the real world

The Real World

May has been a month of decisions and steps forward. I’ve taken the initial steps toward becoming a certified teacher. I’ve started working on a (big) other writing project and associated website that I hope to launch in mid-June. My spouse and I have also started working on buying a house. This last feels improbably significant. Home ownership is part of the American Dream, sure, but it’s also one of the markers for a middle-class American’s transition to the “real world.” That “real world” is held over students as a vague bludgeon, deployed mostly when they’re not conforming to expectations (or blissfully unaware of what those expectations are). Figure things out before you get to the real world, we say, or you’re doomed to fail.

That notion of making it in the “real world”—of having a house and a car and a job that doesn’t flip with the academic calendar—is a stupidly privileged one. (See much of what Sarah Kendzior has written in the last year for examples.) It’s part and parcel of the things they sell you when you go to graduate school, though (never mind high school or undergrad). As we imagine(d) them, professors had salaries in the middle-to-high five figures, owned their homes, and still had all the prestige that goes with socially-sanctioned intellectual accomplishment. We don’t think of the job as coming with welfare. That’s the real world, too, and often a step above those suffering more systemic poverty.

I feel incredibly lucky to be looking at buying a house less than a year after my spouse and I moved to Texas without having jobs lined up. That’s possible partially because we’ve worked hard, but mostly because we’ve gotten incredible amounts of support from family. Some of the support has been financial. Most of it has come in a form more precious than money: time. Without the time my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law have given to watch the kids, I couldn’t have taken the substitute teaching jobs I’ve had, especially the long ones that have led me toward a career in secondary teaching. Those long jobs have, in turn, helped us scrape together the money for a down payment. (If you’re reading this, thank you so, so much.)

I’ve written before about the hazards of “supposed to” and “should,” about getting hung up on expectations and prestige. This point that I’m at now is where I “should” have been years ago. (It used to really bother me that my younger brother was a homeowner with a pair of masters’ degrees before I’d even finished my doctoral coursework.) It feels good to finally be here, but it’s also scary. To avoid choosing a future path is to ensure that you don’t choose the wrong future path. The more you worry about risk, the easier it is to write off the opportunity cost of sitting on your hands.

Too unfocused to decide on risks, I haven’t so much been sitting on my hands as flailing around with them, trying to shake off the bitter residue of my last years in academe. I’m sure I could have gotten to this point of making consequential decisions faster—especially if I’d read the right articles and talked to the right people sooner. I exited academia without an exit strategy…which is about as sensible as getting involved in a land war in Asia or going against a Sicilian when death is on the line. (Fourteen months of unrest has built up my immunity to iocaine powder.)

Honestly, I’ve been in the real world for years—married for over a decade, two kids, too many degrees. Graduate school is itself a job, whether it’s a dead end or not. Buying a house and changing careers are not transitions unique to postac. Six months ago, though, they seemed impossible. There was only the tunnel, no light. For the first time in a long, long while, I feel like my base emotional state is improving. When I’m happy, it’s not as brittle as it has been. I’m tempted to throw lots of qualifiers at this: Texas weather, the impending return to days as primary childcare provider, all the work that’s got to be done in the next three months…but that’s just part of the risk of choosing. I hope I remain appropriately wary of and grateful for the happiness that comes my way.

That’s part of the real world, too.

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The Smartest One in the Room

Transitioning out of academia is messy. I’ve spent a lot of time (and words here) grappling with some of the transitions: figuring out what kind of job you want, wrestling with how to get it, coping with the emotional fallout of quitting. These are food-on-the-plate issues. There are less immediate challenges, too. I was reminded of one of them when talking to middle school students about the jobs I’ve had. The students’ questions led me to tell them a bit about the summer I worked in a canned food distribution plant, where even my partial college education put up barriers between me and my coworkers. That challenge—being the “smartest one in the room”—is one that comes up again when you leave academia.

“Smart” is relative as all get-out, mind. It comes in many flavors. Not all of them present as the ability to articulate difficult concepts and wrestle with abstract problems. School smarts are just one kind of intelligence. Still, it’s the kind of intelligence academics spend years cultivating…and displaying As you progress from high school to undergraduate to graduate study, you’re surrounded by an ever-increasing proportion of high achievers, of “schmott guys:”

Schmott Guy Hat

Aren’t you glad your regalia isn’t this extreme? (Image copyright Phil and Kaja Foglio, http://girlgenius.net)

Sometimes I wonder how things would have played out if I hadn’t gone across the pond to United World College of the Atlantic. The place opened up my world in more ways than I could possibly discuss in one post. On today’s, point, though, I was suddenly and obviously not the smartest person in the room. Almost everybody at the school was the product of national application processes in their home countries. (At the time, the U.S. sent around 120 students into the UWC program—half of them to the domestic branch in New Mexico.) It wasn’t as though the process was based purely on academics, either; the program prizes community service and independent projects. They’re looking not just for good students, but for the right people to promote the program’s mission of international understanding.

It was a comeuppance for me, one I probably would have gotten when starting my postsecondary education. Getting it early, though, and in the kind of environment where nobody was a jerk about it, meant a lot. Occasional language barriers aside, I was suddenly in an environment where I could talk to anybody about nearly anything. Unless the conversation got especially esoteric everybody could keep up with me. That was novel. I grew up in rural Idaho and went to a tiny high school. I took it for granted that I was the smartest person in the room—often including teachers in the mix. (I was right only to the extent that 16-year-olds are always right.) At UWC-AC, learning I was not always the smartest person in the room was as exciting as it was frightening.

The excitement and the fright had largely worn off by the time I was working on my PhD. I’d gotten used to rarified air: UWC, SLAC, graduate school… If you stay in academia, you linger in that rarified air. Leaving academia means sliding out of it, back to where things are murkier in pretty much every way. Staying in often means continuing to grapple with impostor syndrome , especially those first few classes you get to run completely on your own.

If you get out? You might sidestep impostor syndrome, but you’ve still got to find ways to deal with the problem of being the smartest one in the room (or not). How do you balance your abilities and accomplishments with situational needs? What exactly does it mean to be “with a PhD” rather than “a PhD”? That shift means more than the way you market your degree. It also involves the way you identify to yourself and to others. If you’ve spent a decade or so of your life cultivating academic intelligence, how do you take that back into the world?

I’m a failed academic. Sort of. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons I am out of the professoriate. Some of them are systemic (precarious employment for minimal compensation sucks no matter how much you love your job). Some have to do with realizing that my priorities don’t match the ones the job requires (my non-academic life is pretty important to me). Some of the things the job requires, though, are just things I’m not that good at. When you become a postac, it’s easy to focus on all the things you couldn’t or didn’t do better.

None of that makes you less smart.

You might not go as far as sitting down to catalog your skills and accomplishments, but take a step back to remind yourself that you are smart enough. You’re probably also good enough, and it’s likely some people like you. (Reminding yourself of these things in front of a mirror in Stuart Smalley’s voice voice is optional.) It’s okay to be the smartest one in the room as long as you avoid being a jerk about it. That situation is going to be a lot more common in the “real world” than it is inside the Academy.

Own your strengths but remember to ask questions. Focus on solving problems rather than winning arguments. (That might be the biggest shift from the graduate seminar to the real world: trouncing people in arguments doesn’t count for much.) As in writing, show, don’t tell. Focus on using your skills—and yes, your smarts—to act rather than to act out your identity. That’s the practical difference between “a PhD” and “with a PhD:” doing smart things is much more important than being the smartest one in the room.