Today brought me one day closer to finishing this Ph.D. Along with six of my classmates, I passed the written comprehensive exams and stayed on track for achieving candidacy (i.e. all but dissertation) by the end of the spring. Last week, a friend asked me if I feel any closer to knowing what I want to do than I was when we started, to which my honest reply was, “Nope.” I don’t think this sentiment is uncommon though—I get the sense that most of my cohort feels the same way.
It would be really easy right now to write about all the things I don’t want to do when I finish the degree—I’m trying not to take that approach. If my past experiences are any indication, I tend to take a position and reshape it into something that matches my personality, while still managing to effectively meet the job’s objectives. It worked when I managed volunteers, and it worked when I co-coordinated a health education project based on community building and organizing. Still, the challenges get a bit different after going through this kind of academic process. Although I’ve never viewed myself as a “traditional” academic, let along a “traditional” social worker, the temptation is certainly there to take the kind of academic job that would keep me gainfully employed for the next several years. I still don’t know, though, if I’d be happy—or doing everything that feeds my passions. So what do I think I want to do? Let me think this out and see where we end up.
Write. Without a doubt, one of the most satisfying pieces of going back to school and leaving the day to day work of nonprofits has been the ability to start writing in an in-depth, thought-provoking way about things that interest me. I lost years of creativity when I was immersed in my old agency job—too much of that creativity, not to mention the emotional and psychological “heft” of the work environment, was absorbed by other people, and in my free time it was all I could do to unpack those many complex feelings before heading back to work. Whatever I end up doing, it needs to include some creative element. Moreover, I have at least two book ideas that I want to develop—one for sure that will take me to San Francisco to research next year. Years ago I wrote a novel that was well-received by most people who read it, yet I never found a publisher. I might still try to get that book out, maybe online.
Build stuff. Not with my hands, but at least conceptually I like making things. I like building groups and communities around shared dreams and desires. I like helping people visualize a “big picture” goal, and then work backward to think about all the steps needed to reach that goal. Big surprise, I love logic modeling! In terms of managing what gets built? Not quite as interested. I do like evaluation and tailoring, but the homeostatic piece gets to me over time—inertia sets in and I need a new project.
Listen to people’s stories. I used to love—love—reading Studs Terkel’s oral histories when I was younger. In general I love seeing the narratives people put together when asked to share some meaningful story of their lives. When I led a creative team at Michigan State and started the university’s first queer magazine, we emphasized first-person stories of people’s experiences and tried to foster conversations both in its pages and in the residence halls and coffee shops where it was read. To some degree, online social media have assumed some of the role in facilitating people’s connections to each other’s stories. At the same time, I think we’re still learning the “emotional” geography of online spaces, and figuring out how and why certain online forums evoke certain types of emotional responses.
Help. It might seem odd to have a degree in social work, but hold little interest in working in social service agencies. But I think what has always interested me—especially coming from queer organizing—is understanding the ways in which groups outside the mainstream find ways to take care of each other, when systems don’t exist to adequately address or understand their needs. Queer history is rich with examples of this, dating back to well before Stonewall (hence my interest in writing certain books). And I am pretty certain that in the present day, many of these self-created systems of caring—“chosen family” or otherwise—continue to develop outside of the mainstream’s view of what’s typical or normal. I tend to find these scenarios much more enriching to understand than the formalized systems we often train workers to deal with. Not that social service systems don’t have a role to play! But in terms of where my curiosity and my passions lead me, it’s the new territory, the uncovered stories of how people “make stuff work” that keeps my attention.
Some might look at all these elements and say yep—this is an academic. But I can’t say I have much taste for the full-time research track that this degree prepares me to pursue. I do enjoy teaching college students—but this is also still new and exciting, not something I have done for years and years. If I could find a way to pay the bills and get a couple books published once I’m done with this degree, I’d be happy. But to some degree we always have to balance what we want to do with what we need to do to survive, yes?
Luckily I still have another 1.5 to 2 years to figure this all out. But in the meantime I’m open to suggestions!