The Chronicle of Higher Ed Doesn’t Know You

I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Location, Location, Location) that was a response to a previous column (Embrace Your Inner North Dakotan ) about PhDs’ willingness to relocate to new terrain to accept a ‘good’ job (versus a not-so-great job). The original author stated that relocating is a necessary evil in a specialized field in a struggling economy. The responding author stated that people should not compromise their personal preferences for the sake of a job, so in a tight job market PhDs should consider leaving academe.

At first, I was going to weigh in on that debate, but you all don’t care about the first-world struggles we academics endure, so instead, I will share my story.

I graduated from my PhD program fairly recently (May 2011). I’d spent the previous fall on the job market. I applied for around 43 academic positions (tenure-track, post-doc, visiting assistant professor) and about 12 non academic positions (government analyst/researcher, think tank researcher, university researcher, school district researcher). When it all shook out, I’d received 0 academic offers and 3 non academic offers. The salaries from my non academic offers were about 60k, 88k, and 96k. Needless to say, that is WAY more than any new PhD who’d planned their life to be a professor would ever expect their first year out of graduate school. But it wasn’t the salary that hooked me; it was the location. One of the offers was in my favorite city, Chicago. Another was in my hometown of Washington DC. The third was in Baltimore, MD.

My mother’s family is from Maryland. About an hour from my would-be new city lives my grandmother, four aunts, an uncle, four cousins, five second cousins, and all the love and support that comes with them. And because I am originally from D.C., we have family friends whom I call ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ living in the DC/MD area as well. Love from family is a strong lure.

Add to that, I was 25, a woman of color, and single. The odds of me finding a relationship in any of those three cities are high because of the sheer number of candidates. I called my mom and talked through the offers with her. I presented my argument for accepting the Baltimore position. With all the confidence my four degrees afforded me, I told her that it really boiled down to quality of life. I would be happy in that area. With a good salary, I could eventually buy a townhouse, visit family at least once a month, connect with old friends, meet new friends, and live the 20-something version of the Sex and the City life. I would have the carefree attitude of Samantha, the good decision making of Charlotte, the professional success of Miranda, and the banging wardrobe of Carrie!!!  Yeah, I had a plan. An unstoppable plan!

Then mom quietly said ‘I thought you wanted to teach.’

I hurriedly ended the conversation, sank to the floor with my back against my bedroom door and thought.

The next day, while at work, I thought some more. Then an email popped up in my inbox from a man I didn’t know with an email address from a school I’d never heard of. I deleted it.

Ten minutes later, I pulled it from the trash and read it. It was a job offer for a post doctoral fellowship. They wanted to fly me out in 3 weeks for an interview. He’d found my information in a job database (this must be one of the many things I did during the fall while searching for employment, but I had no memory of it). Like any good PhD, I researched the school. Turns out, even though I’d never heard of it, it’s a pretty highly ranked school. And it was private. And liberal arts. And the position was in the Education department (my degrees are in psychology, but my research is in education so I’d been applying to positions in both fields)—my preferred area. And the salary was decent for a new PhD. And it was on the other side of the country in a state I’d never been.

I took the interview and fell in love with the school. Everything about it was a good fit for who I am as a teacher and researcher.

But it wasn’t a good fit for my future personal life. Very few people of color, not a lot of young professionals, and even fewer single people. What the hell was I going to do when I wasn’t working?

While I thought about their offer, I received another offer. This time for a tenure-track position teaching psychology at a private HBCU in the city where I was currently living. For a host of reasons, I quickly declined that offer. While I would’ve loved to stay in the area, nothing about that job was for me.

But I was grateful. Within the span of a week, I’d gotten two academic job offers from institutions to which I’d never applied. These people had somehow heard of me, thought I would be a good addition, and contacted me. I am not sure how commonly that happens in academe, but I was honored nonetheless.

The feeling of honor faded as I continued to struggle with a major life changing decision: job satisfaction versus personal satisfaction. I decided not to talk to anyone about it. I didn’t need to hear their thoughts about what they would do if they were me. It doesn’t matter. You aren’t me. You don’t know how much I care about education, feeling like I can make a difference, being respected and valued at work, and truly doing what I set out to do: teach. You also don’t understand the complex perspective I have on ‘new friends’, my indecision about wanting children one day, nor my desire to be alone 85% of the time.

It was clear that the best choice for me was probably not the best choice for many of my friends. They would have never taken a chance, moved 7 states away from their closest family member, packed the dog and clothing in the car, shipped shoes and coats on a train, and started a new life. Alone.

But I did. And I can’t say it’s been a perfect decision. I often crave the love and support only those who’ve known you most of your life can provide. The telephone isn’t always enough and plane tickets are not affordable. But I make it work.

Luckily, I knew better than to solicit outside advice on my life. I knew that two authors writing opinion pieces for a respected journal were well intentioned, but in reality, my reality fell somewhere between their polarized views.

I chose my choice and I’m happy with it.