I will not do ‘whatever it takes’ to be a more successful academic

Lecturer Rachel Moss on the casualties of a demanding academic culture

January 24, 2017
A woman holding up her palm
Source: iStock

In the past couple of days, I’ve read two articles that both made me a bit sad. One, “Look What They Make You Give”, is Elizabeth Rodwell’s reflections on turning down a tenure-track job and what sacrifices she’s made to establish an academic career. The other is an anonymous author’s frustrations with her professor-husband and the way that her own career has been put on hold.

Alone in a country where I (initially) knew almost nobody, I didn’t feel the romantic sense of adventure I had expected. I just felt isolated. All the more so when I returned to Texas and found myself craving a greater balance between work and life. With my marriage a casualty of both my fieldwork and my relentless focus on my career above all else, I was also back on the dating market at age 35.
Elizabeth Rodwell

I want him to be respected for it, just not at my expense. I’ve got a degree, but I’ve been a bit busy to write any books myself. I’m the one always on her own with the kids at parties, or on family days out, museum trips and cinema visits, because he was always “working”. Don’t get me started on people who think academics have “lovely long holidays”. 
Anon

Both of these women are casualties of academic culture – as well as sexism, of course. Rodwell sacrificed health and personal happiness to try to advance her career; by the time she was offered the fabled tenure-track job, she’d remarried and had children, and wasn’t willing to relocate thousands of miles away – a sensible decision for her family, but one that meant she was chastised by a mentor for not being willing to “commute from one coast to another – visiting my husband, babies, and stepsons only on the weekends”.

Anon, meanwhile, has taken on the lion’s share of childcare and domestic servitude in order for her husband to work round the clock. He, apparently, doesn’t even know how to unload groceries into the fridge. Or rather, I suspect he would learn perfectly well how to do it were he on his own, but since he has a wife to do it, he can fall back on the persona of the charmingly impractical professor, learned in arcane knowledge and elbow patches, and helpless as a baby when it comes to ironing and paying bills.

I don’t have anything radical to say about either of these articles, and certainly nothing that I haven’t already said before on my blog. But what I will say is that I stopped thinking “Yes, whatever it takes” about achieving a successful career quite some time ago. Mostly since I had my daughter, but even before then.

I do not, and almost never have, worked 14-hour days, and I certainly can’t now, since my husband takes Grace to nursery at 8am and I leave the house at 4.30pm to pick her up. I almost never do any work at the weekend, not even checking email.

Perhaps in some ways I’ve got more efficient in using my time since I had a baby, and I know I have less of it to myself – but also I sometimes just have to let things slide. I have not published as much as I could have done, or perhaps should have done. I’ve not been to all the conferences that I could have been to. There are opportunities that I’ve missed.

But I don’t regret them. In the late afternoon and evening, I belong to first my child and then my husband – and to other friends and family, when we have the time to catch up. I belong to myself, too, the parts of myself that aren’t about work but are about reading novels, taking baths, cooking nourishing meals, watching interesting television, painting my nails in colours that even in the depths of January make me smile, remembering warmth.

I used to want to be brilliant. Of course I still do want that, too; I’m still an ambitious person. But the sum of my life is not my job. I have a year and a half left of my Leverhulme post, which will mean in the end that I have been at the University of Oxford for six years. Six years in which I have become, I think, a better teacher and writer – but I hope also a better ally and friend.

None of this will have been a waste, whatever happens. I have already started to think about what comes next. I know that I will not be willing to relocate our family for a job unless it’s not only a brilliant job but also in a place that offers my family opportunities, and that means my husband isn’t wrecking his own career. So I will mostly be looking for commutable opportunities, which limits my potential jobs quite a bit.

I am no longer willing to take very short-term contracts that offer us no security. It may be that I have to leave academia, which would be a source of great grief for me. But I do have ideas of other things that I might do, and have already started building connections to establish them, just in case.

I will always be Dr Rachel E. Moss; I will always have taught hundreds of bright and interesting young people, and I will always have talked about my research with some of the cleverest, kindest people around.

I drew a line in the sand for myself a long time ago. Will I regret the distance of that line from the shore in years to come, that I drew it too far up the beach, will I think that I should have risked more? Perhaps. But I will know I drew that line so I was not at risk of drowning: not just for my sake, but for those I love.

Rachel Moss is a lecturer in late medieval history at the University of Oxford. This post originally appeared on her blog, Meny Snoweballes.

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