Sorrow, like a heavy-hanging bell,
Once set on ringing, with its own weight goes.
Picture this: after spending countless years completing your PhD and navigating the treacherous job market, you somehow, inexplicably, land the job of your dreams. It may require a little rejiggering of life (shuffling of family responsibilities, perhaps a cross-country or crosstown move), but it feels right. The planets have aligned and you are going for it! All those clichés ring true: This is your time! Follow your dreams! You deserve this! It was meant to be!
So, what does it mean when you take the job and you are filled with sorrow?
We’ve all read stories about how the first year in any new job can be stressful, particularly for first-time faculty members in a full-time (perhaps even tenure-track) position. We know the rigors of the job can be, ahem, rigorous: those long hours prepping for new classes, attending faculty meetings, serving on new committees, and learning the political and social minutiae of your new institution.
But what about when the source of the sorrow is not your job but you? What if you are just sad after such a tremendous life change?
Let me explain by giving you my story. I graduated with my PhD in my mid-thirties, having two kids along the way. I took my time throughout my education, and so when I found myself on the job market, I was already well established in my community. I had lived in the same home for eleven years, a mile from my sister and her family. My kids (ages four and seven) were in school, we were committed members of our church, and my husband owned his own business. When I got a job offer for a position that matched my dreams in almost every way, it seemed too good to be true. The opportunity seemed like something I would regret for the rest of my life if I turned it down.
But why was this job “almost” a perfect match for my dreams? Because it happened to be several states away and a twenty-one-hour drive from the place where we were doing life. Taking the job would require a complete rethinking of my life—and the life of my family.
Long story short: I took the position, which ended up being just as dreamy as I had anticipated. We sold our house and bought a new one. My husband sold his business to become a stay-at-home dad and plot his next business venture. My kids started new schools. Everything looks good on paper.
So why do I close the door of my office and cry every day?
I was surprised by my sorrow, dismayed over my grief at a time when I should have been celebrating. I thought the journey to my first job after my successful run on the job market would lead to a ticker-tape parade down the main street of my new town: All hail the excellent and esteemed new assistant professor! Thank you for giving up your old life to join us here!
OK, so perhaps my expectations were a little on the high side. But I was distressed to find that when I searched the Internet for other experiences similar to mine, there was nothing to be found. No one seems to be talking about those of us who don’t seamlessly make the leap from one position to another, one life stage to another, one state to another. How many of us are out there? What are the statistics on academics who struggle when they move away from a beloved family member or town or relocate themselves or their children? What about when the transition itself is just more spiritually and emotionally draining than anticipated? Am I as alone as I feel, or are there others like me, similarly ashamed and chagrined that we are weeping at a time when we should be fist-bumping and high-fiving everyone we meet?
I’m attempting to form a club of sorts and reach out to others like me through this blog post. I’ve also come up with a list of things that have helped me navigate the unforeseen grief of this unsettling time. I hope these practices offer some small consolation to you.
- Know you’re not alone. Even if everyone you see is cheerful and everyone you meet has nothing but happy words, know that there are others who mourn all they have had to sacrifice to “make it” in academia.
- Know that you’re OK. There is no “right” way to do a PhD, just as there is no “right” way to do life after a PhD, or life as a professor, instructor, or adjunct. If you need to go through a time of mourning, that doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or that you’re letting people down. What it does mean is that you need to give yourself plenty of time to rest and heal.
- Be honest. Don’t try to live a story that is not yours. If you are struggling or if your heart hurts, say so. (OK, so maybe just don’t announce it at the next faculty meeting, which brings me to my next point.)
- Find a soul mentor. Find one person outside your immediate family, preferably someone at your new institution, who can reach out their hand and help you make the transition.
- Be good to yourself. Treat yourself with great care and respect. You’ve recently had it rough, baby. A few tears are understandable.
- Don’t forget to read (or do whatever it is that makes your heart happy). I know there aren’t enough hours in the day, but make it happen.
- Don’t forget to write (or do whatever it is to keep you viable on the job market). If your misery doesn’t go away and you think you may need a career change, the only thing that will keep you viable is moving forward in your current career.
- Explore your alternatives. It’s OK to decide that academia in its current incarnation just isn’t for you. It’s not failing to decide you want to try something else in a few years. Give yourself the freedom to explore alt-ac positions.
- Take it day by day. This may be obvious, but sometimes our brains go a little crazy planning how we are going to get ourselves out of a mess. Rein in your thoughts and emotions, bring yourself back to the task at hand, and continue to be present in your life. Do your work well. Sit down for dinner with your family. Commit to the rhythms of your daily life.
- Remember the gestational period of grief. The blustery, tear-filled grief stage often lasts ninety days, which I call the “grief trimester.” Just get through those ninety days and then throw yourself a party to celebrate. Then plunge into another ninety days of grief if you need to.
- Step away from your desk (and classroom) and step outside. Sit under a tree. Take deep breaths. Pray or meditate. Find your happy place (mine is the local yoga studio). Let others minister to you in the way they know how: through meals, talks, walks, encouraging e-mails. Let others be the small raft that sails you through.
- Know that everything is going to be OK. Hardly anything is ever done that cannot be undone, or at least mitigated. You can’t always go back, but sometimes you can get close. And who knows? Perhaps you will have a change of heart about your current situation once you give it enough time.
- Cultivate hope. You are here for a reason. Your journey is a precious one. Trust the journey.
So, here’s to a new semester for us all. And for those of us walking through sorrow, may the bell of joy ring out in our lives soon enough, eclipsing the bell of sorrow. We will be all right. Our family will be all right. All will be well.
Erin M. Kingsley recently relocated from Colorado to Tennessee to begin a position as assistant professor of English at King University in Bristol, TN. She specializes in body and gestation theory and digital pedagogies.