Finding One’s Feet and Friends After Grad School

I recently came across Junior Prof: Confessions of an Assistant Professor Working Toward Tenure, a blog that—as its anonymous author explains—contributes a less visible perspective on the conversation about professional life ongoing in academic circles. The eponymous Junior Prof is a fellow 2018 PhD graduate and thus also in their first year of being an Assistant Professor, able to look back upon the job market experience as well as reflect on the challenges of their current position. As someone who has blogged about “What Do Graduate Students Do All Day?” I loved that Junior Prof shared their weekly calendar and I have been inspired to conduct a similar experiment before the end of the semester. Watch this space! There were two aspects of life as a new Assistant Professor that hadn’t yet been tackled in my new hero’s blog and I thought I would risk my own “take” on them in this forum.

Conferencing as an Early Career Scholar

 I recently attended one of my favorite conferences, run by Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies, and it was my first foray into a brave new world where my title and affiliation were respectively more and less prestigious. (The only people who had heard of my new institution were competitors for my job, which was deeply uncanny.) I was not terribly nervous as I felt I had so much less to prove now I’m on the tenure track, especially at a teaching-focused school to which I’m committed, and I was genuinely happy with the conversation at my panel as I wanted to know how to transform a part of my dissertation project into a possible standalone article. However, the experience of the conference as a whole felt very weird.

I felt myself drawn to the graduate students: after all, I had only just stopped being one and these were usually the people closest in age to me. However, I did worry that I was a sad and creepy loiterer who was merely reveling in the anecdotes from my glory days (imagine the aquarium scene in Pitch Perfect 3) and I was dispensing advice far too liberally. I do really want to support graduate students and share my experience, but it was odd to be looked up to as someone who “made it.” Meanwhile, even professors only a little ahead of me appeared as remote goddesses with published monographs to whom I was still a baby. (It doesn’t help that when I say I’m 30, I’m actually speaking from the future AKA May this year.) The very term “early career” indicates that we have acknowledged an “apartness” of these liminal scholars, teachers, and professors. Indeed, the conference organizers spoke about their plans for increasing support and involvement of this group during a lunch event.

The best moments for me at the conference were talking with people close in position to me with whom I could be real about my anxieties (most pressingly, can I even produce a book?) and it reminded me that I need to seek out connections and support for what I need now. I have a new cohort of fellow professionals and it’s fine that it might take a little while to identify them.

Making Friends as a New Person in Town and on Campus

On a related note to finding one’s new academic community, I also wanted to tackle the question raised by Junior Prof on their Twitter account, which wondered how other new assistant professors go about meeting people. My fiancé and I relocated to a different state and time zone for my new position last summer so we effectively removed ourselves over 1000 miles from our closest friends. I acknowledge the privilege of being (heteronormatively) partnered to a non-academic who was able to secure employment relatively quickly, although it’s also come with a huge amount of guilt and assumed responsibility for his happiness. One difficulty was that my colleagues became our most usual social circle, with all the talking shop ad nauseam that comes with that. This does mean, thought, that I have been lucky enough to socialize with and even make real human connections with people who work at the college. Yesterday I had lunch with a colleague and it literally preserved my sanity on a hump of a hump day. I really do recommend reaching out to see who will have coffee or lunch, especially among other junior faculty.

However, as I have remarked before, it’s also really key to have friends outside the workplace. The incredible small town I live in has helped because it’s a tightknit community (who aren’t too unkind when an outsider tries to chisel their way in!) and we have such amazing events as “Women, Wine, and Wilderness” evenings at a local outdoor center. (My fiancé refers to these empowering occasions of food and fellowship as “communing with the moon goddess,” which is accurate, if patronizing.) The person who has made me feel most connected to this new community and, indeed, the first person I actually fully relaxed around (cue insane word vomit) is someone I met at such an event. The takeaway from my experience is, of course, to find and attend events. While you are at them, talk to people and hand out your phone number. It’s awkward and difficult to make friends as an adult, but openness and persistence go a long way. I’m really trying to take the initiative as a naturally extroverted person to become the person I needed (and found!) when I moved here by creating spaces and events, especially for other women, where we can feel supported as ourselves. People need people, even academics!

I’m still lonelier than I have been in a long time and worry about staying connected to existing friends while I go through another life change. It does feel like Nebraskans look askance at me as a childless atheist. But it’s certainly getting easier as I find the people I need and that I hope may need me too in both my professional and personal life.

And, for sheer hilarity and visual interest, here’s a picture of me (after a workout and in my old glasses) trying on my regalia like a BOSS in preparation for attending graduation as a professor in May. I look like a teenager at a Harry Potter-themed party: