Graduating from the doctoral course was a strange experience. My whole life I had people telling me “how young” I was, but within a few months of graduating (at 37 years old) I had people sucking in air through their teeth and commiserating with me that I was “so old.”
Looking back now, I realize the huge advantage to those with a solid, intellectual family and early access to quality education. My family is blue-collar and I am the only one to have finished high school. Needless to say, education was not a big priority. It wasn’t until I was older that I entered university and I took many years off between levels to travel and to tend to unexpected life events.
Before graduating, I knew that in order to be competitive on the academic job market I would need solid experience teaching at the university level and at least a couple articles published in a peer-reviewed journal. Unfortunately, however, I let myself be “sweet” (in Japanese amae “naïve”) on that front and mostly ignored any opportunities to teach or present at academic conferences. I figured that if I could just get the degree I would have time afterward to work on publishing and that my earlier experience of teaching privately and in high schools would be enough to find me a job.
Suffice it to say, my advice would be to stay in the doctoral program until you have sufficient publications and T.A. experience. I chose to do my doctoral program in Japan, but I believe that going through American doctoral programs prepares native English speakers much better—practically, ideologically, and politically.
While the writing of my dissertation was extremely hard, as it is for everyone, and I suffered a huge amount of mental and emotional stress, my single-minded dedication to that task made the writing phase much easier than it appears to be for candidates under the American system. Coming into education as an older student with little expectation or aspiration for the future, I devoted my studies almost entirely to my own interests, avoiding or ignoring advice from others, and taking few of the steps that are considered wise or necessary. This made the writing incredibly easy as I had focused myself so finely on my subject for over 15 years. It meant that I had masses of resources and ideas on which to draw for my writing. This tunnel vision is working against me now while looking for work, as it has left my CV fairly bare. Add to that that few academics are impressed that I know how to fix a car and build furniture—life experience counts for little or nothing when trying to get through the initial phase of selection for university jobs. Only publications and previous syllabi/class reports count.
Back to the writing, due to some good luck, I ended up with a part-time position as an “Affiliate Researcher” soon after beginning master’s study in Japan. Toward the end of my dissertation-writing phase I took several months off from this position to dedicate my time exclusively to the thesis. My academic advisor was extremely hands-on and helped me along at every step, which is the only real reason that I got it finished.
After months of leisurely mornings dedicated to cups of tea, watching YouTube, and procrastinating before lunch, followed by flustered and frantic writing in the evening, I finally got it all finished and handed in.
The system is in flux in Japan at the moment, but I feel that in many ways I was still working in the “old system.” This old system is based on the importance of interpersonal relationships and thus because I had maintained good relationships with my committee I was almost certain that I would pass through with no problems.
Graduating was a sucking void, like stepping out of an airplane. The freefall is fun and refreshing, but the fear that the parachute won’t open is always present.
Having been so obsessed with finishing writing I didn’t put serious effort into identifying avenues for further research or employment when I needed to, and thus ended up with neither. Fortunately, I did pick up enough skills and contacts along the way that I have plenty of non-specialized work to keep me afloat.
Unfortunately, the necessity of putting food on the table means that little progress can be made toward building up the necessary experience or qualifications. Applications for academic jobs and fellowships are so complex and time-consuming, it is difficult to balance it with work. Just recently, I decided to rededicate myself and make a financial investment by giving myself an unpaid holiday to work on getting back on track. There are plenty of irons in the fire and I feel mostly positive about the future, but I sure wish I listened more to the advice I was given along the way. My advisor in undergraduate (a very senior scholar) warned me against an academic career and now I know what she meant. I wouldn’t change things even if I could though—I’m a stubborn bastard and the challenge is part of the fun.