In the Ether of Academia

Posted on October 18, 2011


I wanted to punch her in the face. Or do that thing ostriches do and put my head in a hole to drown out her voice. Is there a fire escape? An emergency exit? I desperately needed something to help me get away from the overwhelming sense of doom that the words “work” “job” and “bills” stirred up inside me. The lecturer was going on and on about how to “get into the business” and how to “establish a career” and she kept repeating the phrases “get work” and “pay bills.” This will help you get work. This is what you have to do if you want to get work. Bla bla bla that’s how I got work. I didn’t like it, but it paid the bills. In the real world, all these skills will GET. YOU. WORK.

I wanted to tear my hair out and run for the hills in desperation. Because those words strike a primeval fear in the heart of any half-assed grown-up like me. A masters student in international affairs with a BA in political science (though I quite dislike politics, go figure) I was interning at an NGO that pays a marginal stipend, living in a overpriced student residence, dependent on university aid and unsure of what would come after I wrote my (if I could ever settle on a topic for) thesis. Someone who has been suspended in the ether of academia trying to avoid the fact that someday they will have to go out into the ‘real world’ and get a ‘real job’. Someone who is neither here nor there, but more importantly, who has no clue where they want to be.

Where I was at the time my panic kicked in, was in a classroom at a journalism summer school listening to a big-haired woman who had worked for the Daily Mail once, give me career advice. I had paid 2,000£ plus a month’s worth rent to go to London and take a course on how to get into the business of journalism just in case my degrees failed to be a golden ticket into the labor force. But though the program had been interesting and quite useful thus far, the day we had a lecture on “CV’s and jobs” I felt like I was back on square one, feeling overwhelmed by, and under-qualified for, the fangs and nails competition to earn a living and become successful.

What I found out was that any job out there, especially journalism, was going to require me to do the very thing that I hate the most: being fake and kissing-ass. In other words, networking. The way I heard it, was that being a journalist wasn’t really about the writing— at least not for another 5 or 6 years it wasn’t— it was more about you being at very very bottom of a deep pit, stuck in there with hundreds of other hungry up-and-coming journalists trying to scratch your way out to the top. And sure, you might be a good writer but you have to know your publication and what sells. And it looked like good writing and an interesting story weren’t going to bring in the cash anymore. Because apparently, what I find interesting is very different from what the publication’s public finds interesting, or what’s “hot” at the time. Like David Beckham waxing his legs at one point was all the rage, all the feature writers had to be on the ball about “metrosexuals” and this new trend in male fashion. Yeah, trend is a word they used a lot in that program. Which is another way of saying fad, but it is all about timing. The big haired woman said to us: “You have to have a knack for that, you know, you have to give off that vibe, like you just know things, you know?”   We didn’t.  “You have to walk in there like you can predict the next year of what’s in, you have to wow them.”

That did it, my stomach was in a knot again. She sounded like she was full of it, I half-expected her to start talking to me about mojo or that certain je ne sais quoi. But besides really ambiguous qualities— which incidentally seemed to be the most important ones— she insisted you also had to make contacts, open up your circle, be persistent, engaged and passionate or at least pretend you were all those things, and that you were them better than the guy who stepped into interview room just before you. It was so— well, high school. The inevitable join all the clubs you’re not really interested in, chat with professors you don’t like during breaks, run for positions in student government, do sports, be the captain of something, be  prolific, active and multifaceted, dedicated, focused and incisive. But above all, be engaged and passionate! It seemed like in order to get a low level, badly paid, measly little cubicle job at a local paper you had to be fucking David Blaine, the guy who magically pulls the perfect trend piece out of his ass or prestidigitates onto the scene of the London Riots with nothing but an iPhone, films it all, and then writes a tweet about it that will change the world of news forever.

But maybe what made me so angry wasn’t so much the fact that passion mattered but rather that I didn’t have any. When I thought of the word ‘passion’ I thought of trashy romance novels with muscly guys ripping off the bodice of a young girl’s dress and exclaiming things like: ‘Roxanna, I must have you now!’ So people who claimed they were passionate about politics or the environment or collateralized debt obligations were a different breed to me; strange humanoid forms that I couldn’t quite understand. When the lecturer turned to me and asked ‘what are you passionate about?” I stared at her with a blank face and thought: “kittens?” I mean I like traveling, but I wouldn’t say it was a passion, and I haven’t done it much because it requires money. I like knowing about current events and I think politics and history are interesting but I wouldn’t spend hours poring over the news and you’d never finding me reading poli-sci in my spare time. I care about women’s rights and migrant’s rights and gay rights and human rights and animal rights but I’ve never gotten the urge to make posters or go join a march. Like I might post the Facebook link to the article, you know to support the cause, but you won’t see me occupying Wall Street or tying myself to a tree to announce to the world that I’m a passionate and caring individual.

Thing is, people think if you went to college and got a degree in something you must have a real interest in it. But you don’t, you really don’t. I studied politics because it wasn’t as hard as math and science, and was less likely to earn me derisive looks from my sister (who’s an engineer) than english lit or philosophy. And after college I hadn’t the most remote idea of what I wanted to do with a degree in political science. Rather than cement my knowledge of politics, all college did was make me realize how much of a bullshit discipline it is. It tries so hard to be scientific, but it isn’t quite as important as economics and by God it’s certainly not as hard core as law. Most of poli-sci is just making up complicated theories for things that are common sense. I’ve probably spent more time than I care to admit discussing what power is, when any kid in a sandbox who’s had his lunch money taken away by a bully knows that A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that he wouldn’t otherwise do. Bravo Robert Dahl. And this isn’t just Poli-Sci 101, halfway through my masters we were still talking about perceptions of power. So that’s why I opted for journalism summer school, in case at the end of my second year in grad school I found that all I remembered was Dahl’s theory on power and that correlation does not necessarily indicate causation.

Unfortunately though, I ended up in a classroom with a Greek big-haired woman who had a Jewish North-London accent telling us how passion and good contacts would pay our bills. And what was her passion? What was her amazing jaw-dropping work-experience? The awesome job she had ended up with after pursuing her obsession? She worked as a deputy editor for a Health and Lifestlye magazine and her lifelong passion was New Age fitness. New Age. Like Enya and shit. She described herself as an expert in Nia who thought that physios were the new personal trainers, whatever the hell that means. I was getting career advice from someone who’s lifelong passion was “Zumba.” And no, that’s not the awesome circular vacuum that automatically cleans your floor, it’s a “latin-inspired dance fitness program.” At that point, I lost most of my hopes in having a future career in journalism. It just wanted to curl up somewhere and dream of care-free times. I knew as soon as I went back to school people would ask me what I learned from summer school and whether I was considering a career in international journalism. To be honest, though that thought hasn’t gone right out the window, I did come back with the horrible realization that if I do choose to go down that path it’s not going to end up being the dignified dream job I was hoping it would be. I know, lol. How absolutely naive of me to still think that. I think my inner self is still 6 years old. But I am I relly aiming that high? What I mean by ‘dream job’ is just one that’s pays reasonably well, has reasonable hours, is engaging and doesn’t require you to sell out in one form or another. Is that really a complete fantasy? Because if it is, I think I wouldn’t mind another year or two of etherized academics. And maybe after that I might even consider— teaching?

Posted in: Academics