We're nomads seeking tenure

Must we keep moving, moving, moving, in search of academe's holy grail? Can't we just settle somewhere?

Published August 15, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

The past several years of my life have been filled with some incredible ups and downs and I'm feeling worn out. I'm writing you because I feel like a ping-pong ball who has has no control over her life. I do believe that control is largely an illusion anyway, but that thought doesn't bring me much comfort and I need something to comfort me now.

I've made a lot of big decisions in the past few years that have had big consequences. Most of them I haven't made with a calm and quiet mind. Many of those decisions felt rushed and while I don't necessarily think they were bad decisions, I don't think I've totally processed the consequences of them. For instance, I decided to get a divorce, I lost my house, and I got remarried, I had second child, and I decided to go to grad school to study one thing versus another because of some practical decisions about the different programs I was looking at (rather than, say, knowing clearly in my heart what path I wanted to follow).

The results of those decisions have been both good and bad. I am blessed with two amazing kids. But I'm married to a man whom I love but whose career requires us to follow him all around the country searching for a tenured position -- which he's yet to find. I'm also working in the field that I chose in graduate school and I've had some success so far, and I'm happy -- but in a year, we'll be who knows where, and where I'll have to start from.

All this moving is hard on me and it's hard on my husband and it's hard on our beautiful, happy kids. I want more than anything to settle down in my home state near my beloved family. But that doesn't seem to really be a choice. And I guess I'm just tired and I don't want to keep picking up and moving and making hasty decisions about where we'll live and where the kids will go to school. I want to set my sights on a dream and map out how I'm going to achieve it. Like: I want to save money, buy a house, start a side importing business, find a great school for my kids, live near my family and have dinner with them once a week, be involved in our local community, move ahead in my career and become more independent. But I don't see how I can. I feel like we're destined to keep pinging around the country until we wind up somewhere with steady jobs -- and who knows if that somewhere will even be where we want to be. I feel like I can't even have dreams about what I want to do and where I want to live and I don't know how to live without being able to plan or dream. I feel powerless and uninspired by the future. I'm in a rut, Cary, and I don't know how to chart my course and get out of this.

Thank you for your always wise and intuitive advice.


Dear Stuck,

You say that this moving around is necessary but I do not believe that it is necessary. I believe that it is a choice. Your husband believes he must move around because he believes he must have tenure but seeking tenure and moving around are choices. Tenure is not necessary. The academic life is not necessary. It is a choice.

Of course it is a choice that may bring many rewards. Still it is a choice and there are other choices. Other choices bring other rewards and other difficulties.

You are free. You do not have to do these things you do not want to do. You do not have to keep moving around. If you want to live near your family and have dinner with them once a week you can do that.

Now, I am just a writer and a human being and I get irritated just like anybody else and sometimes when I get irritated and do not acknowledge it I say things that are unintentionally rude or dismissive and I have done that lately a few times and always end up regretting it so I just want to acknowledge upfront that I find it irritating that I do not know what academic field you studied or what states and cities you have lived in or what field your husband is in but I assume you have left those things out in order to maintain your anonymity, which makes perfect sense, and perhaps those things are not really necessary anyway, as what is at issue here are not particulars but a principle and the principle is that you bear complete responsibility for your own life and your own choices, and being highly intelligent and educated you probably know this at least intellectually, though it is tempting to ignore it when we feel lost or in a pickle.

So I think my job is just to remind you of things you already know, and remind you that you have the power to make decisions based on what you actually want, instead of what you think you should want or what you used to want or have wanted so long you have forgotten why you wanted it in the first place.

I also know this about myself: I am impatient and want to know everything now and fix everything now and that is not possible and that is irritating. So if I sound irritated, please forgive me. I am just a human being, no less prone to emotion than you or any of our readers. And I think the essential thing for you now is not to think and analyze this but to simply let it sink in that you have the power to change your situation. So when you hear yourself say, "That's true but ..." please remind yourself that for now all you need to do is acknowledge this simple truth: You have a choice, and you bear responsibility for your choice. If you choose to keep moving around then it will have certain effects. If you choose to stop moving around it will have certain effects. In neither case will the effects be deadly. They will be qualitative changes.

If you find, after taking a few days to sleep on it, that you cannot say with certainty what will be best for you, then give some thought to what will be best for your kids. What do your kids want? While your own choices may be too complicated, your kids may want very simple things. They may just want to stay in one place for a while. Maybe that would tip the balance. Maybe that would bring some clarity and moral simplicity to your life. After all, that is a fairly huge thing, to give a kid what a kid wants.

At any rate, that's my take on it. Sometimes we get so used to being dissatisfied that we forget we have the power to change the situation. I think your dissatisfaction is telling you something. You don't have to live like this. You can change.

By Cary Tennis

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Academia Family Graduate School Marriage Parenting Since You Asked Tenure