• April 19, 2014

Life Outside the Ivory Tower

It's over. I defended my dissertation on April 9, and now I'm Dr. Warner.

The defense itself was almost exactly what I'd hoped for, both challenging and collegial. I presented a summary of my dissertation, and the committee questioned me for about an hour and a half, posing some questions I hadn't anticipated. The tone was friendly if rigorous.

After the defense, I left the room and they huddled. Five or 10 minutes later, I heard the door open, the committee chair came into the lounge where I was waiting, extended his hand and congratulated me. I went back into the seminar room, shook hands with the other committee members, and was anointed.

In some ways it seemed so sudden, considering how long graduate school took -- like I was pregnant for five and a half years and then gave birth in slightly under two hours. I walked in A.B.D. and came out Ph.D.

I feel a twinge of melancholy about closing the door on graduate school. It organized my life for almost six years, was always engaging, and I found a sense of community at Hopkins that I will miss. But it feels great to be done, and there seems to be a lot out there beyond academia.

I certainly wont miss the academic job market. There are simply too many of us new Ph.D.s out there and too few schools that really need us. This makes us insecure, surly, and resentful -- this part of academia is ugly.

Reminding me of the indignity that too often accompanied the search, I just received my last rejection letter -- this time from a school where I had declined an interview offer several months ago. It was probably just a clerical oversight, but it seemed an appropriate goodbye to the whole process.

Not, of course, that I want to romanticize professional life in Washington. Many people here suffer from the "too busy to be polite" syndrome. But others, at think tanks and research organizations around town, have been accessible and friendly, and they seem to be willing to pay me to do interesting and useful projects. This suggests that I may not have to run around frantically selling myself after all.

The people I've talked with so far indicate that having a Ph.D. means something to them, at least if it's related to what their organizations do. It's strange and wonderful to feel useful. So far, I've lined up a half-time project with a national human-services organization that's setting up welfare-to-work programs. It will last about a year. I also have a short-term assignment with an association to do a newsletter on public jobs initiatives. The people I'm working with on both projects seem nice, direct, and unpretentious.

In the next couple of weeks, once teaching is over and I've gotten in a few more 10-hour nights of sleep, I think I'll be ready to contact people I interviewed for my thesis to find additional work, either on a part-time basis or as a consultant.

Eventually, I could see moving into a full-time staff job for one of a number of organizations in Washington that focus on welfare policy and work for low-income people. Or possibly I'll just continue as a free agent. This route is unpredictable, but not as much, it seems, as looking for an academic job. I feel like other doors are opening at the same time the door on my Hopkins grad student life has closed.

As to whether I'll try the academic market next year, I have some doubts. I may go to the conferences -- I actually sort of enjoy them -- and there are enough things I'll miss about a university-centered existence to make me want to keep the option of applying again open at least. But at this point the labor market is simply too tight, especially around here, to warrant putting a great deal of emphasis on the academic route.

Life in Washington outside the Ivory Tower is looking pretty good, as long as I remember to focus on the community of people I know who value balance and who aren't caught up in the puffery of the city. There are lots of other things to do, and I never was so sure the scholars life was for me anyway.

I have other goals for the coming year: I want to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I want to start working again at a soup kitchen I used to volunteer for. I want to go to movies again and take naps on Sunday afternoons. Ill be 40 next week, and this seems a good time to think about longer-range projects like buying a house or even having a kid.

I loved Hopkins and getting my Ph.D., and had the circumstances been different I might well have loved working in academia. But life outside the university feels like it offers great possibility these days, and that's a very good sign.

Robin Warner is a pseudonym.

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