Incubated

Until a few nights ago, I don’t remember ever having a university-themed nightmare. In this scenario, I was not yet credentialed. I was meeting with my graduate advisor to discuss a capstone project that had completely slipped my mind—not the capstone project I in fact completed less than six months ago to fulfill my Master’s Degree in Higher Education, but The Big One, the Mother of All Capstone Projects, whose object of study was never defined. The details are receding, but those that mattered are still vivid. What I had in hand was an abstract, just a two-page proposal, and the actual paper was due in two weeks. The research design called for dozens of interviews with people I hadn’t yet contacted. My advisor was beside himself. He spluttered, pointed, flung. It wasn’t clear what my methodology was, he bellowed; worse still, I had no theoretical framework. What the hell had I been doing all these months?

Then, the wipeout: “I knew you wouldn’t be right for this program.  We wasted a perfectly good slot when we accepted you.”

As I parsed the details of this vision for clues to its meaning, something seemed out of tune. Not the topos of a paper behind schedule, which I’m sure is common enough among graduate students. Not even the reminder—chastening, though surely seldom acknowledged—that to be admitted is to displace.

What was off was the guy who played my advisor, in real life a famously easygoing guy who would never splutter, point, or fling. It finally dawned on me that the face didn’t match the voice, because the voice was mine. Even in deepest REM, I was reading myself the riot act. And rightly so: it was over six months since I began my search for work in the sector that, on paper at least, is my field of expertise.

The dream visited me on a Friday, capping a week in which I had two overlapping options in my choice of networking opportunities: attend the Advanced Technology Development Center showcase at Georgia Tech, or share a beer at Manuel’s Tavern with the unstressed folks from GAIE. Stress-prone by nature and perhaps for that reason having never made much headway at GAIE (i.e., the Georgia Association of International Educators, or as I like to put it, the Georgia Association of the Institutionally Established), the researcher in me was drawn to the chance at a glimpse of the university-industrial complex in action.

Besides, I’d been invited—sort of; my GT liaison seemed preoccupied, and we soon lost track of each other. My first stop among the mobbed kiosks was an online service that connected busy dog owners with a network of experienced walkers (sweet!); my second, an online purveyor of hedge fund-leveraged student loans for undergraduates with only a year to go (smart!); my third, an interdigitated electrode which, once implanted in the fiberglass containers used to store toxic waste, can send alerts to a remote pinpoint sensor when the bad stuff is looking for an exit (see: sodium hypochloride). A smart baby bottle for newborns in ICUs that tracks data on their oral nuances to determine if they are ready to come off the tubes and go home. A maker of spatial mapping software that enables volumetric space sharing, so that when, say, a reciprocating compressor manufactured by Siemens acts up somewhere in China, Siemens doesn’t have to send a real person over there to deal with it. A box rigged with high-efficiency LEDs for growing your own mustard greens or arugula indoors in perpetuity, so long as they remain poised over a gravelly, nutrient-rich wafer, available by subscription.

I came away impressed, slightly buzzed from two hours of elevator pitches, but also increasingly depressed as I made my way back up Spring St. Had I turned down a couple of PBRs with international student advisors and/or their program directors in exchange for an amble along the frontier of the entrepreneurial university? Could I have spent happy hour making my own pitch as a future hire, and more successfully than I had been doing with online applications to countless local institutions at what seems to be a time of frenzied recruitment?

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