WARNING: This is a long and slightly personal post. Enter at your own risk.
The other day, a friend and colleague of mine commented on the double life I am leading. I laughed and have spent the past few days realizing how very true it is. Today I gave a talk on campus to another department on campus and we had a great conversation about food, agriculture, China, etc. They also were very interested in my career trajectory and asked about my future plans. Ugh. I hate planning my future out.
Right after college, I could have predicted what I would be doing in my life over the next decade or so. I wanted to travel and learn about life and about the world. I was on a mission by myself and for myself. I did not allow myself to be held back by getting settled--in relationships or with material things so I could pick up and go. I wanted to earn my PhD to prove to myself what I could do.
Now that I have completed my PhD, everyone in my academic life (like the people at the talk today) expect me to keep being engaged in this research. However, the more I am in an academic post-doc position, the more I question whether or not I want to be in an academic career for the rest of my life. There are a lot of amazing things my job offers that I do not get in other careers: flexibility of time, freedom to think, teach, and write as I please (within reason), intellectual conversations, lifelong learning, etc.. But it also comes with a cutthroat environment where full-time, tenure track jobs are difficult to get, pressure to publish constantly and get research grants often, and you do not have much choice over where you live. If a university offers you a job, you take it, even if it means in rural Iowa (I actually love Iowa and don't mean to offend anyone, but let's face it - life in rural Iowa is not as exciting as other places).
After more than a decade of moving from China to Maine, Colorado, back to China, and now New Jersey, I am getting antsy to settle down. The first step of this was getting a dog. Then I met D. And now I want a house (with a garden!) and maybe even a family. While there are plenty of women who have handled the pressures of academic jobs with personal life, I am not sure I want to multi-tasking. An academic job often means working 60+ hours a week during semesters and it is difficult to leave your work behind. It is really hard to separate work life from home life in an academic career. I was able to feel good about the work I was doing towards my PhD because, to some extent, I did not have many other things happening in my life.
So right now my two lives are: 1) an academic job where everyone expects me to continue doing research, which requires more travelling and publishing a lot and 2) my life with D in Colorado, my running, basically everything that I enjoy doing. I could (easily, I hope) find a job in a place where I want to be and not have to worry about trying to balance work and life and I could have a more fulfilling life. But it would not be the kind of job all the faculty I currently work with are expecting me to get. And I would probably have to give up a lot of the freedoms of an academic career.
The pressure I feel from this double life is coming from all the faculty I work with who expect me to get a permanent academic position. I took this position in NJ because it was a prestigious fellowship and all my faculty advisors in Colorado told me I should take it because it would be great for my career. Now faculty here expect me to get an equally prestigious permanent position at a university. The more I see this, I realize I am continuing down an academic path because it is what others expect of me, not myself.
So I don't know what the future holds, but the more I think about it, the more I realize I have to do what is right for me, just as I did when I was fresh out of college and joined the Peace Corps so I could travel and see the world.