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Friday, August 26, 2005
The One Where I Realize That There Are Some Jobs I Am Not Qualified To Do
Earlier this morning I received an email from a superstar University, asking me if I would like to interview for their Assistant Professor position at our big conference next week. I eagerly replied with a "YES!" since this job would be amazingly cool. I looked again at the departmental website and saw all of the big names there, and I thought, am I really qualified to work here? Could I live up to their expectations? That prompted me to think about what graduate school and my three "qualifying" exams have really qualifed me to do. The big thing I came up with is this: graduate school teaches you how to find information. You must teach yourself how to use it.
I think back to my seminars and my qualifying (comprehensive exams). What did I learn? I learned a lot of theories, read a lot of empirical tests of theories, learned how the literature fit together and flowed, read complicated statistical results I didn't fully understand and didn't necessarily want to understand, learned who the big names were and who the up-and-comers were, learned how a professional article should look, and discovered what kinds of questions I was interested in answering in my own future work. I used all of this information to construct a "big picture" of my discipline and to pass my qualifying exams and write my seminar papers. Do I remember everything? Not by a longshot. I remember names and dates simply because I'm good with names and dates, and I remember pieces of theories. But a lot of the stuff I "learned" for my seminars and studied for my qualifying exams is simply not relevant to me anymore. After I started writing my prospectus and then my dissertation, the parts of my brain that knew the "big picture" started to get dusty. Really dusty.
But, in my experience, graduate school makes the "big picture" such a part of your life (especially in those first few years) that even though you may forget the pieces of it, you still know that it's there, buried under years and years of other things. And coming up on the job market, I feel that I am forced to cut through the layers of accumulated dust and rediscover that big picture down there, lurking. I will need to convince potential colleagues that I can teach the big picture, that I can speak competently about theories and methods. I need to show them that, despite a year focused solely on my dissertation topic, I still know this stuff. And most importantly, I know where to find the things that I should know -- I know what's important. I think I also know how to use the information that was presented to me years ago.
I imagine that, as a first-time faculty member, you spend a lot of time re-reading and re-learning things that you used to know by heart.
So, I will go into these interviews with the confidence that, even though a lot of material is no longer at the tip of my tongue, graduate school has given me the tools to find that material easily and to know how it fits into the big picture of the discipline. I don't have a lot of experience, but I am qualified to begin the real work of an academic. After all, if I'm not qualified for that, what am I qualified for?
One thing I know for certain: I am NOT qualified to be a plumber. On this morning's "to-do" list was "clean the bathroom." This is the bathroom we use most frequently, just a tiny little bathroom attached to our bedroom. The other bathroom is always clean, because we only use it for guests and to give ST his bath. Anyway, as I was scrubbing the sink, I noticed that it smelled kind of funny and that the water wasn't going down the drain very quickly. No problem, I thought. Nothing a little vinegar and baking soda can't fix. So, I poured a pile of baking soda down the drain and followed it with a large shot of vinegar. Bubble, bubble. Lots of bubbles, but the smell and the slow drain remained. Time for tools.
I got out a pair of pliers, an ancient bottle brush, and a coat hanger. I unscrewed the plug from underneath the sink and popped it out. G R O S S. It was full of mildew, black and slimey. I peered down the drain hole -- more sludge. More stink. Using my MacGyver-esque coathanger contraption, I fished down the hole and brought up a huge, stinking wad of black, oozing, toothpaste-and-spit-encrusted hair. I gagged and tossed it into the garbage can. Then I held my breath and shoved the bottle brush into the hole and swished it around. As I pulled it out, more sludge emerged, only this time it was spattering all over me. Ugh!
I had to leave the bathroom at that point. The bottle brush is still sitting in my now-dirty-again sink, there are black flecks of crud on my once-shiny mirror, and the vinegar and baking soda cocktail is still hissing and bubbling in the drain. I cannot face it just yet, and certainly not again before I eat lunch.
I am qualified to work in academia. My weak stomach, however, has eliminated me from considering work in the plumbing sector.