Make Waves and Conquer

Like most people, I am perpetually looking for my next move–upward mobility, the sign of success in our culture. The past two years, because I was unhappy with my career at the publisher, I considered various avenues for change: a 1-year post-bacc BSN program, a 2-year Associate’s in Nursing program (since graduates incur less debt and are paid similar wages as BSNs), 1-2 year post-bacc program for medical school, officer training school for the military, film studies programs, and of course, PhD programs in humanities.

All of these choices represent my internal conflicts between needing job security/reasonable wages and my ideals. I wanted, for instance, to go into nursing because of the potential for options: I could work contractually and be a traveling nurse making $60/hr. Or I could pursue medicine on an expert level and be an MD. (Endocrinology and neuroscience interest me the most.) There is also the military who would pay for my loans if I enlist (as a non-officer), or provide job security and a way out of this city. Film school would be a dream with no job security, but an opportunity for creativity. PhD programs in humanities represents my intent to continue along the path I chose for myself during my junior year in college, when I decided that science, with its reductionist motives, were in conflict with my core values. Lately, I’ve been thinking that a PhD in media/cultural studies would be a perfect confluence of my interests and perhaps offer more job security than a PhD in English, although I’m sure the difference is minimal.

Last night, at a cafe in the city (I reside about 40 mins away), I heard young urbanites who attend MA/PhD programs in social work discuss their troubles. They were all under 30, so no doubt they’ve never tried to survive without the construct of academia. One took photos and remarked on the cafe’s ambiance–her outlet from being anxious about the results of her survey/research. They were all brilliant, filled with ideas and doubt. They talked about the system, how they wanted so much to change it, but then got lost along the way. Now they are unsure about the “next step.” They do not want to be social workers. They want to teach and research, except there are very few opportunities–like in English, hundreds of applicants for one position.

Through my experiences in graduate school for my MFA, I’ve come to realize that academia is not sustainable, and here is another case, more evidence. Academia needs brilliant minds, but it cannot offer jobs because there are none, unless more universities pop up. According to The Chronicle, roughly half of all doctoral graduates get jobs in their field. Slightly less than a Ponzi scheme, but pretty close.

Recently, I read through some emails between my AP Lit teacher (who has since passed from a brain tumor) and me. I had just switched majors from Biology to English, and I was so excited about this new path into the humanities. I knew then, in 2003, that teaching and writing would be my goals:

O the possibilities!! šŸ™‚ I’m excited but terribly afraid…At least I know life will not be mundane, huh?

Seven years later, I’ve achieved those goals: teaching and and writing, but I have a long way to go. Doubt gets to me, especially when I see those from my high school cohort, who’ve pursue medicine or some other practical route, do very well and present themselves with much more glee and confident purpose. Most have families now and are accomplishing those “emerging adulthood” milestones, while I’ve regressed a bit. (I did have a mortgage once and a series of partners, although none of it worked out.) I have difficulty at times in feeling secure about my life decisions–not just pursuing a career in the humanities, but life in general.

My 10-year high school reunion is coming up this summer. I was co-valedictorian and had very high expectations for myself. (The other valedictorian is now in her residency as a family physician.) Perhaps, I feel some measure of failure. I did take the path less traveled, but what do I have to show for it besides an overdeveloped consciousness and three towering bookshelves filled with ideas? I’ve acquired very little in the same terms that “accomplishment” is usually measured in the world (ie, wealth, prestige, security).

Regardless, I do feel good about my life’s progress. I’m somewhat accomplished. I’m self-aware. I’ve assessed what happiness means to me: freedom, love, meaning. I have lived without the security of the box. I have enjoyed life as opposed to be burdened by it.

My AP Lit teacher also wrote on my senior book: “Make waves and conquer.” The message was to not subsume the ways of the system but to be one step ahead.

Indeed. I’m trying.

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