I’ll start dramatically: I feel I’ve failed at academia.
Oh, logically, I know I haven’t. I have always rejected the notion that the only path to success is a tenured professor position. I’ve been supportive of friends leaving academia, and continue to be so pleased for those who have found other jobs, communities, causes, and lives. In my mentorship, my goal is to emphasize building a broad array of skills that can be used not just in other jobs, but also in other areas of life. And I’m well aware that there simply aren’t enough jobs for all the excellent candidates.
But that logic really has not fixed the feelings of failure and rejection that have been lingering in the back of my mind while I’ve been focused on other things (mostly the pandemic). So I’ve been thinking it through again, by allowing myself to accept the premise that I’ve failed and see where that takes me.
Failure, to me, implies the absence of reaching a specific goal. I committed myself to the academic career path over fifteen years ago, and it’s amazing how strongly I’ve clung to the idea of myself as a professor. I adopted ‘academic’ and ‘astronomer’ as my identities, and allowed them to shape and reshape my self-conception. For a while, I was really well-suited to my PhD and post-doc positions, and believed that I’d make an excellent professor. I was optimistic about my chances to stay in my field, and to change it for the better. I had a very specific vision of what my future would look like at some anonymous university where I’d fit in perfectly.
And this year’s job rejections shattered that vision. I had failed.
And first, I countered those feelings of failure with logic. I know that due to my training and my privilege, I am unlikely to be unemployed for long. I can also point to many ways that I don’t actually think I’d be very happy continuing in traditional academia. I can think about the sheer numbers of qualified and excellent candidates applying for each professorship. I can even recognize that if staying in academia was my specific goal, there are still pathways, so I haven’t actually failed.
But still, I’ve given up. I’m done. I have always believed that I could do anything I put my mind to. Positive words, but with their own downside. If I’m capable of anything, I must have had some particular failing - made poor choices or perhaps too many mistakes. At first, I simply beat myself up about that, but more recently I dug into the reasons I made those choices and mistakes. And it really boils down to the fact that astronomy, at least within traditional academia, is just not for me.
This ‘not for me’ thing is not a concept I’m very familiar with. I value a broad range of experiences, and I find myself interested in just about everything. This results in an ever changing and growing list of hobbies, music genres, books to read, and now, jobs to explore. In other words, I often think there’s almost nothing that is ‘not for me.’ I can, after all, do anything I put my mind to.
But that’s just not true. Of course my interests aren’t infinite, and even among the bunches of things I like and enjoy, there are some that I’d rather not do all the time. Some things are difficult, stressful, or simply less fulfilling. Over the past few years, I think astronomy slipped from one of my favorite things to something that I’d rather not do all the time. It shifted gradually, quietly, and during a time when I was going through a lot of chaos in other areas of my life. But I’ve changed, and it’s not for me.
As I said before, I’ve put fifteen years of time and energy into academia, so it’s been difficult to admit that much of the joy was gone. I’ve struggled a bit with my productivity, but kept holding out for a recovery, a return to my old interests. A resounding NO from the job market really has helped me realize that it’s not just a phase. Perhaps I’ve failed at academia, but the part of the failure that’s on me is really a reflection of my waning interest in it, and my lack of compatibility with the job.
And am I just rejecting academia because it rejected me? MAYBE. I can’t promise that I would have turned down a tenure-track job, or been unhappy in one. But I would have had to change from who I am now, and to grow in a different direction to make it work. Better to be excited about growing apart from academia, than to get too caught up in the failure and what might have been.