No Limits

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

I spend a chunk of time each week reading online career blogs, listservs and forums, keeping up with the concerns that academics have about transitioning into their next career. In doing this, I’m often reminded why I started Leaving Academia in the first place. Back in 2006, when I was struggling with what direction to take for my career path, I used to haunt those forums, trying to get information that resonated with me.

One question that surfaces often is the one that usually looks like, “I have a X degree in discipline Y. What kind of jobs does that qualify me for?”

Back when I was wondering that question myself, I always felt surprised that the answers were so narrow, and sometimes nasty. People with English or literary backgrounds were advised to pursue writing, editing or going back to school to study library sciences; people in poli sci were advised to go the government or NGO route.

At the time, I always felt really suspicious of this kind of feedback because it seemed an awfully narrow view of the kinds of skills we cultivate as academics. And yet, I didn’t have any information to back up my feeling that grad students can and do end up in a wild array of fields, and that, moreover, lots of people in any given field don’t have specific training in that field. Well, now I’ve got that information, as a result of my interviews, and I’m pleased to say that I was right!

Have you ever been at a party and met someone who had a cool job? Did you ask them how they got that job? There’s a good chance that the person had a long and winding story about how they landed there.

Take television, for example. A lot of people who work in TV (in front of the camera, behind the camera, on the technical side, in post-production, etc.) have never set foot in journalism school. They come from all over — including academia. I’ve interviewed an English Ph.D. who ended up as an executive in charge of television drama for a major Canadian broadcaster because of the work he did researching for a research-heavy TV network after his Ph.D. I’ve also met an A.B.D. TV producer who works on reality shows and loves it. One of my first podcasts was with Polly Washburn, who quit her linguistics Ph.D. after a year, worked for a while as a TV producer and is currently in the midst of shooting her first feature film. And I recently interviewed a woman who is A.B.D. in art history who ended up in television sales.

In other words, it’s not just non-academics who end up changing careers 2, 3, or 10 times in their lifetimes. Former scholars do it, too. So why do people continually receive and dispense advice that suggests that the only thing you can do with your career has to somehow directly relate to the topic you studied in school? That’s complete hogwash.

Most of the former academics I’ve met and interviewed apply their doctoral experience in many ways except in relation to their actual topics of study. Instead, they apply their teaching experience to do public speaking, coaching or personal training; they apply their writing experience to producing reports, blogging, or writing marketing materials; they apply their time-management skills, their ability to show up, and their perseverance to a whole host of job tasks.

A really great example of this is a resource I found recently at the American Psychological Association’s Web site. The Non-Academic Careers for Scientific Psychologists page may not sound too enticing for those of us who didn’t study psychology, but it’s a very telling resource. It features a series of articles with Ph.D.s who have found non-academic careers, and just their job titles will tell you that, in many cases, their psychology background was not the main asset that brought them into their new careers. You can read about a psychologist who became an acquisitions editor, research director for a non-profit, medical error consultant, science writer, technology consultant, public sector analyst, highway safety research analyst, international market research consultant, university provost, human resources researcher, and so on.

Take heart, potential school leavers: the job market is in no way limited by what you studied. So let’s stop spreading that myth.

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