There’s something invigorating about the sense that you are getting a second chance, an opportunity to do things differently. I’m sitting in my (recently sold) condo in Bloomington, IN and I can’t stop thinking that my life has taken a fortunate turn. I don’t really know why I should be thinking this way. My bank account is dwindling with each passing day; I’m leaving a PhD behind after devoting nearly six years of my life to it (and too much emotion); my passion for history, the subject I have always loved, will never be the same; and my destination is law school, a place where I know I will have to work hard and go into debt, all in the hopes of having a better shot at a job when it is all said and done. Yet I can’t stop shaking this sense of optimism. Perhaps it’s because my outlook on life has gotten so much better in the last year. In fact, it was at precisely this time last year that I was applying for the Fulbright Hays to go to Russia to do archival research for my dissertation. I was sitting in the library, writing my proposal, and thinking about how little I wanted to go back to the archives and libraries. I’ll never forget working in Samara for the summer. When I got my first files I remember how excited I was that I was finally going to read archival sources. Then I actually read them. I read through 200 handwritten pages of Russian cursive and didn’t find anything useful. It was the most painstaking thing I’ve done in my life. I recall thinking that if I didn’t already have ADD, I would get it after a summer of doing this.
With the knowledge that I had no desire to be a researcher, I thought that maybe I would find my salvation in teaching. And for a little while I did. It was nice to see students make progress and to read teacher reviews in which they said I was the best teacher they ever had. But, to steal a term from Existentialism, I couldn’t shake the dread. The dread that for the 10% of students that seemed to want to work hard and learn, about 90% had no desire at all. There was also the dread that I would never find a meaningful teaching position, meaningful in this case being a job that paid wages above poverty-level. (For those of you who are not familiar, the majority of teaching positions in higher education are staffed by adjuncts, who are paid by the credit hour, have one-year contracts, and no benefits.) I honestly hope that some day I can look back and laugh at a search ad for two classes that offered to pay $2208. (I never clarified, but I’m pretty sure that was for a semester’s work.) I probably won’t though, because I know some poor bastard had no choice but to take it. If there are any university administrators and politicians reading this, I want you to know that I think it is a splendid idea to model your labor practices on such workers’ paradises as McDonald’s. Keep up the good work. I’m sure America’s universities will continue to remain competitive!
The final push out of the door came when I went to the AHA, the preeminent gathering of historians in the US. I’m sure there is some joke for two gaudy Manhattan hotels filled with historians (something…something…desperation, esotericism, and cheap suits). There was an entire massive conference room devoted to interviews for academic jobs. It was like a gigantic machine. Applicants dropped off their CVs at the “collection point,” took a number and when it was called they went to the appropriate booth for their interview. When their turn was up, somebody else was waiting. It was so surreal to watch. The final scenes from Gallipoli came to mind: “Leave the wounded! Second wave to the wall!”
Once I had decided that I didn’t want to work on my dissertation anymore, I had a lot of time to do some soul-searching. For the first time in a long time, I finally asked myself what I wanted out of life (I know what you’re thinking and yes, 28 was a little late to be doing that). It sort of flies against the discourse of do what you love to do, but I came to the understanding that although I loved history, it was more of a hobby than a profession for me. I always liked reading books on history for my own enjoyment, but as a scholar and teacher, you have to do it for others. I never could get over that. In the pursuit of my career, I also had dragged myself away from the American West, a place I loved so much, to the Midwest. I liked living in Bloomington and the friends I made in graduate school, but Indiana was not my home and I knew it never would be. I missed looking at the mountains, basking in the sunshine, and the sense that I belonged. I resolved to do whatever I needed to do to get back to the Rockies. To my surprise, nobody in the area wanted an expert on Imperial Russian history and peasant culture (damn you post-industrial, knowledge-based economy)! So I started looking for alternative careers. I met with the pre-law advisor at IU, who also happened to be a history MA. He told me that a lot of the skills I had (reading, writing, and research) would translate well to law. Law? The profession of my forebears? (There are eight past, present, and future lawyers in my family if you include me). Perhaps the man was right. Maybe there would be a place for me in jurisprudence. I didn’t go to law school at first because I didn’t want to risk the debt. With its tuition waiver and stipend, grad school seemed the safer choice. Now, after everything, I finally decided to take the risk.
I know I’m not alone in leaving the academy, but at times it felt that way. This blog is for everyone considering leaving the ivory tower for something else (it’s also going to be a way for me to stave off madness). I know for some that means law school. I hope that in documenting my experiences, you can have an idea of the unknown and use my entries to make your own decisions. Wish me luck! The journey will be hard and the road will be long. But, at least for now, I will travel it gladly.
If you’re bent wi’ arthiritis,
Your bowels have got Colitis,
You’ve gallopin’ bollockitis
And you’re thinkin’ it’s time you died,
If you been a man o’ action,
Though you’re lying there in traction,
You will get some satisfaction
Thinkin’, “Jesus, at least I tried.”