Replacing the Transience of Graduate School With the Permanence of a Career

September 05, 2001

Just after landing my first tenure-track position, I happened to chat with a 7-year-old girl who asked me what grade I was in. I added up my undergraduate years, my two master's degrees, my doctorate, and my postdoctoral work, tacked on 12 years of public education, and told her I was just finishing the 26th grade.

She couldn't believe that I was such a big school kid. I couldn't either. All of my college friends had held jobs for a decade; most had houses, children, and no inclination toward moving or changing their lives. I saw starkly that I was about to be where they were as 22-year-olds. I was about to start sending out my own roots and living my adult life.

The transience of graduate school sets up a strange mind-set that's hard to overcome when graduate school finally ends. The permanence of an actual career track seemed completely beyond comprehension. Every decision my wife and I had ever made was shaped by the reality that we would be moving in a year or two. We didn't buy a house because we knew we'd be moving. She passed up job offers because she knew she wouldn't be in the position long enough to make the training worthwhile. We turned down opportunities for community involvement and held friends at arm's length because we knew from experience that saying goodbye would be painful. We even postponed having children until we were going to be "settled at last."

With my first tenure-track job in hand, I faced the distinct possibility that I would be in one place for the rest of my career. My wife and I started looking at houses with an eye toward making a purchase, and I stopped looking obsessively at the job listings. I began to evaluate the retirement package provided by my new employer, thinking, "Wow! Only 40 years to go!" My roots were spreading.

The adjustments we were undertaking are common to almost everyone who goes through graduate school. Instead of thinking in terms of short periods of our lives, we had to start thinking in terms of our entire lives.

Not too long ago, my best friend, Glenn, a recent Ph.D. with a new tenure-track position, spent the night with us. He has just bought his first house, is looking over his retirement plan, and is thinking about how he can become involved in his new community. He articulated his realization bluntly: "I've never had to think about things beyond four-year units. It's a strange adjustment to make."

I made the following recommendations to him and thought I'd share them with others who are in this same position. Here are five considerations to ponder as you begin life after graduate school:

Become involved in the community right away. Some people may sign up with the local community chorus or dramatic society. Others may participate in sports leagues or health clubs. Still others will find significant relationships in local places of worship. By admitting to yourself that this place is home, that you aren't likely to move any time soon, you will find that you will be happier wherever you may be living.

Make friends. Often graduate students form close and supportive friendships with other students in the graduate community only to move away and find themselves in the relative isolation of the teaching and research world of a new college. They find that their new colleagues already have friends and that it's hard to meet other people with similar interests.

It is hard work to make new friends, but it's an extremely important part of joining the community. Look for other new faculty members; look for other new people in the aforementioned community groups. Don't just sit in your office or hide in your house. Get out and find a local coffee shop or chat with people in your favorite section of the bookstore. Go out of your way to make new connections.

Focus your research goals as soon as possible. Do you want to revise your dissertation into a viable book manuscript? Do you have new research that you've been putting off while completing your degree or looking for a job? Now is the time to begin organizing your schedule to make these activities a priority. Meeting these goals also will make you happier in your professional life. Don't, however, use your research as an excuse to avoid social contacts. That excuse is a real threat to community integration.

Be prepared for the "I'm teaching where?!" epiphany. Somewhere around the end of October of your first year, you probably will wake up and realize that you are teaching somewhere that you never thought you'd be teaching, or living in a town you'd never heard of previously. After your mid-tenure review, you will come to a similar, though more serious realization: You are there to stay for quite some time.

Don't allow this realization to turn into a condescending attitude toward your students or your colleagues. If you begin to find yourself thinking, "These people don't deserve me!" then you are in trouble. Those very people will recognize that sentiment almost instantly. Some people end up with jobs they are tickled pink over ("I still can't figure out why they hired me."), but I think that most Ph.D.'s end up teaching and doing research in places that they find less than perfect. If you have begun to plant roots in the community, though, you may find this epiphany to be more bearable.

Avoid keeping an eye on the exit. I know many folks who send out résumés every year and devour job listings every week as if they were still looking for that first job. Certainly there are people who aren't well-matched with their first job and who need to be looking, but graduate school can habituate you into always looking for the next "perfect" place.

If you've already "checked out," that attitude can reveal itself in your teaching and in your role in the department. Remember to take the comments made by friends about their wonderful new jobs and fantastic institutions with a proverbial grain of salt. Either they aren't telling you everything about the place or they don't know everything yet. There are no perfect institutions; the positions that are close to perfection, with high salaries and low teaching loads, are reserved for senior scholars who have worked like dogs for at least a decade and a half. Don't be seduced by the false notion that you can find a better place; make the place you have better.

Finally, I would warn you that there will be a major transition in your family life. It was hard on my wife for us to be planted 1,000 miles away from her family. It was hard on me to make the final transition after all of this time into "real" adulthood, with a house, children, and community involvements. The stress can be a relationship killer. It's important that you and the significant others in your life communicate openly about your feelings and dedicate yourselves to planting your own family tree, so to speak, in your new field.

Gene C. Fant Jr., is chairman of the English department at Mississippi College.