My life choices shouldn’t make you feel bad about yours

Telling academics that you don’t want a tenure-track job is a lot like telling regular people you don’t want to have children.

Seriously. Try doing either one, and you’ll often hear the same set of responses: It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done; How can you be fulfilled if you don’t?; You’ll change your mind when you get older.

I never had any doubts about not wanting children. I did struggle quite a bit with the decision to leave the tenure-track path. My struggle was summed up very eloquently in a paragraph by Dean Dad, singled out and quoted by The Happy Scientist:

I’m convinced that one reason some people won’t let themselves let go of the dream, despite years of external signals suggesting that they should, is a sense that it would reflect a personal moral failing. They’ve identified so completely with the ‘meritocracy’ myth that they feel a real need to redeem themselves within it. It’s more than the money; other fields often pay more. Instead, they see the status of “tenured professor” as a sort of validation of everything they’ve done. Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure; lifelong “A” students, as a breed, aren’t very good at that. It’s not what they do.

Yep. That’s it.

As of next week, I will have been at my position here at the research center for 6 months. I am really and truly enjoying this job. And the paycheck. And I did a short teaching stint last month, and remembered how much I did not enjoy teaching. At this point, my doubts about leaving the traditional path are pretty much gone – it’s something I started considering long ago, back around the time I finished my Ph.D. in 2005, and the fact that I am happier now than I have ever been is very affirming. I am finally feeling secure in my choices.

Try telling that to other academics – especially grad students and postdocs who are out there on the job market. Am I threatening their choices? I never say, “Only an idiot would want that job”; I always carefully phrase it as, “It’s just not the right choice for me.” Why do they feel the need to defend their pursuit of the traditional path?

My choice to remain childfree has nothing to do with other people’s choice to reproduce – but perhaps they have deeply buried doubts about it, and my choices threaten their peace of mind. I suspect it’s the same with academics. They have their doubts too – that maybe the traditional path isn’t right for them either, but they really don’t know what else to do.

Academia may seem like a liberal haven, but it’s not progressive enough to encourage people to stray from the traditional path. To any academic who has their doubts about that path, I say: don’t let them make you feel like a failure. There is so much more out there, so many options that can make you feel happy and successful. Don’t let other people define your life.


8 Comments on “My life choices shouldn’t make you feel bad about yours”

  1. Statgirrl says:

    I just found your blog today and loved reading about what you are doing. I too am living on the alt-ac track working in a research center. I couldn’t help but smile at your opening sentence having experienced reactions to both statements. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Annie says:

    I agree. My experience is that most academics are extremely conventional when it comes to disciplinary boundaries and intellectual trajectories, including what counts as a viable career path.

  3. When I decided to stop practicing law to be an academic, I got a lot of blow-back from lawyers telling me that I was making a bad choice because i spent all the time, energy and money with law school. Yeah, well I am not as stressed as I was back then..and I am much happier.

    I could go on and on about the child thing. It’s frustrating that people don’t get it that some of us out there are fine without kids.

  4. JaneB says:

    YOUR job sounds great. I am constantly looking for a non-faculty-academic job which uses some or ideally most of my current skillset, but my field just doesn’t have research centres or anything like that (unless you really want to take a 50% pay cut, move to a major city and go onto 1-2 year contracts, which seems pretty stressful to me!).

    But yeah, people do get seriously upset – especially when you’re trying to be helpful, e.g. advising a grad student to explore non-faculty options for their job hunt – they get all uppity and assume I’m saying they aren’t good enough to be faculty, which is just not true…

  5. Belle says:

    I think these kinds of reactions are typical no matter what you do. Maybe it’s the straying from the ‘norm’ of whatever you trained to do. Research scientists are supposed to live for research; researchers aren’t supposed to teach (or at least, they aren’t supposed to enjoy teaching). Lawyers are supposed to practice law (and most likely, to many people, that means criminal or litigation). I’ve never been on a ‘norm’ path, even now as tt full prof. Yet when people find out all they other stuff I’ve done, they juggle my life paths as ‘well, you knew this is where you wanted to be.’ And they’re oh so wrong, but resist hearing anything else. Just like the get-married-have-kids mantra. Cookie-cutter lives.

    I’m delighted you’re happy with your new job and life.

  6. ecogeofemme says:

    Great post! I think you’re right about people feeling threatened because of their own deep-seated doubts.

    Also, thanks for the link. 😉

  7. Amelie says:

    That’s a very good comparison. Scientists become very conservative when it comes to career choices… but then again, most people are, when you “stray from the norm”, as Belle put it. There’s no way to do this right for others, anyway — if you don’t want kids, that’s “not natural” or something, if you want both, the poor kids will be neglected, and if you become a stay at home mom, you’ve wasted your education…

  8. Loz says:

    I was very glad to find this post. It always makes me feel better to know that there’s other people out there who have experienced the same things as you! 🙂 I’m fed up with having to tell people I meet about not having children and feeling like I have to be apologetic about it so that they don’t think I’m a child hater, or worse. I also get fed up with the constant requirement that everyone has to see that people are following along regimented career pathways, neatly fitting into pigeon holes. I’m tempted to get out of this snooty university life for good.

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