A common cocktail party topic for academics is what job they would fancy doing if they weren't academics. My stock answer for what I would do if I was cast out of academia, "Write a lurid murder mystery about academia," still holds, and I continue to collect anecdotes that might be good fodder for that exigency should it arise (feel free to e-mail me; the truth value of particular anecdotes is not as pertinent for my purposes as its lurid novelization value).
The more common way of asking the question, though, is just to imagine your fantasized alternative career--sometimes phrased as what you really want to be when you grow up--and for this I have cycled noncommittally through various answers. This weekend, though, I read the novel The Boy Detective Fails (recipient of a rare 5 kiwi rating on Lucy's blog) and have decided that this is really what I want to be when I grow up: Jeremy Freese, boy detective. Indeed, given the adage that the best way to become something is to pretend to be it already, it's all I can do not to make a WWJF,BDD bracelet for myself, or to change my signature file and business cards to add this along with the "associate professor" and "policy fellow" titles.
I think it's long been the case that the times I enjoy social research the most are those where I feel like Jeremy Freese, boy detective, so at least I can be more honest with myself about this fact and perhaps also take up solving crimes on the side.
I was telling a friend excitedly all about this while we were walking on the bricks, cement, and iron subway grates of Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Central Squares. Suddenly there was this really loud noise like a train. "What's that thing that sounds like a train?" I said, looking around perplexed, since it's not like there were any railroad crossings near where we were walking. Then I added: "Oh, uh, it's the subway," which was, at that moment, directly beneath us. "Nice work, boy detective," said my friend.
BTW, from The Boy Detective Fails, how the protagonist discovers his calling:
The room was still as the boy detective took the magnifying glass in his hand and began to do what he had always been meant to. At once, the mysterious, the unknown, and the unidentified moved from the shadows into sharp contrast before his eyes. It was at that moment that the boy detective first began to detect.The book also features a brainy girl who is intimidated out of participating in the science fair by a popular girl who goes on to win with the project "How Water Totally Turns Into Ice."
It went exactly like this: Billy held up the magnifying glass, the lens bringing the wondering faces of his family into perfect sharpness, their soft expressions suddenly becoming serious, each a portrait of some hidden secret. Billy spied his older brother with the magnifying glass, as he was the relative standing the closest, and Derek immediately confessed that he was gay. Also, that he hated life in the Navy.