Leaving academia has brought me a great deal of relief but also a hefty dose of disappointment. I’m feeling it this week as my friends and former colleagues attend the Population Association of America 2014 Annual Meeting in Boston. I attended my first PAA in 2005 soon after I started graduate school. I wasn’t sure what topic I wanted to study, and I didn’t know a whole lot about research. Attending session after session was overwhelming but also inspiring. I was going to be a demographer!
PAA got better every year (until last year when I knew I was leaving). I made lots of friends in the field and got to see them at this meeting. I presented posters, gave talks, organized my school’s annual PAA dinner. I was part of the community.
I noted absences. Every year a few people I remembered attending prior meetings wouldn’t be there. It made me wonder how many years on average people attend PAA. It made me wonder what happened to the people who disappeared.
I didn’t want to disappear. I didn’t want to disappoint my friends and mentors by not being there. I hoped for a nice long career in demography, one where I would be important enough to give addresses and receive career awards. I didn’t want to disappoint myself.
There’s a lot of disentangling of feelings to be done when one leaves academia. For me, that’s meant recognizing that my disappointment in not having my first career path work out doesn’t necessarily indicate that I wanted it to work out. It’s meant acknowledging that it’s hard to let go of dreams even when they lose their luster. And most importantly, I have to remind myself that I’m worthy of having new dreams even though I let one dream die. Even if I’ve disappeared.
Related to this and your previous post, I think a lot of things one thinks are over and done with, such as career choices that end, will come back later and perhaps be of great use to you. I was a landscape gardener for almost 7 years. I had almost completed a Landscape Horticulture certificate and there had been a lot about gardening for a living that I loved.
Then there came a dark period when I realized that I really didn’t want to expand my business by supervising others, and I realized that I was putting nothing towards retirement, had no health care and had a string of other problems, like van repairs and a stolen lawn mower, that let me know that I was not going to be able to pursue this job for the long haul. I remember going to what should have been an inspiring weekend of lectures for horticulturalists and, instead of being inspired I was gnashing my teeth over my bills and my unpredictable income.
Soon after I quit gardening for a living and got a job at UC Berkeley. At first I was delighted to be able to have health insurance and paid vacations! And for a couple of years I found that I was made angry by the necessity of doing even my own garden maintenance. I would dread doing it, even though I was extremely proficient in it still. After some years I came to love it again, and I have always been really happy to garden once I realized that there was no clock ticking, no client to come out of their house and complain that I had weeded the wrong bed, no clients who “forgot” to pay me during the same month that they purchased a new car, etc. etc. And now I really value the skills I gained during those years of professional gardening, even though the final year was filled with bitterness and regret.
When I retire I expect that gardening will take up a good portion of my time and I am looking forward to finding community gardening groups to work with. I expect to do plant propagation and use my garden to supplement our food supplies. If you had asked me would I still be a gardener during that first year away from it and I might have snorted with derision. I expect that a few years after my retirement from office work I will also come to appreciate the skills I have gained in this profession and will try to find ways to apply them to my future endeavors. But, as with gardening, under my own terms!
So I think that we make use of many of our skills, even the ones that we have formally abandoned, at some future time in our lives. Somehow I see one of your novels having details that only a demographer would appreciate; perhaps the plot will even hinge upon this rather arcane knowledge. 🙂
Thanks for sharing, Liz! I definitely appreciate the training that I received, and I would not be who I am without it. I hope like you I can get over the hard times. I do have plans for romance novel that features a protagonist who studies demography. I’m really looking forward to writing it.
Here’s the old adage–what you do is not the same as who you are–but it is easier for you and others to define you if you can identify yourself as a certain something. If that something is impressive then it is very difficult to abandon and this destabilizes how you relate to yourself and others– until a new grounding builds. Here’s to new grounding and the courage to build it! Make sense?
Definitely. Thanks, Aunt Marie! I’m working on that new foundation.