As I discussed ad nauseum in 1500 words of grad school angst, I’m at a bit of a sticking point when it comes to deciding my post-graduate-school future. I’m not really sure where I want to go from here, only that it doesn’t seem to be where everyone else I know wants to go.
For the past few weeks, I’ve employed my top strategy for dealing with my difficulties; namely, I’ve ignored them. This is actually a fairly reasonable strategy when it comes to surviving day-to-day, because it honestly isn’t healthy for me to be constantly obsessing about my (non-)academic future. But as useful as blocking it out might be, it doesn’t resolve the issue – and so when something makes me remember it, the associated anxiety hits me with a wave of tension and fear.
The only path to resolution, in the long term, is to just. make. a. decision. and move on from there. I’ve identified several “decision roadblocks,” things that are holding me back from choosing any particular future, and I want to tackle them individually in an attempt to climb over each one.
The way I see it, I have three options.
Option 1: Quit grad school now (well, at the end of the spring semester) and find another option for paid work.
Option 2: Put the effort into completing my PhD, but leave academia immediately thereafter. Do not apply for postdoctoral positions or fellowships.
Option 3: Complete my PhD and apply for postdoctoral positions with the intention of taking one if I receive a reasonable job offer.
The first obstacle to choosing between these three options (not necessarily the most important roadblock, just the first one I’d like to approach), is that life is mostly OK right now, and change and unfamiliarity are frightening.
For the past two nights in a row, I’ve had a dream about moving. In both dreams, we’d chosen to leave a house that was, at least in the weird world of the dream mind, similar to the house we currently inhabit. In both cases, the house we were moving to was supposedly better, bigger, or a step up in some way – in last night’s dream, we were literally going from a guest house to the main mansion on a property. But then I’d realize that I didn’t want to leave. Something about the new house wasn’t as good as it seemed, and appeal of the old house (airy, bright, spacious) suddenly loomed large. I’d start arguing against the move, trying to stop it somehow – and then I’d wake up.
I don’t put much stock in complicated theories of dream symbolism. Sometimes, however, there’s clearly something going on in my subconscious, and I think this is one of those times. To some extent, it’s literally about the house – I really, really like our current house, and the thought of having to pack up and move somewhere with a higher cost of living (and thus a less-agreeable abode) is unpleasant. And we did recently go through a move and all the decision-making that involved, so I can see where that would come from.
On a deeper level, these dreams are my fear of change. My fear that a decision I make will be turn out to be the wrong decision, but irreversible, and so I will lose the good parts of the life I’m currently living. The high-powered academic career path is a step-off-and-you’re-out-for-good situation.
A further component of this mental obstacle is that my husband is, if anything, more afraid of change than I am. Putting off my own decision allows me to avoid upsetting him and dealing with the fallout of his own anxiety about future and career.
Well then, how do I move past this roadblock?
First, I need to recognize that change is inevitable. There is no way to stay in grad school forever. Either I leave now, leave with my PhD later, or stretch it out so long that someone eventually catches on and kicks me out. Pretending that I’m headed for option 3 (staying in academia) has allowed me to postpone a decision as long as possible, but come next fall, folks are going to be prodding me to submit those postdoc applications. We don’t own this beautiful house (although I suppose we could decide to buy it when the owners put it up for sale in a few years), so I should focus on enjoying it now rather than preemptively mourning that I won’t be able to enjoy it forever. And I am not to blame for forcing a decision on my husband: time and life are at fault here, not me.
Second, leaving the familiar isn’t always as bad as it seems. When we made the decision to move, I was all for it – until we actually officially decided, at which point I was overcome with nostalgia for our crappy apartment. The same thing happened when I was forced to move offices at school: I was greatly upset at having to leave the office I knew and liked, but have now realized that the new office has some serious benefits. I might lose the comforts of my current life by changing, but I might not. There might be new advantages that I hadn’t even considered.
Third, I need to use these feelings to inform my decision rather than postpone it. The enjoyable parts of my current situation suggest that option 1 (quit grad school now) is perhaps not for me. Wouldn’t “I like this” be an argument in favor of option 3 (staying in academia)? Maybe – except I like the life I’m living precisely because I refuse to buy into the work-non-stop, life-encompassing culture that is the hallmark of postdoctoral and professorial success. I’m OK because I don’t think about my research.
I wish I could say that just writing down those three things is all it took to move past this roadblock, that I’m now driving down the metaphorical road of life with a tipped-over construction cone in my rear-view mirror. It’s not, and I’m not – but I’ve put my shoulder to a giant concrete barrier and I think I’ve maybe felt it move an inch.
And that’s progress.