When I enrolled at Yale University in September 1984, I was undecided between majoring in mathematics or political science. That decision was made much easier by my less-than-stellar performance in Math 230, then a required freshman math course. Beyond the objective difficult of the class, there are other reasons why I did not do as well in that course as I would have preferred: a horrible case of mononucleosis in my first semester which sent me home for three weeks, a tumultuous relationship with an older (sophomore!) woman, adjusting to life in a very large pond in which I was an average-sized-at-best fish, and so forth.
Political science it was.
During my sophomore year I was fortunate to take two courses with Professor Edward Tufte, who then became my faculty advisor.
Political science majors at Yale in the 1980s (and probably now) selected a “concentration” (American politics, comparative politics, political philosophy, etc.). As many earlier posts suggest, my choice was “American politics.”
This is why, in the spring of 1986, I met with Professor Tufte (over slices at Naples Pizzeria, if memory serves) and told him that I would like to concentrate in American politics.
His response had two parts.
First…”If you really want to concentrate in American politics, just read the New York Times and Washington Post every day.”
Second…”You should introduce yourself to David Mayhew.”
I smiled at the first part, recognizing Professor Tufte’s gently sardonic contrarianism. I also understood what he meant. While the academic American politics literature is rich, one could argue that all one really needs to know about how American politics actually works can be found in those two newspapers. In fact, when I briefly lived in Washington, D.C. after graduating from Yale, I subscribed to both and read them assiduously.
Still, rules were rules, so I chose to concentrate in American politics.
The second part was another matter entirely. Working with Professor Edward Tufte was already a high honor. Imagine being an aspiring young actor/actress and being mentored directly by, say, Kevin Spacey or Natalie Portman.
Now imagine Kevin Spacey or Natalie Portman were to say to you, “OK, if you really want to learn about acting, then introduce yourself to Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep.”
In this scenario, your gender is irrelevant; either Spacey or Portman could be telling you to introduce yourself to Day-Lewis or Streep.
The point is made either way: it was a terrifying and exhilarating prospect.
I don’t remember how long after this conversation I plucked up the courage to follow Professor Tufte’s advice, but here is all you need to know:
A little over 20 years later, Professor David Mayhew attended my wedding.
This being a data-driven storytelling blog, just bear with me while I briefly discuss an economic concept called the labor force participation rate: “the number of employed and unemployed but looking for a job as a percentage of the population aged 16 years and over.” As of May 2017, the U.S. labor force participation rate was 62.7%, down from 65-67% in the 1980s and 1990s.
This “labor force” concept is important because it forces us to recognize that many adults (if you define a person older than 15 as an “adult”) are neither working nor looking for work. Most of them are retired or choose not to work to stay home with young children and/or pursue other goals.
But it also means that 40.0% of Americans aged 16 and older (37.3% not in the labor force plus 2.7% unemployed) do not have a pithy answer at hand to the question “What do you do?”
Actually, given the rapidly changing nature of American employment (the days of the lifelong company or union job may be over), it is a complicated question even if you are working, because what you do for a living may not be condensable into a concise soundbite.
It is also, however, one of the very first questions Americans ask someone they have just met, as this thoughtful 2014 piece in The Guardian asserts.
This question—this glimpse into how Americans identify themselves to themselves—is one I have struggled with for years, partly because my own jobs have often resisted concise description. For example, when I worked as a “Quality Researcher/Statistician” at the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership in Boston, simply stating that title provided little insight into what I actually DID on a daily basis. I was essentially a kind of in-house statistician/epidemiologist, and I assisted on and/or coordinated a series of data-driven projects related to mental health diagnoses over time and blah blah blah blah blah.
Admit it. Your eyes are already glazing over a bit.
But my struggle was far more than just “my career is difficult to describe pithily.”
No, my struggle had more to do with how my own view of myself has evolved over time, and it can be summarized as the eventual realization that I am not my resume.
In fact, nobody is.
In May 2017, Professor Mayhew turned 80, which he celebrated (in part) by releasing a new book, The Imprint of Congress. As has been his custom since I worked as a research assistant for him 30 years ago, he thoughtfully sent me an inscribed copy.
Not to sound like a shill for my mentor and friend, but I recommend the book. It is a quick and engaging read written in Mayhew’s uniquely appealing conversational style, a refreshing change from the soulless formalism of too much academic writing.
He also celebrated turning 80 by brunching with my youngest daughter and me. Another custom of his is to greet me with the amiable question, “How are you? Are you thriving?”
It turns out, that question was both very easy and very hard to answer.
I spent six years pursuing a doctorate in government, focusing on American electoral geography, at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Yale Professor Mayhew graciously agreed to serve on my doctoral committee.
For…reasons…I resigned from that program after six years ABD (all-but-doctorate), though I did recently apply for, and receive, a Master’s Degree (A.M.) in Government from Harvard.
Not too shabby, as consolation prizes go.
After a year-plus of “now what the hell do I do?” I landed my first health-related data analysis job at Health and Addictions Research, Inc. (HARI) in Boston (long since folded into the Heller School at Brandeis University). I now look back at that job as one of the three best jobs I ever had. That job is where I met a woman who (along with her husband) remains one of my closest friends. It was also the start of a 19-year career applying (and expanding) my quantitative skills to public health and/or healthcare and/or disease treatment and prevention.
For eight of those years, I simultaneously pursued a Master’s Degree in biostatistics and (successfully, this time) a PhD in epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), while marrying and helping to raise two delightful young daughters.
If you are counting at home, that means a BA in political science from Yale, an AM in government from Harvard, a MA in biostatistics from BUSPH and a PhD in epidemiology from BUSPH.
I am, naturally, proud of these degrees and of my career.
But when I say “I am not my resume,” I mean that when I look in the mirror I do not see an epidemiologist or a biostatistician or a political scientist or a health-related data analyst/project manager/program evaluator staring back at me.
These career choices and academic pursuits are a vital part of my life story, but they are not who I am.
I am not my resume.
Two years ago this June 30, I was laid off from my most recent health-related data analyst position, at Boston’s Joslin Diabetes Center, after four-plus years. My layoff resulted from a combination of the conclusion of a three-year federal grant and a massive organizational restructuring.
This was not the first time that I had left a company with impending reorganization, one which always seemed intended to eliminate the sort of research function requiring my particular skill set. In fact, it seems to be a hallmark of my career, one which has often relied upon “soft money” such as federal grants.
I can thus strongly relate to the career uncertainty expressed in the Guardian article cited above.
What has been disturbing and surprising is how much I have struggled both externally (lack of suitable positions) and internally (a burnout-driven longing for a change in how I apply my particular quantitative/management/dissemination skill set to earning a living) to finding a new job, and the fact that I am still looking two years later.
So when Professor Mayhew asked me if I was “thriving,” the question was difficult for this reason:
Other than the fact that I am still not working (for money, anyway), yes, yes I am thriving.
But, as an American, how can I POSSIBLY be thriving if I am not working? What am I doing with my time (read: how am I wasting my time?), if I am not working? How can I possibly define myself, if not through a job? Aren’t you lying awake every night worried about it?
Well, of course, I am worried about it. The money we have managed to put aside will not last forever, and sooner rather than later I will need to find a new source of income.
The difference, though, is that I refuse to define the quality of my life by what I do to earn a living.
I have spent two years being able to pick up my children from school (don’t get me started on my hate-hate relationship with mornings, which is why I rarely take them TOO school) and happily schlep them to various activities. I have had the gift of time to work on my massive film noir database, which may yet turn into a series of publications, and a wide range of other data-driven projects, as evidenced by the existence of this blog. I will be giving not one, but two, oral presentations deriving from mye doctoral research at this year’s American Public Health Association Annual Meeting and Conference. I am giving serious consideration to writing a book weaving together a chronicle of my personal journey from Encyclopedia Brown to serious devotee of Charlie Chan and film noir, my experiences (and those of others) at NOIR CITY, and my film noir research. I have been able to do all of these incredibly fulfilling (and non-income-deriving) things with the strong support of a loving wife.
So while I do not currently have gainful employment, I still feel as though I am thriving.
Earlier today (well, yesterday, now that I look at the time on my computer), my wife, daughters and I greatly enjoyed a party at the home of the friend and her husband I cited earlier, the one I met at HARI.
Not once when conversing with older friends I had not seen for years or with someone I was just meeting did anyone ask me,
“So, Matt, what do you do?”
Maybe the message that we should not define ourselves first and foremost by how (or if) we make a living is spreading.
Until next time…
 The BEST job I ever had was the five months I spent as a 17-year-old delivery boy for the now-defunct Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where I created the mushroom provolone pizza steak…as in, “Philly cheesesteak.”