That First, Crummy Job

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

One fear that many academics have as they near the end of their academic stint is that they will end up in jobs for which only a B.A. is required. Even worse, they imagine, is ending up back in the same job you had when you were doing your B.A.

And yet, most people who leave academia take very circuitous routes to the work they ultimately end up doing five years after leaving. Almost all of the former academics I’ve ever met, interviewed, or heard about had some type of “corkscrew” pattern to their post-academic careers, rather than a steep upward or downward trajectory.

A really fabulous example of this is a woman named Helen Toland, who you can learn all about on an incredible British career resource called iCould. (I highly recommend this Web site to any career changer; as the site’s tagline states, “It just shows what you can do.” Specifically, there are hundreds of interviews with people doing a huge variety of jobs, including people with what the Brits call postgraduate degrees).

As Helen explains, she got her Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering, in part because she just happened to be good at school, because she thought that was what her parents would want, and because she lacked the confidence to admit to herself what she really wanted to do. Any of that sound familiar? Once she finished her degree, though, she decided to pursue her dream of working in the media, and is now a producer at BBC Radio Ulster working on an entertainment program. How did she get there? Hard work and perseverance, it sounds like — but also a willingness to do the grunt work needed to get the job of her dreams.

From her brief description, it sounds like Helen was both “on the dole” and working in a coffee shop for a couple of years once she’d finished her Ph.D. before she finally got on board as a full-time staff producer. It’s quite easy to imagine that being a Ph.D. working as a barista would involve struggling with some pretty intense feelings of shame and regret. And yet, doing that first, low-skill, non-academic job was well worth it to Helen because it gave her the time to build up contacts and do enough freelance contracts to build up the experience she needed to be offered a staff position.

But all too often, the idea of taking a crummy job strikes so much fear in the hearts of academics that they would rather stick with the devil they know — even if the money is just as bad (if not worse) and the career trajectory leads to an equally dead end.

Yet it is typically that first post-academic job that gives one an opportunity to detox from the traumas of academia (you know, like feeling dumb much of the time), which itself helps create the conditions for movement into a better, more professional-level job. It also offers a chance to get some experience in a different sector. This looks good on a résumé, of course, but it’s more important than that. That first job outside of academia — no matter how crummy — is a new kind of training ground, one where you un-learn so many of the conventions that you never even realized you were absorbing along the way.

That’s where you find out that people speak differently, think differently, and move at a different pace than inside academia (typically much more quickly, depending on the sector). It’s where you learn how to really leverage and transfer some of your skills (for example, your ability to absorb new information quickly really does come in handy when you’re a barista learning the names of 30 different specialty drinks). And it gives your brain the chance to adapt to the demands of a new environment.

What this adds up to, then, is a priming of the pump. When you are ready to move on to your dream non-academic job — the one in which you are able to be more fully yourself — you’ll have more skills, more confidence and more preparedness than you would otherwise have applying for that job straight out of graduate school.

Some of the transition jobs that former academics I know have taken include note-taking in college classrooms for students with disabilities, transcribing, working retail, office work, dog-walking, house-cleaning, researching for television channels, and other research contracts. One person I interviewed worked for an arts nonprofit in which he had to fundraise his own salary. In my own case, I worked as a closed captioning editor while making cash and contacts on the side doing freelance writing, podcasting, and radio producing.

It’s wise to bite the bullet with a job that’s below your skill set if it offers you a chance to deploy a grander career development strategy while you’re doing it. That would include jobs that are strictly time delineated (unlike adjuncting, which expands to fill the time you have), offering you a chance to network and build up contacts in your desired field. It leaves you with enough energy to do information interviewing, freelancing, job shadowing or interning (whichever suits the target field best). And it offers just enough money to pay the bills, but not so much that you’re tempted to stick with it over the long haul. Finally, it gives you enough mental resting space to detox from your academic experience, which in turn provides you with an opportunity to research and daydream your next career move.


Career Change – Your Next Project

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

Does the phrase “career change” terrify you? Do you think “former academic” is a special kind of slur? Does the idea of the non-academic job search make you want to hide under your bed?

If you’re at the point where you want to make a non-academic contingency plan, or you think you’re ready to admit that academia isn’t the life for you, you don’t need to plunge in to the depths of managing your career change all at once. You just need to understand the nature of what you’re taking on. As it turns out, academics are actually uniquely well-positioned to embark on the process of a career change because so much of what’s involved is about creating and executing a research plan. That’s right, smartypants career changer — you’ve just stumbled upon your next research project.

Like any other project, it’s good to get a sense of what needs to be done before you dive in. So here is a list of 10 components to check off on your project plan as you go about doing your research.

  1. Begin with basic research. The first thing to do is a preliminary assessment of the existing material in the field of non-academic career change. Lucky for you, the small amount of info that’s out there is slowly growing. There are the books you can buy (starting with Basalla and Debelius’ So What Are You Going to Do With That?). But the bulk of the advice and insight can be found online: Alexandra Lord’s Beyond Academe, Paula Chambers’ WRK4US listserv, Julie Clarenbach’s Escape the Ivory Tower are three great places to start. And of course, there’s the Leaving Academia column I write here, plus my blog (where you’ll find links to a social networking site).
  2. Expand your research to human subjects. In other words, sniff out former academics for advice, encouragement and potential contacts. You can use alumni databases to find out where graduates of your university have gone, and of course, you should be using the requisite social media platforms. But the best way of finding academic expats is word of mouth. As I’ve said many times, once you start looking for former academics, you can’t go to a single social gathering without finding five of them. Ask them about their experiences. Find out how they made their way into their next career. Ask them if they know anyone you can talk to.
  3. Start thinking about what you can offer the world beyond your disciplinary boundaries. This, to me, is a critical, critical step. Many academics I’ve talked to get hung up on the question, “But what kind of job can a Ph.D. in [insert your discipline here] get?” Don’t limit your imagination to jobs that seem to spring directly from your disciplinary background (oh, you’re a poli sci Ph.D.? Get a government job! You’ve got an English degree? Go into book publishing!). God forbid Rachel Maddow would have chained herself to a desk job inside the State Department, or that David Duchovny would have restricted himself to being an adjunct English lit professor for the rest of his life. Instead, do what they did: get clear on what your skills are (then see #4 on following your passion). Your path into the non-academic world will likely not be through what you know but what you can do: planning, organizing, writing, research, presenting, liaising, chairing a meeting/committee, translating complex ideas into simple ones, organizing a presentation or conference, etc. Spend lots of time — like, lots of time — figuring out what your skills are. Don’t know how to do that? Start with Google and go from there.
  4. Reflect on what your beliefs and interests are and what you’re really passionate about, then focus on your key research problem. Focus in on the area where you want to conduct your career search the way you set out the parameters of your research. One way of doing this is to zoom in on what you care about most. The former academics I’ve talked to who are happiest are the ones who found work that aligned most with their values, even if it had little to do (on the surface) with their area of research.
  5. Identify the obstacles the way you identify gaps in the literature, and then develop strategies to deal. OK, so you’ve figured out that you really want to, for example, turn your gardening hobby into your main gig. Let’s say you want to open a flower shop. You’ve got the planning skills, the knowledge about plants and you worked at Wal-Mart for a few years during your B.A. But are you lacking basic bookkeeping skills? Take a night course. Volunteer for an organization that needs office help. Ask a local florist if you can job shadow him or her for a day.
  6. Plunge in. After that period of reflection and rumination, the point comes when the fingers hit the keyboard and the feet hit the pavement. Attack the execution of your research with the zeal you attack your scholarly hypotheses. The tricks you used to get your dissertation written can be the same you use here — time management, balance, knowing when you feel most capable to tackle a big problem, etc.
  7. Crank up your networking machine. This aspect of your career research never, ever stops. Find out ways you can help others. Talk to anyone and everyone you know who has an interesting job and find out how they got into that line of work. Get a volunteer job for an organization or cause you really believe in and make yourself useful. Make a spreadsheet of your contacts and incorporate this into your research. Keep being open to meeting new people and developing new relationships.
  8. Know that there is going to be a lot of healing and grieving to be done. There is a lot about career change that is fun and exciting, but making the decision to leave academia is not just about switching jobs. It’s about shedding an entire identity that you built up over years or decades. You can’t move out of that situation without feeling some amount of loss. It’s like a breakup: you know that you don’t want to stay in a relationship with that person, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to go through a period of mourning.
  9. Consider enlisting the help of some professionals — a life coach, career coach, psychotherapist or counselor. I’m going to plug my friend and colleague Jamie Ridler because she is amazing at helping people from all over the world open their eyes to new paths their lives can take (plus she’s a former academic, to boot, so she’s a coach who knows where you’re coming from). You could also hire a résumé coach or other professionals who can help you with identifying your skills and crafting your résumé.
  10. Rinse and repeat. And, like with your research, celebrate a job well done.

Those Humanities Ph.D.’s

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

Did you hear the one about the humanities Ph.D.?

Last month, Inside Higher Ed reported on the Graduate Education Initiative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an effort to reform the humanities Ph.D. from being a decade-long hellride — OK, OK, I’m paraphrasing with great liberty, here — to being an appropriately-funded six-year experience. Over a 10-year period, $85 million was spent on improvements — including more generous aid packages — at doctoral humanities programs at 10 research universities. Researchers then tracked those students through their degree progress, following up on what happened to them when they left their programs (regardless of whether they finished the PhD or not). The findings of the research appear in Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities.

Great experiment, right? How many of you have fantasized about being able to finish your damn degree, if only money wasn’t this constant monkey on your back? Well, it turns out that money is only one factor of many that determines how long it takes to finish. Instead of rocketing through their degree programs, participants in the study only made minimal improvements (and in some cases, extended typical completion times). Completion rates and time to completion saw such modest improvements, in fact, that researchers were doubtful a six-year degree “could be achieved in any general way in the humanities.”

This is kind of surprising — money, the great panacea, not solving all our problems? And yet, given all of the other pressures graduate students face while working on their degrees, it’s hardly surprising at all. There are a host of other factors that genuinely impede degree progress, which the commenters on the Inside Higher Ed article ably point out. Most notably, getting stuck in the adjunct track — a track that cash-strapped colleges are only too happy to use — is a major problem.

But commenters on the post also reveal some beliefs that humanities students themselves cling to, which in turn keep them trapped in Ph.D. programs far longer than they could be. For example, the belief that a humanities Ph.D. (unlike a social science degree) genuinely only limits students to careers as teachers is absurd. A teeny bit of time spent with Google and talking to professionals in various professions will reveal that philosophers, lit majors and their ilk end up in just as wide an array of jobs as social scientists. Broadcasting, life coaching, union organizing, the arts, and the non-profit sector are just a few places where humanities folks — Ph.D. in hand or not — end up.

This in turn points to another significant factor that determines degree time to completion: the human one. Faculty, the study reveals, play a key role. For example, providing clear expectations as to when degree requirements should be finished is instrumental in student success.

Departments where faculty members “bought into” the idea of reducing time to degree showed much more progress than departments were the project was encouraged by the institution, but didn’t have faculty buy-in.

Faculty also have an important role to play with respect to attrition rates precisely because of the way money can work in the lives of grad students. In this study, it appeared as though the funding provided to students may have introduced a whole new monkey on some students’ backs: the pressure to stay. Early attrition rates dropped, and for those who believe that if you should quit, you should quit early, this isn’t good news. It appears as though the money granted to students in this effort provided just enough security for them to stay, even if they dropped out later in their degree programs. When it comes to leaving, all you have to lose is your chains, indeed — that, and the modicum of security that a slice of financial aid can provide you. The role for faculty, then? One of the researchers

said that the findings don’t make him think financial aid should be lessened, but rather than generous packages need to be accompanied by frank discussions between professors and students.

These “frank discussions,” though, should ideally be informed by some knowledge of the non-academic labor market, with which most faculty are very unacquainted.

So what did happen to the people who left their programs before finishing the degree?

12 percent ended up earning a Ph.D. either from a different university or another department at the same university. Another 18 percent earned other postgraduate degrees, many of them in business or law.

This is not especially surprising, given that getting more education is in the blood of so many who leave academe. But the career paths of those who left really raised my proverbial eyebrow:

17 percent of those who departed programs reported that they were in managerial positions, 13 percent reported that they were either judges or lawyers, and a majority of the rest found careers in education, mostly at colleges and universities.

Really? Really? They all ended up as managers, judges, lawyers and college educators/staff/administrators? This list does not reflect at all the career paths of the majority of the former academics I’ve met (including those who finished the Ph.D. and those who didn’t). Where are the entrepreneurs and the self-employed? The directors of non-profits? Where are the cultural creatives and magazine publishers? We’re talking about humanities Ph.D.’s, here!

This weirdly restricted array of post-academic careers reported may point to a limiting factor built in to the study: the list of universities selected to be a part of it. They are Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and the Universities of California at Berkeley, Chicago, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Are post-academics from these institutions making different choices than those who attend different sorts of colleges and universities?

I was heartened to see that there was attention paid in the report to gender differences among men and women, and those who had young families. But I don’t think there’s anything to get excited about here:

in many respects humanities departments are treating their male and female students similarly, and that their success levels reflect that.

Back to Humanities Ph.D.’s

Again, we’re talking about the humanities. This finding would be newsworthy if we were talking about engineering programs. But reporting that women and men are treated equitably is kind of like saying male and female nurses are treated equitably by the nurses’ union. What is interesting is the news that women who enter Ph.D. programs as moms don’t finish any more slowly or drop out any more frequently than women who aren’t moms at the start of the Ph.D. Moms: the ultimate multi-taskers. And then there’s this:

Men who are married when they start graduate school are more likely than single men to graduate and to graduate more quickly. Married women, on the other hand, had no advantage over single women, so whatever the married men are getting in support from their spouses is not apparently duplicated.

The implication, quipped Ehrenberg [a study author], is that “everyone should have a wife.”

But really, that’s not news either, is it?


Use Social Media

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

These days, it is axiomatic in career-search circles that using the social web in your job hunt is just a smart thing to do. Why turn your nose up at Twitter, Facebook, blogging and LinkedIn when they are rife with opportunities to network and connect with prospective employers? I agree with this line of thinking, but I think there are some very particular reasons why employing web 2.0 technologies is especially wise for academics considering a career change.

1. It’s about identity construction. The Lacanians among you are going to love this. When you create a profile on a site like LinkedIn, for example, you have the opportunity to present to other professionals a narrative about your career trajectory that makes sense to them — and to you. Using words to help create a post-academic identity is something that will translate your skills to a wider audience and also does wonders for your own sense of self. Note: Lying is out. But, as with the process of creating a resume, you can accentuate the positive (creative, hard-working, whiz at troubleshooting) and minimize the pesky details (turned down for tenure? No one need know).

2. It boosts your sense of professionalism. If you’re a graduate student, you’re likely an avid Facebook user. But are you on LinkedIn? You might not be, thinking that LinkedIn is for professional networking and you’re not a professional. Well, guess what? You are apprenticing for a professional position, even if you do spend most of your days in your pajamas and do your writing during the commercials aired on Ellen. But your contacts on LinkedIn don’t need to know that. What they do need to know, however, is what you’re doing now, any interesting work you’ve done in the past, and what kind of opportunities you’re looking for in the future.

3. It’s an alternative to job banks. On Twitter, there are people (like @thejobsguy) who simply write 140 character blurbs about job postings. This is a fast and easy way to get a sense of jobs that are on the market, so you can gauge what interests you and what doesn’t.

4. It makes networking easier. Following someone on Twitter — especially if they follow you back — provides you with an opportunity to connect with any number of people you wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. Fostering an online relationship with someone is one important aspect of your job-hunting networking campaign.

5. It showcases your current self, and the self you want to be. One of my clients has had tremendous luck at leveraging LinkedIn. She’s a tenured prof, and she discovered through LinkedIn that people she knew in and before grad school work in precisely the organizations that she’s applying to. She’s using those contacts to find out more about what it’s like to work for the company and who the people with the decision-making power are, as well as to get introductions. These old contacts likely would never have thought of notifying her about job postings, for example. But LinkedIn is a polite, professional way of signaling your interest about your next career move to people who may be in a position to help you.

6. It shows how committed you are about moving into your next career. Writing regular status updates on Facebook and Twitter about your professional ambitions is just a smart thing to do when you’re on a job hunt. Another way of really showing off that you’re serious about changing fields is by starting a blog. Launching one on a topic that has nothing to do with your current area of research but has everything to do with what you dream about for your next career signals to future employers that you’re in it for the long haul. Blogging can be a powerful way to signal what you know about a topic, but it’s also okay to start a blog on a topic you know nothing about. Ironically, chronicling a learning process is something that contributes to you becoming an expert in that field because you are providing concrete evidence for the knowledge that you are accumulating. Who’s going to be interested in that expertise? Your next employer, of course.

7. It opens your eyes. On Twitter, you find out about all kinds of things people do for a living (and certainly the number of people who call themselves “marketers” trying to sell you their services!). It gives you an opportunity to learn about all the different kinds of work everyday people do. Right now, I’m following life coaches, a prostitutes’ rights organizer, a burgeoning film producer, a movie critic, Web developers, researchers, stay-at-home moms, bloggers, etc. Every day, I learn a little bit about their corner of the world.

8. You can meet cool people. I have met and fostered connections through Twitter, which is just plain old fun.

9. It makes you employable. More and more companies are Tweeting, launching Facebook pages, and even building their own social networking tools. Whether you dream of going corporate or self-employed, corporate or public sector, being able to note on your resume how handy you are with web 2.0 technologies will only impress.

10. It helps combat stereotypes about Ph.D.s. One stereotype about Ph.D.’s is the idea that we all have our heads tucked neatly up our own behinds. There are a number of ways to combat that, but running a blog on a topic that has NOTHING to do with your area of study is a quick and easy way to demonstrate to employers and other contacts in your network that you do have your finger on the pulse of one aspect of business and contemporary culture. Running a blog in particular will show that you can write in plain English, for example, thereby beating back the notion that you can only use $10 words and run-on sentences. It shows that you can — and do — come down from the ivory tower once in a while.


When Should You Quit?

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

People have been asking me lately: If you’re going to quit academia, when should you quit?

To me, the answer is, “Whenever it’s best for you.” How’s that for precision? But seriously, the answer is going to be completely up to you. The major considerations are many: financial (what will you do for an income if you leave at this stage?), career (what field will you switch to?), family (do you need to support family members? Are you all living together?), geographic (will you need/want to move when you quit?), and so forth.

But deciding on the timing of your departure also has to do with the delicate matter of cutting your losses. Calculating losses, though, is an imprecise science because there are so many unknown factors. For example, if you quit after, say, completing your comprehensive exams, are you cutting your losses by sparing yourself years of the grueling dissertation-writing process (which can be totaled up in dollars, tears, therapists’ bills, damaged relationships, etc.)? Or are you incurring a new loss by not finishing a project you’ve started (an emotional toll) and having to work to explain what you did during those years on a résumé (a potential financial toll)?

Well, the answer is both, isn’t it? When you leave academia — regardless of when you do — you carry around a balance sheet of losses and gains. Gains: a deep relief, a feeling of freedom, a sense that you’ve narrowly escaped something that temporarily had control of your soul. Losses: debt, regret, the struggle to find a new career and life path.

Sometimes, the dividends blur and the gains start to look like losses; the feeling of freedom, for example, can quickly turn into a terrifying landscape of possibility with no clear direction of where to turn. Sometimes the losses look like gains: struggling to find a new life and career path reminds you of how many wonderful interests you have and all of the fun ways you can pursue them.

This is where the matter of the timing of your departure comes in. The dividends of leaving are going to be felt more and less sharply depending on when you jump ship. The longer you stay in your Ph.D. program, your debt load goes up, but so do your credentials. But do those credentials even mean anything to you if you’re depressed, disillusioned and miserable?

For those of you who are thinking of leaving mid-degree, and are tortured by the thought that you’ve wasted your time and money: here’s a timely link to a post Seth Godin wrote recently. I think it’s brilliant, and although he’s not even thinking about grad students when he’s writing this post, it applies perfectly. The post is called “Ignore Sunk Costs.” Among other golden advice, Seth says: “When making a choice between two options, only consider what’s going to happen in the future, not which investments you’ve made in the past. The past investments are over, lost, gone forever. They are irrelevant to the future.”

Breakedown: When Should You Quit?

Here’s a breakdown of the balance sheet referring to different stages of leaving. I’d love to hear more thoughts on your analysis of the gains and losses in the comments section. If you…

1. Leave after the M.A. You’ve got yourself a valuable degree with great income-earning potential. But maybe you feel skeptical about your academic prospects, you don’t think you’d enjoy teaching and although you enjoy your research, you don’t feel crazy about doing 5-10 more years of it. So you quit.

Gains: High. You may have some student loans, but this recent report from Statistics Canada shows there is a 33 percent wage gap between someone with a B.A. and someone with a master’s, but someone with a doctorate only earns 8 percent more than someone with a master’s.

Costs: Low. Unlike a Ph.D., a master’s makes you feel good about your capabilities.

2. Leave after the first year of your Ph.D. You’ve had a taste of the program, the university, your colleagues and your potential supervisors. Maybe it’s not a good fit, and when you look at the faculty, you’re turned off by the constant search for external funding, the “publish or perish” mentality, and the lack of value placed on family time (like, uh, making one at all). So you quit.

Gains: Medium-high. You’re sparing yourself the time and emotional aggravation and expense of staying in grad school. You can be honest on a résumé about what you did with your year.

Costs: Low. Some debt, maybe, and maybe a little bit of “What if…?”

3. Leave around the comps process (before, during or after). When I speak with former academics, this time of intense stress can really bring one’s feelings about academia to the forefront. Maybe it’s taking you years to finish your comps, you’re riddled with insecurity, you feel like a total fraud, and you’re on the precipice of clinical depression. So you quit.

Gains: medium-high. Getting out before you lose any more of your precious time, precious money, precious brain cells and spend any more on prescription drugs is really smart. Living in a world where you don’t have to prove yourself through comps fuckin’ rulz.

Costs: medium. Suffering through the comps and STILL leaving without parchment in hand is gonna sting. You will have to explain to employers what it means to be ABD with respect to your transferable skills, which is kinda annoying.

4. Leave during the dissertation stage. Whether you’re struggling to get your proposal done, churn out that first chapter, or finally kick the final chapter to the curb, the dissertation process is a long, emotionally intense, wearing process that can tear down the mental health of the most balanced grad student. Maybe you loathe your topic. Maybe you’re burnt out. Maybe you’re making yourself miserable trying to keep up with the demands to teach, publish, present papers and produce a brilliant 300 page document all at the same time. Maybe you just don’t have it in you anymore. So you quit.

Gains: high. Though departments notoriously do not keep track of their attrition rates, I’ve read research indicating roughly 50 percent of social science and humanities doctorates drop out of their programs before finishing. That means you’re in pretty good company among people who decided that life was too short to wait for a satisfying career, to move out of poverty, to save their mental health, or to just figure out that the academic life was not meant for them.

Costs: high. The niggly feelings of “what if?…” or “if only…” might linger for a long, long time. Feeling like a failure — or being worried that other people will see you as a failure — may be very intense. Your possible debt load may amplify feelings of anger, resentment, shame and bitterness. Feeling lost and unsure of how to orient your life is a strong possibility. Struggling with the concept of waste — a waste of your time, money, energy and potential — may stay with you.

5. You leave once you’ve finished the Ph.D. You’re done! Yahoo! But you got what you came for and you are outta there.

Gains: high. Freedom, sweet freedom. Sweet, quaking-at-the-knees, dripping-with-relief freedom.

Costs: medium-high. Severely compromised mental health, a significant debt, relationships that needed some nurturing after long periods of neglect. There is some belief (which I believe is a myth) that having a Ph.D. makes you unemployable.

(NB: Perhaps I’m biased here (since this was the path I chose and I’ve had three years to gain distance from the experience) by seeing the costs as “medium-high” and not “high.” To me, though, the gains far outstripped the costs, in terms of the feeling of freedom, the wild array of life choices I knew I could make, the ability to do the teaching and research and writing that I wanted that wasn’t limited by the classroom, and yes, the satisfaction of having the degree in hand.)

6. Once you’ve done contract/adjunct teaching, done your post-doc or gotten a tenure-track position. It might seem weird to lump these three types of academics into one category, but I’ll explain why below. Even if it’s news to some grad students, people do actually leave secure, tenured positions (Rebecca Steinitz is one of them — here’s her story — and so is Kenny Mostern of “On Being Postacademic” fame. My interview with Dr. Stienitz at LeavingAcademia.com is here; my interview with Dr. Mostern is here.)

Gains: high. Once you’ve got your Ph.D., you can go anywhere and do anything with confidence. Contract faculty have a lot to gain by landing in a job that actually pays a living wage, and they, along with tenure-track faculty, gain by being able to move to the city of their choice, actually have free time, start a family, make more money, etc.

Costs: low-to-medium. I haven’t been there, and so far I haven’t done any interviews (yet) with people who’ve made this jump. So I am only speculating here. But making a career change at this point just makes a lot of sense to me in the same way that any other career change makes sense. I know someone who used to be an award-winning, professional Irish dancer and is now an IT guy at an art college. I know someone who used to be a professional chef and is now a naturopath. I know someone who used to make giga-bucks at Goldman Sachs and is now a freelance writer living in the English countryside with her young children. I admire people who make crazy career leaps because although there are potential costs (like failing), the gains (like actually being happy and/or satisfied) seem to be so much greater.

When Should You Quit? If you’re going to quit academia, when is the best time to do it? What other factors are there that contribute to your decision? (You can also read a post-doc’s far more brief take on the matter here at Damn Dinosaurs).


Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

By: Joshua Newman

In December, Inside Higher Ed graciously brought me down to the Modern Language Association conference in Philadelphia to meet with grad students about non-academic careers. On the flight from Toronto, I busied myself with reading a book called Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire. No, this was not an attempt to distinguish myself from my other MLA-bound passengers who had their noses in Cixous and Keats. It was something I picked up at the airport in the hopes that it might have some nuggets of wisdom that I could use at this stage in my own career.

In it, author Mireille Giuliano writes that life is lived in episodes and phases. This is especially the case for career changers, particularly academics who end up parachuting into a non-university sector job.

This is something that the newly-minted Ph.D.’s that I chatted with at the MLA seemed to understand: Life as a Ph.D. is just one stage of a life that may resemble more of a patchwork quilt than a slow and steady climb to academic career fame.

And yet, it seems as though a broad discussion about post-academic careers is slow to catch on. While Ph.D.’s scramble to assemble a “Plan B,” little more than hand-wringing seems to actually be going on in many university administrative offices. Yes, there are some universities that are trying to provide a modicum of helpful advice, offering two-hour resume-writing clinics and the like. Others, like the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada, take the task a bit more seriously by offering week-long workshops on non-academic careers.

But where is the vigorous discussion about post-academic careers that is long overdue? The facts about the state of the job market are in, and everyone knows how dire the academic job prospects are. Yet little action has yet to be taken inside most professional associations, departments and graduate schools regarding meaningful alternatives.

It is alternatives that should be stressed because trying to stem the bleeding in the academic job market is futile. No amount of union action, funding reallocation or campus protest is going to change the fact that the very nature of the university itself has changed. Tenure is not what it once was. The reliance on contract labor that persists now is not a temporary, recessionary stage. It is is simply a part of a larger pattern of labor market restructuring across North America that has been in place for the past two decades. The very fact that 70 percent contract labor in a department could be considered a tipping point — yes, 70 percent — speaks volumes about how deeply and fundamentally the shift towards contingent labor has set in to the university.

The persistent failure to truly face just how much universities are exploiting casual labor frustrates me. I also feel totally dismayed when I read comments such as this:

Despite everything, some students remain stubbornly optimistic. Joshua Newman, a political science Ph.D. candidate at Simon Fraser University and president of SFU’s Graduate Student Society, believes the academic job market is experiencing a “temporary low” and will soon turn around. “If teaching is your main goal and you are willing to wait it out, as long as you keep up a heavy research agenda and publish as much as possible, then finding a job is just a matter of time,” says Mr. Newman.

How does this kind of attitude square with the Ph.D. I met at the MLA who was from a prestigious west coast university, on her second book contract and still had not landed a tenure-track position? How much time, how many years of making peanuts and how high do the opportunity costs have to go before a trained professional throws up her hands and quits?

Lest anyone think I am simply being pessimistic, let me set the record straight. I am a notoriously glass-is-half-full kind of person. In fact, I have been accused, here in the august pages of this magazine, of being overly optimistic. But Little Miss Sunshine draws the line in the sun-kissed sand right here: Don’t hold your breath for those academic jobs. Instead, start planning out your non-academic career now.

This is not about having a bad attitude. It’s about looking at the cold, hard reality. In the Canadian case, here it is, in the starkest of terms: in 2007, 4,800 people in Canada earned their Ph.D.’s. How many jobs were waiting for them that year? 2,616. Yeah, about half. But of course, competition for those jobs was not just restricted to those who got their doctorates that year. It was shared among foreign Ph.D.’s, Ph.D. students still finishing their dissertations, and several earlier cohorts of Ph.D.’s who were still job-hunting. Plus, the competition for fewer jobs is becoming greater and greater because graduate enrollments are up: in Canada, graduate enrollment was up 62 percent in 2007-8 than 2001-2.

The difficult, crummy truth is out there for everyone to see: You can be the smartest, brightest, most-published person coming out of your degree program and STILL end up without an academic job, simply because the positions aren’t there. So why not seize this moment as an opportunity and not an occasion to dig yourself into adjuncting hell?

I’m not against optimism. I’m not against holding out for what you really want. But I am against the drinking of the academic Kool-Aid. The idea that being a tenured faculty member is the only way to achieve personal and professional satisfaction, or that a university classroom is the only place where one can teach, or that non-academic careers don’t offer intellectual stimulation is, quite simply, rubbish. It is a hasty conclusion drawn by people who have never worked outside of academia. Come on! Why are you going to listen to those people, anyway? Put your analytical, scholarly hats on for a moment: the idea that non-academic jobs are somehow “less than” is an idea that is fostered by … academics! It is not a view that is grounded in research (and if it is, please forward this research to me c/o this magazine), it’s not founded in experience, and it’s counter to the happy, post-academic work reality of thousands and thousands of Ph.D.’s.

I’m not suggesting that now is not a time for political action. It most certainly is. The unions that are fighting for something approaching fairness in the hiring and compensation packages of adjunct professors are doing critical work. If you are doing that work, I applaud and support you. But I would also suggest that you — individual little you, not political-hat-wearing you — spend an equal amount of time and energy cultivating your own “Plan B” career.

If you are currently spending any time at all fighting political battles in your department or university, divert 50 percent of that energy to planning your non-academic career (how? Read this book). If you watch TV for more than 5 hours a week, spend 50 percent of your TV time building your non-academic network (how? Read this article). If your university is undergoing a hiring freeze, spend one hour a week reading a book about non-academic résumés (like this one). If your university canceled a hire, spend two hours a week brushing up on non-academic Web sites (like this one). If your university laid off or did not re-hire any adjunct faculty, spend three hours a week doing information interviews (information what?). If folks in your department took early retirements and slashed your photocopying budget by 50 percent, see a career coach.

Then, do the most important thing you can do when you get your non-academic career: tell everyone you know. Scholars out there have to know that there is life outside the ivory tower that is far more personally and professionally satisfying than adjuncting ever, ever could be.


5 Networking Strategies

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

Networking is a word that can strike fear in the heart of even the mightiest wanna-be academic ex-pat. It’s something you know you’re supposed to do, but aren’t sure how to do it. You’ve heard it’s not the sleazy activity that the word connotes anymore, but you still haven’t got the faintest clue where to start. Not only that, you might feel especially behind the 8-ball if you’re one of those academics who claims not to know anyone outside of academia. How can you network your way into a non-academic position if the only people you know are other academics?

I’ve got five straightforward steps you can use to start plugging in to non-academic jobs (including that whole “hidden job market” hoo-ha) today. Think of them in a pyramid formation — steps that you take moving from the bottom of the pyramid to the top.

1. Tune in to your existing contacts. The best place to start with networking is not by signing up for an impersonal networking event or by starting a cold calling campaign. It’s by reaching out to the people you already know. These people form the base of your networking pyramid.

Here’s an exercise that will appeal to the truly Type-A among you (and will begin to appease those who insist they don’t know anyone who works outside an academic institution): take out a piece of paper, an Excel spreadsheet or a contact management tool like Plaxo. Make a list of every person you know. Yes, every person you know is a contact. I’m talking family, friends, former profs, former co-workers, your massage therapist, online friends, Facebook buddies, staff at the gym, people you play sports or Scrabble with, the concierge of your building, your department’s administrator, that cutie-pie librarian, the director of the cat shelter where you used to volunteer, the health food store clerk you chat with every Saturday morning, and so forth (there — you still think you don’t know anyone outside of academe?). And don’t forget: your academic contacts (grad students, this includes your supervisor) also have non-academic contacts, so don’t leave them out (if you’re emotionally ready for that).

Reach out to those people (in person or electronically) and let them know you’re job hunting. Yeah, that might feel really weird, depending on how deeply entrenched you are in your academic career. But people these days will understand that most scholars need to be making backup plans.

Plant the seed in the brains of folks who know you that you’re looking for a job, and ask them if they would keep you in mind if they hear of anything. Be prepared with some kind of answer when they ask, “What kind of work are you looking for?” And then, once you’ve had that conversation, look for ways you can give all of those people a helping hand.

2. Take to your online networks. Moving up your networking pyramid, you go from the people you know in person to the people you know online. Let your contacts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn know that you’re job-hunting. But heed the advice that most social media folks are espousing these days about not looking desperate. Instead of updating your status to, “Am desperate for a job in MegaDesirable Town. Any leads?” try to write updates that demonstrate your initiative in the job-search process. “Just had a great conversation with @thejobsguy about a potential consulting job in Austin,” or “I love how idealist.org makes job searching so easy,” will convey the right message. While you’re at it, use those same online tools to start connecting with people who are in the line of work you want to get into.

3. Next, move from the people you know in person and online to people you haven’t met before. This means reaching out to any names you collect from your existing contacts, or responding to introductions to third parties that your existing contacts have extended to you. This usually means entering the land of the information interview. There is lots of material online (and, of course, in books like So What Are You Going to Do With That?) about how to set up and what to say in an information interview. Don’t forget: an information interview should be brief (20 – 30 minutes) and it should be a chance for you to shut up and listen, not talk about yourself (unless you’re invited to). Ask for names of other contacts you can reach out to, but don’t expect anyone to be doling out job offers. And for the love of Eagleton, don’t forget to send a thank you note afterward (both to the person who referred you and to your new contact).

4. Next up: make yourself useful. This means reaching out to strangers in a capacity where you can actually do good and show off your skills at the same time. In the online world, this means contributing to listservs, showing your expertise on a blog and providing good links on Twitter. In the real world, this means volunteering, getting on a board of a worthy organization, offering to take notes at a convention where people in your desired sector will be, and look for opportunities to solve problems.

5. At the top of the networking pyramid is good old cold calling/e-mailing. Have an organization in mind where you’d love to work? Know of a sector or role where you’d jump at the chance to use your skills? Get on the horn and explain your situation. Like with the info interview, be brief, be gracious and don’t expect anything other than a chance to chat and learn. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how frequently people are generously willing to talk to you about their own career paths into the job they’re doing. If there’s a good connection there, keep in touch. Ask for more contact names. Return the favor.

Networking often doesn’t yield immediate results. It can take a long time of you moving your way up and down the networking pyramid for you to land in front of the person who’s going to hire you. You are going to want to develop your elevator pitch, and come up with a friendly, brief answer to, “You mean you don’t want to be a university professor anymore?” (and its variants). It’s true that including fellow academics in your non-academic job search can mean suffering through some potentially awkward moments. But don’t be a Hector Projector (“He thinks I’m a failure that I’m quitting teaching!”) and keep your purpose (viz. switching careers) foremost in mind. And remember, networking is just one more component in your new research project — the one that will land you in your next career.


Alternate Angles

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

I sometimes get mail from readers who are at the very beginning of their academic careers. They’re looking for advice about how they can situate their research to make themselves as employable as possible when they’re finished. This is, of course, a very smart and practical question — but makes the liberal arts lovers among us sigh a little bit. The thing is, these days, it’s the students with the greatest passion for the liberal arts who find themselves having to ask the question.

I recently heard from someone who is currently in a master’s program and is being groomed for a spot in the Ph.D. program. “I enjoy my classes,” he wrote, “and I’m thrilled by thinking about what I might do for a thesis project, but at the same time I feel a bit torn between pursuing my intellectual interests, and focusing on developing the skills I need for the ideal job I want.”

Testify! Now, this person did recognize that a thesis project and developing job skills don’t have to be mutually exclusive. However, the problem is that once you are immersed in a doctoral program of research, your focus has absolutely nothing to do with your transferable skills; in fact, the higher up you climb on the academic ladder, the more you feel you don’t have any skills at all. The work, then, of convincing yourself that you’re not totally useless once you exit a Ph.D. program is exhausting and emotional. And re-packaging yourself and putting yourself onto the non-academic job market is just plain hard.

Young Academics

I see two solutions for the young academics who think they might want to pursue a Ph.D. program but also want to be realistic about their academic job prospects.

The first has to do with making the process of skills-building during graduate school a transparent one. This involves the kind of regular maintenance and upkeep that most scholars do with their academic CVs. As you move through the different steps of your graduate program — coursework, writing the dissertation proposal, serving on committees, teaching, and so on — keep track of the skills you used to get each of those things done. These are skills that may be invisible to you before doing this exercise, but are quite essential on the non-academic job market. Won a $5,000 scholarship? Mark that down under fund-raising and grant writing skills. Served for a year on the tenure and promotions committee? Tick the make-believe box next to administrative and teamwork skills. Taught an introductory course? Check, check and check for project planning skills, doing oral presentations/public speaking and conducting evaluations.

By keeping track not just of the outcomes of your academic success but the actual skills you used to produce those outcomes, you’re well on your way to combating the all-too-common feelings of simultaneous overqualification and underqualification that plague newly minted Ph.D.’s. Moreover, when you go to write your two-page employment résumé, your skills won’t be invisible to you. You’ll be just that much more prepared to speak fluently about what you did in school and what you can offer to prospective employers.

Anyone who wants to pursue a life of the mind and yet also feel confident about their employability at the end of the Ph.D. experience should make the job of tracking their skills a crucial and vital component of their time in graduate school. Any time you update your CV, update your skills inventory. Update it, too, whenever you jump over a fresh academic hurdle.

The second way to broach the quandary of wanting to conduct academic research and not be stuck jobless at the end of the academic road is by taking a more mercenary approach with your work. So far, I have not met a single former academic who was able to apply their research directly into a non-academic job. However, I have met lots of former academics who realized in retrospect how their research happened to intersect with their post-academic work.

But if I were going to go back and be really strategic about my research, this is what I would do. I would take time to think about an organization that I’d really love to work for. It could be an organization that uses research (like a non-profit or health care agency, for example), conducts research (like a corporation or think tank) or commissions research (like the federal government). I would try to develop contacts inside of that organization and do some information interviews. I would let them know what I loved about the organization and how I could see myself working there in a research capacity. And then I would ask them about what their needs were. I would find out about their problems, their stumbling blocks, the issues that they face. And then I would dedicate my research to solving their problem.

I would keep in touch with them over the years, through staff turnovers, office politics and, perhaps, through their own internal solving of their problems. I would accept the risk that my research itself may be outdated by the time I finish, or that the solution I had developed was not workable or consistent with their organizational culture.

But the point of the exercise — other than getting a Ph.D. — would be to demonstrate my deep knowledge of the organization, my commitment to the organization’s cause/mission, my strategic thinking skills, and my savvy at attempting to keep one foot in the academic camp and the other foot in the “real world.” At the end, even if the organization didn’t hire me, I’d still be able to display those attributes (knowledge, commitment, strategic thinking, savvy) to another employer who would value that kind of worker.

Those are two totally different approaches that young researchers could take if they’re concerned about life after the Ph.D. Are you a young researcher working some kind of post-academic angle? Do you know anyone who chose their research with a job in mind? Or someone who turned their research project into a career? I’d love to hear about it.


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.


11 things you need to know about leaving academia

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

I’ve been working on the Leaving Academia project, on and off, for three years now. And there are 11 things that I absolutely know are true about leaving academia. They are:

1. You can do it. You can leave academia and survive. You can leave academia and THRIVE, in fact.

2. It is incredibly scary. Figuring out what to do in your post-academic life can feel like one giant question mark pressing down on you with a weight similar to that of writing a dissertation; with enough time, though, and enough self-reflection, you will figure out what you want to do.

3. Your whole life won’t come tumbling down into shambles if you leave academia.

4. You have tons of options for your post-academic career (even though it may not feel that way), many of which have nothing to do with your area of study, but have everything to do with your core skills (e.g. project management, policy analysis, consulting, organizing).

5. You are not crazy if you want to have a satisfying job in a city you actually like and to have your partner and family living with you and to live near your friends.

6. You might not switch immediately into your dream job right away but you will get to your dream job a hell of a lot more quickly if you bail from academia now rather than never (in fact, in my case, I didn’t want to jump into a challenging dream job; first, I wanted to just take an intellectual break with an easy job that had solid pay and fab benefits). It might take a few years for you to select the organization that you really care about and climb your way into the job of your dreams. However, just because you might start out closer to the bottom than you would like isn’t reason enough to stay in a career stream that might not ever offer you any satisfaction at all.

7. If academia WAS your dream job but you’re tired of living in the adjuncting/contract teaching trenches, there are other options for you to use your passion for teaching/learning, your communications skills, your love of reading and your skills at writing and researching. Remember, people — this is the knowledge and information economy we are living in. A.B.D.’s and Ph.D.’s hold enormous currency in this era.

8. One really big secret: most people outside higher ed don’t give a shit if you leave academia, so don’t bother feeling guilt about leaving. Sure, some people like your grad supervisor or your faculty chair might be disappointed. But are you really going to make yourself responsible for their feelings, while totally denying yours? Come on. Leave that parent-child dynamic back in your family of origin where it belongs.

9. One other really big secret: a lot of people will actually be jealous of you if you leave academia. Sure, their jealousy might come out in the guise of contempt and guilt-making (oooh, if only I could name names and point fingers, here!). But just like the boy who is cruel to the girl he has a crush on, those unhappy people who try to rain on your bold career change have their own problems to sort out. Don’t make their problem your problem.

10. I also want to challenge the idea that once you leave academia, you can never go back. I have heard of a handful of examples of people returning to academia, either decades later as they channel their post-academic professional successes into academic work or as they return simply as adjunct/contract faculty. The sands of academia are shifting and my hunch is that the re-formulation of universities into job farms and knowledge-provision centers, and with the increase of private money (oops, I mean “partnerships”) into universities, that the door does not slam shut as firmly as it used to.

11. The other really, really big secret: You deserve better than the life you may be having and the treatment you may be getting in your grad school career. Grad school and adjunct teaching can suck out your soul; being on the tenure track can be fraught with fear as you wonder if this is what you really want to do, and if you want to do it in the city you’ve ended up in. You don’t have to put up with it any more. You have all the skills and resources you need to plan out a realistic, do-able career change. Just look at some of the people who have done just that: Buffy Sainte-Marie (Ph.D. Fine Art, University of Masschusetts), Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (A.B.D. Finance, University of Alabama), Bust magazine founder Debbie Stoller (Ph.D. English, Yale), and the hottest one of all: the incredible Miuccia Prada has a Ph.D. in political science. Miuccia Prada! If that doesn’t serve as inspiration for becoming satisfied and successful in life beyond academe, I don’t know what does.

Is there anything I’ve missed? What would you like to add to this list?