Who Gets to Decide What I Should Do with My Career?

If you’re like me, finding a career that aligns with your values is important to you. I thought I had accomplished this all-important feat in Fall 2018, which should have been the pinnacle of my life to-date. Despite the challenges of working full-time in research administration while taking classes, I had finally completed my PhD in Sociology with a dissertation focused on my partnership with a feminist arts-activism program for teenaged girls in Central Kentucky called The Girl Project.

While completing my dissertation in 2017-18, I applied for more than 80 academic positions that I hoped would afford me a salary and institutional credentials to subsidize my work with The Girl Project. After an arduous six months of interviewing and waiting, I landed the dream job: a postdoctoral fellowship at Tufts University that would allow me to teach a class on Girls and Girlhood and pursue my research goals with the support of an elite institution of higher education. My faculty advisors sung my praises, and my graduate student colleagues expressed both congratulations and envy for the opportunity. When I attended the national sociology conferences last summer, people who had not given me the time of day during previous years’ conferences (when I was a lowly graduate student from the University of Kentucky) began treating me as someone worth knowing as a postdoc at Tufts University. I finally was receiving the recognition and validation that I had thought I wanted and needed to influence the social issues about which I was most passionate.

Slowly but surely, though, I started to realize that nothing I was doing made me feel happy or fulfilled. My writing projects about the benefits of The Girl Project felt like reductions of a program I loved into cold data, draining the “juiciness” and vitality from my work with the girls into a dry husk. Translating scholarship on girls and girlhood to ambitious students who were more interested in how the course content would benefit their personal career trajectories felt like commodifying everything I had painstakingly learned over the past decade. Worst of all, I felt as though I couldn’t enjoy reading or attending lectures anymore because of how I had been professionally socialized to measure my own work against other scholars’ efforts. My learning, writing, and thinking had become colonized by the increasingly capitalist academic-industrial complex, and every day became more difficult to face. I had episodes of paralyzing depression and disillusionment that I had never previously experienced.

Fortunately, I had a few anchors that tied me to the sources of meaning that had originally motivated my career aspirations. My daily meditation practice using the Kundalini Yoga techniques that I have been teaching for more than 10 years created opportunities for me to confront and process these painful emotions that I might have otherwise suppressed. Relationships with my spouse, friends outside of academia, and my church community kept me accountable to my true values centered on living a life of meaningful service to those on the margins of U.S. society. And I realized that despite my successes in teaching and publishing while I was at Tufts, academia is not consistent with my sense of purpose and destiny, despite what my advisors and colleagues insinuated I “should” do.

As a practice, every time I encountered an expectation voiced by a colleague or one that I had internalized, I reacted with the mantra “just because I can do this doesn’t mean I should.” One of the blessings of the postdoc was its one-year duration, which meant that I had to think about my next steps almost as soon as I began the position. So, I gave myself permission to explore jobs at nonprofit organizations dedicated to the wellbeing of children, and at the perfect moment, a position opened up with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) to train and guide volunteers who represent the best interests of children in abuse and neglect cases in family court. With CASA, I apply my academic research and teaching experience to addressing the real-life crisis of child abuse and neglect in Kentucky, at the epicenter of the opioid crisis. Although I still experience pangs of ego when colleagues parade their academic accomplishments, I feel a deep sense of contentment that I know means I’m where I need to be at CASA (with its fitting Spanish meaning of “home”).

So, if there is anything to be taken away from my journey, it’s the advice to be brave, bold, and unapologetic in following your heart and intuition about your life’s work. Others’ expectations for what you “should” do to advance your career can supplant your own values for what you feel called to accomplish with this one life we are given. You always have choices about how to use your time, energy, and passions, free from the scripts of social expectations and others’ sense of ownership of your career.

About the Author

Margaret McGladrey is a Volunteer Manager with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Lexington. Margaret recently returned to Central Kentucky after a postdoctoral fellowship with the Department of Sociology and Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. She earned a Ph.D. in Sociology and Gender and Women’s Studies in 2018 and a Master of Arts degree in Communication at the University of Kentucky (UK) in 2011, and while she completed her graduate courses, she worked full-time as the Assistant Dean for Research in the UK College of Public Health managing the College’s grant portfolio. Margaret’s research and teaching focus on the influences of gender and other social identity categories on culture, education, and health. She has volunteered as the Research and Advocacy Director for The Girl Project, a local feminist performing arts-activism education program for teenaged girls, for more than six years.  

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