“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.
So about these “non-academic jobs” I’ve been hearing about…How do I get me one of those? Where is the philjobs/apsa ejobs/ aer jobs website so I can submit my applications? Instead of a teaching philosophy or research statement, should I just write up a post academic manifesto to submit along with my resume? I uploaded a couple of dissertation chapters to my personal website and uncluttered my resume. It is now only 2.5 pages long. Anyone who has tried to be supportive in the past few months has told me I’ll get a job in no time, “what with your TNRU diploma, and a PhD at such a young age…”
The paragraph above is written with humor, but it’s not far away from my initial gut about job searching. I’m completely clueless. Even though I did not want an academic job, I knew just how to get one. Every year during grad school the job market season would happen, and so stressed out ABDs roamed the halls, we heard their practice job talks, we speculated, analyzed, gossiped… we witnessed this process knowing it would one day be our turn. Finally, my own “job market season” began, long before applications were due. All the information was laid out for me about what schools I had a good chance of getting a job in, what to say during the interviews, how to pitch my dissertation in 5 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute… Good advisers, like mine, blaze the trail for you: they introduce you to people, get you into conferences, coauthor with you, talk about you.
As it turns out, there is no such adviser in the non-academic world. Nobody is out there mentioning my name, there are no small-circle conferences to attend and make myself known. Plus… THERE ARE SO MANY DIFFERENT JOBS! In academe, there are more or less 3 jobs: assistant professor, adjunct/visiting professor/lecturer, researcher. Here, there are managers, analysts, research scientists (as opposed to research humanists, maybe?), directors, consultants, associates. Which one am I? Writing it out like that, I sound really stupid. But the point is important: I want a job and I want a career, and I want my career to be meaningful and involve lots of blatdingocks and chipadoo analyses (words invented by me for generality), but how does that translate into a successful job application process?
Old habits die hard, and my scholarly instinct took charge. I decided to do a little research on how to get a job. I went to the Career place at TNRU. The two pieces of advice were: network and restructure your resume (2.5 pages is too long. I should aim for 1). These are actually two suggestions in “So What are you Going to Do with That?”. I really like that book and highly recommend it. It’s a short read. My shrink suggested reading “What Color is your Parachute?”. That’s not such a short read.
Ultimately, all my research raised a really important question that I hadn’t asked myself in a long time: what do I want to be when I grow up? For the past five years, I just answered “a Doctor of Philosophy”. For at least a year, I’ve known I don’t want to be an academic. Academia is a set of jobs with 3 elements in it. Non-academia would be the set “infinity – academia” of jobs. I’ve been so focused on finishing and leaving that I haven’t come up with a plan of what to do with the rest of my life. Dear reader: what’s your plan? Do you have one to spare for this unemployed scholar?
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.
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.
There is a widespread belief in academia that people who leave graduate school are dropouts who couldn’t hack it in the program. I take issue with this belief. I don’t like the choice of words. There are high-school dropouts and college dropouts; kids who leave school before completing the essential programs to become productive members of society. This is why there is a negative stigma around the term “dropout”. Graduate school is not such a program. I would even say that many graduate programs actually make people less productive members of society. I have this idea of a time when PhDs were all called “Doctors” everywhere, and they were polymaths: informed, knowledgeable in many subjects, very smart. PhDs today are about the opposite: they are about specializing, about narrowing down your focus to a single thing. I could talk about my subfield comfortably, but when I hear talks from other fields I feel completely lost! How did I get here? How is it that after so many years of studying I actually feel like I know less?
Anyway, people who change their minds about getting a PhD are not dropouts. They are courageous people who have a clear idea of what they want in life, and no, they don’t lose IQ when they exit the ivory tower, and no, the postacademic cooties are not contagious, and finally no, you don’t lose academic purity by remaining friends with them. In a previous post I mentioned the encouragement I received from my professors and my family. What nobody mentioned was that if you are smart enough for grad school, you are smart enough for a whole bunch of other things too. In addition to that, the first weeks of graduate school are daunting. There is a lot of work, but there is also a lot of talk about how lucky you are to be in this program. TNRU is such a prestigious department, the professors are so well recognized in their fields, and everybody is so smart (while everybody outside of campus is banal and obtuse). Academia is the winner’s circle, everybody outside of it is a loser [ by the way, isn’t it funny how in academia the post-acs are the losers, but in the post-ac world it’s “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”? ]. I didn’t want to be the loser. I knew academe isn’t for me a few months into the program, but I felt like I needed to prove to myself that it isn’t for me because I don’t like it, not because I can’t do it. So I stayed.
I remember an instance where a person who left my program was talked about with disdain. “Ze is quitting. Ze can’t take it anymore.”, someone said, “this workload isn’t for everyone.” These comments made me so angry, because clearly none of the people understood how difficult it is to decide to leave. When one ponders leaving the program, one is obviously dealing with a lot of internal struggles. We grad students are also not the “quitting” type of people, so we probably have thought this for a while and we’ve been miserable for a while. If one takes one’s eyes off the problem sets/papers/dissertation, one realizes there’s a lot to hate about academe.
The academic/work/vocation dimension is only one side of the problem. There is the issue of graduate life itself. At least for me, this dimension weighed a lot. When we choose the PhD route, we change our lives and sometimes the lives of the people we love (significant others, children…):
- You relocate, many times to a different country.
- You make a vow of poverty. Even if you have funding from your department, check your funding letter: we are funded for 9 months, even though you are expected to be a graduate student for 12. Many get loans, rely on their families, or decide to spend their life savings on graduate studies. We take on-campus jobs, get teaching gigs, get research assistant gigs. And even then, I have yet to find a graduate student who can say “I live comfortably. I think I only want a raise; I don’t actually need it.”
- You get sunk costs that grow each day you stay in grad school: Instead of starting your retirement savings, you will not save a dime. You will postpone the beginning of your career and professional experience by at least four years. Instead of buying a home, you get a room-mate. Instead of having children, you have “revise and resubmit”.
- You get out of touch with your friends. If you are foreign, you will miss many of your family and friends’ milestones because you don’t have the time or the money to be there for them.
… and then you get a hunch this isn’t what you expected, or what you want to do for the rest of your life. More directly: I sacrificed/let go of so much to get here (TNRU), and now I think I want to walk away. wow. WOW. I couldn’t leave empty-handed. Not after everything I put my family and my significant other through.
From the point of view of “true academics” you only need to be smart to stay in graduate school. For me it was really cowardice that kept me in. I was afraid of discovering the source of my unhappiness wasn’t academia but something else, something inherently wrong with me. I was afraid there won’t be a place for me outside of academe. I was afraid of disappointing people. I couldn’t deal with all this, I didn’t know how. I know how to study/write a paper/learn, so I did that and kept doing it until there was nothing left but a dissertation and the job market, and I realized I would have to deal with this or else I would start the cycle all over again.
I wish I could have talked to that person who left the program. I would’ve told hir how brave I think ze is for daring to make the jump before it was too late, like me.
One friend’s response to my “I am leaving academia” speech was “Why did you come to grad school at all? Why have you stayed in the program this long?” I kept thinking about this question and came up with what follows.
In a word, I came to graduate school by inertia. There were three sources of inertial energy.
First, my academic environment back then. At some point in the last two years of college (a research university), my professors started saying “You are smart enough to go to graduate school”. I thought their research agendas were fascinating because I am (let’s face it) a nerd. I was flattered to hear that I was smart enough to potentially be like them because I was young and insecure.
Two of them were young assistant professors who had just recently been in graduate school and on the job market. They were young, passionate about research, and friendly. Their practice was to tell the smartest students in each class that they were good enough to go to graduate school. Don’t worry: we’ve kept in touch and they have changed their views on this over time. They are now very cautious about telling all smart people to get a Ph.D, and even then, they say they recommend getting some real-world experience and researching all programs extensively before making any decisions.
Older professors also thought that Ph.D was the way for me. They paid attention to my honors thesis, invited me to the department seminars, introduced me to professors who gave talks. All this attention because they thought I was smart enough to be like them. The “enough” part made me feel like I had accomplished some kind of mission.
That brings me to source number two: myself. I admire the graduate students who, in addition to their academic genius, have exceptional talents, like running 10k races in less than 45 minutes, playing a musical instrument like a pro, being parents or creative writers. I am not multi-talented. I am not even very outgoing or physically attractive. For a long time, I have felt like I just have my intelligence and academic achievements. I have always been a good student, and now I was hearing that I was finally good enough. So I, like so many of you, fellow bloggers, saw in graduate school a safe step. By then, I knew how to be a good student and how to show it. I enjoy learning, but back then I also enjoyed “winning” in school. To me graduate school was the ultimate school challenge, the Everest. Plus, I was trying to work in the real world and didn’t know how to make my usual strategies (preparedness, study time, research) compatible with the winning strategies of the corporate world (team work, boldness, confidence, instinct). I honestly didn’t even think about what graduate school meant in terms of a life decision or a career decision. I think I just wanted the safety of the classroom.
Finally, my family. My father went to graduate school; the first person in the family to do so. My mother is a teacher. In my family, academic achievement was equivalent to personal achievement. Successful parenting meant having children who did well in school, and to me this meant that being a good student for the longest possible time was the best way to get my parents’ approval. Unconsciously, of course. I have only younger siblings and younger cousins, so I am programmed to “set an example” for them. If I am smart enough, then they all are too. I will be the first woman PhD on both sides of the family, and I don’t know why yet, but I feel a special kind of pressure because of that. It’s like I am proving that our family is progressing, or something.
I had a specific and very different dream for myself. I wanted a postacademic-world job. I had wanted the same thing since I was 15 years old, and I walked away from it because I didn’t stand up for myself; I didn’t dare to jump or be free. I let inertia take over and landed an offer of admission to Top-Notch Research University (TNRU).