By Darcy Hannibal
Darcy Hannibal is one of three new Out-Ac consultants starting this Winter.
I come from a mostly working class background, and while it is totally possible to go from that to a PhD and a tenure track job, the distance and challenges are great, and so the cumulative probability of ending up on a different career path is also greater. Ending up somewhere else is not a failure for me. It is just part of the route I took to get out of the circumstances I grew up with, and to some place where I want to live, doing work I find intellectually challenging. As much as I love science, primatology, and anthropology, I rarely felt the love coming back to me. Looking back, I realistically just had a tremendous distance to grow into an academic profession where there is relatively little effort to mentor students. It was a constant struggle to make myself acceptable to the academy. Making it our struggle, combined with the myth that we labor within a primarily merit-based system, sets us up to make it our guilt and shame when we do not get a tenure track job. This is absurd—particularly when there are far more PhDs produced than there are tenure track jobs. There are so many options open to us post-PhD and they are all valid and rewarding career options if they fit your interests and skills.
The need for a backup plan to make myself employable outside of academia, without being pulled back into a life I did not want to return to, was automatic for me. I did not sit down and plan this from the start, but built it somewhat haphazardly, by responding to what resources I had and the options I thought were possible. The graduate school experiences I built in data management and analysis, as well as choosing to work with the primate species most widely used in research, are what allowed me to transition to a different career relatively easily. The catalyst, though, that finally led me to let go of the limited and traditional view of a career path in academia, without guilt or shame, was a life-changing event.
My husband Jord and I had just bought a house. Since he was a contractor, our plan was for him to remodel it while I finished graduate school, and then have a nicely fixed-up house to put on the market at some point. I had just finished collecting my dissertation data and was looking forward to working on the analyses and write-up. I was also three months pregnant with our first child. Unfortunately, and unknown to us, Jord had a clot in his vertebral artery from a neck injury. When it broke loose, it caused a brain stem stroke. This is a particularly devastating type of stroke, which almost always leads to death or complete paralysis. We are incredibly lucky that he survived and has regained so much, even though he is still permanently disabled. We are even luckier still for the tremendous outpouring of emotional, physical, and financial support we received from friends, family, and the people in the Anthropology Department where I received my degree—all of whom made his recovery possible. In many ways, however, the people we were died on that day. The grief that event brought to us overshadows any sense of loss, guilt, or shame I could possibly feel over not pursuing a tenure track job. Jord had to work incredibly hard to re-learn everything from breathing on his own to walking with a brace. I took a year off from school to work with him on his rehabilitation, at least as much as I could before our son arrived. Even with all the help we had, in the early months after coming home from the hospital, it felt like we were treading open water with no idea which direction to go in to find land.
By the time I returned to finish my degree, the university environment felt like a bizarre dream-world where people fretted and fumed about arcane crap that did not matter. I could not relate and I could not be bothered to care about anything that did not feed, clothe, shelter, or heal my family. My main reason for finishing my degree was that it was a direction to go in to find some land to plant my feet on. I was close enough to finishing it that I felt it would be better to just do it, but I knew that was most likely not going to lead to an academic job. I went back to assistant teaching and began to actually look at my data. Working with my data and writing became a path back to finding that kernel of what I originally loved about academics.
I finished my degree in 2008—the year a tight academic job market became a market of cancelled searches. The data-related work I did early in grad school as a research assistant quickly became essential, along with some adjunct teaching, to having an income while I was on the job market. I cast my job search wide for both academic and non-academic jobs, but only applied when I felt competitive for one. By January 2011, I was employed in a staff position at the University of California Davis—a job I absolutely loved, earning a better salary than most anthropologists. I have since moved into a quasi-academic position, with more grant and publication writing. This is a great fit for me right now, doing work that I love and being paid pretty well for it.
I arrived where I am without guilt or shame not because I am somehow impervious to these processes, but because other events in my life overshadowed them and have minimized their effect on my life. My hope for those of you experiencing a similar transition is that you can take from my experience the benefit of understanding this without having to experience far greater upheavals to overshadow it. It is time for you to move ahead, find dry land, and set your feet upon it.