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A Doctor Prescribes a New Career--For Herself

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Janis Caldwell’s father was a doctor. Her mother was a nurse. Caldwell worked as an assistant in her father’s medical office during college and enjoyed it. So when it came time to choose a career, she gravitated to medicine and became a physician. “I kind of grew into it,” she says. 

Janis Caldwell

Janis Caldwell

But Caldwell also loved literature. She might have considered a major in English as an undergraduate if career concerns had not influenced her decision. “I felt there was no career in English,” she explains. “So many incentives were pointing me toward science and medicine. I don’t think I held the study of literature in enough regard. It was only later that I realized that I needed it—desperately.” 

That might explain why Caldwell left her job in emergency medicine after five years to pursue graduate study in English. The transition took time. “I was doing some fairly stressful emergency room work and wanted to find something to balance against that stress—to feed my soul,” recalls Caldwell. “I signed up for a few UW extension and undergraduate courses and began to see a deeper value in the study of literature.” 

Caldwell decided to enter the UW’s graduate program in English. But it was not until her second year of graduate school, when she became a teaching assistant, that she gave up her emergency room job completely. “I finally decided it was time to let medicine go,” she recalls. “But I kept my license for a long time after that. It’s not an easy thing to give up.”

Caldwell earned a PhD in 1996 and is now an English professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Wake Forest was very interested in my dual background,” she says. “I was hired to teach courses on science and literature, exploring the gulf between these two ways of thinking.” 

Caldwell is open with students about her own career change. “In part, I see it as a way of affirming the humanities,” she says. “I want to show students that one can choose a career in the humanities. One does not just do it because they can’t do anything else.” In fact, says Caldwell, “I have found English to be harder than anything I did in medicine. Research in English involves a lot of ambiguity and complexity. There is no prescribed path and no set of rules to follow. Medicine likes questions that have answers. I found it did not involve the same mode of thought.”

Caldwell acknowledges that her career switch has had negative financial implications—she jokes about her “downward mobility”—but she has no regrets.

“It’s been a much happier life for me,” she says. “This is hard, hard work, but it is so rewarding. Teaching supplies the kind of personal interaction I thought I would get from medicine but discovered there is not time for. I still have real loyalties to medi-cine—I think science is the best game in town for solving certain kinds of problems —but it simply cannot, alone, address many of the issues of central concern to the human experience. It’s too bad the sciences and humanities are so isolated from one another. We don’t communicate enough.”