The Academic Sail Maker

My uncle Frankie Fish, who along with his great nickname also had the greatest surname ever, Tuttolomondo, was a sail maker.  At least I think that was his official trade, he was more or less a tinker, a handy man.  He had every tool imaginable in his basement, kind of amazing really.  Even so, as a sail maker, by the end of twentieth century, there wasn’t much call for his trade.  I’ve been thinking a lot about my uncle lately as I try and decide what to do with my dissertation.

The reason I’ve been thinking about Uncle Frank though comes down to the idea that with the PhD I thought I’d be doing something different, specifically the professorial career path.  Ultimately, I was trained for that path, not the one I’m currently on, if I’m on any sort of path.  Looking at the prospects, however, of the tenure-track career it is pretty bleak on multiple fronts.  First, the job market itself sucks to put it bluntly.  Not only are there more PhDs being produced than there are jobs to fill, there are always current professors unsatisfied with their current position looking for a change.  Honestly, I knew most of this going in, but I thought, well like most graduate students think, that I could find my way to the golden ticket, just like Charlie.  Even if that didn’t’ happen, I could find a position at a small college or community college and be satisfied with that.  Turns out, that secondary job market, for lack of a better term, sucks pretty hard too.

When I get right down to it, I am the academic equivalent of a sail maker.  I don’t want to say I made the wrong decisions regarding my degree, but I could have done a few things differently.  For instance, I should have taken advantage of the public history curriculum offered at my school.  It would have opened up a few more possibilities.  I also could have made my degree a little more culturally relevant.  I wanted to, but my timing was off and we’ll just leave it at that.  Even so a PhD in Modern American History with a minor in Early Modern Europe isn’t exactly the most original combination and if there is any segment of the already poor job market that is downright abysmal it is the Modern US job market.

I don’t regret getting the PhD, not by a long shot.  It was a worthwhile endeavor to say the least and in the grand balance of things it was a good experience.  I learned a great deal about myself along the way, learned what I am capable of and what it takes to finish something and a large scale.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’ve essentially written a book.  Not a very good book at this point, mind, but I did finish it.  (I’ll get to the whole dissertation v. book thing another time.)  I am also lucky enough to realize through this process that I like the academic work place.  It may seem odd to say this realization is a stroke of luck, but it truly is.  I know so many folks who are not happy where they spend the better part of their waking hours.  I genuinely like my job, I like the location, I like my colleagues and I particularly like our clientele, namely students.  The ledger reads pretty black.

Even so, there are jobs to apply to, nominally speaking, leading to the crossroads where I’m currently standing.  Many of the jobs listed, that I do qualify for are in places that I have absolutely no desire visit, let alone live.  Did I mention I like what I’m doing?  I also really like where I live.  I can’t envision moving my family, strictly for my career to some Podunk place that we all would be desperate to leave.

Which leads to the other horn of this dilemma.  Most academics I know aren’t what I’d call happy.  To listen to many of them, one would think they work in a coalmine and not on a college campus.   If the advice columns in The Chronicle and certain blogs are any indication, this kind of disgruntled attitude, this profound angst isn’t unique to my campus.  So many folks seem to have a genuine dislike for students, for any type of administrative personnel, for any department that isn’t their own that it borders on pathological.  Also, what once looked like a pretty stress-free job looks a lot less so these days.  There is a lot of pressure on academics to publish putting the idea of “summers off” pretty much out the window.  Professors do work year round and while a portion of that time is focused on their own interests, it does add to the overall unhappiness one sees when surveying the academic landscape.

So, why is there any dilemma?  Hard to say, but I think it comes down to a number of things that aren’t quite being scratched in my current position.  I think my greatest skill is teaching.  After about 15 years of doing it part time on a pretty consistent basis, I’ve honed my craft to a pretty good level.  There are few things I consider myself good at and one of them is teaching.  Second, I want to be writing more, academically no less.  It has been a long time since I’ve researched something new.  That first dive into the library (now online, sadly) is a rush for me.  I love traveling down the rabbit hole a new project is, the twists and turns; the distractions (oh how I love the distractions!) even the dead ends.  I could go the independent scholar route, but alas, that takes time that I don’t quite have.  Finally, it does come down to what I was trained for again, where I sort of belong.  If I could get a class here or there, a little time each week to do my own thing, and do my other responsibilities I’d be in a good spot…except…

Well, the last part of all of this hinges on where I try and publish my dissertation.  I go for an academic press and it puts me in a slightly better spot at attaining a tenure-track position.  If I go for a trade publisher, I pretty much am saying that the professor route is closed.  While I like what I’m doing now, I also don’t feel challenged at this point.  I think I’ve got what I’m doing pretty well mastered, so where is the next challenge?  If the PhD and the marathon taught me anything it is this: I like the long game, the extended challenge and the far off goal.  I don’t feel stuck or that I’m going backward but I’m not going forward, at least not at the pace I want.  I feel like, even if I don’t get published, making the decision on which direction to go will set me into motion.  I have no idea what kind of road it will be, but at least I’ll be moving.


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