Am I Just Being Stubborn?

What did I do on the last day of my glamorous office job? (I haven’t worked continuously since I started temping, but this week was my second round at Fancy Wall Street Firm.) Well, I was escorted into an office full of cardboard boxes brimming with thousands upon thousands of pieces of paper. I was told to take the sheets of paper out of the boxes, arrange them in categories, and file them in the cabinet according to those categories. Then, I was told to break down the boxes, flatten them out, put them in another box, and move everything to a storage area (which was more like another big box inside of a closet).

All those papers that once meant something to someone a decade ago will probably stay there gathering dust until another wage slave is instructed to do something with them in approximately 2038. How beautiful to ponder that I and some future office temp (who possibly hasn’t even been born yet) are connected across the ages!

I could not identify most of the papers in the boxes. It was a vast record of esoteria rendered in numbers and technical terms. Like a good literary critic, I tried to guess at the meaning hidden in the maelstrom. I came up with categories like “Taxes” and “Legal” and “Trust Fund,” and I put any papers that I vaguely felt belonged in their proper place. This is essentially what I did while researching my dissertation: I waded through a swamp of scholarship, labeling, categorizing, and synthesizing along the way. Then I wrote a dissertation that attempted to, one might say, put all that stuff into a coherent whole, just like filing it in the cabinet….of my mind!

At the end of this day-long process at Fancy Wall Street Firm, I wanted to say to my supervisor, “This is my argument for how these papers should be arranged.” It’s good to see the grad school-acquired skill of synthesizing huge quantities of information come in handy on the job!

I didn’t think my supervisor really cared if I categorized the documents correctly, if such an outcome was even possible or knowable. Nor did ze care if I learned how many BMWs the Big Boss Man has leased over the years, or how much he paid for his private jet or his season tickets to the Knicks. Ze just wanted those papers moved out of one room and into another room. So I did it, and ze was happy.

Nonetheless, this week’s money-making activities unfolded in a context of anxiety about my post-academic status.

Recently, I received an email from my advisor who forwarded me an email ze got from someone on a hiring committee at College in Somewhere Town. This person asked my advisor to recommend someone for a job in my field. “We would look very favorably on anyone you recommended,” wrote this person to my advisor. In hir email to me, my advisor wrote, “Of course, I thought of you first.” See, this is how it works, post academics! Someone emails someone who recommends someone who gets the job with a wink and a handshake. It doesn’t matter what happens at the “interview” or with the “application” that you spent weeks preparing. I was briefly intrigued enough to consider applying for the position. These backroom deals have never worked out in my favor before. Maybe this is my chance, I thought.

Alas, I just don’t want the job that badly. I can’t say why without divulging more than I want to on this humble blog. So, after a day of introspection and rumination, I wrote back to my advisor and said, “I’ll take a pass. But thanks!” And I went off to my temp gig.

While I was at Fancy Wall Street Firm breaking down the boxes, I got another email from my advisor who wasn’t happy with my decision. Ze wrote, “I think you should reconsider. This isn’t the best job, but you’d be good at it. And you can quit if you don’t like it.”

I cursed under my breath, softly so the other employees wouldn’t hear. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that my advisor is still thinking about me and wants to help me two years after my defense. However, I spent almost ten years trying to make hir happy, and I am just not all that motivated by what ze wants me to do anymore. I am also confused by hir insistence that one can “always quit” a job.

I have been given this curious advice many times by my advisor and by other counselors, some self-appointed and some not. “Take a job that you don’t think you’ll like. It’s okay. You can always quit!”

First, the implication is that I am being too picky. On the subject of my job market failure, one might say, “She could have found a job, but she thought she was too good for the jobs she could have had!” Since my most recent job was filing papers and breaking down boxes, I think that proves that I don’t think I am too good for anything.

Secondly, and most importantly, it’s very hard to quit a job once you have one.

Perhaps people who have jobs they don’t hate can’t remember this. But once you’ve got that salary (however low) and those nifty benefits (threadbare as they are), it’s almost impossible to give them up for some other life that you haven’t made for yourself yet. You’d have to be seriously unhappy, not just living with low-level dread and laboring under the daily suspicion that you have made the wrong choice. That kind of regret is not enough to make “just quitting” an option. The only academics more anguished than those who can’t find jobs are the ones who have jobs and want to quit but can’t/won’t. I seriously doubt my ability to resign from a job that I despise once I have it because the alternative (that I am now living) is way too scary.

So, yes, I could quit. And I suppose there’s the chance I might like the job. But what if I didn’t? Could I count on myself to say, “You know that life of precarity and extra financial anxiety that I endured before this? I think I’d like to go back to that now, thanks.”

It’s very hard to imagine that. It’s much easier to imagine forging ahead on my current path because this is the suffering I know – not one that might be (not to get all Shakespearean about it).

I must admit, though, that while I was filing the papers and breaking down the boxes (and enduring zillions of tiny papers cuts), I wondered if I wouldn’t rather have a faculty job, any faculty job, after all. Of course, I don’t intend to temp forever, and I am working on finding more stable employment that doesn’t suck. But what if it all comes to nothing? What is wrong with me that I won’t even apply for a full-time faculty job when the hiring people want to hire someone my advisor recommends and that someone is me?

Furthermore, what does it mean that I told my advisor, “No thanks,” and ze said, “No, you should really do this”? Does ze know something I don’t? Am I going to wake up in five years, still an office temp who recalls sadly, “That was my last good chance to have a career doing academic things, and I blew it”?

Maybe I’m just being stubborn. After being put through the graduate school/academic job market wringer, I am determined to do things my way from now on, even if that way leads to financial stress and a slow descent into itinerant middle age. Is this a kind of madness? Probably. Maybe I should just give in and apply for the goddamn job and go to the interview and smile like I really want this, and maybe the wanting will come.

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7 Responses to Am I Just Being Stubborn?

  1. Pre-Post-ABD says:

    Hi there! First off, thank you so much for your sharing your experience of being a post-academic. It is extremely helpful in me in gaining the confidence to leave and start my life!

    I’m a first year ABD, but I’m strongly considering leaving. I’m probably moving to NYC by this summer, and I would like to get an administrative job (I have 2 years administrative experience at a university before I started grad school). Do you have any advice about temping in NYC? I’ve been with temp agencies on the West Coast a few years ago, so I don’t know how things have changed and whether there are certain agencies I should consider and not consider.

  2. JC says:

    Perhaps the reason you don’t want to apply is because you have been disappointed and screwed over by the academic system so many times that you just don’t want to get tangled up in it again? I know that’s sort of how I feel. I don’t love my job now, but at least I know that my work won’t be criticized/belittled every day and I can still live in the city I’m in and that I’m guaranteed to keep this job as long as I’m doing good work. At this point, I’m so resentful of academia that I just don’t want anything to do with any of it anymore. Might that be part of it?

    The “just quit” advice is also advice I’ve gotten. As I was reading this entry, it made me realize that the only people who would think you could just “up and quit” any job are either people who’ve never had any trouble finding a job, or people who have a huge nest egg to fall back on. Which, in turn, makes me realize that this might be another way that privilege ties in with academia (per the series I started on my blog). You may have just inspired a new post at my place.

    Anyway, good luck with the continued job hunt. And for the record, I don’t think you’re crazy at all for not taking the offer, no matter what your adviser thinks.

  3. Jet says:

    I agree with JC on this – that you are not crazy to turn this down. I applied for an academic job a few eyars ago now, one that I didn’t really want, but convinced myslef I had to apply because it would be a good way in, blah, blah, and the presentation I gave was so awful (sudden case of nerves meant I fumbled through most of it, got muddle in some notes that missed the correct slides…) that it was no surprise I didn’t get it. Lots of terrible self-hate after that mixed with the real recognition that it wasn’t the right job for me, and well, I guess, if I got it I may have felt like I would want to quit but wouldn’t out of a sense of not wanting to be a quitter – yes, the whole PhD experience would be relived again! Saying no also means you can feel a bit more in control. My anxiety is connected with having to put my latest academic project manager’s name for a reference on any potential future job. It’s the final coming out, the statement that I’m serious about leaving academia and having the face the potential discussion about why I’ve made the decision, and so on. Good luck and stay strong!

  4. You will find something better than temping and then you won’t regret still living the life you are now, but with an income to enjoy your down time. It’s not worth the angst. So what if your advisor recommended it. If his or her weight was worth anything, you would have got a job you wanted, not one that he or she wants you to have. If I had a dollar for every time I was pressured into doing something to please other people, including my advisor, I would have a large fund to sustain my non-paying academic lifestyle.

  5. Emily George says:

    This is fabulous, thanks! Yes, I’d like to see your supervisor or mine quit a job–especially in a situation that doesn’t involve moving up the academia pecking order with the new t-t job in place. I suspect that for a lot of them, the last job they left was that job waiting tables in college or something like that: turn in your notice, and go. But at this stage, it’s not quitting a job, it’s making a career move, and career moves are difficult and time-consuming.

    I took the job in Small Townsville, because hey, it was a job, and I did want to try professoring, and I didn’t want to stay where I was and had no other particular plan after all other job market possibilities fell through (the second year in a row). And, shocker, I’m not particularly thrilled with my new life here, and I’m planning to leave. But if I were to up and “just quit,” I’d lose a lot of money in the bargain (I’d have to pay back moving expenses, I’d have to break my lease, I’d have to incur the expense of moving across the country again, etc.)–and I’m still not any closer to having a plan than I was before, so this would probably be a move to crashing, unemployed, on someone’s couch. So yes, I am beginning the quitting process, which means planning to spend the next year making an exit strategy and looking for jobs while continuing in the present position. And if nothing seems to be opening up at that point, I may well stay on longer, because the thought of voluntarily choosing unemployment in the current economic climate is pretty scary. Meanwhile, it’s awfully nice to have a paycheck, so we’ll go with that for now.

  6. Pingback: Exit Strategy Parameters | Emily George

  7. Pingback: An Interview | A Post-Academic in NYC

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