When I grow up

All this reading, reflecting and writing about my professional profile brought me back to the fundamental question: What do I want to be when I grow up? I hear a voice inside me saying “Time’s up, Dissenting Scholar. You said you wanted to be a Doctor of philosophy, but that’s a title, not a profession.* You also said you wanted to be ‘not an academic’, but that’s not really something you can make a living out of. You are a grownup NOW, so… what’s it going to be?” I am overwhelmed. Maybe I stayed in school precisely to avoid having to answer this question? What if I make the wrong choice and hate my job?

The truth is I’m getting sick of all this pondering and soul-searching. Last year was full of that. Plus, the blogroll spoke: based on other brave post-acs’ experiences, I probably won’t land my dream job this year.  PAINNYC’s relation of her temp job at The Skyscraper Office (you can read it here) is a good example. Rumination doesn’t make sense anymore: I’ve finished the PhD and moved away from TNRU. A job will be the most visible sign that I’ve moved on from the Ivory Tower, but I felt like I needed to move on mentally. Stop thinking about the decision; that’s done. Just get a job. I really need one. What I need is to find out the steps of job-getting and execute them.

This probably put me in the wrong mood to find out what color my parachute is. I was looking for a vocational horoscope. Instead I got a really long workbook with interesting factoids about the job market and a few introspective exercises.  Spoiler alert: the parachute is a metaphor. Ask a Manager’s post, recommended by Another Post Academic (http://anotherpostacademicblog.wordpress.com/) and Toonces was more what I was looking for.  

In this job search process, I think there is an ontological gap between this book and post-academics/recent PhDs. We are trained to specialize, to possess a knowledge or skill that makes unique and original contributions to humanity’s understanding of things. It feels like the post-ac job market, in contrast, is about how anyone can do anything, about how skills are so nimble and adaptable to so many different industries and jobs. So the job search requires some re-branding. Initially, my (very academic) approach was to think of myself as an expert on my dissertation topics. This type of analysis. This really cool social science topic. I taught a college-level course on Something Moderately Interesting three times, so I guess that makes me an expert on that too. I … am a PhD.

That means nothing and wastes everybody’s time. In my job search now I emphasize what I can do. At a higher level, I’m a professional learner: I am trained to figure things out. As a PhD, I know how to look at a big picture (ie an entire social science) and then zoom into it from all angles until I find the one tiny spot where paint is missing (my dissertation topic). And then I won’t sleep until that spot is painted, even if that means I have to literally make paint (ie field work). More practically speaking, as a professional learner I can pick skills up pretty quickly and independently, like the time when I taught myself Python for a conference paper.  I’m really good with deadlines and have never asked for an extension on anything in my life. I multitask. I’m great at explaining stuff.

The attitude makeover has been accompanied by a bigger emphasis on networking. My biggest lesson learned is that a successful application process doesn’t start with an application at all. In the academic market, good advisers will do some of the work for you, by talking about you to other academics, presenting at conferences with you, keeping an eye out for openings… their job is to get you the interview, and your job is to close the deal. In the post-ac market, you have to be your own adviser, networking and surveying the market before applications are due. So… networking meetings, introductions, meetups, social media, company referrals…  like this post says, you gotta hustle.

* except, of course, if you become a college professor, in which case Doctor is often used as a synonym of Professor. But you literally just left that career path. So…. yeah.

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