However it may have read, my previous post was intended as a comment about how generally happy I am--despite my native tendency toward irritation and dissatisfaction. It sometimes still feels miraculous that I got here, and by "here" I don't really mean a tenure-track job; I mean that I never fully imagined (although I thought I did, all the time) what my life would be like after grad school, or what I'd be like.
Long-time readers know how awful I found my grad school existence. But as of this month, it's been five years since I got my Ph.D. In August, I'll have been a full-time college professor for as long as I was a grad student. In October, I'll be going up for tenure. And so I guess it's time to say: yes, it was worth it.
Is it worth it only because I got a tenure-track job? I think not, and although I still have a lot of cynicism about grad school, the job market, and our possibly-dying profession, I don't feel much survivor guilt any more. I may not "deserve" an academic job any more than plenty of people who never got one, but five and six and seven years later, everyone I know who left grad school or the academy is doing fine: they're writers and journalists and arts-agency advocates; they live in cities they love; they're surrounded by smart friends and colleagues.
And maybe that's not what everyone wanted out of grad school, but it's why I went: I applied for an M.A. because I wanted to know more about literature and literary history--and because I thought the degree would help me get a job in a quasi-literary or artistic field. And I stayed for the Ph.D. because they let me. Along the way, I got professionalized and I came to love my teaching and my research, but the more important things I gained were the real things I'd wanted all along: new ways of thinking, new ways of being, and a life full of smart, interesting people.
I spent a lot of time in my twenties wanting to be "a person who": a person who did thus and such, or a person who seemed this or that. It's a particular life that I wanted, more than a specific job, and to my surprise, I pretty much have it. (As the Pet Shop Boys say, "I never thought that I would get to be/The creature that I always meant to be".)
Academia isn't the only profession that would have let me have this kind of life, but it seems, increasingly, like one of relatively few. Cosimo and I have been rewatching the first two seasons of Mad Men, and it's struck us that the real fantasy of the show doesn't center on the characters' handsome clothes and glamorous lifestyles, but rather on their relationship to their work: these are middle-class characters, none with advanced (or in some cases even college) degrees, whose work is creative and satisfying, providing them with their primary sense of identity and self-worth.
And for how many professions, or for how many people in those professions, is that true? Even people who work long hours in high-status fields like medicine or law tend to locate their sense of self elsewhere: they're locavores, world travelers, amateur photographers, or rehabbers of crumbling Brooklyn brownstones.
I don't feel guilty that I got an academic job. But I lucked into a profession that, for all its frustrations, is enormously rewarding; it bleeds into everything I do and am, in my leisure as well as my work hours. I wish that were true for more people.