Six years ago today, I defended my dissertation. I faced a room of inquisitors, answered questions and opined on future research before I was asked to leave the room. While my committee deliberated, I stood in the library hallway with family and friends and held my breath. Not much later, my advisor invited me back into the room and announced her congratulations to Dr. Leventhal-Weiner.
I have never been more relieved. I was finished.
Finished for the moment.
If anything, I am a finisher. I like the neat (or sometimes messy) end of things. I like when a project stretches out in front of you, the juggle of moving pieces and deadlines, and the satisfaction of calling it done. I like to check things off of lists I make. I like to do things.
My graduate work, though, was a different kind of doing things. Whereas most work leads to a feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of confidence and competence, most of the time, I felt like a complete impostor. I hated the exercise of standing in front of a panel of mentors and defending myself. Writing academic research studies did not come easily to me. I was bashful to admit I loved teaching. The entire graduate school enterprise felt like a poor fit and I was worried that others thought I didn’t belong.
I kept doing the graduate work even though the long term job prospects seemed bleak. I began my graduate work just before the entire labor market tanked during the great recession, and the academic labor market was already unsteady. I became a parent twice over in graduate school and the possibility of moving my family far from our community made it more difficult to consider an academic job. Most of all, I knew I wanted to work out in the open, doing something with people where my work made a difference in their lives.
I knew I was not alone in my thoughts. I was not the first graduate student turned parent who worried about what they would do next. So, seven years ago, I started blogging. I knew the name of the blog for months before I ever typed one word. I bought the domain name. I wondered if anyone would read what I was writing, if what I wrote would mean anything to anyone, what was the point of being public on the internet.
Then I tried to quiet all of the thoughts, and I just went for it.
This blog was a place for me to try out ideas, catalogue experiences, and leave myself glances in the rearview. While I wrote posts here, I looked for other places to share my essays. I started to see myself as a writer even after years of academic training had made me feel like a failure in that department. WordPress picked up one of the essays, a few landed on Huffpost, and I started to think bigger. I was building towards something.
I thought I had something to say about life outside of academia. I wondered how it would be perceived. I sent a draft essay to Inside Higher Ed and they published it. Consider Staying is still one of the things I advise grad students to do. Saying the words out loud–you don’t have to be an academic–emboldened me, made me feel less crazy and alone in negotiating what to do after graduate school.
Five years ago, I saw a call for a series on pregnancy, motherhood and the academy from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s newly launched Vitae site. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and after wondering whether I should say it out loud, I just went for it. The Perfect Academic Baby was my first attempt at memoir style writing. It was personal. For all the journal articles I struggled to write, this came easily.
Saying the words out loud, seeking some validation and putting one foot in front of the other set me on a new path. I was doing new things, and little by little, I could see new places to be a sociologist. First in the state legislature, then as a policy advocate. I didn’t miss being a traditional professor because I was teaching and learning all of the time. I took a right turn and built a public education program and started to learn about open data and data visualization. All of a sudden I was back in front of a panel of inquisitors, but now I felt more confident, speaking with an expert voice (and tap dancing when I couldn’t). In the doing of these new things, I worked through that impostor syndrome.
With every transition, my work life is less about closing one door fully before opening another. The curve balls never stop coming. Doing things makes more work and brings new adventures. I launched a podcast and started storytelling. In 2018, I thought I had peaked with a memoir style book chapter in a publication about leaving the academy. My chapter, Reframing Success, is a long walk through graduate school, the start of my family and the path I have been on.
And then came 2019. A new professional opportunity–this time it found me. Two months ago I started a new position in state government. In starting this new role, I am doing all of things I do well. I am truly a public sociologist at a time when we need sociologists in the public sector more than ever. If you told me six years ago on my defense day that this was the future, I’m not sure I would believe you.
The breadcrumbs on the transition out of the academy have served me well. For all of the writing I have done about surviving the end of something, I need to capture the start of something. And the start of something after that and after that.
If we keep doing things, we’re never truly finished. And that’s just fine.