A while ago I wrote this post about what I’m passionate about in the midst of some heavy self-doubt about my professional identity. I have always been pretty clear about my preferences and interests…my real problem was being scared of uncertainly, risks, and failure…all very real prospects for any academic who’s trying to “make it.” For months, I’ve been looking not only for jobs (albeit half-heartedly because I was unsure about what’s going on) but also a sign. In my own way, I’ve been praying for higher powers to reveal to me the meaning of my life outside of my wonderful family and married life.
Back in September I made the commitment to go a regional professional meeting this past week. For a while, I was dreading the whole ordeal and briefly considered abandoning the trip. My logic was if I wasn’t going to stay in the field/profession, what is the point of “professional development”? Fortunately, I did have a travel grant to spend on this trip…so I thought why not go for the good weather, good food, and good company? It’s hard to say exactly why, but this trip turned out to be the sign I had been seeking. Here are some thoughts about this conference and how I felt while I was there:
1. I love research and all other academic nerdy stuff! On the first day there, I spent 5 hours in a room listening to people speak about their research and I was absolutely enthralled by the whole experience. Yes, by the end of the 5 hours, my back was hurting from sitting too long and I had developed a slight headache from waking up really early that day to catch my flight…but I held off going to the bathroom so I wouldn’t miss any minute of the presentation. In that moment, I felt alive, happy, and comfortable.
2. I have the best mentors. In this academic life, it’s very easy feel alone or that you’ve been left behind in some way by your peers, life, and happiness. I know that sounds desolate, but this is a very lonely life. Being at the conference reminded me that I’m a part of a community of scholars and there are people out there rooting for me and willing to mentor me. All my life, I’ve always been blessed with the mentorship of great teachers. In Chinese, we call those who bless us with guidance and mentorship 貴人 (rough translation: good-person)…and I have them in my life. I am not alone. No one expect me to “make it” all by myself.
3. My very good friend and colleague MAG made a really good point…he said “academic is a part of your identity.” Identity is a funny thing and it’s actually a concept I occasionally use in my work. But MAG is right: being an academic is a part of me, which explains why I felt so wretched when I tried to “sever” ties with my academic identity. I once thought maybe I had been brainwashed and only clung to academia because it’s the only thing I know. After this past week’s experience, I don’t think that’s really the case. Although it is still the area I know the most about, trying to turn away from it just made me miss it more.
There are also several other events that made me realize other parts of my struggle with this academic quandary. For one, I thought perhaps my husband and I can allow his military career to be the dominant one and I’ll just do all that I can to support him. But sometime over the last week, our good friend J and his wife B said goodbye to us and moved on from military life. This made me realize one day, my husband will also leave the military: it might be in a year, in 5 years, or in 15 years…but regardless, he will leave it one day and be proud of all that he did. Where does that leave me? Maybe I’ll have children and be proud that I spent all my life supporting my family…but I don’t think that will be enough for me. I have to live out my potential beyond my home life.
Lastly, I don’t think I ever really gave myself the chance to make this academic and military dual career work. Yes, objectively, the conditions and the terms of these two types of professions are incompatible…but there are also ways in which it might work out. For example, aside from only working PT or being a stay-at-home mom, it is very hard to negotiate time off to coordinate with the big chunks of leave time that our military personnels enjoy. As a professor, it is actually very standard to have summer and winter vacations, which often coincide with summer/winter leave. It’s definitely not going to be perfect: if I do pursue an academic career, there will have to be serious compromises (e.g., living arrangements, children)…but I am hopeful (for the first time) that we will be able to coordinate so we can both become illustrious in our careers and become well-established in our respective chosen careers. I need to work hard and give it a chance.
Strangely, I feel that this conference was my redemption and it pulled me out of the depths of my despair. Even though the period of uncertainty and self-doubt really hurt my progress, I also believe it was necessary for me to fully appreciate what I have and who I am. Fall and winter is at an end; spring has sprung. And it’s wonderful I came to my revelation the day before Easter. I am so thankful for this gift.