Never an Academic: On Finding a Plan B

Academia was always a dream for me. Starting in my younger years, the quest for knowledge always seemed so noble. There was nothing more refreshing than getting lost in a sea of books. As I got older, I realized that romanticized notion wasn’t really quite the actuality of academia, but the idea of the white tower elite still remained a draw. I knew if I made it there, I would be legit.

I went to a small, research-heavy liberal-arts college for undergrad and this trend continued. While it made me crazy, it also made me extremely happy. Small seminar classes, where I could debate with my peers; independent research projects, where I could pose a question and dive head first into finding an answer; cross-discipline study, so I could keep all parts of my brain stimulated. I soon became enamored with the more tedious reality of academia. It was a dream. I was surrounded by ridiculously smart people who challenged me to think, research, debate, and otherwise better myself. I loved every minute of the discourse, and I let myself be swept away into academic thought and banter. I spent the weekends in some remote corner of the library, which some obscure bit of mid-Soviet poetry interlibrary loaned in from god knows where. Basically, I was hooked on the way of life.

After a couple of years away from school, academia still called to me. It just made sense. I wanted to hide in obscure libraries and discover some strange footnote that only five people in the world would even care about. I wanted to have petty back-and-forths with others in my field, all through academic journals. I wanted to teach young minds and get them energized in ways they did not anticipate. I wanted my life to be academia. And I wanted to start it as soon as possible and without falling seriously into debt.

So I applied to financially-assisted doctoral programs in my small niche field of choice. It seemed like the best way to jump in with both feet, without the financial backlash. And I’m a liberal arts kid–I knew I could handle it.

I heard back about my first interview within a week of submitting my application from the University of Pennsylvania. I got suited up and visited. I loved the campus, the things the graduate students were discussing and working on, they way they engaged. And I did well. The majority of the professors seeming to like me, as we bantered about Bruno Latour, why philosophy of science focused on physics, and 19th century disease. One professor went so far as to say, “You’d do well in any doctoral program–this is the path for you.” However, there was one caveat I learned about on my visit. Where normally they would make seven offers every year, with the anticipation that four would accept, their budget was so tight they could only make four offers and wait-list the rest.

So I waited to hear. No other interviews came in. Penn got back to me–I was one of the three waitlisted. I was in the top seven of over 200 applicants, but it meant nothing. I was devastated. I had fallen in love, and it hadn’t worked out on the first go.

So I applied again…and didn’t get in anywhere. At this point, I was mortified.

Meanwhile, everyone else I knew that were also applying to programs were all getting accepting and heading off into their bright, new futures. I was the only one still chugging away at work, unable to break free and return to my beloved academia. I felt both defeated and embarrassed.

Was I really not smart enough? Was I not cut out for academia? I started gauging my self-worth by this failure. If I couldn’t get into academia, what was I good for?

I had to decide what to do next. Was it worth applying again? Waiting a whole nother year to see if I could move forward in this direction? I knew it would always be a crapshoot. And I wasn’t getting any younger. The longer it took to get in, the older I would be when I completed my doctorate, this I knew. I read articles and talked to friends and realized maybe this isn’t the time for academia.

The caveat that kept me out of Penn would be the sort of thing that would pop up more and more. Throughout this recession and probably into the future, universities have been hurting for funding. At the same time, there is increasingly a glut of applicants in most fields–no one can find work post-college, so why not apply to keep going? Between decreased funding and increased applicants, I knew my chances of breaking into academia would always be slim, particularly in a small niche field. And even if I got in, what kind of future would that mean? Underpaid assistant professorships for longer than one would like to imagine, moving to whatever places the academic jobs existed, whether small, rural town or super-urban sprawl. And nothing set for certain.

So, with more than a few tears shed, I gave up on that dream. I will never be an academic. That will never be the life for me. And that’s still a hard thing for me to say.

But if not academia, what? I had to start figuring out what other interest I had, where I could reasonably go from here. I had to push the reset button on my life goals. And importantly, try my best to not judge myself, not see this as a major life failing.

I took a year and tried to live in my life, enjoying what I had and where I was. Throughout this period, I did some soul-searching, and with more than a little hesitation, settled on a plan B.

In a few weeks I will be starting on the slow journey toward a Masters of Public Health, gained while working and through accruing massive loans. A practical degree with most likely a practical outcome. But I think I could be happy, and maybe even do some good for the world. I’ll be able to put my liberal arts-trained mind to better use, probably, than locked away in some dark library.

There are some things that are just out of our control. I can’t say at this point whether I just wasn’t cut out for academia or the circumstances and timing were just off. I just try not to beat myself up over it anymore, or worry about the fact that I’m almost 30 and just now starting graduate school. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t right, I’ve worked hard to believe that I’m not a failure because of it.

Even if it’s plan B, I’m happy to be on a new path.

View Comment (1)
  • Loved this piece. Your internal debate resonates so much with me. I do have a different
    take on the “worry about the fact that I’m almost 30 and just now starting graduate school.” Going to grad school in your late twenties/early thirties can give you a serious boost in the job market after graduation. You will have several years of solid work experience which grad students coming straight from college won’t have. That is especially good for “a practical degree”.

    You would likely also have a great professional network to tap into after graduation – especially if you stay in touch during grad school.

    Plan “B” could end up being Plan “Best”! Cheesy but true.

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