schedule and I are a major mismatch. Anxiety about how to structure my time and about the sense that all the time was work time was the bane of my academic life. Now, 4:30 comes and work is over. I work some evenings, but I work on things I want to--these blog posts, my dissertation, on a friend's book, with my grade 5 student--and they each have their time in my week. I feel no guilt about taking time for myself, my friends, my partner, my family. My brain positively adores the structure. Yes, I'd love to take off for thee weeks this summer, but I'll get there eventually.

Belief: No one is as smart and interesting as academics, and any non-academic workplace is going to be soul-crushing and mind-numbing. (Yes, I'm exaggerating, but you know people feel like this, at least a little.)
Reality: My co-workers are awesome. Most of them are not academics. We all love to cook and eat, to trade office gossip, to bemoan whatever drama is going on with the students and faculty we work with, and to talk about our pets and families. No, we don't debate about theory or David Gilmour. But is my working life lacking in intellectual stimulation? Not remotely, especially not the week that I had to read upward of 50 scholarship proposals in science and math. I can pretty convincingly explain massive gravity now, which is not bad for an English major.

Belief: I work in my yoga pants every day. I'd hate having to get dressed for work every morning.
Reality: Putting together a fun outfit + accessories is just that--fun. It's nice to feel put together every day, instead of like someone who forewent a shower to squeeze in a few more paragraphs and only remembers at dinner time that she forgot to brush her teeth that morning.

Belief: All I do all day is read and write. What if I never get to write in a non-academic job? Or read?
Reality: I got lucky with my job, sure, but I spend most of my days reading, writing, and editing--nomination letters, instruction manuals, briefing notes, government reports, emails (so many emails), student research profiles, workshop descriptions, presentations, and on and on. With my headphones on and my favourite wordprocessor open, I sometimes forget that I'm not at home dissertating--except that my office chair is way better.

If my transition posts have a central theme, it's this: the contemplation of transition, of not being an academic any longer, can be terrifying, but the reality is not remotely as terrifying, or as different, as our imaginings. Many of us are so conditioned to think of an academic life as the best kind of life that no other seems like it can possibly compare. Imagine my shock when I realized that the structure, the community, the wardrobe of the non-professorial life would, in combination, make me far happier, less anxious, and more productive than I've probably been since I started my PhD. Turns out the day-to-day of life in the alt-academy isn't all that different, and is just different enough, from the academic day-to-day I once aimed for. Colour me suprised--and pleased.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the thoughts on being outside academia. I'm pondering my options, so these perspectives are very useful. For what it's worth though, I'm finding the professor thing WAY different from being a grad student. I sailed through my Ph.D. no problem at all, but my first professorship is kicking my butt. It's so much more work - grad school did not prepare me for this. That is the reason I'm considering leaving academia - to have a reasonable workload, not to feel like I'm falling behind at "just" 80 hours a week.

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  2. I think Zil Deamaych points to something important here ... like a lot of things, grad school prepares you to be really good at grad school. I finally perfected studying exams in time for my final comp, at which point I would never have to write another. But really, grad students in a particular discipline are going to be pretty bad at imagining what it's like to have any other job---probably even grad student in a different part of the university. I think most tenured faculty have trouble imaging what it's like to work minimum wage jobs and try to feed a family, for sure; but they probably also have an unrealistic view of the lives of lawyers, doctors or other professionals, too.
    WRT to what Zil Deamaych says: in my experience, and having worked with and talked to a fair number of new faculty, I think the job gets easier with experience. The workload doesn't go down (though it shifts around ... as Aimee has pointed out in a few posts, after tenure the amount of service work goes up, both in terms of how much there is and how interesting it is). But some of the stress goes away. What seems like a crisis the first time you go through it starts to look like part of the annual cycle in academia. A lot of things that take tons of time the first time you do them are faster and easier the next. For most of us, the sense of at least a bit of control over your life does return!

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