Of my many faults as a human, my tendency towards nostalgia is probably one of my traits that annoys me the most. I am so easily sucked into a photo album or an old blog, and can then spend hours, or days even, thinking about whatever experience and how much I miss that particular time in my life.
In December, Facebook reminded me of one of those experiences, visiting various agricultural sites in San Luis Potosí (SLP), Mexico, when I still worked at CIMMYT.
I spent a lot of time in that job traveling around rural Mexico, but that was a particularly memorable trip because of the beautiful and kind people I spent time with, and the opportunities they provided to learn about traditional practices of preserving sugar cane and producing honey from stingless bees (for example). Neither of those things were directly related to the work I was hired to do at CIMMYT–managing a system of postharvest research sites, among other things–but the colleagues thought it would be helpful for me to see those practices to better understand their culture and agricultural needs in SLP (both of which were important for my job in a macro sense).
Those particular trips were why I wanted to do my PhD to begin with, and why I loved my work at CIMMYT at times. They were also exhausting; after 8-10 hours visiting sites in a day, I would then have to go back to my hotel to write a myriad number of reports and monitor who knows how many questions about other research sites, etc. etc. Literally on my first day as a paid employee at CIMMYT, I was reminded it was not a 9-5 job, and not that I think it should be, as this type of work is definitely a lifestyle choice. However, there is also a reasonable amount of report writing one should have to do for donors, and CIMMYT is somewhat well-known for expecting a level of productivity above and beyond what a single person could accomplish. Which is why I inevitably left, as so many of my colleagues in similar situations have done before and after I.
Yet, it is impossible to avoid the “what if’s” that come up when reminded of memories like that of my beautiful trip to SLP. What could I have done differently to be successful? How could I have changed the system to make it better for myself and others? Why did I fail, when others were able to figure it out somehow? What can I do to get back to that feeling of joy I felt when hugging that giant tree with my collaborators?
Back in January, I realized that my five year anniversary with my PhD had passed, rather unceremoniously. For anyone who has done a PhD, the time to complete it can be incredibly rewarding, but also absolutely miserable. The day of the defense feels like the best day ever, as if the only day that could ever compare are those dedicated to other significant life events like getting married or having a child (and I have done neither of those things, so you can imagine how great the day I became a doctor felt at the time). So the fact that my anniversary came and went without me noticing felt a little weird. And so close in time to when I was stuck in a pit of nostalgia thanks to Facebook pushing SLP memories on me, further opening my internal debate related to those questions noted above with a few additional ones, as well. Like, did I actually fail that badly at academia that it’s not even a memorable aspect of my life anymore?
But the beauty of not being in academia anymore: I don’t feel like I have to have all the answers, or even any answers, and especially not to unanswerable questions like “How do I change a broken system?”
Sometimes it seems silly to reflect on these questions now, over two years after I left academia, with no thoughts on going back. The little reminders of my PhD have been coming up lately, though, and I still get the occasional “Why are you doing this job with a PhD?” and “I still expect bigger and better things from you” type comments (which, are offensive for a variety of reasons, but especially because the individual asking these questions almost never has any insight as to what I want out of life. I mean, I have no idea, so how would they be privy to this knowledge?!?!).
So it seems important to reflect on these questions, especially now, in 2021. So much of my personal narrative of why I left CIMMYT and academia is because the “system is broken”, i.e., people are overworked and underpaid, there’s just not enough jobs, and your self worth is often tied to impossible metrics. But it is important to reflect, even two years later, because the system is not really broken for people like me. I grew up relatively poor for the area in which I was raised and I’m a first generation high school graduate (which, by default means I am also a first generation holder of bachelors, masters and PhD degrees). Other than those two aspects of my personal history though, I still have all the markers of what could have enabled success within the US academic system: I am white, I was a “gifted” child, I’m known for my grit, and in spite of our relative poverty, I still grew up in one of the most upwardly mobile locations in the nation. Women are still underpaid and lacking in tenure compared to men, but otherwise, I probably could have succeeded by the standard definition if I tried (several postdocs, followed by some tenure track job at a low- to mid-ranked university, occasional grant successes, n number of publications in a year…).
So, again, why am I reflecting on all of (waves hand) this? For two reasons:
We’re allowed to change our minds about what we want in life. Academia is not the only field in which people are stuck in the busy trap, and the only way we can ever shift the dialogue to something that is more equitable is by allowing individuals to take a step back and say “No, this is not for me.” On paper, again, I could have been successful in academia, and as I mentioned people have always expected “bigger and better” from me… But pushing expectations on people about what their success should look like is not OK. The only person who can decide what is appropriate for me in my professional and personal lives is obviously me. Only I can define what success looks like, and we need to help mentors and leaders understand that they can encourage individuals in a way that allows them to find their own successes. AND, even more importantly, recognize that when someone like me, a middle class white lady, takes a step back, leaders should listen, and instead, work to encourage those who have been TRYING to take a step forward and have faced so, so many barriers.
Which brings me to my second point: It’s not my turn for “bigger and better things” anymore. Again, the average person in this country is overworked and underpaid. But the people who are paid well, are paid extravagantly, and income inequality is an entirely separate topic that I definitely don’t need to get into here. But part of why academia felt broken to me is because of the inequality of who was paid to do what. This episode of Hidden Brain, Bullshit Jobs, warrants a listen for so many reasons, but about mid-way through, a discussion on middle managers and Vice Provosts in academia especially made me laugh. How much happier would everyone be in those jobs if they took a step back to part-time, giving them more time to go do 3,000 wheelies, or to find other hobbies, thus freeing up half of their exorbitant salaries to pay people who are actually doing the work, like the support staff, research managers and grad students AND PROFESSORS OF COLOR. Again, the system is broken, but not for people like me, and those of us who are white and privileged need to recognize that we do have a role in fixing it. Maybe not directly–I feel inadequate in my leadership skills to be able to truly effect change at places like CIMMYT (and obviously, I left for a reason)–but definitely in indirect ways, again, by taking a step back and making space for those who deserve an opportunity.
So, all this to say: I am nostalgic. I miss Mexico. I have no idea what I am doing with my life five years out of my PhD. But in the grand scheme of things, I may be doing much more for the world daydreaming about ways to get back to Mexico to learn Mayan meliponicultura than I am working in a dysfunctional system. Besides, who would produce all the quail eggs in Livermore if I’m not doing it?