About the Ambivalent PhD

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my diploma when I received it in the mail.  At first, I could only stare at the cylindrical tube in which my diploma was surely encased, my emotions cycling rapidly between relief, utter stupefaction, and rage.  I had an overwhelming urge to set the damn thing afire, to cleanse my self and my soul of this symbol representing the culmination of the last six years of my life.  But then, I’ve never been one for massive displays of emotion.

I don’t hate my PhD.  But I don’t love it, either.  I suppose you could say that I’m conflicted.  More importantly, I’m entirely ambivalent about the prospect of my life in academia.  Please don’t tell my current employer.

Feeling conflicted about academia is really nothing new.  Many others – here and here and here – have already extolled the virtues of resigning careers in academia.  The difference for me, of course, is that I don’t have a tenured (or even tenure track) position to give up.  I barely have a career at all.

I used to have a career.  Well, sort of.  At least, I had what you might call a career trajectory. Prior to graduate school, I worked in a variety of social service professions: first as a caregiver at a group foster home for abused and neglected children, then as a counselor at a domestic violence shelter, then as a support worker for a child abuse prevention program.  I worked primarily with immigrant women – many of whom were trafficked and/or undocumented – and I witnessed the difficulty that such women have in leaving abusive partners, navigating the criminal justice and child welfare system, gaining support in the community, and building new lives.

Of course I loved the work; it was both meaningful and fulfilling, and I still believe that such programs can be invaluable.  Over time, however, I realized that the problems we confronted on a daily basis did not match our solutions to those problems.  As an advocate, I was supposed to tackle these issues one by one, as the concerns of individual women (or children) with individual problems.  If the issue was an abusive partner, the solution was simply to encourage the woman to leave her partner.  Our solutions always required straightforward responses to supposedly individual issues.

As I discovered, however, these problems were anything but individual, and the solutions were anything but straightforward.  For one, feminist theories of power posit the role of society – more than individual abusers – in perpetuating gendered violence; ending violence thus requires more than convincing individual women to prosecute their individual abusers.  Moreover, unauthorized immigrant women in particular confront a complex set of regressive policies and practices that complicate their ability to leave abusive relationships.

These experiences disrupted my life trajectory and caused me to rethink my professional goals.  I still wanted to address immigrants’ and women’s rights issues, but my path had changed from social work to a more critical approach.  I wanted to research and understand how our political, economic, and social policies, and the ways we think about immigrants and immigration, reproduce structural inequalities for immigrants, including broad social policies that make it difficult for immigrants to leave abusive and exploitative relationships.  Moreover, I wanted a career that would provide the space to work toward societal change.

I decided to pursue a Masters in Sociology as a bridge to this career.  Somehow I ended up staying for a PhD.  Along the way, I spent time as a campaign coordinator with AKIN – Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors and a steering committee member with SEIRN – the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network.  Throughout all of this, my path has only became muddier.

Now, I am a postdoctoral “fellow” at a small liberal arts college in the US Southeast, where I divide my time between teaching, research, and organizing “social justice” activities on campus.  And while I don’t disagree that the last component sounds a little suspect, I thought that this position would help me resolve at least some of my ambivalence about academia.  Instead, it’s only heightened my confusion.