I don’t want this post to sound negative as that is not how I am feeling. I think the appropriate mood that summarizes what follows is, “I’m just saying'”. These are just observations – I am beyond feeling like a victim. It is what it is.
See. I finally drank the Kool-Aid. I think I was probably 25. I decided my dad was right and that I was going to get my shit together and follow his instructions. And I’m not blaming my dad. That whole generation believed in the same schism. Do good in school, go to college, get a good paying job, realize the American dream. Our predecessors wanted us to do better than they did. They wanted us to not have to climb the sub-corporate ladder only to work more and have less leisure time. They wanted us to enjoy our lives more and work less. And from probably 1970 (and maybe earlier, I was born in ’72) to 2000 the formula to improve upon our parents success was to go to college, which would get us a good job, which would allow us to be happier.
I resisted like mad. I was a skater punk hippie pothead. I didn’t need the corporate world or to conform to the rules. Until resistance became futile. I did pretty well but realized that the cigarettes I was smoking were giving me bronchitis every year. And getting antibiotics from the doctor cost money. Maybe I needed insurance. To get insurance I need a ‘good job’. Hmm. I also grew tired of my car breaking down all the time. Maybe I needed to spend more than $1500 on a vehicle. For that I needed money. Hmmmm.
My girlfriend at the time was going to become a pharmacist. She was going to school to get a job to make money and have insurance and a brand new car. That started to make sense the longer I dated her. While she had a plan to take care of her future, I had no idea what I even wanted to do. So I fell back on some old advice.
Originally I dropped out of my undergraduate pursuit after two years. My dad paid for two years and said, if I made A’s and B’s he’d pay for the rest. Well, I didn’t make all A’s and B’s and he followed through. I took three years off to work and made pretty decent money. But no insurance and not enough money to afford any luxuries.
I decided to take student loans to finish my degree because my dad already had half of my education paid for. It made good economic sense for me to finish what I had started. I did much better the second time and graduated. By this time I had made friends in my department and even served as a TA while an undergraduate. I was exposed to new opportunities because I was kind of good and fun to be around. This led to some term jobs in my field which gave me experience. Before I knew it I was building a foundation.
At this point I was competitive for agency jobs but I wanted something different. I wanted to be free to pursue my own interests. I decided to try for a Master’s degree to see if I could hack it. But my first two years of underperformance required that I take more loans to get the Master’s. But I was set on doing it.
I did very well in graduate school and got a lot of attention. Though I ended up investing another $10k in my education I was successful in the mainstream for perhaps the first time in my life. This buzz led me to believe I could do a PhD and, why not? It would essentially be paid for through a tuition waiver. And, in the end, wasn’t it better to get a PhD for the same price? What was a few more years. Plus, at this point, I was kind of a martyr and enjoyed showing everyone that the kid who almost failed out of undergrad had become a super student.
I really enjoyed PhD school and it suited me. I was able to work at my own pace, rarely more than 20 or 25 hours a week, and the work truly inspired me. It was the first time since I was an early teen that I looked forward to going to school or work or whatever. I did well and had a lot of time to enjoy my hobbies. I decided an academic career would suit me well because I thought I could continue my lifestyle.
Well, I was wrong. I hadn’t really thought about what I would do once I finished my PhD because I believed I would just ‘get a job’. I believed that I was now going to be rewarded with the tenure-track position of my dreams because I had done all the leg work. I did what I was supposed to do. I was surprised that I enjoyed it and excited to accept my just rewards.
I did get a job, but it was a horrible experience. The town, the department, the entire gig was nothing like what I expected. My coworkers were depressed and beaten down. The faculty meetings and face time required were outrageous. My ability to succeed was nearly non-existent because of all the complications. The reality of a crappy tenure track job was shocking, disillusioning, and depressing.
At this point I could have suffered through a few years, jumped ship, and hope to move on to a better job. But I had learned a lot in the preceding few years and realized the job market was tight. I felt like I had shot my wad, accepted the only job I would ever get, and was now stuck. I believed that I had achieved the best I possibly could. In hindsight I never should have accepted the job. I should have stayed put and continued to adjunct for a few years in hopes that something better would come along. Only it probably wouldn’t have.
The reality was that hundreds of other kids were equivalently educated, good, and fun as I was. And, as horrible as it sounds, some of them did not have a white penis. The reality of my career path was that there were hundreds of over-qualified applicants for every job available. Some years were worse. But the bottom line was that I was one of the surplus PhDs produced to serve an academic institution but for whom no job existed. I was a casualty of the new academia. I subscribed to a dream that no longer existed. The one job that I possibly could have won I was prepared to quit. I was done.
You can read more about this here where I discuss why I quit. It wasn’t just about the job. I had family reasons. But the point is, the job for which I had prepared and that I pursued did not exist. It was a job from my father’s generation. Of my academic advisors generation. The jobs that existed required an effort and sacrifice that I wasn’t willing to provide. I was duped into believing I could pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake and that I would be rewarded for my efforts by being indoctrinated into the academic world.
I was naive. I was probably a lot of other things, too. I was arrogant. Cocky. Entitled, maybe. But I needed to find that confidence. I found it and then it was sucked right out of me.
Sure, it was my decision to bail. And in trying for the past ten years to find some meaningful work leveraging my PhD I have failed miserably. It has been depressing to continually try to find a rewarding job that would utilize my skills, training, and intelligence but they really don’t exist. Or, they exist somewhere else and are occupied by people who didn’t give up and quit. I don’t deserve those jobs and so I don’t get them.
And now I am still in limbo. Though I know I need to let go of the past to move forward, I hold on to some scrap of my former abilities and performance. I miss the confidence in knowing I was good at what I did and that people benefitted from my mind. I long to feel that sense of ability and belonging.
But I also long to find that again, somewhere else. I realize my passion was never really in conservation biology. I was good at it and I enjoyed it, but my colleagues had a true passion that I did not possess. They deserve the jobs because they will make the sacrifices. I won’t make those sacrifices therefore I need to move on. I need to find a vehicle for my passions and talents. I can begin again. Maybe I can leverage my experience and knowledge (though I try, that seems doubtful) or maybe I will start over completely.
What I do know is that I can achieve things. I can DO. I am good. I can learn again. But I think my story needs to be shared. There may be others who have had similar experiences, or young people headed in a similar direction who I might be able to help. I wish I could find the people who could benefit from my story, from my experience. I wish I would have had guidance during that time in my life. I don’t remember people around me trying to help but, if there were, I wasn’t able to hear them. I want to be that for someone.
BTW. My brother is a motorcycle mechanic. He got married at 18 and had a kid. Never went to college. Was a self-taught bicycle mechanic for 20 years. Scrambled a bit in his 40s but now makes a much higher salary than I ever have and is viewed as an extreme expert in his field. Two sons, two opposing career paths, our dad was wrong.