There was a time, not too many years ago, when I feared that I had lost my way – failed at my dream of being a professor of archaeology and conducting research the rest of my life. With passion for my subject matter, and a healthy dose of narcissism, I had always wanted to contribute meaningfully to the discourse – any discourse – of knowledge generation. Leaving academia, and focusing instead on scientific grant-making, seemed like an excellent alternative, in which I could support and celebrate other people’s research and thus contribute in a different way.
It has been almost five years since I took my position as a grants officer at the National Geographic Society, and I am still proud of the work I do. But at some point, all the applications started to sound the same; all the reports read like any other; and I found it harder and harder to get excited about the research I was helping to fund. I realized that I needed a change – I needed to feel challenged again, and to feel like I was making a difference – and I wasn’t sure in which direction to go.
One would think that having a PhD opens doors, but in reality, it often shuts more than it opens. I remember being told by my mother, an executive at a major accounting firm, that PhDs are last on her list when they apply for positions, because she finds PhDs unable to produce the requested product at the requested time. More often, she explained, she gets an in-depth treatise on something tangential handed to her many days after the product was due. Sound familiar? It’s true that graduate school trains us to think broadly and deeply, but not succinctly nor in a timely manner!
As I considered my options for “something new,” I found myself contemplating two options: higher ed administration (would becoming a Dean be selling out?) or government (definitely selling out). I began exploring these options about 6 months ago – reading job descriptions (even applied for some), setting up informational meetings with people whose jobs I covet, etc. – but I didn’t find anything that appealed to me. At the same time, work managed to dump three new major initiatives in my hands: a new $4 million grant program in East Africa; leadership of an internal think-tank on archaeology and paleontology; and the development of a new “purpose project” to get NGS involved in the fight to save cultural heritage around the world. Any one of these projects would have been doubling my work-load… all three loaded onto my plate at the same time caused an epic personal and professional meltdown! I somehow survived, and didn’t screw them up completely due to some fantastic co-workers who stepped in to help, but it reaffirmed my need to move on.
I think the defining moment that helped me decide my path occurred this past Spring, when I co-organized an archaeology conference at Peking University in Beijing, China. The conference was meant to be both an academic and a publicly-facing dialogue about ancient civilizations and what we can learn from them. The event brought archaeologists from around the world to Beijing, Shanghai, and Anyang to share new discoveries and debate theories relevant to modern issues such as urbanization, class division, environmental degradation, and cultural heritage destruction.
As I sat in the audience, listening to Chinese, Indian, Guatemalan, American, German, Japanese, and British archaeologists present their papers and ask interesting questions of each other, I realized that I had evolved from being ‘just’ an academic. Instead of merely contributing to the discourse of knowledge generation, I was actively creating the discourse – providing opportunities for my colleagues and friends to learn from each other in ways that they would never have imagined. At the same time, I am actively engaging the public in this discourse in order to tear down the “ivory tower” walls that for so long have encouraged the rise of climate change deniers, anti-vaccine advocates, and GMO fear-mongering.
So where am I today, one year after my blog post? Exactly where I was before, but with a new understanding of what I can and will do with my life. There is talk of moving me over to expand our new cultural heritage initiative – a move that I would relish – but I haven’t stopped looking around at my options outside of NGS either. It can’t be that bad being a Dean, right?
Start from the beginning – Read Christopher P. Thornton’s “Week in the Life”
Christopher P. Thornton | National Geographic Society
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