a little bit more about me

My name is Beth and I accidentally have found myself living in Arizona but I'm originally from Tennessee. My education is in history and anthropology, which means that I know a little about a lot of things and can hold my own at a cocktail party in mixed company. I work in museums, doing all sorts of things ranging from researching and writing exhibits to cataloguing absolute wickety wak. I love comedy, baking, photography, my daughter, dogs, and above all else, napping.*

* 2013 edit: Oh yeah, and my new son too.

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    Entries in career (10)

    Friday
    Sep262014

    I'll be over here, avoiding the interwebz

    One article that's been making the rounds this week - at least in my inbox and on my feed - is this one from Slate that attempts to demystify the academic job application process for non-academics. I had made myself a deal to stop reading anything about the job market. Because it's all too familiar that the tenure-track job market is bleak at best. Or that winning a tenure-track job isn't all it's cracked up to be. And that even full-time non-tenure-track jobs are scarce as teaching gets farmed out to adjuncts. And that Ph.Ds continue to face the choice of either accepting the unsustainble pay and working conditions that come with being an adjuct or opting out of their academic field altogether. There may be 100 reasons to go online and find out why you should not go to grad school. But especially if you're about to graduate with a Ph.D, you just might want to avoid the web altogether.

    If you don't, you'll be faced with articles like that Slate one. But at least that one comes in handy for explaining to friends & family why this any time of year is a terrible time to ask an academic "So....how's the job search going?" As you can guess, for some reason, I read it, hoping it would be...I don't know, funny, maybe? That we could all chuckle at how ridiculously awful the prospects are and how tiny the chances of landing something. See? The potential for hilarity is oh Jesus they just used the phrase 'existential death spiral.' Closing that tab.

    In my house, we're already knee deep in hopelessness about this year's market in My Better Half™'s field. So far there are seven - SEVEN! - jobs nationwide that he at least sort of qualifies for. As we read a result from the job alerts we subscribe to, we even hold out hope because we've seen several that open with "The ideal candidate will teach..." YES HE TEACHES ALL OF THOSE AND HAS GREAT TEACHING EVALUATIONS AND

    Oh.

    That's when we scroll down to the qualifications and realize the futility in applying. Sometimes it's because every last minimum and desired qualification is aimed at demonstrating the candidate's success at securing *research* dollars - nothing whatsoever about teaching experience and abilities. Sometimes it's because the job specifies "Strong preference for research experience in the river beds of southeastern Ohio" or some sh*t like that. And sometimes - and I'm not even making this up - it's because the job specifies that while you should have a Ph.D. in one field, you should also have Ph.D.-level research expertise in another entirely different field too. Sorry, we didn't realize he should have been pursuing a dual Ph.D. in anthropology and pediatric dentistry at the same time. Sure, he'll still apply because we know that nobody is ever a perfect match for any job in any field. But who knows? Maybe there is that one candidate out there who matches all those qualifications more closely. (There usually is when it comes to academics).

    Luckily, My Better Half™ got real with himself two years ago as he began to track the academic jobs and determined that if teaching was his desired end game, he would pursue community college jobs, where work is all about teaching and not 100% research-focused. Wait. Where do community colleges list their jobs? Our job alerts at Chronicle of Higher Education and HigherEdJobs.com are surfacing only university - and the occasional yet even more highly coveted private liberal arts college - jobs. As time passed, we began to wonder about this more and more. After a year of receiving these job alerts, we had seen only one community college job. Perhaps they just don't advertise nationally? We finally broke down and sheepishly emailed the advice columnist at the Chronicle of Higher Ed who covers the community college job market, and he responded that community college jobs are typically posted at HigherEdJobs.com. Oh, well, let me go in and alter our search alert so that

    Sonofab*tch.

    Our HigherEdJobs alert HAS been set to include community college jobs for the TWO YEARS we have had it set up. It's just that there haven't been any community college jobs for the alert to capture. 

    Some days it's easier than others to say "F it. We'll just take our own path and opt out of this academic job crisis nonsense and figure out plan B and life will be just fine." Other days, it's harder to see how to make our way out of path dependency. Especially when you open an article only to be faced with a nice summary of all the work required to apply, only to face such terrible odds.

    Tuesday
    Apr222014

    Path Dependency

    I've always been fascinated to hear how people fall into their line of work. Some, like me, seem to stumble backasswards into what they do. Some people seem to be able to leverage a hobby into a career. Some, like My Better Half, seem to be oriented to a particular path for as long as anyone can remember. He is an academic archaeologist through and through with a voracious appetite for any and every scholarly work in his field. His insatiable quest for anthropological expertise has been around since he was 3, if not sooner, according to collective family memory. And he can't help but teach no matter where he goes, regardless of whether his students are actually students.

    Too bad academic teaching isn't so much a thing anymore.

    When he started this journey, the job market seemed reasonably rosy. He left behind steady work as an archaeologist for a consulting company to go back to school so he could achieve his dream of teaching. And if his dream of teaching at the college level didn't pan out for some reason, no matter - he could always pan for gold. Or at least go back to being a field archaeologist.

    We always knew how competitive any academic job market would be, but we also thought that, unlike some other fields (I'm looking at you museum studies), he could always fall back on his prior career as a practicing archaeologist working for an environmental consulting company.

    What happened next is a story that's all too familiar to anyone who's been following changes in higher education, or an adjunct boom, or even adjunctivitis, whatever the hell that is. The recession meant alot of things, including a decline in public funding for higher education, trickling down to departments being unable to hire full-time tenure-track professors and increasingly relying on adjuncts to teach. To the extent that now somewhere upwards of 2/3 of those who teach at the college level are only adjuncts or instructors without any possibility of tenure.

    What all that means in our household is uncertainty & inertia. The very few full-time instructor or tenure-track jobs that were available were open months ago, when he was still neck deep in writing drafts of chapters. And taking care of a newborn. And the 2 year old. And teaching at the community college. And TAing at the university. And taking care of cooking, cleaning, & yardwork. Now that he's only knee deep in putting the final chapters together, there are only temporary openings, 1 year appointments, mostly.

    No matter. He can fall back on field archaeology until he lands a teaching gig, right? Not exactly. Even in his former career as a field archaeologist, the recession meant that the kinds of projects that triggered the need for archaeological fieldwork collapsed. No new housing developments being built, no major road construction, no new light rail lines, no substantial construction of any kind at all meant that cultural resource management firms shrunk (read: layoffs) or closed, leaving even those in his "backup" career path under- or unemployed and with no clear path. But even if he could find field work, would that work, uh, work for us? A quick look at our bank account says "absof*ckinglutely" but a quick look at our two (very young) kids says "nah uh." Not at this stage in our lives.

    So what's left? That's the problem. He worries that he is path dependent. And in the most general sense, of course he is because we all are. The choices we made in the past necessarily influence the present. But his point is that by choosing to get a Ph.D. he has continually winnowed his opportunities down to such a degree that he now stands almost no chance of being seen as anything other than grossly overqualified for anything other than teaching at the college level. Which, if you recall what you've been reading since paragraph 2, is about like the odds of scoring a job in journalism. Or law

    Sure, he's got a steady recurring gig as an adjunct. Which is going great says no one nowhere. Is it any wonder so many Ph.D. students are jumping ship? Sure, if you're not destined for academia, then is the Ph.D. necessary? Maybe, maybe not (basically: it depends). And while we should not forget that those who have Ph.D.s also are empowered to make choices, what about those who dream of nothing but a shot at the academic career and nothing else? What about those who want to be dependent on that particular path? 

    In our household, we'll have to wait and see. Plan A is to abide by the adjunct's life for the fall semester while Better Half goes on the academic job market (if there is anything in his area to pursue) and see what happens. Plan B? Still not clear. Selling drugs, perhaps?

    Friday
    Jan202012

    All This Thinking is Counter-Productive

    Yesterday's work day was simultaneously one of the best and worst work days ever. Our network was completely down (and remains largely down today), giving me a very limited subset of tasks I could work on. Simple tasks that I blew through in just a few minutes. So I basically goofed off on the web all day.

    I feel guilty about that in the sense that I know I'm not getting paid to just goof off. But I also feel guilty about it in some other, more profound way. That I don't give a sh*t that that's how I spent my day.

    After months of un- and under-employment in 2010 and 2011, I finally landed this job. And I was, and continue to be, grateful for that. Even more grateful for the fact that I was more than 6 months pregnant when I started here. And that my workplace is so accommodating and understanding of the new rhythm of my life. Like needing some time to adjust to the schedule of getting to work with pants on. I have a lot to be thankful for: I have an amazing boss. I make a decent living. I have benefits. But I don't love my job. I don't love the line of work I'm in. It just doesn't excite me or inspire me. If it's too much to ask to do work that you're really designed to do, that you are enthusiastic about, that provides the work environment and work style you desire, and at which you are driven to excel, then honestly? I'd rather just be home with my baby.

    Having nothing to do but idle time to pass away in my cubicle yesterday was not a good thing because it sent me down a path of re-examining my career and life path yet again. I sat there in my cubicle thinking. And while thinking may be dangerous, it's all I could do. Well, I mean, besides watch youtube videos of dogs.  Or babies. Or dogs and babies.

    The result of all that thinking was a deafening cry inside my head: I want to be productive. I want to work hard. But I want to work for myself. If nothing else, if I worked for myself, woke up one morning, and the network was completely down? I wouldn't sit there and stare at a blank screen all day like an automaton. I'd go out and live life. Read, nap, go for a hike, take a scenic drive. The possibilities are endless. Bonus: a little break would have reinvigorated me for when it was time to work again.

    Coincidentally, I happened to read a blog post last night by someone who talked about losing his job suddenly and needing new work ASAP, who wrote "All I need is to be working with smart passionate people, flexible hours and the ability to work from anywhere. A cubicle is my death. I’ll take it if it’s all I can find, but I’d prefer to work from home and fly anywhere for meetings/face to face time." Well said, my friend. I work in a cubicle, though that, in and of itself is not the problem. The last museum I worked for, I worked in a cubicle and worked with some of the most talented, funny, amazing coworkers friends ever. If we could have run away to found our own creative firm offering our services as a web designer, writer, graphics/visual artist, and editor, I totally would have. Except that we would have needed insta-clients, and lots of them, because all of us have piles of bills to pay.

    Some of it has to do with the stupidity of playing working by the rules. Whether it's that I have to show up & sit here in a cube for 8 hours even though none of us can get to a single work file, or that I can't install Flash because I don't have Admin user privileges even though I produce Flash videos for my job, or that I can't listen to music on my computer even though I work at a music museum, whatever the workplace is, it has inane, inexplicably dumb rules. I want to live life by my own terms and work by my own rules. Work when I'm ready to work, rather than staring at a blank screen trying to get motivated because I haven't yet had my coffee and had to be at work at 8:30 even though I've been up with a baby since 3:30. Or that I didn't get to bed with the baby til 3:30. Cuz everyone knows, if you work from 11-7, your quality of work is just total sh*t compared to the quality of work you produce on no sleep between 8:30-4:30! Write about topics that I'm interested in, rather than digesting & regurgitating the most boring information to a general audience. And produce deliverables that match my expectations of high quality rather than pass off "meh, it's ok, but at least it's on time" stuff because of someone else's constraints.

    That could be the biggest thing. There's nothing more frustrating at work than having to compromise, or even abandon your vision. That's been one of my frustrations with everywhere that I have worked since grad school: not being in control over the quality of the work products I deliver. In grad school, I was in total control over the quality of my research sources, the level of my analysis, and the craftsmanship of my writing. But working for someone else is a whole different story. It's awful to have a product "represent" you that you don't feel is the type or quality of work you do best. Because I have worked only for nonprofits, I'm always on a shoestring budget, but I don't always know the external constraints. Like when your boss tells you you've got a $25,000 budget for an exhibit, and you spend $4,000 only to be hauled into her office and told that you've "gone over budget." How? Because she was working on the assumption that $22,000 of that "budget" was for your own salary. (And you were working on the assumption that budget = money one can spend. Because that's what the word means). Or how you get "voluntold" at work to produce a professional instructional video in 3 months but you get told by the videographers that they can't work you into their schedule in that time frame, so the best they can do is hand off some B-roll footage and let you work your own magic. When you're in control of your own product, you know what's within your abilities and limits and don't overextend that by taking on projects and agreeing to ideas that compromise your vision. And you're clear on the rules of engagement. 

    Here's the thing: I feel like I finally deserve to find work that works for me. Until this job, I spent my work life trying to make a career out of museum work, and it's just not there to be made. Museum work is tireless, thankless, and undervalued. It demands a lot of your time, your efforts, your patience, and your resources, but does not deliver equivalent opportunities for personal and professional growth, upward mobility, and, most importantly, work-life balance. Sure, you can rise through the ranks. Either incrementally and over a long period of time, working your way up in a large institution where you must summon the patience to spend years doing menial work that inexplicably demands a Master's degree waiting for a vacancy for which you have been groomed over time to materialize. Or you may rise through the ranks at a tiny institution well before you are equipped with the skils, abilities, leadership, and network to tackle the frequently insurmountable problems of a small and increasingly irrelevant institution. I gave both a shot, and neither path worked out for me.

    Then, when I was laid off by the last museum, I spent my time scrambling, trying to find any job that fit my existing skill set, hoping things would work out for the best. And the side effects aren't shabby: a steady job that uses the skills that I learned used in museums - research, writing, editing, teaching, and a little design  - a decent paycheck with benefits, and the best boss I've had since 2006.

    But I want more. I don't want to try to squeeze myself into a new career that doesn't fit me exactly right. All that thinking time yesterday reaffirmed that I've got to figure out how to make my next work move be to work for myself.

    Monday
    Aug152011

    Recommitting to a New Career

    Today was my first day back to work after having a baby. It sucked. It was so unbelievably difficult to leave my little infant at daycare, and reaffirmed to me that I need to figure out a way to work for myself. Since we moved here in 2006, I worked in museums (well, and one private art gallery) for four years, making the best of the local museum scene (which ain't much, by the way) before fully abandoning museum work slash getting laid off last fall. Once I was laid off, I had to scramble to find a paycheck, so I took the first full-time benefits-eligible job I could find because I needed to pay our mortgage and eat and stuff. Y'know, the extravagant things in life. But having never had a baby before, I had no idea what to expect about just how hard it would be to put her in daycare and head back into the office. I'm not saying I would want to be a full-time stay-at-home mom, but I certainly wasn't ready to return to work so quickly, and leaving a helpless little 8 week old at daycare was the most heart-wrenching thing I've ever had to do.

    It just reaffirms the stuff I learned a couple years ago with career counseling. I need to figure out a way to work for myself, set my own schedule, define my own projects, and work from home. More than ever.

    Friday
    Dec172010

    Just as Hard as it Sounds

    So when I took my job writing exhibits, I knew it was a short-term 18-month gig. But I figured 18 months as a "real" writer was worth it, and by the end of the 18 months, I'd surely be able to land find another writing gig. Boy, am I naive! Today was my last day at the job, and I'm now laid off. I'm sad to leave my friends behind, as I had many awesome coworkers. But I'm glad to be out of that wickety wak environment, and beyond ready to leave the museum world in my rear view. But how to transform myself into a writer, even with all this free time on my hands now, is just as hard as it sounds like it might be. It might shock you to hear, but writing here doesn't pay, and I'm not sure how to find writing gigs that do. And to be honest, I like writing, so I'm not sure I want to mess up that relationship by getting in bed with it and making it my livelihood.