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Running Through It: Sarah + Career Transition

Finishing the dissertation is just the beginning! Ph.D. graduation, 6 months pregnant, and feeling invincible. (Seven hours into the ceremony, feet will be swollen and invincibility will have faded a bit.)


[[Today, as we return to the Running Through It series, Sarah, a Massachusetts-based #motherrunner, talks about abandoning her original career dreams—and how running has brought clarity to her situation.]]

Letting go of my first career: that’s what I’m running through right now.

Until June 30th, 2018, I had a title: College Fellow in Italian. I taught college and graduate courses in Italian literature; I wrote; I went to conferences; and, because every position at my level is a limited appointment, I applied for jobs constantly. When I got my Ph.D. in 2015, I assumed I would spend a couple of years doing this, but I had no idea how much it would eventually wear me down.

Sometime this past winter, I began to fantasize with growing seriousness about making the conscious decision to end the agonizing process of putting myself out there —and being rejected—over and over.

That decision took the form of buying our first house this summer. My husband has been quietly scrolling through Zillow for years, hoping that my career would take us somewhere where we could finally settle down. University of Alabama is hiring? Look at these gorgeous homes in Tuscaloosa! Whenever I applied for a job, he scouted listings, and we told ourselves that as long as we could be flexible, that tenure-track position would eventually come.

Sometime this past winter, I felt ready to say how tired I was of being flexible. I started participating in the Zillow fantasizing, and soon the prospect of roots, stability, and staying in one place longer than two years fired me up more than any job posting I had seen in months. In June, we closed on our beautiful condo.

It's on a quiet street in an awesome neighborhood with kids my daughter’s age next door who invite her to swing on their swing set whenever we walk by. We have a lawn to mow and way too much cilantro growing on the porch. This sweet, comfortable new home also means the end of applying for jobs nationwide, the end of being ready to move at the drop of a hat. And that's ok. It is time to be done, to give myself to other areas of my life, and to find new work that makes me feel valued again. The indefinite uncertainty of the academic life is no longer right for me, regardless of how successful I may or may not have had the potential to be.

In retrospect, though, I can see that I wasn’t ready to leave academia until I could believe I was worth something more than the lines on my CV. I had to cultivate that belief within myself.

Love from the outside has always been in abundant supply, thanks to my wonderful family and friends. But love from the inside? That’s harder for me to come by. It has, thankfully, grown out of running.

I started running in 2005, around the same time I enrolled in Beginning Italian. I had no prior history with either, but college turned out to be a time of discovering new things and falling in love with them. My husband came along in 2005, too: a tall bass-player dude with long hair who seemed like the least likely person for me to date. We worked, though, in part because I had so much in my life to sustain me. My Italian professors treated my running as a reliable constant, composing sample sentences in class such as “Sarah ran this morning, Sarah will run tomorrow morning – right, Sarah?”

August 2015: teaching summer school in Tuscany, huffing and puffing my way to the top of the tower at the top of the hill at 32 weeks pregnant.  Luckily, I had a spotter: college boyfriend—now husband—somehow still around!”

I was always running, in all tenses. As I ran, I would find myself almost absentmindedly translating song lyrics into Italian, only realizing it when I got stuck on a difficult verse that just wouldn’t resolve itself.

Falling in love with Italian and running (and the boyfriend, for that matter) brought a quiet worry that I might somehow lose them, through laziness or inertia or some other character deficiency. Yet, every day I woke up and there they were.

When I went to Ferrara, Italy, for a semester of my junior year, I began training for the Florence marathon. In 18 weeks of training, I did not skip a single run. Marathon day (November 26th, 2006) was one of the best days of my life, and I remember telling myself as it unfolded to hold onto every moment for as long as possible.

From somewhere before the halfway point all the way to the finish line, I ran alongside two U.S. army guys stationed in Italy, the first Americans I had been around in months. We quoted favorite TV shows and thrived on the warm familiarity we found together. After mile 20, things got pretty quiet, and then around mile 23, one of my new friends admitted that if it hadn’t been for me, he would have stopped to walk long before that point. I don’t remember their names, we didn’t take a photo together (who would run a marathon with a camera?), and after a finish-line high-five, we parted ways.

Università degli Studi di Ferrara, where I spent 6 months running, studying and running.

Since that day, I have run and run and run in search of all the feelings the Florence Marathon gave me. I was tough, I did know how to work hard. Most importantly, my tenacity and my belief in myself had actually helped another person believe in himself and keep going. Feeling these feelings alongside other people is what I love about running, and though I have lost sight of it a few times over the years, the struggles of my professional life have made it abundantly clear how much I need it.

When I started running, I didn’t even dare to hope that I would still be doing it 10 years later, but there I was in January of 2015 running a half marathon in South Florida, where I had continued running despite living in the climate of my nightmares. (Floridians who run, I eternally salute you.)

Then, two weeks later, I learned I was pregnant. Over the following nine months, I finished my doctoral dissertation in Italian literature; graduated with my Ph.D.; taught summer study abroad in Italy for two months; gave birth to a baby girl; and began applying for academic jobs everywhere in the country. As parenthood consumed my body and my brain, I covered it up for the job market. I wrote cover letters, created course syllabi from scratch, presented at conferences, conducted interviews over Skype, and got my first several rejections.

First job interview postpartum, January 2016 - suck in your tummy, pretend you're not lactating and you got this! Worth it for a hotel room to myself for 2 nights, even if I was still waking up at midnight to pump.

I hadn’t been able to run for most of my pregnancy, but by November of 2015 it was time to climb out of the hole of worthlessness I was in: Despite my exhaustion, I struggled into a two-sports-bra-getup and went out to jog through the steamy Florida heat for just a little while, a couple of mornings a week. Around the same time, a dear friend recommended a podcast called Another Mother Runner, and in Dimity and Sarah’s conversations I heard strains of the life that I wanted back.

Rosalind Ann, decked out in her mom's medals.

At the time, I thought I was running for postpartum weight loss and regaining fitness; what I see now is how badly I needed to believe in myself again.

As running slowly came back to me, I began to understand how little my profession was contributing to my self-worth. I was accepted for a postdoctoral fellowship in Boston, and I got to do all the things I love: teaching, advising, seeing students come into themselves in ways that reflected my own intellectual discoveries in college. With a firm two-year cap on that position, though, I was still on the job market 100% of the time.

Each new application drew my eye right to my deficiencies: publications lacking, too much language teaching, not enough prestigious fellowships. In truth, I had existed this way for years, with the positive, affirming environment of my classroom dissolving as soon as I got back to my office and started working on cover letters again.

The time I spent with my students loving my job was nowhere near equivalent to the time I spent feeling depleted and not good enough. I tried everything I could to reframe my thinking and believe in myself. Bottom line? Do better. Always: Do better.

Had I achieved success earlier in the form of a long-term job, I think I would still be facing this lack of equilibrium. This realization pushed me to declare that it was time to be done.

There is nothing that floods me with satisfaction and joy like a hard race where I leave nothing in the tank.  Left, Nov 2016, my first half-marathon postpartum and my first race medal shared with this girl!  Right, Nov 2017, feeling on top of the world just after crushing a 4-mile PR that I originally set in 2007.

I am still coming to terms with the end of that cycle. Some days, I feel light, free, open, excited for the first time in years about the uncertainty ahead. Other days, I feel failed, rejected, weak, and like a disappointment to so many people. I love Italian as much as I ever have, and I have always loved connecting with others over literature – why couldn’t I make it work?  I could have stuck it out for one more year, revised my book again, written more articles, continued applying to every job out there, but I wasn’t brave/strong/tenacious/[whatever adjective I want to beat myself with] enough.

Running has been here all along, quietly saying “nope” to all of that. With every mile, it tells me I am more than enough. I’m ready to listen to it now.

Have you Run Through It—a challenging situation or stage in life—at some point? We want to hear from you!

Write up your essay (no more than 1,200 words, please), then email it to us. We'll be in touch when we can publish it. Thanks!

7 responses to “Running Through It: Sarah + Career Transition

  1. Thank you, dear Sarah and darling Ros, for my birthday present. I’m just sorry that I left it open as a tab in Chrome for like 2 weeks before reading it. I’m so proud of you every day. I want to be you when I grow up. And I REALLY want to hug Ros again, read books with her, sing songs, etc. Congrats on the house, the PR, getting to mow your own lawn, and listening to the GOOD that is within you. Many hugs.

  2. Just a quick note from a fellow academic, to say IT IS NOT YOU!!! Higher ed is changing and it is a big systemic economic thing. Thanks for sharing your story, and good luck in your new path.

  3. Your story is sincere and well-written. Best of luck to you. Thank you for sharing. I am making a huge change in my career and feel very scared at times. So every bit of anyone else’y similar experience is very supporting for me. I don’t have time to run now as much as I would like but I am still a runner!

  4. So much of your story resonates with me. My daughters were born while I earned my graduate degrees. I went to class to grade final presentations the day after my second daughter was born. For my 30th birthday I turned in the final draft of my dissertation. For my 40th birthday I ran the Big Sur marathon and qualified for Boston. When my career path started going in unexpected directions I channeled a lot of energy into my running. It was the one thing I could plan and control. I rarely comment but just wanted to encourage you to be more wise than I’ve been as my personal identity shifted from being an academic to being a runner. After Boston I had only 20% mobility in my lower back. When my identity became tied to running, I stopped listening to my body and pushed through the pain so I could achieve my goals. I’m working with an amazing physical therapist who’s made it possible for me to run pain free again. And I’ve started doing triathlons to cross train and balance things out more. The thing I’m still working on is believing I’m enough, no matter what my pace is or where my career goes. Brene Brown’s books are helping with that though. Happy running!

  5. I feel so many parallels with your story. I recently earned my master’s degree with the idea that I will work in higher ed, but after a year of applying and interviewing, I’m still unemployed. Feeling the pressure to make this investment start paying off. Feeling the sting of repeated rejection, even from jobs I don’t really want. It’s tough to hear that unemployment is going down, for the country, but not for me… Training for my first Olympic Tri with the TLAM club has been a lifeline to staying focused on something I am successful at. Something that doesn’t require validation from anyone else. Thanks for your essay. A reminder that I’m not alone.

  6. This is a beautiful piece. You have a beautiful family and congrats on the PR. To be able to speak a language, especially Italian is wonderful! I, too, am facing a transition in my career and at my age, feel like I should know what I want to do when I grow up. However, it doesnt work that way! It’s always a learning process but one thing I know, you’re a smart, gifted and amazing person. Keep pushing and you will find your place!

  7. Transitions are so hard & confusing! I’m so grateful that you’re sharing your experience. Sometimes, when “it feels bad,” I’m tempted to believe it’s my fault somehow. You’re such a great example to me, because I can see your accomplishments & talents so clearly. If *you* are going through such a desert of validation, it must just be a part of life!! I will await the next chapter of your story!

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