Ever since I decided I probably wasn’t going to stay in academia, I’ve been aware that some people will think I’ve ‘failed’ (to understand the reasoning behind this, see Jennifer Polk’s great post, or ‘wasted my talents’ (what if I go on to work for an amazing charity, or in government?). I was prompted to write this post after reading Fiona Whelan’s excellent blog post, where she describes a scenario I have experienced myself - the automatic assumption that I’m applying for postdocs. I’ve looked at jobs and thought ‘what would people at the university think if I took this job?’, which is obviously silly as I should be able to do whatever I want, but nonetheless the idea sticks that I want to be seen as a ‘success’ by people with certain worldviews following my PhD.
The decision not to stay in academia makes perfect sense to me - there are way more people with PhDs than positions, I fear uncertainty and instability, I’m 27 and have a partner and can’t be doing with moving around and renting, I find teaching really difficult. The good thing about my family not really knowing much about the academic world is that they totally get these concerns (and, to be honest, want me to stop faffing around with education and get a proper job and leave home), and either haven’t considered that it’s disappointing that I’m not actually going to be a historian, or mask their disappointment incredibly well.
Some people in the academy… not so much. Some know about the increased casualisation and competition in academia, yet haven’t taken the implications fully on board. Others just can’t see things from my point of view because things worked out for them, and they were perfectly happy to move around and be on short-term contracts, so why can’t I be? Others still seem to see any profession other than academia as a step down for someone with a PhD, even though our Learning and Development departments and museums, to name just two examples, have PhDs working for them, and the careers centre at my university seems to recognise alternative careers as an option quite well compared with other universities I’ve heard about. Besides which, as I’m continuing to discover, academia isn’t the only place I can research, write, and have ideas!
Even if people accept that I don’t go into academia, though, there still seems to be some expectation that I will do something really important instead. Something ‘senior’, being the ‘head’ of something, going into politics. But even if I did aspire to something high-up (I’d rather move sideways between jobs that interest me and use my skills than be in charge of anything big), I’d still have to start at the bottom - yet people say ‘you’ve got a PhD, you can do anything!’ as though that automatically qualifies you to do something you have no experience of.
There are another couple of things that inspire my fear of being judged. One goes a long way back - to my incredibly snobby selective school, where we were constantly told that we were the top 3% and would cure cancer or lead the country. It was implicit, and sometimes explicit, that not going to university, or, for example, being a hairdresser (a job well-respected among normal humans and that requires skill and training!) signified a waste of intelligence and lack of ambition. Even though I nearly have a PhD, there’s still part of me that hasn’t broken away from wanting to be ‘worthy’ of that school. The other is the fact I got funding for my PhD, so I feel like even though I’ve made the personal choice not to stick it out in academia, I should still have a shiny, well-paid job to report back to my funders when they ask. It’s not like they can take the money back from me, or force me to become an academic, but there’s still this feeling that I’m letting the side down if I drag down their post-PhD employment and income statistics.