“I know you must be feeling confused, because you’re here [in the job-hunt] and you know that you learned something during your PhD. But you’re not really sure what that something is –or how to use it. But trust me, you know things. And soon enough it’ll all start making sense.” –E.M.S., PhD
You know what’s inspiring? Other post-academics. In-between LinkedIn stalking everyone I know, I have acquired a hobby of researching post-academics who made the switch 3–10 years ago. I guess looking at other people’s success gives me hope for my own story. When I was pondering when to “come out” as a post-academic in grad school, before even starting this blog, reading the chronicles of other grad students was huge. It turned out that I wasn’t the only grad student in the world who felt unfulfilled regardless of how much effort I put into papers. I wasn’t the only one feeling scared of talking to their adviser.
These days I still read these blogs, but I’ve also uncovered online so many post-academic PhDs in the social sciences with (in my view) pretty awesome careers. They’ve climbed the corporate ladder. They’ve started their own companies. They do cool things that matter. So worry not, my fellow post-academic. Success outside of academia happens. From the looks of these people’s online footprints, you just need to know what you want, work hard, and give it time.
I should thank all the great post-academics I’ve met with in person, either having coffee/lunch/drinks to talk about my job search, or at actual job interviews. I promise you I will pay it forward! E.M.S. is a PhD with whom I talked a few days ago. Ze left academia ~6 years ago and after a few jobs has started a new company. Maybe you weren’t moved by the words I began this post with, but I was. I feel like that so often these days –what did I learn during my PhD? Just the answers to the qualifying exam questions? The methodology in my dissertation? This sounds so stupid when I write it/say it out loud, but it boils down to this: I know I’m smart, but I’ve always proven this by writing a paper or acing an exam. There is no equivalent in the post-academic job market interview world. The result is me obsessing over potential interview questions (with answers I’ve memorized by now). I’d just like my résumé to say “Look, I work hard, I learn fast, I figure things out on my own, and any salary you offer me will be more than my grad student stipend. Hire me!”
If I had to give a tip on interview prep, it would be to always have a brief, professional answer to the question “Why are you leaving academia?”
Do (maybe these aren’t the best ones and that’s why I don’t have a job yet, but they could be worse):
- Mention how you like fast-paced environments.
- Talk about “done is better than perfect”
- Let them know how you want your academic research to have real-world applications that could save the world / make tons of money /revolutionize the industry.
- Express your interest in learning-by-doing
- Stare blankly at the interviewer
- Cry/throw things/laugh awkwardly
- Talk about the a-holes in your department or university
- Mention money
- Say this is just temporary while the job market season starts again
- Take more than 1 minute to answer
Preparing this answer really put things into perspective for me. A year ago, graduate school and the transition seemed like a huge deal that I would carry with me for the rest of my life. I probably would have directed the interviewer to this very blog and made them read the whole thing so that they would “understand” what it has been like for me. Today I don’t even think about that question anymore. It’s a chapter in my book, a line in my résumé. Only the start of my career.
The job search has taken longer than I wanted it to. I feel discouraged, and sometimes even out of ideas. But then helpful people come along and give me strength to hang in there. I’m not alone: others have made the jump before me, survived, and thrived. So will I. So will you!
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.
It was almost a year since I had first mentioned my qualms about academic life, so by now I just wanted to finish. I was tired of feeling guilty and angry and confused, of the awkwardness at the department, of being ignored by my professors. And so I tried to focus on submitting the dissertation and preparing the defense.
Then, a couple of weeks before D-day, I had a conversations with department members and heard their version of the last year. I think it was important for me to hear this and appreciate the people who voiced these opinions, but I will hate their timing forever. I heard theories about my decision. They ranged from “nervous breakdown” to “manipulative mastermind whose goal was to take advantage of the department and TNRU”. None of that was really surprising; academic departments are full of gossip and politics. Plus, in an environment where academia is the only right path, anyone who strays from it must be mentally challenged, unstable, or plain evil. I got over this pretty quickly. But hearing my advisers’ reactions to my decision got to me. They were blindsided. Our relationship began years before the job market and they always thought I “had it”. Not only were they disappointed that I was refusing to even try being an Assistant Professor; they thought I had handled my exit poorly. They were convinced I was making the wrong decision.
… fuck. Fuck a duck. My dissertation defense would take place in a room full of disappointed people who think I’m wrong. That’s not a very promising scenario. [I could have saved myself a lot of stress if I would’ve realized, once I had a defense date, that an unsuccessful defense is seen as a huge fail for the PhD candidate and the committee alike. They could not fail me. I didn’t know that, so I was very stressed out.]
What could I do? Could I meet with the committee beforehand to smooth things over? Apologize? Say something during the defense? Guilt, sadness, loneliness, doubt: all the feelings that had been a constant in my life since the first time I questioned the academic path came back and piled onto the stress of preparing a dissertation defense. I felt that I was doing something wrong, and I hated myself for it. Did I take advantage of TNRU? It’s not like I’m taking my fellowship and grants and buying a house in the Bahamas. Did I take advantage of the committee members? Professors could have invested in other projects and students. But I also worked hard on their experiments, their surveys, their articles, their TA chores. And, of course, again I wondered… am I making the wrong choice?
Then I manned up. I don’t know how but there was a catharsis. I decided to stop trying to change their opinion about me. I wouldn’t apologize for taking control of my professional life. I reasoned that in any conference presentation or peer-review process, science shouldn’t be influenced by attitudes toward the scientists. A dissertation defense shouldn’t be any different. OK, maybe that’s not how science really happens. But whatever. I needed something to break the cycle of wanting to leave but also wanting to please everyone. Regardless of my own feelings about academic life and the research industry, I went to class, TA’d, reviewed articles, and produced the best dissertation I could (it’s pretty crappy and I can’t even look at it. But I don’t doubt that I gave it my absolute best shot). I expected my committee to do the same: regardless of their disappointment, they should be able to judge my dissertation objectively.
And so it was. The defense was not as horrible as I thought it would be. Maybe I had prepared very well and obsessed over insignificant details. Maybe my committee didn’t bother to prepare hard questions. No blood was shed, but no champagne was popped either. After the defense I went for a long run, ate, and slept for 15 hours straight.
A few days later, my library books were returned, my office was packed. The paperwork was submitted. Signing the forms is what I imagine signing divorce papers might feel like: something’s technically over, but something still feels unfinished. I found myself thinking a lot about my advisers and what I heard they had said. I needed closure. I needed to say that I wish things wouldn’t have been so messy. I don’t know what I would change. I don’t think I’ll be a student again, ever. But I don’t regret going to graduate school either. I wanted my mentors to know I’m not throwing their teachings away. I won’t use them the way they would want me to, but I still see myself as a scholar. Just… one who dissents from the idea that academia is the only worthwhile intellectual pursuit on the planet.
Objectively, I sincerely think my graduate experience was pretty great. I had to tell them I knew this. TNRU is a fantastic institution. I never had to worry about funding (not on the lap of luxury, but I could always count on a stipend). The undergrads were really smart. For years, these professors’ doors were wide open to me and my questions. And I learned A LOT, about my academic field and about myself. If I couldn’t be happy in this great academic setting, it’s pretty unlikely that I’d be happy in a different institution or in a different role.
Over a series of 1 on 1 coffee meetings, some held on to the poker face, some were more expressive. A couple of times it felt like I was saying goodbye, other times I felt like we were turning the page and moving on in our professional relationship. In all cases, I felt that talking after I had already defended was the right call. Most importantly, I felt like my PhD was finally done.
It’s over. I’m done. I made it! So many times I felt that this day wouldn’t come. But it did. Now, I’m officially Dr. Dissenting Scholar. YES!!
Lately, I question my decision to leave academe as much as I question every sentence in my dissertation. Am I sure post-academia is the right path for me? Even just now, typing the question, I feel a knot in my stomach. I mean, I got this far. Almost PhD at TNRU. I’ve been a good student and I worked hard to get to this point. A few months ago, before announcing that I was done with this, I had job offers. It looked like I was off to a good start as a young academic. Why did I hate academe so much? How did I reach this decision?
I’ve been reading On the Fence, the chronicles of a fellow academic who struggled for months between academic and postacademic career paths. I understand what ze is talking about. I’ve hated research before. I’ve hated academic institutions before. I have thought about leaving before. Hell, I didn’t even apply to that many graduate schools because I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted to do. All those times, I pushed through the misery and kept working. Why don’t I do the same right now? Maybe I am just tired. Maybe once I defend my dissertation, I’ll forget about all this nonsense and be happy and in love with the research I produced. Or maybe that’ll happen once I teach my first class as a tenure-track professor. My point is, what if I’m quitting just when things were supposed to get better? It’s that feeling that I can’t look away from the TV because it’s the bottom of the eighth and if I do, I might miss that defining home run.
…and so I fear… I really, really fear the dissertation afterlife. It’s been a huge part of my life for the past two years, plus that year when I pretty much searched between furniture cushions and under rocks for a topic. For the past 750-or-so days I have woken up thinking about the dissertation: a work-in-progress, a huge mess, a to-do list that never ends. In a few days, it will be submitted. A few weeks later, I hope to successfully defend it. What will it be like the day after that?
Before facing that question, I’ve been working on the idea that the dissertation will never really be finished. There will always be a to-do list; things I’d like to improve about it, things I’d like to do differently, possible extensions… I feel like I owe it to myself to leave academe on a high note. If this is the last mark I make in social science research, I’d like it to be a damn fine one. Besides, I’m a perfectionist. I like to get it right. I’m always aiming for the best. I can’t deny that a few times, I’ve liked being the best more than I’ve liked an activity itself. That’s probably what got me into this mess in the first place. My perfectionism affects the dissertation through an incessant urge to check my data for coding errors, daily Google Scholar searches for papers contradicting my theses, countless paragraphs obliterated and then rewritten with the same idea. Sometimes I wonder how different these paragraphs are from each other. I suspect not much. In any case, there is a tension between this feeling and my urge to move on and put this PhD thing behind me.
There’s also the insecurity that comes from having so little feedback from my committee. Before, I was their top priority. Their reputation and TNRU’s reputation would have benefited from my performance in the
academic job market and as a researcher, so I had their full attention. Now, because they are disappointed, because they don’t see how my future career could benefit them, and because there are so many other promising students in the department who have not betrayed them like I have, I got moved to the back of the classroom. The bottom of the pile.
My new position has taken a while to get used to. My committee’s evaluation of my research has determined my PhD path, but my opus magnum is being made in the dark. “Popping in” to talk to committee members has been a small-talk disaster. Scheduled meetings haven’t been better –my questions are shrugged off or dismissed with dull comments. Emailed drafts have gone unacknowledged. Before, I thought that dissertation writing was a very lonely experience, but this new loneliness doesn’t compare. I don’t resent this. I really don’t. I understand why I am no longer a priority. I’m just saying it’s tough. Ultimately, I’m afraid that one day they will decide to see my work and be even more disappointed, or find horrible mistakes.
Side note: I think it’s funny that dissertations are so frequently viewed as opera magna. Haven’t we all heard someone say “it’s not like this is a dissertation!” when someone is putting too much thought into something? Academically, though, the dissertation seems to be a huge deal and the one printed piece of research all scholars wish to keep out of everyone’s sight. Everyone I talk to hates theirs, and some will admit to these being less-than-ideal works that were approved because of a job offer.
In closing, this “finishing up” stage of the PhD took me by surprise. I think it’s the down side of my “one day at a time” approach to my past years in academe. From now till D day, I repeat:
Don’t get it right. Get it written
A good dissertation is a defended dissertation
Hey, you’re okay. You’ll be fine. Just breathe
(the last one is from Ze Frank’s “chillout song”. It’s here)
During my way out of academe, I’ve heard very frequently that I need to be very sure that I want to do this, because “it will be difficult to come back” or “you will lose credibility as a serious researcher” or “you won’t be able to get an academic job anywhere”. These phrases need to be preceded by “We will make sure that…”
My voyage toward the free world continued here: my dissertation proposal included a part that would need extra funds to be executed. Once I had dropped the I’mLeavingAcademia bomb, the time came for me to buckle down on this part of the dissertation and find some funds. Yes, I know, it’s pretty late for me to try to get extra dissertation funding if I’m already on the job market. What can I say? I’ve had a lot of things on my plate and I kept putting this off… Anyway, when I sent the applications to my committee for their comments before sending them out, they quickly responded these grants were meant for people going into academia, so it didn’t really make sense for me to apply to them. One said it would be “embarrassing” to write a letter of recommendation now that I wasn’t going into academe. A more eloquent professor called it “awkward”.
If they were not planning on supporting the project and their expectations had changed, I really could have used this information before I spent a month on applications. Of course, the deeper concern was what other expectations had changed. I went to sleep wishing I was still expected to finish the dissertation sometime soon. I have to admit this was the toughest lap of the walk. I felt powerless and frustrated; I was painfully aware that my work of so many years could so easily be fettered by someone else’s disappointment.
Finally, there is the literal walk of shame: walking around the department a few weeks after my announcement. There are three types of encounters in this walk:
- The not-so-bad ones are people who want to be supportive, but had no idea I wasn’t in the academic job market anymore. “How did your interviews go?” “Congratulations on the offer!” “How is your job search?”. Great. It’s all good, I was so flattered to get these interviews, it was fun. It’s going great.
- The professors. Outside of my committee, only one of them has approached me. Ze was kind. Ze mentioned that even though the going gets tough, the profession has many pluses and can be very rewarding. Ze wished ze could have told me about these pluses sooner. Ze told me of another student who had started a post-academic search. The other professors just stare with judging eyes. I’d rather not have them staring at me without saying anything, but otherwise I don’t think I need to spend too much time explaining or justifying myself to them.
- The other job marketeers. I disliked encountering them the most, because I feel guilty but angry at the same time. We all took the same classes, we’re all on the same schedule, we have similar LORs, and they actually want an academic job. I feel guilty because I flew to interviews and some of them did not. I got the offers and they did not. They feel I treated these golden opportunities with disdain by walking away. This brings me to the angry feeling: Screw all of you. Do you have any idea how much pressure I was under? I wish you could get a clue about how hard it was to make this decision. I wish you could feel the unhappiness I felt these years. You all have your committee. You have each other as shoulders to cry on. The department supports you. I was alone. I am alone.
Worry not, reader. Several weeks after these events, I believe I’m out of the woods. The walking and shaming seems to be over.
So yes, it’s true. Walking the walk is not the same as talking the talk. I read the blog posts (see blogroll on the right-hand sidebar), I did my time at the shrink’s, I discussed with my SO, and I talked to my committee. The common topic was: this is going to be rough.
Well, now I have lived through the roughness. Basically, everyone inside the ivory tower -TNRU campus was mad at me. But rather than pushing me off the tower, they decided to make me walk down its main staircase. Wearing a giant dunce cap, of course.
For the warm-up lap, I was instructed to write to all academic jobs I applied to to withdraw my application. Yes, even the universities that hadn’t expressed any interest in me. Of course you should write to places that interviewed you, as a professional courtesy. But other places? I think it was just so I had to write that I was leaving a bunch of times.
Next up, the e-mail was to say I was withdrawing “for personal reasons”. Like I am sick. Leaving aside the part where this suggests post-academia is a disease, I consider my reasons to be completely professional: I want a different work environment that involves more team work, tangible results, more short-term professional development, and a 12-month salary. Saying I leave for personal reasons is a lie, but then again I had told so many lies during the season…
As I expected, the third lap involved cancelling my participation at conferences. You know, because of my illness. “It’s just not useful for you anymore.” This led to a smooth transition into the next lap: if I am not presenting at conferences and I won’t have a tenure clock, it really doesn’t make sense for me to continue being on those co-authored projects. I thought the professional thing to do was to finish what I had started and honor all my existing commitments. Furthermore, I wasn’t worried about the tenure clock when I started these projects. I got involved because I think they are interesting and challenging questions that will yield useful results inside and outside of academe. These lines sound very cheesy, but whatever. It’s true. The real bummer is I will never get the hours I invested back. Hell, I might not even get a “thanks”.
Enough shame for tonight.
One of my best friends says ze would be an academic even if they didn’t pay hir. If the job market goes wrong, and ze does not land a post-doc, adjunct, visiting, or assistant professor position anywhere, ze will go home and continue to do research from there. I would love to feel that way, but I don’t. Never have.
I’m not saying that this is an easy conclusion to get to. When, before I started the PhD program, I couldn’t really see myself in academe in the long run, I told myself I was afraid of the unknown. When this feeling came back at the end of each term, I told myself I felt that way because I wasn’t doing a good enough job. I reasoned that if I worked harder and better, that thought would go away. In short, for me the “academic calling” was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The point is that a few months ago I decided to stop chasing it. I am certain I will never get the calling, and I don’t say it in a disappointed or nostalgic way. It’s OK. I feel proud and relieved to have “come out” and to have stood up for what I want for my life. Great, yes?
No. Changing career paths is not that simple. My advisers were very clear about this. They warned me about everything that can go wrong after parting with academe, and how “you can never come back”. The response was right on the border of “We are seriously concerned about your professional future and wellbeing” and “We expect you to follow this career and will use any tactic –even scaring/intimidating –to get you there”. Their messages worked: I told myself that it couldn’t hurt to explore all possible options, and that I’d rather be employed than unemployed, so an academic job was better than no job.
This is how/why I ended up travelling to remote corners of the US of A like a salesperson, selling my academic potential and ambition. I nearly lost my mind in this process. It was an intermittent out-of-body experience. When I was out of my body, I observed myself talk to professors, deans, graduate students. Apparently, at some point during my stay at TNRU, the interview performance got embedded in some previously unchartered part of my brain. First, I don’t have an academic ambition, and I don’t know how one projects “academic potential”. I couldn’t recognize myself. When I was in my body, though, I was incredibly confused. Most evidently, most of what I was saying was a lie. If I taught a class on this field, I would use this book. My mentoring style would be this way. I cannot wait to continue my research in this teeny tiny subfield. At the very least it was all true, but founded on a false premise: that I wanted those jobs. The fact that everyone at the universities I visited was so encouraging of my academic career plans and interested in learning about me only added to the confusion: what if this is what I am supposed to do? Will interviews in any other field go as well? Played.
I met with a professor to “talk about the job market”. I brought up my post-academic job search, and ze looked perplexed. Ze explained the surprise came from the idea in the department that I had already been “talked off the ledge” and had forgotten all the post-academic nonsense once the interviews began. In other words, my big bold meetings from a few months ago were a panic attack, a tantrum. Sure enough, once the offers came in I was flooded with recommendations on how to negotiate a better contract. I said I was still waiting on post-academic job news. They said there was no need to do so anymore because I already had the offers here. Played.
I’m in it, and this week I am panicked. I feel a strong pull toward the academic market, even though I continue to dislike the idea of becoming a professor. But for an academic job search, I know what to do because it is the only job search they talk about in graduate school. We have model “teaching philosophy” documents, and model “letters of interest”. The department is very invested in helping us assemble the perfect dossiers to make us shiny, attractive candidates.
For the non-academic job market, I have nothing: no support or feedback, no adviser, no idea of what makes a good dossier. They want “skills” and “accomplishments”, not “Grants” and “Sample Syllabus”. An application asked two “long answer” questions (500 words). My writing samples are 10,000 words. How can you answer a question in 500 words? There is no room for a lit review!
This week, academia was attractive to me. It felt like the safe way to go. I want to resist the inertia, but feel like I’m walking into one of those ugly, foggy, dark forests in movies where we all know the main character is about to get in trouble.
To end on a positive note, I would like to recommend “So what are you going to do with that?”, a book by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. This book has great and very practical advice about leaving academe. It helped me stop wallowing in my “I hate academia” sorrows and start taking action about my future and my professional happiness.