If I could do it all over

Pub date April 10, 2012

If had to re-start your academic career today, what would you study? In this era of budget cuts to education and general economic miasma, some Bay Area academics would be reconsidering their options, some would stay their course — and some have important advice for today’s budding scholars. 



I would first take some time off from school, jump into the world, and try it out for a year or two. I would WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) around the country and around the world. Once I had some out of school experience, I would be ready and willing to pursue a higher education — not just because my parents or society said it was the thing to do, but because I was excited and eager to learn more. I would study urban agriculture — funnily enough, my colleagues and I just created an urban agriculture program at USF. We need to be thinking and engaging critically and creatively to shape our urban spheres into sustainable systems. Programs like urban agriculture are doing just that.



I’d ideally do exactly what I am doing now: studying political theory. I really love my job and feel very grateful that I get paid to do this. However, I don’t think that I could have had the career I had if I was starting out today.

What I’d probably do is to bolster my study of political theory with more courses in continental philosophy and critical thinking, that way I could present myself to more kinds of jobs and broaden my reach. I also think it would help to focus on something concrete — an area study, a specific tradition, a specific thinker, because I think generalists don’t do so well these days. In graduate school I would concentrate more on publishing and going to conferences than I did when I was getting my own Ph.D.

When I was in grad school, the belief was that we lived in a meritocracy and good work would get good jobs; even then (the mid-’90s), the profession was changing, but I didn’t pay any attention and got lucky. Not that I had it that easy, I was a visiting professor at three universities before I got a tenure track job. Even so, I don’t think a newly minted Ph.D. can have the same luxury anymore. Today you can’t hide in your ivory tower. My younger peers are much less starry-eyed about academia than I was at their age. Maybe that is one small silver lining to the horrendous academic job market.



At the end of Don Quijote, the eponymous main character emerges from his book-induced delirium, renounces chivalry, and dies. I’m not ready to die, so I’m reluctant to imagine a career course other than the wholly quixotic, book-filled one that I chose over two decades ago. The Quijote teaches us that all imagining has consequences. If I begin to imagine another less difficult life, what will become of me? Will this life begin to crack and splinter? While I’m not simple enough to believe that flirtations and daydreams can hasten death, why tempt fate?

If imagination is a lethal pin, history is a cushion. When I was a kid growing up in the East Bay, an aluminum bat under my bed and a stack of bootlegged Elvis Costello cassettes in a shoebox, I dreamed of being lots of things: a private eye in Honolulu, a blade runner, the president. I dreamed of a playing guitar like Marc Ribot. Of being rich. Does Barack Obama play guitar? If so, he’s realized all of my adolescent dreams, and I hope they make him happy. As for my life, Don Quijote was born only for me, and I for him.



If I were starting my career all over again, I would still get a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in international relations. I would also get a master’s degree in Middle East studies, followed by a Ph.D. in journalism. The only thing I would change is making up my mind a little faster. I was undeclared during my freshman year, with no clue what I wanted to study. I met a bunch of cool kids who were working at the college newspaper and as I began hanging out in the newsroom, suddenly it all made sense. I was naturally nosy, I love writing, and get a huge kick out of talking to strangers and telling stories. Journalism was the perfect career for me. I always had a fascination with global politics so I looked forward to attending every IR class. I’m glad I didn’t get a master’s in journalism, because I don’t think that would have advanced my career at all. But the Middle East studies degree gave me an in-depth understanding of the region’s history, societies, economies and political systems. It was an excuse to read a lot about subjects I was passionately interested in, and being required to read and write papers kept me in line and gave me the discipline I needed. I got the Ph.D. because I wanted to teach at the university level, and I enjoyed learning to do research. 

I tell my students all the time that it is really important to study what you love, but I know it isn’t easy to figure out what that is, and whether they can actually make a decent living out of it. I often begin advising sessions by asking my student “what’s your dream job?” and if they give me a specific answer, it makes it much easier to help them pick the right classes that they are paying a lot of money for. I knew I wouldn’t necessarily get rich as a journalist, but I knew it would be fun and rewarding. My parents are both medical doctors and wanted me to be a physician as well. I have no regrets whatsoever, because I know I would have made a great doctor, and definitely made more money than I do now, but I would have been miserable. A college degree is increasingly expensive, and it is crucial that a lot of thought and consideration goes into choosing a field of study that is a good investment. A good degree of study should train you to acquire actual skills that you can use to market yourself in today’s competitive job market.