Last summer, I picked many pounds of fresh sugar snap and snow peas, ate them every day for weeks, gave them to friends and neighbors, and even donated some to be sold by a local charitable group. The plethora of peas wasn't unusual; I grow plenty of peas every year. What really set this summer apart was the corn, carrots, zucchini, potatoes, greens, beans, tomatoes, beets, and winter squash--crops I don't usually grow, at least not in such quantity.
Why the extra large harvest? This summer was the first in decades that I wasn't tied to a job, so I could spend as much time as I wanted in my garden.
In January 2008, I learned that my application for tenure in the physics department at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, had been denied. My department had supported my application, so it remained a congenial place to work. That meant I felt able to stay on at Colby for the year and a half remaining in my term while I figured out what to do next. My term ended last academic year, and I still haven't made any career decisions. And since then, I and all of my neighbors have been eating lots of peas and other fresh vegetables.
As a professor, I found my interactions with students immensely rewarding. I loved seeing students get excited about independent research projects, rise to the challenge of writing a scientific paper, master a particularly tough physics problem, or simply get the math to come out right. I enjoyed my own research, having found a niche where I could make a contribution even from a small college with a relatively heavy teaching load.
So after I had been rejected, I applied for some academic positions, setting aside my reservations about restarting an academic career at age 54. I need not have worried; none of the academic jobs panned out. I focused instead--happily--on moving to New Hampshire to join my partner, Steve, for the first time in our 6-year relationship.
Also in Science Careers this week:
- Special Feature: Getting--and Not Getting--Tenure. Science Careers describes how to get tenure--and what some people do when they don't.
- "Perspective: Advice on Achieving Tenure." An expert on tenure describes best practices for getting tenure.
- "Life After Rejection." You've been denied tenure--now what?
Uprooting myself from Maine wasn't easy, but since my move last summer, I have become content with my new life. We have an off-grid solar-powered house in a very rural area of New Hampshire. We heat primarily with wood and, of course, grow lots of vegetables. Keeping up with the vegetables, maintaining the house and outbuildings, building a new woodshed, upgrading the photovoltaic system, improving the soil, and expanding the garden keeps us busy! My previous training as a carpenter has come in handy: I had 6 years of on-the-job training and experience with a co-op building company in North Carolina before returning to school to study physics. I am gratified to find that I still have aptitude with a hammer and circular saw, if not quite the physical endurance I once had. I'm happy here.
I do intend to seek a job locally--but what kind of job? Academic job searches are rarely local, and the job market in rural New Hampshire for Ph.D.-level physicists is not exactly robust. Full-time construction work would be too hard on me physically. Anyway, I left construction many years ago because it didn't interest me as a career.
The current recession provides a good excuse for postponing my job search. My lifestyle has always been frugal, so I can afford to be unemployed for a while. I expect to spend at least a few more months occupied with the chores of rural life, doing small building projects, and taking the occasional day off to hike in the White Mountains. I should have at least a few more days of the extraordinary fall colors. Meanwhile, I'll daydream about new and better vegetables and plan for next summer's garden while considering my future.
As I contemplate another career change, I admit to a lurking sense of unease. How much will I miss science and my students? And then there's the question of my identity, which seems difficult to pin down. If not a physicist or a carpenter, what am I? The most consistent factor in my life has been growing peas. Perhaps I'll become a farmer of peas.
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Physicist Virginia Long is contemplating her next career move.