Goodbye Academia…. Hello ‘real’ world!

20155731_1461099997283692_982611095302017944_nIt’s been a while.

I’ve graduated, and am an official Doctor now (no, not that kind of doctor…..). I’m proud that I can use that title, and I have already used it on purpose (renting a car!) as well as by mistake. To tell a bit more about the latter, I blame the nerves. When my dentist’s assistant asked me whether it was Ms or a Mrs, I giggled ‘Well, actually, it’s Dr…!’ because I hadn’t been to the dentist in 7 years and was scared as hell. I was blushing when they called my name in the waiting room… “Dr Wolferink!?”. Slightly embarrassed I got up and ran into the treatment room. well, slighty embarrassed, and a bit proud. OK, very proud, but also still embarrassed, because who else but me (and my parents) really give a damn about that title?

I don’t think, in fact, I’ll be using the title too often, as I feel it is only really, like REALLY relevant in academia, and I have found that my path is not leading me into academia, at least not for the foreseeable future. It is with a heavy heart though, because I do love academia and everything I think it is capable of doing. At the same time, however, I dread all that academia stands for as well. It stands not only for precarious contracts for early career researchers such as myself, but all the REFs, TEFs, MEFs, and WTFs, all the ivory tower talk, and, most importantly, the focus on writing and publishing papers…… that simply isn’t me. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing (see, I’m writing right now!), but I also love DOING stuff, actually going out into the world, meeting people, talking to people, working with people. And I cannot see myself focusing on that aspect of my career when the focus is on writing and publishing, whether or not it is about my meetings with and working with people. I want to be a part of actual change rather than to write in order to inspire others to commit to action.

The lowest point, really, was when the government asked me to come and talk about my research, highly critical about current government welfare policies, to their researchers (after turning me down for that exact job…), but told me that I couldn’t be critical of government policies, and had to speak in more general terms about my research, such as by discussing methods. What’s the use of doing that kind of research if you’re not even allowed to enter the debate and collaborate towards a more inclusive society?

So I’ve been thinking, a lot, 24/7 almost, about what it is I want to do, what I should do. My fantasy career is still to open a brew pub that doubles (quadruples?) as a running hub, yoga and writing retreat, but if I’m being realistic, and ask myself ‘where do you belong?’, the answer is to go back to where it all started: social housing. It’s at the core of a lot of things, and also one of the reasons I actually went back to school again after some years of full-time working: because I knew that if I wanted to get the more exciting jobs in the (then) Dutch housing sector, I’d need some educational background and foundation to prove it. What I didn’t know then is that it would be the social thing, rather than the more technical thing (information science, to be precise) that would win me over.

Via Information Science, which I failed because of the programming and maths involved, I moved to English and got myself a BA. I got interested in the social side of the British Empire, in post-colonialism, and asked questions about whether what ‘we’ do or did actually helps the people we think we’re helping in more general terms. Via a weird but awesome detour in Human Geography, writing a thesis on Adventure Motorcycling literature, and obtaining an MSc by Research, I decided to go back to that general question and see if those people supported and helped by voluntary action indeed are helped, to see things from their point of view.

There my love for the social was really confirmed. I worked with unemployed individuals who were so much more than ‘unemployed’. They were people with lives, dreams, and fears. The most pressing fear for them was to not lose their homes, and to find employment as soon as possible. I loved working with these people, and it remembered me to think about what I value most in life, and how I want to spend my days. I don’t want to spend my days writing, and trying to get published so that some people might read how I think the world should be a better place.

Instead, I actively want to make the world a better place, I want to work with people who have a home, who do not have a home yet, or who are afraid to lose their home. I want to work with communities, and to make them feel empowered and valued, and taken seriously. So, yes, I think it’s time to go back to my roots. Keep the family thing alive (as both my parents work in Social Housing, in the Netherlands), and focus on real world connections and a real world career. I loved academia, I really did, I’m glad I did it, and my PhD has taught me a shed load of things, I’m all the better for it, but the most important thing it has taught me is that I cannot be myself in academia.

Today I became a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing, I got invited to a job interview for an amazing front-line role that I saw an hour after the deadline, and wrote a cover letter for in 15 minutes as a Hail Mary. I hope I get the job, obviously, but now that I know where I want to go, I’m much more relaxed and excited rather than stressed and nervous about next week’s interview.

I’ve made my choice. For the first time in months I have an idea of where I’m going, and if feels awesome.

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