For the longest time recently, I have been stressed out about not being able to find a job. I am 4 months away from finishing my PhD, and most students from my cohort already have a job. I am an international student studying in the US, which means that I must additionally be in compliance with the rules and not stay unemployed in the country. Further, life as a single person (man or woman, doesn’t matter) is not easy. You are entirely responsible for taking care of you, and the love, understanding, and even the temporary financial cushion you need while you look for employment is missing. Come July, my apartment lease is going to expire, and I will not have a home to live anymore. It is battling with the uncertainties that have made my life so miserable.
Needless to say, I have had multiple meltdowns over the last few months. I have stared at the ceilings wide-eyed at nights, clueless about where I am headed. When I started my job hunt 6 months ago, I conveniently omitted applying to places I did not see myself living in; the small towns in the middle of nowhere where I know I am going to be chronically depressed. I knew I have the time and the options, and I would always find something better. In retrospect, it was a mistake. US funding agencies are going through some significant sequestrations and budget cuts. Universities are having a hiring freeze, and labs are no longer hiring that many postdoctoral researchers. I almost got a job in one of the reputed schools in the South, and then they denied me the job because they decided not to hire anyone. Surely there is no way I could start counting my chickens.
I started my job hunt with the mindset of exclusion. I don’t want to live in the Midwest. I don’t want to live where it snows. I don’t want to live in small towns. I would prefer a sizeable Indian community around. It would help to have an international airport and a Macys nearby. I want to do a post-doc in an elite school. Soon, I realized that I was doing myself a disservice with the high expectations I had set for myself. Finding a job is not just about my abilities and qualifications, it has a lot to do with who is hiring, who has the money, and who I am shaking hands with. So now, I am applying to every school, every interdisciplinary department, leaving no stone unturned,
proactively introducing myself to everyone. My adviser still thinks that I will
have a job before I graduate, but that rejection from the southern school was
an eye opener.
Eventually, I have sensed a shift of energy, a detachment I have developed with this process. I am still proactively looking for jobs and applying. I am not ready to quit and move back to India for many reasons, but mostly because I don’t have a plan if I have to do so. However, I have realized that stressing myself out and comparing myself with those stellar personalities I rub shoulders with is not going to help. I have personally known people who have multiple job offers 6 months prior to finishing a PhD (or people who didn’t even need to finish their PhD), who have professors from Ivy League schools vying for them, wanting them to work in their labs, people who drive cross-country and make summer trips to Europe when they finish school because they have all the time, money, and a lucrative job waiting for them with a window office overlooking the sea. I’d have loved to visit Greece or Spain as a graduation gift to myself, but let’s be realistic here. We are talking about basic survival needs, the need to have a home and be able to feed oneself, fuel the car, and afford a gym membership without asking for help. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves and try to build some fancy vacation itineraries when it might not happen.
Of late, I have realized that worrying about something unknown in future is counterproductive. And what’s so wrong with not knowing about the future. Why do I have to know what will happen to me months in advance? With some introspection and mental effort, I have started to enjoy this moment of not knowing where I am headed next. This way, I visualize my future whatever way I want to. At times, I think that I am going to be a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. Then I imagine myself as an educational adviser working for UNESCO in Paris. Sometimes, I visualize myself going back to Seattle and spending a few years scaling Mount Rainier and spending summery weekends by the beaches of Olympic National Park. Sometimes, I want to move to San Diego and enjoy the sun and the Pacific. Maybe I could work for the AAMC in Washington DC, since my dissertation topic is directly relevant to the medical workforce. Or I could start working on my DrPH degree on Global Health next year, and work in other continents like Africa and Latin America. And why education or public health? I could be a photographer working for Nat Geo, or better still, work for myself. I could be a writer visiting countries and writing about the lives of people. The opportunities are limitless when you have a vivid imagination. In fact, the more I visualize my imaginary future, the more I realize that imaginations spring from the heart and not from the head.
Imagination is a powerful tool to create and shape one’s future the way one wants to. We often think that external circumstances and other people shape our life events, but how often do we realize that what we become in life is a manifestation of who we imagine ourselves to be? I know I will eventually find a job, there is no denying that; if I don’t, I will probably be the only qualified person in this world who has been unable to find gainful employment, and I don’t see that happening. However, once I know where I am working, I will know, and will not be able to undo the knowing. But this moment of not knowing is beautiful too. The more I am fixated on the idea of finding a job in academia in the US, the more I see myself getting frustrated. Maybe I am not meant to be a professor in some US institution, and what is the big thing about being something or not being something anyway? Who am I to define who I should be or who I should not be? The more I imagine alternative possibilities, the more I find my fears allaying and my inhibitions dissolving. After all, the purpose of going through the graduate school journey, or of doing anything for that matter is to enjoy the ride, learn something new, meet someone unknown, learn a new skill, go to a new place, do something you have never done before, make a plan, fail, and do a better job at it, and most importantly, find happiness in what you do. I have done all this in graduate school, and to let the fag end of my journey be fraught with fears, insecurities, and frustrations would be defeating the whole purpose of educating myself in the first place.
So I tell myself every day that it’s okay to not know everything that will happen to me in the next few months. I have 16 more weeks in graduate school, and I should just focus on being done. Things have a way of falling in place and working out eventually, they always have. The end of graduate school might be the beginning of a new chapter in life, a new journey to look forward to, something that will take me to a new place, and make my life meaningful in some way. I don’t, for a moment, underestimate the power of hope and imagination for that matter.