How to leave academia: Call a cab
I’m not gonna lie–it’s been an exceptionally busy week here at the Leaving Academia HQ. I’ve been doing a lot of work with some really lovely clients this week, and that’s meant I haven’t had any time for blogging. The upshot, though, is that by working with such interesting people, I’m getting all kinds of ideas for blog posts (I’m formulating a Glamour magazine-like “do” and “don’t” list for non-academic job applications.
In Kaylen Tucker’s first Leaving Academia post, an ultra-awkward exchange with a well-meaning but clueless professor becomes fodder for post-academic career planning:
When I was applying for dissertation fellowships, I asked a friendly and accomplished professor in my department to help me write a winning statement of purpose. She patiently helped me to fine tune my application and when our session was complete, I felt that I had a real chance at being selected. She reminded me, however, about how very competitive these kinds of things were, and cautioned me not to get my hopes up and to come up with another plan should I not land a post. As a seasoned graduate student, I of course, had a lot of pots simmering. I wasn’t offended, thinking it good, sound advice. But the advice that she gave me next has kept me up at night and has influenced the way I think about the value of a humanities Ph.D.
She asked me if I was looking for a job. I wasn’t, but as one who was accustomed to hustling, always looking for the next thing, I wanted to hear what she had to offer. “Have you heard of Trendy and Terribly Overpriced New Shoe Store?” I told her that I’d been in that store many times. I was confused … but curious. “Well, I know the owner,” she continued, “and they’re looking for help. If you’re interested, I could put in a good word for you.”
I should have told her that I didn’t need her help greasing the wheels to gain a retail job. Though I’m bad at math and standing for long periods of time, I think I could have handled that on my own.
I’ve replayed that moment in my head many times, trying to work through the lingering bad taste in my mouth. I finally realized that my irritation wasn’t solely based on her offer to help me get a job that I felt was beneath me instead of helping me figure out a more academic/professional Plan B. No, my exasperation stemmed from the fact that her advice, which I admit was offered innocently enough and in the kindest of spirits, reflected the overall attitude of the department: Academia in narrowly defined terms is everything, and if it doesn’t work out for you—which it probably won’t—there is nothing. If you don’t receive an appointment at University X, you should take your Ph.D. and wait tables or sell shoes until the stars align correctly for you. Nothing against shoes, or those who sell them, but it’s not that black and white, or yellow and blue, or whatever converse combination you fancy. Education is supposed to broaden horizons, not narrow them. So I politely declined the opportunity and resolved to carve my own path.
Well, I didn’t get the fellowship. But I’m not selling shoes either. By the time I finished my Ph.D. in English literature, and after two years of no bites on the academic market, I had decided to pursue another course. I couldn’t commit to another round of the overwhelming job-market process; I was no longer willing to follow the market to whatever city it led me; and I couldn’t stomach the requisite string of adjunct and visiting positions to hold me over until I could land the perfect tenure-track position. What I needed was stability—financial and emotional. I also wanted to feel like I was contributing knowledge to the world, which is why I started the Ph.D. process in the first place. So doing communications for a national education non-profit was a logical next step. My position required me to research, analyze, write, and edit—tasks I had been well trained for.
However, preparing myself for a non-academic job didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still working on fine tuning my mission and figuring out a way to bridge my research interests with my actual job. It’s an ongoing process. But I hope to offer Leaving Academia readers what I have learned about how smart people can figure out a way to harness their power and tackle the world outside of academia.
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