When I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer and had a pretty clear (if rather vaguely conceptualized) career plan: pro bono lawyer to Sandra Day O’Connor protégée to first female president of the United States. I’m not sure how sincerely I believed I would follow through on any of it, but I had fun imagining it all. In high school, I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor or a biologist and was encouraged by a particularly inspiring science teacher to think about a future in medical journalism. I wasn’t too keen on dissection or blood though, so I focused on the journalism suggestion and, by the time I started my undergraduate degree, I knew I was destined to be a famous journalist. Not just any journalist, of course – a foreign correspondent, covering breaking news from the far flung corners of the earth. Unfortunately, an eye-opening stint at the university newspaper ultimately convinced me that journalism wasn’t the ideal career choice for me: I hated ringing people up and asking them uncomfortable questions; I hated the late nights just before the paper ran….
The only thing I really liked about the whole journalism experience, in fact, was the writing. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see that writing was the one constant as I grew up, the one thing I always loved and wanted to pursue as an end itself rather than a means to a fleeting end. Even recognizing that, however, I never imagined that I’d end up where I am today. I certainly never said, ‘Mommy, I want to be an academic when I grow up’. I’m not sure anybody does that. (Do they?) The fact is, academia wasn’t part of the plan, and I didn’t realize when I began my PhD just how difficult a feat making it in academia would prove. Sure, people talked about the surplus of postgraduates and the lack of permanent positions, but I had no realistic sense of what the future would bring. And, to be perfectly honest, if my future son or daughter told me that being an academic was their life dream, I’d sit them down for a very long talk. Yes, academia affords an incredible opportunity to do what I love – write – and, yes, I have the amazing chance to explore the literature I love with bright young minds. But, I’d be lying if I said that it isn’t also an incredibly humbling experience characterized by, at least in the early career years, a generalized and constant sense of anxiety and insecurity, not to mention a peripatetic lifestyle not conducive to long-term relationships.
That said, though, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Occasionally, I daydream about opening my own café-cum-bookshop, where I’ll be found happily dispensing cupcakes alongside affordably-priced volumes of Edgeworth, Maturin, and Burke. And, every so often, I look for administrative jobs and teaching courses with the idea of having a kind of fallback plan in place should academia not work out. And, on the occasional sleepless night, I wonder if I’m too old to go back and start over again. Yet, on a good day, I know that I’m doing what I love, and that counts for quite a lot in my book. It may be a tough old slog, but, I suppose, if it was easy, I wouldn’t want it so much.