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Has this life stalled, or stagnated, or does it just need a new hobby?
August 4, 2014 6:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm either going to need a radical overhaul, or just a new activity to keep me going a bit longer. Can't decide which, either because I'm indecisive or out of ideas. I'd like some input on either front: a) should I throw caution to the wind and take charge of my destiny? b) any suggestions for new preoccupations to get absorbed in while this current life persists? Piled embankments of soggy sleet within.

Some context: I'm an early-to-mid-30s man, I'm super-sociable, pretty-good at being sensitive and generous to other people, and in most cases (and about most things) I'm a pretty enthusiastic person. I'm just not so good when it comes to me, and I'm worrying about where it might lead. I'm in a monogamous, committed relationship with a woman I love, we've been together since The Millennium, and lived together whenever we've been able to, although our job situation ("2 body problem") means that we've also lived apart for as long as we've ever lived together, and currently we're a couple of years into Long Distance living.

I've got myself into a career that I think I wanted when I was 19 and starting at university: I'm now an academic in the UK with a 'permanent' job, and slowly becoming established. It's taken a lot out of me: the research-related anxiety, the impermanence, the temporary contracts, the heavy teaching load that falls on junior faculty, as well as moving house every few years for the last 14 years to get here, and particularly the living-apart-from-my-partner angle. The job isn't great - it's not a great university, my area is maligned and marginal within it, the workload is tolerable but the students are not, the city is a backwater. I think I could enjoy the job if it were elsewhere (a. nearer my partner or other friends, b. in a decent city, c. in a decent department). But hey, I didn't come to this paragraph to moan. This is just backdrop.

One way I've put up with the situation is to try to keep busy and active; I run, cycle, climb, swim. I should probably channel some of my time and energy more into my research work, but it's a kind of black hole of low confidence, self-doubt, Imposter Syndrome. I feel a bit like a Washed Up Academic already, and I only just got here. And 'here' is not exactly where I wanted to be. My work doesn't particularly interest me most of the time; I haven't felt properly absorbed by it for a while; I miss that, but my current place of employment doesn't really enable me to have a thriving research life – most of my time at work is taken up with teaching and admin. Most of my time outside of work is spent trying to kill time by being active (plus it's a form of therapy, to help deal with the loneliness / distance issues).

A good friend [most of my closest friends live in a different, vibrant, exciting, but one-flight-distance-away city] suggested the following to me: "You used to to be less risk-averse, you'd do creative, imaginative, exciting things, and had a great time, and all the while, at the same time, you were working towards a career which you weren't sure you wanted. Now you've got it, you're sticking with it, because it represents a sort of security and permanence, even though you don't enjoy it. You should quit it, claim your life back. You can certainly do something else, so do it." I like the message: time to switch it up and jump ship.

[In contrast, a more senior colleague said: 'But you've invested too much time in pursuing this career to just duck out now.' Clearly there's a fault in the logic, since by these lights the longer I spend pursuing something, the greater the reason I have for continuing pursuing it, and that would hold true for any pursuit, no matter how vicious].

I discuss the situation regularly with my partner, with my family, my friends, and other colleagues (from previous institutions where I've worked). I'm not getting any clearer about it. There's not much chance of me and my partner living together soon; I apply for relevant academic jobs regularly at any universities which would bring us nearer together (unwise?), but jobs in my field are super-scarce and über-competitive (yeah, that sense of being a washed-up academic already is regularly refreshed and confirmed by the rejections I keep getting – I guess I'm pretty thin-skinned). We don't want to end up in the city where I currently work; the plan is definitely for me to get out. At present our plan for a life together seems to have stalled, unless I quit academia and pursue something else, something that can be pursue nearer to where she's based. My desire to quit my current place of work (albeit not academia generally) is huge, but we know that I'm impossible to live with when I'm unemployed / broke / underoccupied, and I don't have much clear idea what I'd do other than my current line of work (although I'm highly employable, I don't have much of a clear sense of ambition for what else I'd like to be pursuing right now), so I'm unlikely to quit without a plan.

But perhaps I should just continue to see where this thing goes? Another couple of years ploughing this furrow further might make a difference on the job market (I've picked up a few Measures Of Esteem here and there lately, although confirmation bias for the Washed-Up hypothesis means I tend to downgrade their significance), might make me more employable in the same field, more attractive to a different institution (nearer my partner) where I can find a more active, supportive research environment. In which case I need some coping strategies to put up with the current-shitness. I'm not up for medication or any talking-cures. I already quit the social networking sites I was on because of the destructive effect they were having on me. I think I need something to do, or a selection of things to do – activities which are absorbing, satisfying, time-passing, and involve a degree of progression/development. Climbing is like this, but it requires a reliable partner, and I've been drawing blanks in my current city. I take cooking pretty seriously, but it's not full-time absorbing the way that, say, sewing-ones-own-clothes is to my partner. I used to bake bread a lot, but I've recently been cutting out wheat; I cure meats but there's only so much cured meat I can eat; I'll brew some beer or make wine but again, these are things I can do for an evening or two before they need to be left to do their own business. I tried to improve my French and my guitar-playing abilities, but I couldn't stick at it; the same's true of learning other languages, and instruments (including pD and MAX/MSP, which I very much wanted to learn). I used to blog back when blogs were more of a thing, and when I felt I had something to say. In other cities I've been involved in organising and promoting music-related events, but that's not an option in the current location. I read a lot for a living, so I struggle to get stuck into reading a lot during my 'spare' time, apart from long-form journalism (the Wire magazine, the London Review of Books) and surfing. I used to maintain a vegetable plot but my current apartment has no garden. I picked up crochet for a while over winter, but I'm not stimulated by it. I keep trying to think of new things to do to distract myself, and part of this is about planning for the coming autumn and winter (since I think it's highly unlikely that I'll quit my job before the new semester, no matter how much I want to); contingency planning for when climbing is much less of an option (wet rock), and cycling and running are less pleasant (wet roads). I thought about maybe taking up kayaking, or surfing: things that can be done just as well in the wet. My dad would certainly encourage me to think of social activities I could be doing: things I can usefully do to put energy into helping other people towards their ambitions (since he sees my particular gift in life to be facilitating other people, and he's correct that it's something I'm good at). But right now I'm just drawing blanks. Not sad about it, just very empty, and with no idea where it's going.

So having bored my dear and not-so-near ones like a stuck record for the last few years, I thought I'd try the ever inventive hivemind. Any suggestions or thoughts about phoenix-like reinvention strategies welcome. Alternatively, ideas for time-passingly-absorbing new activities gratefully received.
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As a random stranger on the internet with no stake in the matter, I will fearlessly vote that you should quit your job. This would be a much more difficult problem if you were in your dream job but it kept you away from your partner.

You should definitely get advice from people in your field about any plan that involves staying at your current job in the hopes of it getting you a better job eventually -- I don't know much about mid-career academic hiring, but I would venture a guess that the more years you spend at a not-great university, the less employable you get.

Have you checked out the alt-ac community? That's where I'd go to figure out my parachute out of academia if I decided I were done with it. I just googled "alt-ac" and found lots of good-looking resources.
posted by ootandaboot at 6:41 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]

In contrast, a more senior colleague said: 'But you've invested too much time in pursuing this career to just duck out now.' Clearly there's a fault in the logic...

This is called the "fallacy of sunk costs", and it is a very tempting psychological trap.
posted by thelonius at 6:55 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]

Oh dear, you just sound like you're in a muddle. Don't let it get you down. I've been there, so have lots of us. You just need to take a deep breath.

Come on now, you're talented, we all are. Take a few days away to figure it out, right? It weighs us all down.

Not bored but hopeful. MeMail me if you want.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:02 PM on August 4

I am of a similar age, and was stuck in a similar rut. A MeFite recommended So Good They Can't Ignore You as a guide to pushing more towards that imaginary "ideal" job. I loved it and it helped a lot. Also, it was written by an academic!

Give it a read, see if it helps.
posted by bfranklin at 7:26 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]

The beanplating is a problem. You overanalyze the wrong problem to avoid thinking about whatever is bothering you. So whenever you wish to engage in heavy analysis of your situation listen for a moment, acknowledge the fear that's driving it, and then let it go. If you must set aside a 30-minute period per day to think about these vexing, but currently unchangable facts. Divorce your analysis thinking about the life problems from the activity of doing stuff to make things better for yourself. An example might be when I think about work problems rather than doing work.

So you must also give the mind a break so it can breathe.

I suggest picking up the guitar. It will absorb you. And some of what's tied up in there will be jarred loose. Any artistic activity like that will open that up. Also change up your exercise routines.

Do not hope for a phoenix-like rebirth. Never seen it. Seen it declared by many, never seen it in practice. There is no need to be aggressive towards yourself or your flaws. You're gonna be this person--that's not the problem, the issue is you allowing yourself to like the person you are.

Also, a therapist will help too.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:26 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]

I'll dodge the difficult question about direction in life and go for the fun one -- new things to distract yourself :)

Activities for wet places: how about taking up scuba diving? If you're in a cold climate you can even get into more specialized cold-water aspects of diving like dry suite diving. Diving has a lightweight social aspect to it as you're usually going out on boats with a dive group organized by the dive shop and are always paired-up with a buddy. Unlike climbing you don't need to find and bring your own diving buddy -- usually it's someone from the group.

Another random idea just because I've been wanting to do it myself but haven't had time:
3D printing. It's hands-on and could be quite absorbing modeling an item, printing it, tweaking it for better prints or to make your design better.
posted by duoshao at 7:27 PM on August 4

I should probably channel some of my time and energy more into my research work, but it's a kind of black hole of low confidence, self-doubt, Imposter Syndrome.

How about giving yourself a deadline to either take your research to another level-- one that might get you a new job-- or actively decide to give it up? It sounds to me like you're going to feel bad down the road if you don't give it a real chance. Take a year or two. I understand that you're not fantastically well supported in your current job, but people manage to do research under conditions much worse than yours. If the answer is really that you are bored with your research or it isn't going to pan out, after a year or two you should know that better than you do now. Right now a big part of the problem seems to be a lack of confidence in your talent or the project. So get to the bottom of that. If it turns out you need to leave, leave. But I think spending the next few years not growing in your profession, not with your partner, just finding ways to fill your time is not what you need at this point.
posted by BibiRose at 7:58 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]

A couple of questions on the improving-the-job-experience front:

1) How long have you been at your current job?
2) Do your disciplinary norms allow for collaboration?

Teaching classes for the second time is a lot easier than teaching them for the first time, so if you've only been in your position for a year or two, things may get better on that front. And collaboration could allow you to harness social energy, as well as maybe experiment with a sexier subfield.

On the climbing front, is your city big enough to support an indoor climbing gym?
posted by yarntheory at 9:05 PM on August 4

A couple things before I get to my main point: First, you say that you are not interested in therapy or medication, but, as I'm sure you know, your post displays some of the classic signs of depression. I get that you are trying to cure yourself through hobbies, but it doesn't seem to be working, and I don't think that taking up, say, a new instrument is really going to help with the underlying issues.

Second, you don't mention your field, but one good thing about some areas of academia is that you are free to completely refocus your work as you see fit. Is there any chance you could develop a new line of research that would give you reason (and, ideally, money) to travel more frequently to Partner-land?

What non-academics may not fully appreciate is that giving up a permanent/tenure-track/tenured position without a new job already lined up, is, in many cases, to give up on an academic career altogether (except in practical fields where people can work in industry for some time before taking up a faculty position). I can think of a couple people who did walk away from tenure-track jobs for personal reasons, took temporary positions, and still published and were somewhat active professionally, but this is very rare in my little corner of academia. For the most part, to walk away means that you'll never have an academic job again. This is a very stressful position to be in, and it is little wonder that you come across as depressed.

Like you, I have been ambivalent about academia since graduate school. If I were in your position and had a partner I loved, who lived in a city I liked, and this city was full of my friends and family members, and if I felt the way you describe feeling about my job, I would leave and go be with my partner. This is your only life, and a new hobby may distract you, but it will not fix the underlying problem. It isn't just a two body problem you face; it is a two body problem with one of the bodies stuck far away from family and friends in a job that he doesn't find satisfying. Of course, if you can't walk away without harboring resentment for your partner, then this isn't an option, but if you can deal with your pride and make peace with leaving, I think this could be very good for you.

I know you mentioned waiting for a few years to see what happens to your academic career. This seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but as I know from experience, there is *always* just one more hoop to jump through: you wait until you finish your book, or wait until you apply for that fellowship, or wait to see if you are shortlisted in the next hiring cycle. There will always be reasons to sit tight and wait a little bit longer. But given how academia works, that usually means waiting in year-long chucks. And when you are done with giving it a proper go, you may look up to discover that you have waited too long.
posted by girl flaneur at 9:10 PM on August 4

I've been in a similar, but not quite so difficult position. I did not have the long distance partner and friends issue, but I finally got a basically permanent job in a small department at a highly respected university. Most people outside academia know and respect the name of the school. But, I hated it.

It was horrible. The students were (mostly) wonderful but it was the worst university I had ever worked at. The campus was horrible. The working conditions were bad. Many fellow faculty members were impossible to deal with. The admin work was obviously pointless to everyone involved. And, there was absolutely no respect for my department. But, I put up with it very unhappily as finally having a "good job" at a "good university".

To get myself out of this pit, I started spending much more time and energy on a professional society. You don't say which research area you are in, but every discipline has some kind of professional organizations or academic societies. Can you find one that you like and volunteer? It doesn't have to be research, but can be event planning or other stuff. It got me out and in contact with other people with the same cruddy jobs (and some with better jobs). It really helped me a lot personally, although the time I put in over the past few years sometimes drove Mrs. Gotanda crazy.

In the end, this kind of volunteering probably helped me escape. I had decided to quit at the end of this academic year and go back to part-time if I had to. But, it looks like I have a better place to land next year. Even if I hadn't, I made up my mind and gave myself one year. If I had a better job, fine. If not, I was going to quit. Just deciding that, made going to work easier this year.
posted by Gotanda at 9:35 PM on August 4

Is there a professional society for your academic area? Or for an area you would like to enter? You have time to join and make contacts so that you will hear about an interesting opportunity that might better fit your goals.
posted by Cranberry at 11:40 PM on August 4

Are you my husband? If not for the exercising bit, we are in the same situation: he's an academic in the UK, we have a long distance long term relationship, I sew.

After years teaching and as a lecturer, he decided to make a change and has somewhat resolved his job situation by deciding to move over from being a senior lecturer at a post-92 to working in the support side at a Russell group (in elearning). No doubt, there are continued frustrations in that too, but he has eased off the academia treadmill and still has the option to go for the REF if he wants (he can still write and present in his new role).

It's a very frustrating time to be in UK higher education right now. I have also decided to stop looking at the sector to resolve our location issue - I was an academic librarian. I don't really have any answers for you but just to put out the idea of non-academic jobs at a university. And if you ever happen to be in London, let's meet up!
posted by wingless_angel at 1:38 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]

Have you ever seen this SMBC comic about having 11 lifetimes?

So you're in that job you always wanted. Great! That's that done. Now go start one of your other lifetimes.
posted by greenish at 2:37 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]

You're not ploughing a furrow, you're digging a grave.
posted by flabdablet at 2:45 AM on August 5

I don't know if this will help at all... but I have had periods of unemployment in the past that started to grate on me quickly. Now I have been out of (paid) work for over a year.. though absorbed in a start up... but it has surprised me how little I have missed about work and how not doing it hasn't made me depressed.. (other shit yeah), and definately I wobble re: the lack of income/lack of opportunities out there... but the daily grind, the not doing what "I'm supposed to do" No No No. This has been something of a surprise to me. Only today I was thinking if money wasn't an issue I wouldn't mind never working again. I garden and cook and read and get up by my body clock, I take time to watch my cat running up trees, I give my neighbours my time, I blog, act, do yoga and try new stuff, I explore my family history and learn stuff from interesting strangers on askmefi. There really is loads to do, I promise.

Like you - I felt burnt out, I wound up physically sick and finally thought "fuck it.. this is my life" I upped and moved to a new city. I have some anxiety re: whether it is feasible in the long term to stay here (I try to think.. make this place where I want to be a rock.. but this wrangles with a lack of job opportunities)... but if worse comes to worse and I have to uproot which I would HATE - I know I did the right thing by myself. It made me happier in some ways, so it must have been.

I too am in my 30's so maybe it's been a bit easier to be out of work? I can easily remember all the crap things about it/I really do know what it's like and I know more about what I like and continue to learn.
posted by tanktop at 3:38 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]

1: I think you would do well not to hate on the city you're living in. There are interesting, worthwhile people everywhere, and seeing your location as horrible is part of what IAS dragging you down. How about spending some time focused on getting to know the place and what it has to offer?

2: I am in the US so this may not work the same way in the UK, but here, professors often apply for research grants from outside funders that provide salaries that essentially buy them out of teaching while they're doing the work. That may give you something else to focus on and will change the dynamic of your current work life. Also, here, these research grants make you more attractive for hiring, including hiring as a research professor without teaching duties.

3: Think about whether there are good ways to leverage your education in private industry. This will give you something new to do without making you feel like you wasted your time getting where you are now. For example, I was in a sociology PhD program; some graduates are professors but some work at survey research centers, in UI development at tech companies, in government evaluation, etc.
posted by metasarah at 6:04 AM on August 5

In other cities I've been involved in organising and promoting music-related events, but that's not an option in the current location....

My dad would certainly encourage me to think of social activities I could be doing: things I can usefully do to put energy into helping other people towards their ambitions (since he sees my particular gift in life to be facilitating other people, and he's correct that it's something I'm good at).

Putting these two together, I would suggest organizing an open mic night. I go to one in my little university town. The rules are 3 minutes max and enthusiastic applause. It's a great way to meet weird people whose creative needs aren't being met in other ways. The supportive atmosphere is such a contrast to the awful competitive hierarchy of academia. Even when some of the performances are just bad, everyone gets applauded. And some of the performances are pretty transcendent.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:32 AM on August 5

From an anonymous commenter:
Your university should have people who work on research impact, public engagement, outreach, etc. This may be a way to rekindle your own interest in your research by creatively combining it with your hobbies (depending on your field).

In my university there are definitely impact specialists who are increasingly recognised and respected as the people who do, for example, knowledge exchange, or outreach, really well. Impact was a big part of the most recent REF and will be bigger next time, so you will become more marketable to other universities if you can show that you do it well.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:12 PM on August 5

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