On partnering a prof and academic survival: A social worker’s perspective

IMG_0027Editor’s note: This first guest post comes to us courtesy of my partner, a fantastic social worker who has accompanied me to two university towns as I pursued graduate school and my first job. I am interested in his perspective here because I often wonder what it’s like for him to be plunked into a new environment that is at first dependent on my professional life (we do talk about this privately, but having these conversations in public are also important). I think it’s crucial that I acknowledge here that his constant support is a large part of the reason I successfully finished my doctorate, found employment, and have been able to have a child pre-tenure. I know that this is an enormous privilege and one that is not awarded to everyone, and I would like to be able to tackle that as a separate post – it is not my story to tell, but it might be yours, and I would like to hear from you!

I was sitting around my living room this week chatting with my partner of 12 years and her mother about work, careers, and life in general. We were on the topic of the adjunct/sessional professor system in academia, and began discussing how many people find themselves in part-time employment because they are in a relationship with another academic and trying to live within the same vicinity of one another. My partner stated that she started writing her blog to help her think about issues such as these. I chimed in, as I so often do, with a sarcastic quip about every professor needing a social worker as a partner and how she should write a post about this for her blog. She then suggested that I stop the “oh so important task of editing my fantasy football team” and write the post myself. Since I am still waiting for a trade for my quarter back and running back I thought I would give it a shot.

First, a little history. Early on in my tenure as an academic’s partner I found myself in new circles of friends who were in her program of study. I, not being an academic, had less in common than she did with our newfound social circle, until I noticed that like me, other ‘sheep’ had followed their academic partners from far and wide to the same town. I found mutual ground over pints of beer with these folks, including a group of men who were partners with some of her grad school colleagues and donned the moniker BOAHS (Boyfriends of Art History Students), and women who were also in travelling social worker-academic partnerships and helped me to settle in when we moved for my partner’s job.

When my partner was in graduate school, I was completing my social work degree, and like any student, I needed to test my skills outside of the classroom. What I soon found was that the academy provided a bevy of opportunities to use my knowledge as a helping professional while at the same time it helped me to build my relationship with MP (My Prof). I will explain why in the style of my favourite movie, High Fidelity: the top-5 list of social worker tips for academics.

1. Social workers are transferable

It was not that we planned it this way. We both chose career paths and made choices to continue to make our relationship work. But as MP decided to pursue a PhD after her Master’s in order to follow the academic career path, we realized that we were not going to be able to stay in the same town that we had lived in for the last 6 years and where I found my first job in my field. The job market that MP found herself in at the completion of her doctorate limited our choices quite a bit, because she had to go where the jobs were. I had been working in my field for three years at that point, which came with a regular 9-5 routine and a steady paycheque. I suddenly needed to uproot from the only ‘real’ job I had ever had and try to find employment in another province or country. However, I quickly realized that, perhaps not surprisingly, there were many positions for social workers out there. I learned that I had transferrable skills! (Social worker tip: when you find yourself applying for jobs to and fro in unknown places, try to also consider what the place has to offer outside of your job. Yes, you need employment, and it’s a precarious labour market out there. But you also need to be happy and content where you end up. Considering your needs along with those of other people in your life who will be affected by a big move is an important factor.)

2. Social workers can counsel you and your friends

As stated above, I had occasion during my time as an academic’s partner to test my social work skills and provide counsel to many a graduate student and junior faculty member (unofficially of course, and usually over a pint of beer). Even more so, I had opportunity to practice on MP. I cannot say that MP always enjoyed this process. I have often heard her say, “If you don’t stop social working me I am going to punch you in the face.” It was not until I totally social worked her without her knowing it that I knew I had arrived as a competent practitioner. As academics, you grapple with big ideas and people with even bigger heads. Internal and interpersonal conflict is in abundance. Guess who is trained to listen for hours and hours on end, with the patience of a Saint and the perspective of a predatory bird (distanced, expansive, focused)? Social workers! (Social worker tip: mental health is important, not only to your success as an academic, but also for your own personal fulfillment and wellbeing. Consider reaching out to your university HR to see what counseling services they offer. Or look up a list of helping professionals in your area. Even if you are fortunate enough not to struggle with serious mental health issues, we all need support and helping professionals can do this when your parent/partner/friends can’t.)

3. Social workers must have flexible schedules

Have you ever needed to hand something in at your department before the office closes in 10 minutes, but you live too far away to walk and your social worker partner has the only car? MP sure has. No worries! Social workers usually have pretty flexible schedules. We thrive on changes in our day. We have to adapt to crisis and solve high stakes problems, often with short notice or preparation. Short of hiring a driver, having a social worker in your corner can be pretty handy in a pinch. When you have been up until 3am writing and a letter or application or package has to be mailed, delivered, or carrier pigeoned out in a timely manner you are going to want someone who can drop what they are doing and respond. You work on the marathon-like writing endurance, I got this, baby! (Social worker tip: see below)

4. Social workers need stress relieving hobbies and one of them is often cooking

Academics work some of the craziest hours of any profession. Not everyone works the same way, of course, but whether you are secluded in an archive, huddled in your office for hours, laptopping at a Starbucks until the staff has to throw you out with your Grande Mochafrappechinolatte, or in a lab where you never see the light of day, you need to get in a good meal now and then. I already mentioned that social workers must have flexible schedules, but did I also mention that we are usually home for dinner most nights and that cooking helps us to relieve stress? I have enjoyed many delicious meals that MP has prepared, usually post-thesis, post-book chapter or post-something-that-causes-her-to-turn-her-back-on-societal-norms (showering, sleeping, going outside, etc.). But in those darker times such as when she has been dissertating, book writing, or jumping through some kind of promotion hoop, I have kept the fires burning with lovin’ from the oven. (Social worker tip: try to set up a community of care for yourself in the dark times around food and the running of time-sensitive errands, in much the same way that one would for new parents. You need the nutrients and you need the stress-relief. Maybe you and a friend can make a deal to drive each other to appointments, courier pick-up locations, and offsite meetings, or at least to be one another’s local “in case of emergency” – broadly understood – person. Often your fellow academics will be in the same boat if they’ve move to a new place for school or work and they don’t have family and friends around to help them.)

5. Social workers can always top your “I had a bad day” story

“Oh, you had a bad day of work? You only typed how many words today? I notice that you are still in your pajamas and are wrapped in a blanket on the couch. My day? Well, I experienced horrible human tragedy at 10am, did some paperwork until lunch, then had my heart ripped in half at 3pm.“

I often one-up MP in the “had a bad day” category. Social work is a high demand, high stress, high reward kind of job. One evening MP asked me to tell her about my day and to try to discuss what was bothering me (I think she wanted to reciprocate the mental-health support). I thought about it for a minute and decided to tell her what I could about what I experienced that day, without breaking confidentiality. After I finished, she was quiet for a few minutes. She exclaimed, “Why would you tell me that? I am not going to sleep now.” Suffice to say, I don’t share as much any more, or at least I try to edit myself better with the knowledge that my stress is of a very particular nature and that it is not necessarily well-understood outside my profession.

I have come to believe that every job has its misunderstood stresses. For the person experiencing the stress, it is not helpful to make comparisons or to try and differentiate one person’s stress from another. It’s not a contest; stress is stress. But the stress of academia, like social work, is often not that well grasped outside the academy. I have watched the rigor with which MP and many of our academic friends approach their jobs and the pressures they are under personally and professionally because of it. What I have taken away from observing others’ stress and its causes professionally, however, is an appreciation for the vast array of coping skills people exhibit in dealing with it. This has also caused me to reflect on how I cope with my own stress. I guess my point is that focusing on who had the worse day is not really beneficial to anyone, but learning what was bad about someone else’s day can help put into perspective yours and make you appreciate and admire that person for the lesson. (Social worker tip: try to talk about your stress to people who work outside of your immediate environment. They may not always understand the particulars of what you’re going through, but they may be able offer some perspective on it because they operate with distance from the problem. It’s important to get at what’s bothering you, but you can risk ending up in a cycle of stress if the only people you lean on for support are in the next office over.)

In conclusion, I must state the obvious and say that not every academic will fall in love with a social worker. My musings are more of an icebreaker to get all you serious bloggers out there guest posting for MP. So have at it, folks!

  1. I agree 100%. But why haven’t the social workers we know hooked up this prof yet? Great article my friend.

  2. Scott Preston said:

    Don’t mean to social work you, but making a trade in Week 3 is a sure sign of panic. You should take a step back, take a deep breath, and at least wait until the Bye Weeks begin. (PS – Nice post!)

  3. amanda said:

    Love this! Love it so much! Way to post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: