Repurposing My PhD

I've been reading all of these non-fiction books about FINDING YOUR ULTIMATE PURPOSE IN LIFE lately. I've been binging on library books: Grit, by Angela Duckworth, Pivot by Jenny Blake, Presence by Amy Cuddy, and Originals by Adam Grant. I'm thankful and grateful for all of the reading apps on my phone.

I started reading these books because I've felt purposeless since finishing my PhD in 2015.  I've lost a lot of direction and momentum. Graduate school and the traditional professor track had provided a ready-made blueprint for where I thought I wanted to go in life. I had prefabricated five year plans that included a publishing schedule and future research projects. When I stepped off that track, I felt like the floor had fallen out from under me and I was left running on thin air like Wily Coyote before free falling into nihilistic nothingness. (As I've said before, leaving academia feels like the worst breakup in the history of everything.) Without clear next steps, I charged in random directions without any real ideas of what I wanted to do in life. I couldn't see the future without my academic research or a university job. I was desperate to figure out a new direction, but didn't know how to get started. I had a serious life problem that I needed to solve.

I put my PhD problem solving skills to work to figure out what to do about my current doldrums.  I read a lot of books, thought about them, and wrote some stuff. My living room this week is covered with sheets of paper with endless lists: personal values, things I liked to do as a kid, what I like to do now, what I want to be when I grow up, accomplishments I'm proud of, how I want to make an impact in the world, strengths, marketable skills, visions, knows, unknowns, can't knows, want to knows, preferences, likes, dislikes, my Myers-Briggs type indicator (INFP), and assorted self-assessments. If knowledge really is power, then surely self-knowledge is self-power.

I started reading Angela Duckworth's Grit this week and thinking about how it pertains to the post-PhD life. Duckworth argues that grit, the combination of passion and perseverance, predict success to a much greater degree than talent. There's quite a bit of public and academic debate over the merit of the central premise of Grit, some of which you can read here, here, and here. (But seriously, it's kind of cool that some social science research has entered into public debate and conscious.) Regardless of whether talent or grit predicts success (or maybe it's like so much humanities research and more complicated than we previously thought?), I found some of Duckworth's ideas useful for thinking about my current situation.

Even as I found myself nodding in agreement over certain parts of the book, I felt a creeping sense of shame. Although Duckworth identifies PhD people as pretty gritty (you kind of have to be to do a PhD), I wondered how grit applied to the people who decided to leave academia. After all, hadn't I given up on the academic job market and dreams of a tenure-track job? I gave up and gave in when things got tough. I quit. If anything, my experiences on the academic job market showed how little grit I had. I felt like the least gritty person ever. I should have tried harder, I thought and blamed myself accordingly.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that reading my personal PhD story as one of failure and as evidence of a lack of grit was only one possible interpretation.

I went back to the zillions of lists that I'd made, searching for a common theme and purpose. After re-reading all of the lists, I asked myself what the biggest purpose for my life was that I could imagine. The answer came without any thought. It dawned on me so naturally that it felt like breathing.

My life purpose is helping other people understand the world better.

When I think back on everything I've done in my life or wanted to do, everything always hinges on helping other people understand the world better. My academic research. My writing. My teaching. My Peace Corps service. My blog. Even my photography aims to help people see the world in a slightly different way, often using unusual angles to challenge perspective.

Another way to think about my post-PhD story is this: much as I said last week, that graduate school is only a means to an end, so too is the professoriate. Academia is really just ONE possible way to help other people understand the world better. Other ways of reaching my overarching goal of helping other people understand the world better. I know this because I made lists about it. To paraphrase Angela Duckworth, sometimes we have to give up on lower level goals because they are untenable, but this doesn't mean that we have to give up on the bigger, overriding life-level goals.

I may have left the professoriate, but truthfully, its just a means to an end, not an end unto itself. For me, the tenure-track was only one way that I could have achieved my big life goal.  Academia was a mid-level goal in the pursuit of something bigger. It's okay to give up on the idea of the tenure-track academic job, as long as I'm focused on my bigger life compass goal.

And I have to say that in terms of helping other people understand the world better, I'm actually pretty good at it. History is the main vehicle that helps me to do this, but even history isn't the only way to get to where I want to go. So now I get to figure out some new lower level goals that are going to help me get to my bigger life goal.

In other words, I need to make another set of lists. Possibility abounds. :)