If I don't succeed in academe, I'll die!

I've given it everything, and I want it more than anything, but it looks like it will never happen


Cary Tennis
January 24, 2011 6:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. My problem probably seems trivial compared to what other readers have shared with you, but it is tearing me up inside, affecting my marriage and making me wonder what future I have at all.

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When I was in high school, I wanted to major in theater and become an actress. My parents dissuaded me from this path, pointing out (correctly) that it is virtually impossible to be successful, satisfied and financially stable. An excellent student in college, I found myself drawn to anthropology, and announced (to my parents' delight) that I would major in anthropology, go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. and then become a professor myself. They were relieved that I had chosen an attainable goal, and I got started on eight years of grad school.

It turns out that my chances of success would have been better if I'd packed my bags and hopped a bus for L.A.

The academic job market, even at that time, was competitive; it was always hard to land a tenure-track job, but in the last few years, it has become brutal. I complicated my own path by not exploring areas outside of my first major -- early on in graduate school, I had misgivings about the anthropology degree, as I developed stronger interests in conservation biology and ecology. On the advice of my professors, I stayed on; they suggested that if I did a study on monkeys (somehow, monkeys go in anthropology departments) and conservation, that I could then transition out towards that.

Of course, it didn't work out like that. (I wouldn't be writing if it had.) In the seven years since I got my degree, I had one crummy job for a year, followed by a crisis period as I assessed my situation. I realized that I would never get anywhere if I didn't get the academic training I missed in grad school, so I was able to devise a fantastic postdoc research project, get funding, get a faculty advisor, and do it. It was the happiest period of my life, I loved what I was doing, I was making important contributions to my research field, and suddenly -- it didn't seem so stupid to start dreaming of being a professor again. If I could pull that research off, why not go all the way? Aim for the top!

Unfortunately, having these dreams and desires again just made my later failure all the more painful. Not everything was my "fault" -- I got derailed for a while with a major illness (like, in bed for a year sick), and I got stuck a bit when I took on a second major project that I just didn't have the technical expertise to manage alone. Between illness, errors and just being lazy sometimes, I fell behind, especially on publications -- the main currency by which academic merit is measured. I've come to realize, in comparing my qualifications with those of my peers, that I just realistically can never catch up to someone who came out of the gate with a degree in my field, multiple publications, and health intact. Compounding the difficulty is that my husband did get a tenure-track job, at an amazing research university that is, quite frankly, way out of my league. So, if I want to live in the same city as my husband, I'm pretty much stuck -- realistically, I will not get a job at his university, or hell, any university at this point. I scrape by teaching the occasional class for peanuts, and one other prof has taken enough pity on me to let me work in her lab so I can pretend to continue my research.

On an intellectual level, I understand that I'm not going to get that professor job that I've been envisioning for, oh, 15 years now. It ain't going to happen -- no matter what I do, there is going to be someone younger, better trained, and with more publications. I need to focus on being happy with what I have -- occasional teaching jobs, and some part-time work that a friend of mine who runs a conservation organization is able to send my way, when she has a little money. It's not enough to live on, but my husband pays the bills with his (professor) salary.

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The problem is that emotionally, I can't drop it. It's like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue -- all day, every day, I'm angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can't get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I'm so consumed with jealousy. The workload of a professor is far more brutal than many realize -- 60-hour workweeks are the norm, and actually you don't stop working over the summer, you just stop getting paid -- so my husband naturally has little time and energy left over for any housework, which naturally falls on my shoulders. And this ENRAGES me -- it's like I'm not just unable to get my dream job, I'm doomed to 1950s housewife drudgery while my husband does the important stuff. My resentment toward my husband is on the verge of causing me to leave -- and it's not his fault.

Look, there are many really good things about bowing out of the tenure-track rat race -- I can focus on what I'm really interested in, I don't have to churn papers out in favor of doing something that might look less impressive on my résumé (but that I think is actually more important), I don't have to make the research that I do conform to the agenda most likely to keep me hired. And I really do have other options.

But, on an emotional level, it's just killing me. I keep telling people that I don't really want a tenure-track job, for these and so many more reasons. But my heart doesn't believe it. Sometimes, stuck in this town I don't much care for, with my once-promising career in shambles, I wonder if it's even worth getting out of bed. (Self-pity alert: I have suffered from, and been diagnosed with, major depressive disorder; despite the meds, I just don't have the resiliency that most people enjoy.) If I do not accept that it is time for me to move on and let this dream go, I believe it will do real damage to me, my marriage and more. But I don't know how to start accepting this in my heart.

I want to believe. How can I make it happen? How can I let it go?

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Self-Indulgent (Ex)-Academic

Dear Self-Indulgent,

When you were in high school you wanted to be an actress.

Can we just stop right there? What's wrong is that you are not acting. The longer you pretend that you're not supposed to be acting, the longer you are going to suffer. It doesn't matter what else you do. You're not doing the thing that you were meant to do.

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Your parents dissuaded you. You collaborated with them in your own undoing.

It's no great mystery. Our parents mean everything to us and we dare not displease them, so we collaborate with them in our own undoing. To come into being as who we are, we must do the more difficult thing, the thing that displeases them, the thing that offends.

You did not choose to have an actress under your dress. That's just what's under there. You look under your own dress and there's the actress. You didn't invite her. She's just there. She's not going away. So you might as well learn to live with her. We must do the thing of failure and ignominy and invite scorn on our heads and unreason. Unreason must be our path.

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There is no compromise with the wild psyche. It will still be there tormenting you until you listen to it. It won't make you happy. It will just make you whole.

It was probably true that in a literal sense you would not become a professional actress. But this literal truth is the truth of guidance counselors and career pamphlets. It is not the poetic truth of a human soul.

You are not one-dimensional. Of course you have academic talent as well as other talents. Of course you have a good mind and many skills. But where is your power? Where is your center of gravity? Why have you been off-balance all these years, playing a role you're not suited for? I suspect your weakness is in doing what others ask of you, and your power is in your intuitive feel for drama. It is not in serpentine maneuvering through the labyrinth of scholarship. It is more in declaiming, no? Do you not find yourself drawn mostly to the performing part of academe? Do you not dream of being devoured by a thousand estimable young eyes? Is it not the image of being in front of a class demonstrating great human truths that draws you?

Yours is a dramatic vocation at its core. And look what has happened to academe! It is no dramatic art now. It is gray with tedium and sick with envy. It is not an arena for large gestures and big voices. Tininess has invaded it. It is a cramped warren of smallness.

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You don't want it. Not really. You want the stage.

So admit it.

You must be a free human being. That is your first priority. You do not have to be a professor.

You know this but have trouble making it real. That is where the technology of psychology comes in.

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I wonder if you think this sounds like you:

"I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important -- and sacred -- respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer."

That comes from Albert Ellis, founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy or REBT. According to the Wikipedia site about him (I'm not a good scholar!), he identified this statement as one of three core beliefs some of us carry around with us. These core beliefs are very hard to shake even when we know, intellectually, that they are kind of crazy and not true.

The trick is to learn how to consistently battle these beliefs so that we can live in the world. It's not easy.

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As Ellis says (now look, I'm no genius, I'm just taking this all from the REBT site on Wikipedia), "... insight alone will rarely enable people to undo their emotional disturbances ... There is usually no way to get better and stay better but by: continual work and practice in looking for, and finding, one's core irrational beliefs; actively, energetically, and scientifically disputing them; replacing one's absolutist musts with flexible preferences; changing one's unhealthy feelings to healthy, self-helping emotions; and firmly acting against one's dysfunctional fears and compulsions."

This is what cognitive therapy does. In your case, it sounds like it would work. You know what the situation is. You just have not yet marshaled enough concrete evidence, on a consistent basis, to counter these core beliefs that are ruining your life. I think you can do it. I think you can undertake to undo this set of beliefs, and that will free you to be a human being who can choose whether she wants to be an academic or wash pots and pans.

I assure you, nothing terrible will happen to you if you do not become an academic. To know this is literally to get your life back.

I have mentioned this a few times: I had a similarly crippling belief. I believed I had to be a writer no matter what. I believed if I ceased to be a writer for some reason that I would stop breathing, or become invisible. Yet at the same time I also believed that I was not a writer, and could not be a writer, and that my writing sucked. So I was really in an existential jam. There was no way out. No wonder I was anxious! Through some hard work I came finally to understand both that I did not have to be a writer, and that I already was a writer.

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Today I write. It works out OK for me. But I do not live in fear that one day the writing will stop and I will fall apart. I know I could do other things. I could play music. I could run boats on the Chesapeake. I could wash pots. I'll be OK. That is the most valuable thing of all, to know that we can be OK. That is priceless. That is my wish for you, that you will find a way out of this terrible, stifling belief that you must be an academic, that you will regain the freedom to dance and sing and fling elaborate gestures to the crowd.



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Cary Tennis

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