“Sorry, we don’t have a provision to grant you a six-month leave. At most, we can allow for three weeks,” the college administration said when I applied for a semester break.
For certain personal reasons, I had to go to the US for six months. At that time, I was an associate professor in the statistics department at a well-known university in Bangalore. With my qualification, experience, publications and other academic credentials, I was a “good faculty” according to industry standards.
However, there was nothing I could do except put in my papers. The decision was not easy – I had worked very hard to gain a foothold at the institution. This was also the place where I found many well-wishers amongst my colleagues. When I quit, some were worried about the money I’d be losing over the next few years till my retirement, and some were concerned about me having to start all over again. Yet others felt angry that the administration wasn’t simply sanctioning the leave, especially as I had not asked for a paid one. There were also a few who felt that I should fight it out, wondering how I’d cope without a job.
Finances were thankfully not a problem anymore, but there was still a long way to go in terms of my career span – another six-and-a half years until retirement and probably another ten years after that – the university allows for post-superannuation work. So, yes, with this decision, I was going to suffer a financial loss as well as the perks that came with retiring from the institute.
However, to my own surprise, I was calm.
It did hurt a bit that I was seen as dispensable. But along with it came the awareness that we are all, after all, just a part of our workplaces and are, more or less, dispensable. Any institution, big or small, will always be more significant than any individual. Similar thoughts crossed my mind when I had moved out of a yet another big institution, again due to personal reasons. I had seen many experienced employees leaving the place, and witnessed how quickly the organisation moved on.
Besides these realisations that dawn on me every now and then, I learnt many other things while working as an academician. I learnt the art of balancing home and work, family and paper valuations – two kids and the many more at college. I grew from a lecturer to a mentor, from a teacher to a friend.
However, the last institution that I was a part of made me realise that I needed to pull up my socks and update myself. I was the proverbial ‘frog in the well’ who had become complacent with my job, salary, kids and home. When I looked at my colleagues, I realised that I still had a lot to accomplish. So I decided to go for further studies and research, hoping that it would make me a new person, and help me scale the academic ladder. I learnt to push and market myself. I networked and got to speak at conferences and seminars. I was the resource person, rather than just being a participant.
With time, I completed my MPhil as well as the PhD. The path, however, was tough and thorny, also because I was nearing my 50s. Undeterred, I learnt new software tools and tried to keep up with new developments in my field.
After I sent my resignation letter, I did feel a sense of relief. For the first time in life, I was ‘jobless’. But there was no time to think. America beckoned and I moved to fulfil some personal responsibilities. My family was my priority. My little grandson made sure that I didn’t have a minute’s time to brood or worry.
A couple of months later, I started getting offers – for online coaching, consultation and other statistical work – and I took one up. Initially, it was a little daunting, as I was used to only working for someone else. I didn’t know how to quote my price or list out conditions. But being in the Silicon Valley, meeting entrepreneurs and most importantly, having a daughter working there brought a huge difference to my overall outlook. If my little girl could be her own boss and progress so much, why couldn’t I? Baby steps maybe, but in the right direction.
In the meantime, I continued my literary pursuits – I wrote articles, short stories and serialised novels. I didn’t have to explain to anyone that writing is my stress buster. It made me feel alive, feel light. I wrote a lot, close to seven-eight articles in a month. Plus working on my two-book contract with a renowned publisher, participating in webinars, handling workshops and so on ensured that I wasn’t totally cut off from the academic world.
So, I reinvented myself. The break gave me enough time to introspect and understand that I no longer have to run around like a headless chicken. That I can take it easy and do as I wish.
I want to now spend the remainder of my life doing what pleases me the most.
Dr Sahana Prasad is currently in the US.