My life choices shouldn't make you feel bad about yours

February 4, 2011, 9:04 am

Telling academics that you don’t want a tenure-track job is a lot like telling regular people you don’t want to have children.

Seriously. Try doing either one, and you’ll often hear the same set of responses: It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done; How can you be fulfilled if you don’t?; You’ll change your mind when you get older.

I never had any doubts about not wanting children. I did struggle quite a bit with the decision to leave the tenure-track path. My struggle was summed up very eloquently in a paragraph by Dean Dad, singled out and quoted by The Happy Scientist:

I’m convinced that one reason some people won’t let themselves let go of the dream, despite years of external signals suggesting that they should, is a sense that it would reflect a personal moral failing. They’ve identified so completely with the ‘meritocracy’ myth that they feel a real need to redeem themselves within it. It’s more than the money; other fields often pay more. Instead, they see the status of “tenured professor” as a sort of validation of everything they’ve done. Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure; lifelong “A” students, as a breed, aren’t very good at that. It’s not what they do.

Yep. That’s it.

As of next week, I will have been at my position here at the research center for 6 months. I am really and truly enjoying this job. And the paycheck. And I did a short teaching stint last month, and remembered how much I did not enjoy teaching. At this point, my doubts about leaving the traditional path are pretty much gone – it’s something I started considering long ago, back around the time I finished my Ph.D. in 2005, and the fact that I am happier now than I have ever been is very affirming. I am finally feeling secure in my choices.

Try telling that to other academics – especially grad students and postdocs who are out there on the job market. Am I threatening their choices? I never say, “Only an idiot would want that job”; I always carefully phrase it as, “It’s just not the right choice for me.” Why do they feel the need to defend their pursuit of the traditional path?

My choice to remain childfree has nothing to do with other people’s choice to reproduce – but perhaps they have deeply buried doubts about it, and my choices threaten their peace of mind. I suspect it’s the same with academics. They have their doubts too – that maybe the traditional path isn’t right for them either, but they really don’t know what else to do.

Academia may seem like a liberal haven, but it’s not progressive enough to encourage people to stray from the traditional path. To any academic who has their doubts about that path, I say: don’t let them make you feel like a failure. There is so much more out there, so many options that can make you feel happy and successful. Don’t let other people define your life.

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