When I respond to questions about my professional background and current job, my answer often involves keywords like “Harvard,” "PhD," “consulting,” “research,” “psychology,” “yoga,” and “Prague.” These words make it sound like I have my shit together and even (perhaps) like I live an interesting life. And while this is true (to some extent) I think it’s important to highlight the underbelly of a career that has often left me feeling confused, scared and unsuccessful (and a tad crazy).
Perhaps we can start with the time in 2014 when I applied for 40 tenure-track professor positions and didn’t get a single interview. When I applied for these 40 positions I was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School, I had good reference letters, I’d won lots of scholarships and awards, and I had a reasonable looking CV with a decent number of first-author publications.
So how is it possible that not a single university was interested in hiring me?
There were probably several reasons. My research area was a bit "woo-woo" (I was studying yoga in school settings), I’d changed research topics several times throughout my career, I’d taken a break from academia to work in the corporate world, and in some ways my CV looked like a train wreck. Or maybe a more accurate way to describe it would be that my CV resembled a series of interesting professional roles that were vaguely associated, with large gaps in-between “real” jobs. The gaps represented times when I’d worked as an entrepreneur teaching yoga, writing a book, and consulting independently. I even worked at a garden center for a little while. To help explain these gaps during job interviews, a professor once told me to say that I’d taken time off from academia for “family reasons” (AKA to have children). I don’t have children, but most HR policies won’t allow an interviewer to directly ask whether you have kids, so my colleague thought this would be a good idea.
I thought it sounded ridiculous.
These types of white lies and professional “illusions” are part of what’s given me a distaste for working for anyone other than myself. I don’t want to have to fake a “proper” career trajectory in order to get a “real” job.
The problem is that my relationship with academia has been like a terrible teenage romance. Academia and I are so on again off again that no one can keep track of our relationship status (not even Facebook). There have been times when academia has felt exciting and fulfilling to me, and other times when I feel so stifled and suffocated that I can’t breathe. When academia didn’t call me back after my 40 job applications I even went so far as to drop everything and move to a cabin in the woods to escape my heartbreak. I’ve “dated” small universities, mid-tier universities, and some of the best universities in the world. But the story always ends with a break-up.
Academia: A Field In Need of a Change
When I try to make sense of the various parts of my CV I realize that the golden threads that tie everything together are research and personal development. Why? Because I love asking questions and searching for answers. My mom tells me that I used to ask “why” about so many things when I was younger that it drove her crazy. The only way she could handle me was to strap me into the child seat on the back of her bicycle and ride around town so that the noise would drown out my constant questions. My aunt tells me that her and I used to sit and stare at the night sky and I would ask endless questions about the stars, the moon, and where people go when they die (this was at age 4). Even now, at age 37, I sometimes put my husband to sleep with my endless musings about the potential secrets of the universe (but it’s ok because he puts me to sleep with his endless musings about soccer).
My obsession with “why” is what led me into academia. I’ve jumped from research topic to research topic because I like to ask “why” about everything. I get bored if I’m forced to keep asking why about the same topic over and over. This makes my CV look bad, but it makes me feel good to stretch my wings and learn new things. Zora Neale Hurston described my situation perfectly when she said, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
But there’s an issue I’ve noticed from working in a variety of research settings: I think we’re going about our research the wrong way (at least within Psychology). I’ll say right from the outset that I don’t know what the “right” way is. But I keep coming back to the assertion that there has to be a better way.
One of the main things that I find troubling about academia is how isolated we all are. We work in our individual labs, splitting hairs over the tiniest minutia of research questions, publishing in journals that the general public can’t access (thus very few people read our work). We compete with each other for grant money, space, publications, and prestige instead of collaborating to move our fields forward. We’re reinventing the wheel in isolation as opposed to working together.
Sometimes I feel like all we’re doing is contributing to society's information overload. And what’s the purpose of all this information anyway? Do we really need to develop more 5-point Likert scale questionnaires? Is it really all that important to prove an obscure theory that doesn’t make much of a difference for the world as a whole? Some have argued that research in Psychology follows a logarithmic curve in which a lot of progress was made in the early years of the field, and now we’re just adding very small increments of knowledge on top of larger theories that were already established.
Personally, I believe that researchers think too much. We’re way too stuck in our minds. Over the past few years I’ve been on a journey to spend less time in my mind and more time in my body. It’s amazing how I’ve ignored the intelligence of my body by placing logic, reason and mental capabilities above everything else. I’m quick on my feet mentally, but completely uncoordinated physically. My mind is like a thoroughbred racehorse while my body has been patiently waiting to get out onto the track. Proponents of transpersonal research methods (specifically intuitive inquiry) suggest that our bodies can actually be important research tools. As Rosemarie Anderson writes:
“Too often, the scientific discourse of Euro-America tends to suppress and discourage intuitive processes, especially body-based knowings such as proprioception and kinaesthesia. This deep listening to intuition in research has a greater capacity to unfold into new ways of theorizing and envisioning that are closer to lived experience than do the rationalistic styles that dominate much of world culture and scientific discourse.”
By adding body-based inquiry to my professional life, I’ve realized that my interests in sacred sexuality, specifically the masculine and feminine energies that exist within and around us, are not only part of my spiritual life, but my professional life as well. I’ve realized that academia has been operating for the last 100 years (or more) on a masculine model that emphasizes competition and individuality. This masculine model doesn’t need to be completely demolished. Instead, it needs to be blended with feminine approaches that emphasize connection and interconnectedness. As Dorit Netzer suggests,
“…in the union of [conventional] masculine and feminine perspectives, [intuitive inquiry] seeks to balance structure and flexibility, exterior and interior, reason and emotion, thinking and feeling, discernment and holism.”
I think that female researchers, along with their open-minded male colleagues, are going to play a key role in bringing the feminine back into academia. Indeed, in her study of the role of the body in the psycho-spiritual development of female mystics, Vipassana Esbjorn-Hargens suggests that women are teachers of conscious embodiment and that sexuality is integral to this embodiment.
I believe that bringing the body and intuition back into the research process is going to be crucial for moving psychology forward. Of course, there will always be a place for the rigorous, “unbiased” research methods that we’ve all come to know and love. But there’s a place for subjectivity, too. After all, what is a hypothesis other than an educated guess about what you think might happen? Keep in mind that many researchers study topics that are of deep personal interest to them, and many of us arrive to our fields with biases in hand. In his book “The Wounded Researcher,” Robert Romanyshyn suggests that research is soul/spiritual work in that many of us study our own deep, unconscious wounds. Romanyshyn writes,
“The work that the researcher is called to do makes sense of the researcher as much as he or she makes sense of it. Indeed, before we understand the work we do, it stands under us. Research as a vocation, then, puts one in service to those unfinished stories that weigh down upon us individually and collectively as the wait and weight of history. As a vocation, research is what the work indicates. It is re-search, a searching again of what has already made its claim upon us and is making its claim upon the future.”
Let’s take my personal research trajectory as an example. My undergraduate thesis focused on Asperger’s disorder and Autism largely because I’d seen examples of these disorders in my family. I pursued a Masters degree in clinical Psychology focusing on anxiety and depression because of my personal experiences with these disorders. I pursued a PhD in romantic relationships because of crushing heartbreaks and dysfunctional relationships I’d been through in the past. I study yoga and mindfulness in schools to help youth avoid going through what I went through with anxiety and depression.
But I’m totally unbiased about the topics I study, right? Wrong.
I often come back to a question I’ve been asking myself since my undergraduate degree. Specifically, is it even possible for humans to study themselves? Would we expect a cat to have the ability to study itself? Do we really think that human emotion and behaviour can fit neatly into the boxes of a 2 x 2 research design? Perhaps we lack a certain level of (meta)awareness necessary to unbiasedly do research on ourselves (or to even ask the right research questions to begin with). Or perhaps we lack the appropriate scientific methods…maybe humans are so complex that we can’t use the same empirical approaches to study ourselves as we use to study particles in a vacuum.
Academia: A Saturated Job Market
Let me bring this topic back to earth by sharing how I see the academic job market today. Right now I see many young people going to graduate school because they don’t know what else to do. They get a Masters or a PhD to prolong their education because they doubt they’ll be able to get a job with only a BA or BSc (little do they know it will probably be just as difficult to get a job with a PhD). Many people pursue a graduate degree because they’ve bought into university marketing programs with hip looking ads that convince them that a Masters or PhD would be a good idea.
Universities operate as businesses just like any other business. They want your tuition money whether you get a job afterwards or not. So we end up with lots of graduates with PhDs and not enough jobs. Many people (myself included) end up cobbling a “career” together by doing multiple postdoctoral fellowships, teaching courses at several institutions, and doing their best to make ends meet. Then, when they apply for academic jobs, they’re looked down upon because their CVs are scattered. Graduates are doing their best to survive, but they're having trouble getting jobs. And when they do land part- or full-time work, they aren’t being paid nearly as much as they’re worth.
There’s something seriously wrong with this picture. And it needs to change.
The way that I’ve “solved” this issue is by becoming what you might call an “independent professor.” I do research and I teach, but I’m not employed full-time by an academic institution. I ask my clients to pay me what I’m worth and I only teach courses that I’m passionate about. I do this because I refuse to contribute to a system that I don’t agree with. I want to do research that has a real impact on the world and I want to be compensated fairly, in a manner that suits my talents. I refuse to follow the bullshit illusions that tell me I need to work at a top-tier university or have a perfect career trajectory to be taken seriously. I want to make my own schedule, have lots of downtime, and contribute to meaningful work. I want to use my intuition and my body-based knowings to inform my research questions and even my results. I want to blend masculine and feminine approaches to research in the hopes of helping explain the complexity of this beautiful universe.
In essence, I want my life and my career to be a work of art that inspires me (and others) in the process. I want to help all of us access our full potential - our true masculine and true feminine - so that we can flourish and thrive personally and professionally.
And so I willingly admit that I don’t have my shit together, at least not in a traditional sense. I worry about money and retirement and how I’m perceived by my colleagues. My CV is a train wreck and I don’t know where my career trajectory is going. Perhaps I’m creating a new trajectory that others with PhDs can follow. Or perhaps someday I’ll find a university that welcomes faculty like me. What I do know is that I have a deep dissatisfaction with how things are being done in my field. And I want to do things differently. I’m determined to find a “better way” to live and work.
How about you? You might not be a researcher, but there are probably aspects of your line of work that you wish were different. What can you do to help facilitate these changes? How might you use your skills in a new way to move your field forward? How can you make your personal and professional lives a work of art that inspires other people to innovate and live their truth?
It’s time for you to embody your authenticity and bring it into your career. We’re ready for a change.