Done and Dusted

It’s been over a week since I permanently deleted all of my social media accounts, including The Big One: Facebook. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time–for years!–but felt like I couldn’t. What if I missed out on events, and pictures of events, and updates on people’s babies and kids and houses and jobs? What if someone couldn’t get in touch with me? What if I lost touch with people I liked? Where would everyone go to see what I was up to? What if I was tormented by regret after torching the carefully curated set of updates and images that I had come to think of, in what I can only describe as an unhealthy and sinister way, as Me? Where would I be if not on Facebook?

The answer is, right here. Yes, on this blog occasionally, but more accurately HERE, “IRL,” carrying on as usual. Still more accurately, carrying on as was usual before the grenade of social media was set off in our midst.

The online Me has always held a terrible power over the little-m me in my life. I remember loving the “personalization” aspect of AOL Instant Messenger away messages, and then the personalization of Myspace page backgrounds, profile content, and profile page soundtracks. Look, it’s my little corner of the internet! It was like having an online bedroom with all the right posters on the walls.

For adults my age, Facebook and Instagram serve those same purposes today, 15-25 years later. Especially for those of us prone to the compulsive scrolling and “checking” that characterized my own relationship with social media, and especially after the arrival of the smartphone took social media off of our laptops and put it in our pockets 24/7.

For me, trying to “cut back” on screen time while still using social media was like trying to stop smoking with a pack of cigarettes still laying on the coffee table. You have to flush them down the toilet. As long as they’re there, you won’t be able to stop thinking about them. You’ll reach for them compulsively, out of habit and even muscle memory, and once your hand makes contact with that crinkly cellophane packet, you’re going to smoke one. Just one, just for ten minutes, and then you’ll “stop” again, rinse and repeat.

After only 24-48 hours, my brain started working differently. Several times I found myself laughing at a joke I had thought of while driving or watering the lawn or folding laundry. After a couple more days, I realized that some kind of semi-dormant inner monologue, which had become quiet and boring without me even realizing it, was having a renaissance. My thoughts wandered more freely, my trains of thought became longer and more creative, and despite still having music and podcasts available, I began spending more time in silence.

When I do listen to music, I’m choosing albums I haven’t listened to in years and playing them straight through. I realized that I had been listening to a lot of the same music all of the time: light, fast stuff. I had been skipping a lot of songs I thought I didn’t like. I had labeled a lot of music I used to enjoy “sad” or “too slow,” but now I’m enjoying it again.

Things that used to make me feel harried and rushed and frustrated have started to feel leisurely and relaxing: doing a long workout on my exercise bike, reading a chapter of a book, even working. I’ve realized that this is because I no longer feel compelled to interrupt myself by “checking” social media. The compulsion to pick up my phone even when it is still and silent has ebbed away.

I’ve started to forget where my phone is. One day I left it in the kitchen from 9am until almost 2pm. I’ve stopped bringing it with me to the bathroom (yes, I really used to do that), I’ve stopped keeping it right beside me while watching TV or playing Yahtzee at night, I leave it inside my purse while driving instead of propping it carefully on the dashboard.

For years, since before I even got one in 2015, I thought that smartphones were the problem. I thought the devices themselves were the reason why no one could stop staring at a screen. But it seems that isn’t true. It’s what’s on the phones that makes them so hard to put down.

Before I deleted my account, I wrote on Facebook that I would be leaving in a couple of days, along with links to some of the articles that helped me make the decision. A few people left comments: “Good for you!” “I’ll miss the photos of your kids.” “I’ve been thinking of doing the same thing…”

I’m sure most people on my “Friends List” didn’t see the post at all. I wrote nothing in the most active Facebook group I was part of, a 6-year-old group that felt quite close-knit. I was even in a private messaging sub-group with several other members.

The only people who have reached out since I deleted everything are people I keep in touch with via text or phone call anyway. This doesn’t surprise me, although it would have both surprised and saddened me a year or two ago. Since I started thinking more deeply about social media and how it works, I’ve realized that one of the biggest “benefits” of these platforms is a lie we tell ourselves: “We believe everyone deserves to be connected,” Mark Zuckerberg says. We use it to keep in touch and strengthen our relationships, we tell ourselves. It’s about connection.

But how strong can these connections be when we can only maintain them through a third party that also distracts us, advertises to us, and sells us? I had friends on Facebook I messaged with multiple times every day, but those connections have apparently disappeared without a trace now that I don’t use the platform. I have a neighbor down the street who I occasionally go for walks with, have over for dinner, or meet for a drink––and in a way, my very intermittent connection with her is stronger than my near-constant connection with those online friends. And it’s not just because we meet in person. I would say the same thing about my now-long distance friends from sixth and seventh grade who I schedule periodic phone and video calls with. We don’t require a dedicated platform to keep in touch.

Do I miss my online friendships? Yes, I miss the people themselves. But I don’t miss the constant nagging feeling of FOMO caused by the medium we used to communicate. I couldn’t be on Facebook Messenger 24/7––I have a job! But when I wasn’t “checking” it regularly, I always felt like I was missing out. Oddly enough, now that I actually am, it doesn’t bother me.

An unexpected side effect of giving up social media: my memory is changing. It’s not that my memory is better, per se, but it’s more open and accessible. I make connections to the past more easily, and the memories that come up are richer and more complete than they used to be. I make more random-feeling associations, and am reminded of past experiences and feelings in less expected ways.

Over the weekend I took my road bike out to a long, complex system of paved trails. I was trying out clipless pedals for the first time, and was a bit nervous. I left my phone in my car and ended up riding for over an hour without realizing that more than 25 or 30 minutes had passed. With nothing else pulling at my attention, I found it fairly easy to concentrate on practicing locking and releasing the pedals, let my mind wander through plans and memories, and enjoy my surroundings all at the same time. I realized it had been quite some time since I did an activity that required both mental concentration and physical skill. It had been a while since I learned something completely new. And instead of feeling draining or daunting, it felt refreshing.

After slow work days, I used to feel even more tense, anxious, and drained than I would on busy work days. It’s become clear that this was because on slow work days, I spent a lot of time on social media, flicking back and forth between Facebook and Instagram, looking for something that would hold my attention and give me some content to latch onto for more than a few seconds at a time. Now when I have free time, I read a long-form news article, finish a chapter of the book I’m reading, dig out the latest London Review from my nightstand, fold a load of laundry, trim something scraggly in the yard, or clean the kitchen. Regardless of how busy work is on a given day, I feel fine at 5pm. I don’t feel stressed or rushed. Instead of thinking about “catching up” on social media, I just think about seeing my family.

Does this seem like an awful lot of change for a single week without social media? Yes, it does. It is. I’m realizing just how plastic my brain is. The rut I was in with social media was deep, and long, and very, very easy to fall into. But climbing out of it isn’t nearly as hard as I expected.

I keep coming back to the idea of requiring a dedicated platform to keep in touch with people we consider friends. This is the double-edged sword of online social networks: on the one hand, you have access to far more––and potentially more like-minded––people than you ever did before; on the other hand, does the value they add to your life outweigh the negative effects of the platforms you connect over? These platforms steal your time, manipulate you (yes, they do), sell you to corporate interests, and who knows what else.

There’s also the fact that many of the people we have on our Facebook “friends lists” are adding almost no value to our lives at all. Does that sound harsh? Think about it: my list contained people I met while couchsurfing 10 years ago, people I took science class with in 2004, people I shared a dorm building with for 6 months in 2007, even some people I went on one date with and never saw again. I know I’m not the only person whose online list of 300, 400, 500+ “friends” contained a vast majority that couldn’t be considered remotely close. Thirty years ago, those connections would be appreciated for what they were at the time and then allowed to lapse. They could be kept up via purposeful effort––calling or writing––if they happened to be deeper or more genuine than usual. Why do we now feel the need to collect these acquaintances and keep seeing updates on their lives for years and decades after we have any meaningful contact? Maybe we should be realistic about what these pseudo-relationships are: minute drains on our time, our attention, and even our emotional energy that can add up to a pretty big net loss.

Am I saying that everyone you consider a friend needs to “add value” to your life? Well… yes. That’s what friends, both close ones and our more expanded social networks, do. These are reciprocal relationships that are sometimes unbalanced for periods of time––you might lose touch with someone, fall out with someone, someone might be busy or sick and unable to give back––but they tend to either balance out over time or fade away over time. Online social networks have made a new phenomenon possible: people unwittingly taking emotional tolls on each other without receiving any benefit whatsoever in return. You and that girl from high school see each others’ updates and take up each others’ time and brain space, but you have no beneficial connection! You’re just being forced to take these slight tolls on each other so that third parties can benefit from your presence on the platform. And that’s leaving aside the people on your networks who actually manage to make you feel bad, intentionally or not.

We seem to have entered a new phase in the public conversation about social media: apologetics. The idea that “Today, for better or worse, the world runs on social media” and therefore we should expose ourselves and our kids to it seems incredibly short-sighted. Just because something is relatively new and popular does not mean that we should accept it without question, especially when a growing number of doctors (all kids––pediatricians, psychiatrists, etc.) are saying that they see it causing significant harm.

We’ve known for years now that this stuff isn’t good for us. Pretending we’re still “not sure” is ridiculous at best.

Here We Go Again

For the twelve billionth time (or so it feels), I find myself hovering over the “delete” buttons of my social media accounts, wondering if I’d be better off without them.

If you’ve been following the Facebook whistleblower news, then you may be feeling the same way. The thing is, nothing she’s said has surprised me at all. I think most people my age who are watching aren’t surprised either, although they might pretend to be. We all know that social media is unhealthy, that it doesn’t make us feel good after we’ve used too much of it, that it affects our quality of life, that it’s addictive, and that it’s especially bad for kids. It’s exactly like alcohol, except that if you look around Instagram for a minute you’ll find more people going dry and chugging non-alcoholic herbal elixirs than you will people leaving social media platforms.

I deleted my Instagram account earlier today. I don’t have Twitter, Snapchat, Tiktok, or WhatsApp. But Facebook persists. I was about to click that button when I remembered that I attended a friend’s wedding a couple of weeks ago and that the pictures featuring me haven’t been posted yet. I was so disgusted with myself: I’m keeping Facebook so that I can see pictures of myself at someone else’s wedding? So that I can subtly show off to a collection of acquaintances who may or may not even see what gets added to my profile? So that I can curate this narcissistic collection of crap that makes me look active and interesting and popular? Gross. So, so, so, so gross. And so immature.

I’ve noticed that social media often makes me feel younger than I am. It takes me (and many others) back to a high school mindset of social posturing, attempting to elicit envy and FOMO. Isn’t it unhealthy for us to remain locked in that emotional space when so many of us have real lives now? We have families, we have important jobs, we have homes to take care of, dogs to walk, meals to prepare, towels to wash, lunches to pack. What’s wrong with us that makes us still care whether Rob from freshman year film class sees a picture of us at age thirty-three?

The answer is that there isn’t anything wrong with us. We’re being manipulated and controlled. We’re addicted to something designed to be addictive. It’s not even a secret anymore, and we still can’t stop because of how powerful it is. This is often where people start rolling their eyes and saying that it’s just the internet, it’s no big deal, it’s just the latest thing, it’s just entertainment. But take a gut-check and see if you really believe that deep-down.

I might still be thinking about this tomorrow morning, but oh well. It merits some deep thoughts.

Leaving Academia 3

There’s been a big ol’ gap here since I last wrote, promising a little piece about getting your first non-academic job. That’s mainly because I’ve switched jobs myself!

I left the startup I was working for and have taken a job at NTT Data Services. This is a dream job, the kind of job I never, ever thought I would achieve, the kind of job I didn’t even think was a possibility for me three or four years ago, much less nine or ten years ago. It has amazing compensation, the kind of benefits package that most people my age don’t get anymore, responsibilities that will challenge me to grow as a professional in ways I probably still don’t foresee, coworkers who are supportive and brilliant and driven, supervisors to look up to, and the kinds of clear goals that I love to work towards. The position is technically “flex,” with some time at home and some in the Plano headquarters, but the company has delayed in-office work until at least January 2022. I have a beautiful home office setup. [Including a huge new desk that I ordered from Pottery Barn when I accepted this job. Highly recommend a big desk. I love having a full computer work station and room for my manual writing stuff.]

Just since my last post here, two more people have reached out to me asking about leaving academic and academic-adjacent jobs (working within the university and college system). I’m sure this is in part due to the big shift that I’m also a part of: workers are changing jobs a lot right now, hiring is up, and people are seeking positions that better suit their COVID-19 comfort levels and their work-from-home preferences. But I hope it’s also part of a shift in academia itself. I hope people are realizing that their skills and their work ethic can be applied in more lucrative, less abusive settings.

I won’t make this post very long, because leveraging your academic experience means something different for every kind of job you might be applying for. What you might emphasize and downplay when applying for a copywriting position is very different from what you might emphasize and downplay when applying for a position in HR. But these tips are universally applicable.

Do your research.

You’re good at research, right? Dig in and learn everything you can about the field you’re hoping to work in. Look at a lot of company websites, competitor websites, and job descriptions. Ask anyone you know who already works in the field if they can give you a quick rundown. Don’t be surprised if you feel totally lost: the way people talk about, for instance, software marketing is completely different from how people talk about teaching undergraduates.

Learn the basics of the industry, and then learn all of the slang words and acronyms that apply to the job title you’re seeking. Then take some time to learn the very basics of any platforms or softwares listed in the job descriptions you see. You don’t need to become an expert at using Excel or WordPress or Figma, but familiarity with them and the terms used when using them will help you talk about your skills and what you hope to learn next.

Aim high, but manage your expectations.

Go ahead and apply for the jobs you want, but don’t be surprised if it takes you a few positions and a few years to achieve those goals. That’s okay. You’ll probably still have better work/life balance and more income in a borderline entry-level position outside of academia than in any position within it. If you land a really desirable job right off the bat, keep in mind that those who hired you probably expect you to focus on your learning curve and get up to speed quickly. You may need to dedicate some time watching Youtube tutorials and meeting with coworkers and mentors so that you can rise to the level if your new position.

Focus on your strengths, but never tell a lie.

Emphasize how your teaching skills can easily translate into mentorship for less experienced writers, but don’t say that you have supervisory experience when you don’t. Emphasize how the dedication and focus you applied to your dissertation research and writing can easily translate into great project management skills, but don’t say that you’ve managed a corporate project when you haven’t.

You can make yourself sound like the incredible potential employee you are without misleading anyone! It can be tempting to dodge these types of questions, but being honest will only help you long-term. You don’t want to end up in a position where you’re immediately expected to display mastery of something you’re clueless about, and you also don’t want a job where there’s no room to learn. If you’re honest with your interviewers, you’ll eventually find a position you can use as a stepping stone, or a position where you can be trained and mentored and invested in. Both options are great.

Have confidence.

Don’t use self-deprecation or tell too many jokes about academia, or you’ll come off sounding bitter and hung up on your past disappointments. When I was interviewing, I was very honest about why I didn’t want to teach anymore: I wanted better work/life balance and to feel appreciated in my work. I got nothing but respect for that! Don’t put yourself down or make it sound like this career path is a disappointing second choice.

Leaving Academia 2

What It Fixes (sort of)

I’m not going to tell you that leaving academia for an industry job will solve all of your problems. No job is perfect. Any job you stick with long enough can become boring, or spring unpleasant surprises on you, or end without warning. But I did find that pursuing a career in professional writing/content management/marketing has allowed me to meet the needs that weren’t being met (and that I realized would never be met) by academia:

  • Eliminating guilt and distraction
  • Reclaiming my hobbies
  • Avoiding feelings of betrayal and disappreciation

I’ll go through these one by one and explain how my current career helps me with them.

Eliminating guilt and distraction

I’m sure this isn’t an issue for everyone, but I know for a fact that it’s pretty widespread in academia because my husband certainly deals with it. It also occurs in other fields too, but it’s less prevalent. I’m talking about the ethos of constant busyness and the inability to “turn off” your work brain. Some people like to be super busy, some people are passionate about their jobs, some people are natural workaholics, but there’s a tendency to feel compelled to behave this way in academia because it’s so competitive and because people engage in busyness Olympics. I hate that. I never want to feel like I ought to be working when I’m hanging out with my family, or for that matter even when I’m reading a novel or watching TV. I never want to feel like I “should be” thinking about a work-related problem on a Saturday. 99% of the time, you aren’t rewarded for that level of dedication anyway.

In my experience it’s much easier to disengage mentally from the kind of job I have now. I can be finished at 5pm and genuinely not give a thought to work until the next day. I’m sure that sounds like a bad thing to many people–shouldn’t I be dedicated to my work?–but I find that if I think about work 24/7, I burn out pretty fast. It’s healthier and often more productive to limit the amount of time spent concentrating on a single thing.

Reclaiming my hobbies

This is so closely related to the item above that I should probably combine them, but oh well. I love reading and writing, but when I was completely immersed in literature and writing about literature every day, it became difficult for me to find pleasure in reading and writing anymore. I’ve had so much more fun doing those things since I stopped studying them. Of course my job involves a ton of reading and writing, but in very different modes. I don’t find that reading and writing about software and technology affects my enjoyment of reading novels and writing fiction.

Avoiding feelings of betrayal and disappreciation

Academia can be awfully personal. You get attached to the people you work for and with, and forget that schools are often run like factories churning out graduates. I found that my feelings got hurt a lot in graduate school, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever admitted before. In retrospect, I think there’s often a show of forming relationships and creating friendships when the reality is that a lot of students are colleagues are just numbers. Schools are institutions just like big companies are, and I prefer institutions that don’t try to cover up their intentions or sugarcoat their processes. I’d rather know I’m just an employee than labor under the delusion that I mean more.

Depending on your job, the particular business you work for, the particular boss you have, your coworkers, etc., you can still be vulnerable to all of these issues anywhere you work. But in my experience, it’s easier to avoid them in a non-academic setting.

Up next: getting your first “real” job.

Leaving Academia 1

Every year, in the spring, friends and acquaintances start asking me about “leaving academia.” For some of them this means quitting their academic program before it’s complete. For others it means ending their pursuit of an academic job. For a few others it means leaving an academic job they’ve already achieved. It comes up in March, April, and May because this is “job season,” when applications and processed, interviews are conducted, and offers are made (or not made).

I’ve met with several people every year since 2016 about this. Most of them want to hear how my life is different from the life of someone working in academia. Some of them want advice, which I’m happy to give with the caveat that my experience is very limited–I’ve never worked a full-time academic job, and I’ve only worked in what we call “industry” for 6 years, and in only a couple of roles. But I thought I’d cover some of the questions I usually get here on my blog, where they can be referred to by anyone at any time.

Let me clarify my own background, because my experience won’t be useful to everyone who is thinking about this issue. I started graduate school for English in 2011, and got my MA (2013) and PhD (2017) both from the University of Texas at Austin. For most of grad school, I worked as a TA and then as an Assistant Instructor, but in 2015 I moved out of state. That summer I did a paid research fellowship in California, and then returned to Utah with my husband, who had started his first academic job. I spent the fall of 2015 working on my dissertation, but I hated having it as my only project–I wanted to be busier. So in December 2015, I started working as a Senior Copywriter for a retail business. In May 2016, I moved on to become a Content Manager at a large software corporation, where I was part of a big multinational marketing team. I had my first child in January 2017, got my doctorate in December 2017, and had my second child in November 2018, while working for that same company.

In August 2019, we moved back to Texas so that my husband could start working at a school that suited him better, and I started looking for more challenging jobs. That search led me to start as Content Manager for a smaller post-startup software business in March 2020, a job I’m still doing. Because this business is much smaller, I have more responsibilities and face more challenges, and I like that.

The biggest questions I get are, “Why didn’t you want to teach?,” “How is industry better than academia?,” and “How did you first get a job outside of academia?” These, especially the first two, are really difficult to answer independently of each other, so I’m going to group my writing in my own way here.

Just keep in mind that my experience isn’t universal. Not everyone faces the same challenges in academia. Many people face a hell of a lot more. If you’re in a different field, a lot of this won’t apply. If you don’t want children, a lot of this won’t apply.

The Problems

I started seeing three big issues with an academic career. There are more, and different people encounter different problems, but these were mine.

The first one is that academia is incredibly competitive. This is true of all fields, but English is really alarming. By the time I reached the dissertation stage, I felt pretty hopeless about getting the kind of job I wanted, or any job at all, and being married threw another wrench into any potential plans: you have to find a school that will hire both of you. This feeling of hopelessness is what first made me wonder if I should stick with the teaching trajectory.

The second one is that academia doesn’t pay very well. Even a tenure track job doesn’t provide enough money to support an entire family (in my opinion, anyway), and if you end up forced to adjunct, you often don’t even have health insurance coverage. I started to see academia as exploitative. And I’m a very privileged person who didn’t even go into debt for school!

Finally, there was a more amorphous problem: I noticed that the students who ended up with the kinds of tenure track jobs everyone dreams about were either 1) male, or 2) almost entirely dedicated to their careers.

This is because achieving a TT job requires most of your time and energy. I knew plenty of men who were able to devote this kind of time and energy to their academic careers, but they tended to have wives who managed the vast majority of the rest of their lives. If they had children, they inevitably had partners who managed the family, often by bringing in most of the income at the same time. Women who were on track to achieve their dream jobs usually didn’t have families. I know many people will bristle at these old-fashioned-sounding descriptions, but they’re completely true in my experience.

I personally could feel my career coming to a crossroads as I advanced to the dissertation stage. I could increase the amount of time and energy I put into school and power myself onto the job market. I could maintain my current level of effort and simply see what happened. Or I could maintain my current level of effort and experiment with a job outside of academia. I chose the third option.

To be totally transparent, my husband’s job played a role in this, too. He was already a TT professor. He didn’t want to pursue a different career. I didn’t see a way for us both to succeed in academia while also having a family, and once I realized that I really did want children, I knew I needed to at least try a different path.

So you can see why that third problem is so complex. I felt like I was failing as a feminist when I admitted that I needed to do something “easier,” and when I saw that even relationships that seemed equal from the outside weren’t. I felt like a failure as an academic when I admitted that I wasn’t “passionate enough” about my subject to suffer for it, and when I admitted that I wanted to be financially rewarded for my work. I felt like I “should” be happy teaching at a high school or a community college, and at the same time I felt like I “should” have the drive to compete for top jobs.

For a long time, I felt very conflicted about my career path. I spent a lot of time ruminating about what was important to me, who I wanted to be, and what would help me achieve the life I wanted. The realization I had that helped me move on was: My job doesn’t have to be my life. I didn’t want a job that was my life. I didn’t want to identify as my job title, I didn’t want to be thinking about work when I went to bed at night, I didn’t want to work more than 40 hours a week, and I didn’t want to feel unappreciated in my career.