November 05, 2009

The Path Not Taken (?)

“At first my career path seemed so set, you know. After school I’d just go to work in a firm and get a license. But now, since I’ve been studying planning, with the dual degree, I’ve got so many other things I could do. And the rest just doesn’t seem worth it. I don’t know, what are you thinking about licensure?” Andrea asked me as we walked back to Arch Hall after lunch in the warm November sunshine.

“Well, I used to think that was what I wanted. I mean, I know for certain want what a license will allow me to do, have my own practice, but I’m starting to think it’s not worth it. The typical career path is what, twenty-years doing scutt-work, moving up the ladder until you’re finally in a place to do what it is you went to school for when you’re what, fifty?”

“Yeah, and then you only design for a few years before you get shuffled off into administration,” Andrea agreed.

“And the whole internship process? Three to five years learning what they couldn’t teach me in six or seven years of school and then nine licensure exams? So I can spend most of my time working on construction documents or negotiating contracts or building little basswood models? It doesn’t seem worth it. I don’t know. What were you thinking about it?”

“I’m with you,” she agreed. “It just doesn’t seem worth it.”

Andrea and I are the last two of the dual degree architecture and planning students. There are never many of us, but I haven’t heard of any more coming up the line any time soon. We’re both disillusioned, more so every day, with the current approach to teaching and designing, but we remain steadfast in our love of architecture itself. She remains to us a beautiful woman who has allowed herself to be swayed by others into the tragedy or horrible fashion sense. She suffers from Turrets and speaks only in riddles and profanity, but every now and then turns her face up to the sun and smiles.

I ask myself again and again – why am I doing this? Why am I so much more interested in PhD programs than in practice? Am I seeking refuge in the Ivory Tower as the ‘real world’ looms large and disappointing before me? Or am I honestly convinced that there is more to learn and more good to be done walking a path other than the one I laid out for myself so long ago?

Things change. People change. Is it so difficult to believe that I might? Yet after having been so steadfast for so long, through stormy seas and steep mountains and unrelenting deserts (not to mention melodrama and angst), how can I turn away so close to the goal? Yet the goal now seems further away than ever, behind the barbed walls of the Intern Development Process (IDP) with its deadly paperwork, fiery hoops, and devious check boxes, and the scary Licensing Exams, that nine-headed serpent whose tooth-filled maws grow back if you don’t chop them all off quickly enough.

Of course, I’ve been assured that a PhD is no picnic either, yet I am absurdly looking forward to it. A new place, new city, new home! I get to study and learn! I get to do my own research! I get to figure things out for myself! I get to learn with great teachers and other awesome thinkers! Maybe, if I’m lucky, they’ll even let me teach. I always did plan to teach, even if only as an adjunct. Yeehaw! (What the hell is wrong with me?)

I keep writing about it and writing about it and writing about. I can usually write a question out, not always to an answer, but at least to an end. The more I think about it the more certain I am that my road leads to yet another Ivory Tower. Yet the more certain I am of that, the more I question myself.

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed for doing things for the right reasons. Maybe I took that aphorism about the road to hell a little too literally. I know I’ll land on my feet wherever I go. I know I’ll find a way to do something worthwhile. I always learn something wherever I am. I carry my own happiness around with me in a little mason jar. Yet for some reason this decision seems more important than most.

Well, I may be clued in quickly. Mom and I may soon be flying off to sunny Philadelphia to check out Penn and Cornell. A mother-daughter bonding experience, that college search a decade too late. Mom always wanted to see New England. I need to ask around, see who knows who, where, and network my skinny little (not so much anymore) ass off.

Because walking along in the warm November sunshine, Andrea and I shook our heads at each other in a such way that our skepticism needed no words to express.


Teacher Jim said...

Maybe your head has been spending too much time in the future. Your plan, your goals, it's only a direction. Nothing more. It's not real, it hasn't happened and much can happen between now and then, can't it. Ask, are you chasing something or running away from something? Moving in a direction with your feet firmly planted in the present should be the answer.

'Now' is important. Your classes, your teachers, your friends, your favorite coffee shop, the trees your walk past, the bicycle that puts wind in your hair, the music playing through your ears, the people and things that come into your universe right now, this very instant.

In the end, it's not the sum total of your accomplishments that define a human life, but how you lived, whether you had many or very few 'I did that' moments. Degrees, awards, jobs, licenses are really meaningless in the big scheme of things. They are just things, useful tools at times, but things just the same. Get too attached to them and they use you instead.

Maybe it's time to sit a bit more and contemplate your navel lint. [laugh] No, really, your meditation practice might be the best medicine - it's not always pleasant - but medicine never is. [smile] Sit, sit, sit.

Monica said...

I think you said something very smart there. It's very likely that I'm spending so much time planning this whole PhD path simply as something to distract myself from the constant monotony of thesisizing. I think I do need to put it down for a bit and pay attention to where I am.


Teacher Jim said...

PS. I usually don't follow my own advice. [smile] ... Jim