Living with Uncertainty

Harvard proffie Radhika Nagpal wrote this popular blog post that made the rounds through all my academic facebook friends. In it she writes, “I have chosen very deliberately to do specific things to preserve my happiness, lots of small practical things that I discovered by trial and error.” The blog post shares 7 things that she did to preserve her happiness.

I am all in favor of being a happy academic. I have observed an overarching tendency in other academics I know to be miserable, stressed, or anxiety ridden. William Pannapacker confirms these observations in his Chronicle article, “It’s Your Duty to Be Miserable.” He writes about his own judgmental and self flagellating tendencies in relationship to other academics. Nagpal’s blog post makes an intervention into this atmosphere and the kinds of practices that Pannapacker writes about, and makes an argument that maybe we should try to find more of a balance in our life and work.

I especially like her first point – that her job at Harvard was a 7 year post doc. If she doesn’t privilege tenure over all things, then she can arrange her life according to other priorities. I imagine that this may help with any self consciousness that can come about from the worry that other faculty are constantly judging you and evaluating you. I don’t even have a job, but I must say that I realized about a year or two ago that maybe tenure, or other’s approval, should not be the goal. At this point in my life I will probably go on the job market one more time. I’ve decided not to worry about getting a job and I’ve decided to enjoy the hell out of my postdoc. To me this means, publish, pursue my research, go to conferences, teach, and live my life. But I’m not going to worry so much about the future, because when I do it makes me crazy.

But the problem with living with the “forever a post doc” mentality is that you remain is a very ambiguous place with a lot of uncertainty. If one doesn’t get tenure then what? If I don’t get a job then what?  Etc. I was talking to a friend who was about to start a two year post doc and the uncertainty made her anxious, not the expectations. It seems to me that Nagpal’s blog post introduces another issue which is dealing with the ambiguity and the instability of being a “postdoc.” I put post doc in quotes because considering a tenure track job a 7 year post doc and being an actual post doc are quite different. However, it seems like they are similar in their intention of impermanence. I seem to have settled into the uncertainty by not thinking about the future and enjoying the present. I’m on another trip in research country. I have found some great data to write about when I return to Post Doc University and there actually appear to be several jobs that fit me in the job listings. Now Nagpal has the certainty and stability of tenure at Harvard. I wonder if her strategies alleviated post tenure let down that many people experience. At any rate, it appears to me that academic life requires embracing ambiguity in more than just scholarly research, but in one’s ways of being.

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