June 06, 2007

The 50-Year Career Plan

Fifty years is somewhere around 350 blog years, but nonetheless, there are people blogging today who will still be writing for public consumption several decades hence. It helps to take a pause from the day's outrage overload, the sitemeter stats, and all the other pressing considerations to remember the longer time horizons we'll face if we're lucky.

I, for example, have been taking a fair bit of time over the last months trying to get into graduate school, working on launching a new website with some colleagues, and figuring out when and how to get myself to DC this summer so that I can start at the school I was accepted to. These activities have precluded a good bit of short term writing and story idea follow-up, and I keep having to remind myself of the bigger picture.

(I've also had to keep reminding myself where I left my towel, and sometimes, which state I'm presently in. You know what would be nice? Not having to move for about, oh, two years or so. But I digress.)

Some things have had to be left undone. There are not only just so many hours in a day, but only so many productive hours. Leisure, rest and socializing are as important in their way as all the time spent doing obviously useful things. They're the restoratives that allow us to function well, our fallow time, if you will. No matter how much our culture would like us to be machines, we just aren't, and shouldn't be.

It's important to take the time to, as they say, get lives. Or was that bent? They say so many things, I can never keep it all straight. It's the roving about. Anyway, you get the idea.

So it was with some significant sense of relief that I read David Perlmutter's essay on the 50-year academic career plan. While it's geared towards the university teaching profession, I think the broader principles are just as handy for writers of all stripes, or barring that, anyone who might have to face rejection over the course of their working life. Not you, of course, but maybe you have a friend who'd appreciate this ...? Emphasis mine:

... As academics, from our earliest apprenticeships, we are under considerable pressure to focus on the short term. As doctoral students we hear the clock ticking: The best jobs go to those who begin presenting at conferences and getting published as early as possible.

... But if we are granted health, luck, and sanity, the full arc of an academic career is 50 years, not 15 weeks.

As the eminent critic Cyril Connolly argued in his Enemies of Promise, the creative professional could avoid early burnout and survive the "marathon of middle age" only if he understood that a career must be paced like the proverbial long-distance race, not a sprint followed by exhaustion.

We have to weigh what it makes sense for us to focus on in the here and now, and what is best deferred. Charles W. Haxthausen, director of the graduate program in the history of art at Williams College, has been mulling the choices he's made. "Because of the demands of the administrative job I have had for the past 14 years, I did not fulfill two book contracts," he told me. "But as I retire from administration and go into half-time teaching with more time for research, I am now glad that I have waited this long. I think both [books] will be better for having ripened in my head, and enhanced by the papers and articles I have written along the way."

Taking the half-century view of a career allows us to conceptualize our work as both a solitary venture and a group effort. As your career develops and you build alliances and partnerships with colleagues -- and then with graduate students who go on to build their own careers -- you begin to understand how any particular area of research must satisfy the interests of not just yourself but others.

... I believe a majority of people who fail in their academic careers by being denied promotion or tenure, or who earn tenure and then fall into an embarrassing lethargy of underachievement, do so for psychological reasons.

... If you are focused only on immediate highs -- getting a journal article accepted for publication or receiving superlative student evaluations that semester-- then like an addict you will eventually experience letdown.

There is inner peace in understanding that one semester is not a referendum on whether you are a good teacher and that one rejection letter is not the final word on your scholarship. As a senior colleague once told me, "I have been rejected by journals many times, but after a while, as I built up my CV, I realized that a rejection was not the end of anything at all." Individual humiliations and failures seem diminished, even trivial, when we lay them out in relation to a life's work. ...

It's easier to know that an individual situation is rarely make-or-break than to believe it, but I can keep trying and appreciate the occasional reminder.

Though I'd also appreciate it if you could keep an eye out for my towel. It's about so big, white and yellow stripes, last seen ...

Posted by natasha at June 6, 2007 12:44 AM | Education | Technorati links |

According to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe" I believe you should be sure to have your towel with you, so make sure you track it down. Good piece and lots of wisdom to it. I also notice that you keep moving closer and closer to the best coast!

Posted by: Scott at June 7, 2007 04:57 PM

It's true, I've been having to borrow towels lately. Hard to pack them, take up a lot of room.

I've also been terribly slapdash about responding to email. Something to do with exploratory visits to the more humid coast. I'm in DC this week, and man, I'd shower four times a day if that seemed at all practical.

Posted by: natasha at June 7, 2007 09:53 PM

Well, D.C. is known for its hot and humid summers, so get ready for plenty of that. I'd say don't sweat being "slapdash" on responding to E Mails, but that seems like such a terrible pun given the humidity references.

Posted by: Scott at June 8, 2007 08:55 AM

I look back at how many got lost at this time in your life.
Good Luck

Posted by: jo6pac at June 9, 2007 06:59 PM