Friday, June 26, 2009

Career angst and the scholarly life

Academic, Hopeful has a post up this week asking how graduate students should react to the inevitable question “what are you going to do next?” and/or variations on the theme of “why don’t you get a real job?”.

I’m having a hell of a month, just crazy-busy, and this post came close to triggering my own little existential crisis. I’ve come to graduate study as an older student, having already had two other careers. I suspect that because of my age, I've probably missed the boat on the standard academic career trajectory to tenured professor (and given the parlous state of academia these days, I’m not entirely sure it’s a career I would want anyway). The alternatives might be finding a niche in non-tenure-track academia, working as an independent scholar, or even being a genteel lady writer of historically-accurate medieval murder mysteries (I secretly quite fancy this last option).

Generally, people react positively when I tell them I’m doing graduate study until they find out I’m not doing something ‘useful’ like an MBA or a law degree. When I tell them I’m studying history, I’ll be received with bemused silence, a stuttered ‘why are you studying THAT?’, or – perhaps the most irritating response –patronising indulgence, as if I’m engaged in a somewhat eccentric hobby but at least it's keeping me out of trouble.

My personal experience is merely a microcosm. Those of us pursuing Humanities degrees are more likely to be accused of elitist dilettantism by politicians who have become increasingly focused on universities as factories for churning out tomorrow’s happy work-bots, rather than places where the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual freedom are considered as social goods in their own right. Because my main interest is medieval history, I get really prickly at the fact medieval studies often gets a star mention in newspaper articles scoffing at the ‘useless’ things universities are teaching these days. Yes, ‘useless’ things like critical thinking (perhaps politicians would secretly prefer it if the rest of us had less training in this area?), the ability to effectively analyse and synthesise complex information, or the skills to read and research both widely and deeply and then assess all the evidence on its own merits.

I’m fortunate to have earned a scholarship that covers my tuition fees (though who knows how long that will last?), and I also make enough from part-time PR contracting to pay the bills and keep a roof over my head. Without those factors, would I still be pursuing graduate study? I don’t know, and I’m certainly conscious of the financial privilege that makes my current situation viable. But at the same time, I simply can’t imagine being content with an existence where I’m not engaging in a life of the mind that rises above the mundane issues of our day-to-day world.

It’s difficult, daunting, and sometimes-tedious work (formatting references, anyone?), but when I’m doing it, there’s a thrumming inside me, a steady stretching of both cognition and intuition that seems to reverberate through my very centre. To anyone who hasn’t had the experience, it’s difficult to describe the sensation of discovering a single paragraph in 400 pages of text that opens a door in your mind, maybe even utterly changing the way you’ve been looking at the world. Or the secret thrill of finding a group of 600-year-old legal cases that appear – finally! – to confirm a theory you’ve been quietly harbouring for ages. Or the sheer enjoyment of the robust intellectual exercise that is taken tussling over the cracks in someone else’s long-cherished theory.

Rembrandt’s scholar may be a crusty old guy wearing a ruff, but I experience deep sense of empathy when I look at him. Across the gap of centuries, I can sense the cramping in his hand as he takes yet another page of notes, and I can feel the tired itchiness of eyes and a brain that have been tightly focused for hours. In him, I see my own drive to keep reading, keep looking, keep questioning. A drive that can sometimes be stronger than those most basic human needs of sleep and food. A drive provoked by an even deeper fear (certain knowledge that is yet unacknowledged), that my days will run out before my questions do.

That is ‘why’ and that is ‘what comes next’ because for me, it is coterminous with life itself.

* Image: Rembrandt, A Scholar, 1631. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.


Belle said...

Oh yes. I too had other lives before coming to academia, and the comments always drove me crazy(ier). When I landed a t-t job at the age of 40-hmph, no one was more surprised than self.

Personally I think the option of the novelist is more attractive, as there are never enough good books, and you can adjust reality to meet requirements rather than having to deal with inconvenient evidence...

Academic, Hopeful said...

Wow. What a poignant post! I wish you had been there as my advocate the other evening. You have expressed some of my thoughts and feelings wonderfully, those I think I could have expressed more easily (though perhaps less elegantly than you!) a while back when I wasn't under such immediate pressure to sort out my life. I am too close to it all.

Loved the mention of sleep and food.

Keep going!!!

Bavardess said...

Belle - novel-writing is definitely my 'if you could do anything, what would you do?' job, though very few people in NZ really make a living from it (even our most successful and well-known writers). Maybe when I win the lotto...
Academic - Your post certainly opened the floodgates! I know my friends roll their eyes when I talk about this stuff, but I sincerely believe that no one can really understand the compulsion (for want of a better word) that drives us, unless they've been there themselves.