A dear friend of mine – who also has a PhD – has begun thinking through her next career transition. Towards the end of her degree, she did what many people do: started a family. While she has been working in a research support position at a university for the past few years, she confided to me recently that she is interested in finding other employment. Naturally, her first thoughts have turned to applying for professorships as she is still very much interested in researching and teaching in some capacity. Of course, give the difficulties of the academic job market, this has created a certain amount of stress.
I proposed to her that she might satisfy her desire to engage with those academic job skills in other forums. Her response, like so many other Humanities PhDs coming out of the broken system, was: “But I don’t know what else is out there.” I told her that I would put together some advice, so she can start exploring the many career options – as a sole proprietor or as a member of an already established business – that are available to smart, creative, and hardworking people like ourselves. I realized while composing the email to her that this would make a useful blog post for those PhDs, who, like my friend, have been out of grad school for a few years, are raising children, working unsatisfying jobs, and are now wondering where their degrees can take them.
Identify Your Work Interests
First off, identify what is that you want to do. What is it that you miss about being in academia? Equally important, think through all of the things that frustrated you about being in academia too. Resist the temptation to nostalgize your experience of higher education. Be specific in your answers. For example, if you say that you miss teaching, do you mean that you miss lecturing or is it that you miss working one-on-one with a student? By clearly defining the elements of work that you are interested in pursuing further, the easier it will be to figure out what kind of job position will fulfill your aspirations.
Create Your Dream Job Title
Second, come up with your ideal job title. If you are stuck for ideas, I recommend joining a business networking site like LinkedIn and perusing the job titles that people use there. Many professionals allow anyone to view their page, so you can also get a good idea of their past work experience and education. Don’t worry if your own history differs – part of the transition process from academia to the wider-world of work is learning to how to translate your existing skills into language that the business community will understand. The point of this exercise is to expose you to the possibilities of work that exist for you. Dare to dream big – remember, you are more than researching and writing!
Networking is fairly key to landing yourself a new position or establishing yourself in the market (if you choose to go the sole proprietor route). Get on social media. Use LinkedIn (it’s free and easy). Twitter is particularly useful for making quick and painless contacts with people in the field you want to work in (and they often will post links to articles about their professional community). Set up “informational interviews” at businesses that you want to learn more about – sometimes an informational interview can even lead to a job, but its practical benefit is getting you out of the house and connecting with an established professional to whom you can ask questions. Also, learn what networking events are going on in your city and attend them. Most large communities have innovation centres that assist entrepreneurs get their businesses going – approach them for resources and contacts. Get some business cards - they don’t need to be fancy, just make sure your contact information is on them (and that job title your after, i.e. if you want to be an copy writer, put “copy writer” or “freelance copy writer” on your card).
Take Risks and Believe in Yourself
For most people, transitioning into a new job is scary. For those who have been in academia for most of their adult life, it can be difficult to picture yourself doing other kinds of work. But it is totally possible. Talk to people. Be straightforward about your career aspirations. Reach out to old contacts and ask for references and referrals. Speak positively about yourself and recognize the small successes (from making a new networking contact to landing your first client or interview). Remember that there is no one way to a career – many people take different paths to end up in the same place. If you can survive the PhD process, you can survive (and succeed in) the job search!
It is now a smidgen over a year since I defended my PhD thesis last September. I cannot believe how much change has happened (and most of it within the past three months). When I started writing for this blog, I was still dealing with my feelings of shame, fear, and failure. While it is certainly true that I still have moments of self-doubt, I no longer feel like I failed at academia. It has taken me a year to fully appreciate the depth of my unhappiness as a graduate student. I love the work of it (researching, teaching, and critical thinking), but I am not suited to the pressured environment of academe.
In retrospect, it is easy to understand how I believed that academia was the place for me. From the time I started kindergarten, school was a place of guaranteed attention and praise. The better I did at schoolwork, the nicer the teacher was to me. As I grew older, I figured out the most efficient ways to earn high grades and esteem. I was lucky that school skills came easily to me and I earnestly enjoyed learning. Moving on to university after high school was a natural progression. As an undergrad, it took me a couple of semesters to relearn the expectations and standards of work, but once I did, I again was in the sweet spot of “A’s and praise” that any high achiever knows and desires.
Approaching the end of my undergrad career, I really didn’t have any idea of where I was heading once I was finished. Then, in my final semester, the professor of an elective English course I was taking suggested that I apply for grad school. I can honestly say that I never considered pursuing an MA or PhD until then. In fact, I distinctly remember looking at the number of years involved in obtaining a PhD and thinking it absolutely ridiculous that anyone would stay in school for that long. I am practical person, but when I heard the words “you would make a great graduate student,” I forgot about all of my earlier reservations. With just that one phrase and resulting ego-boost, all my uncertainty about life after undergrad disappeared: I was going to grad school.
And in many ways, grad school was an amazing experience. I moved away from home and discovered that I adored living in Hamilton (which, I will admit, was a total surprise). I made friends who I now consider family. I fell in love. My mind was opened to new ways of thinking and being. I became a more patient, more open person. These experiences, however, were not dependent on my being in academia. Part of the problem, I realize now, is that I conflated being happy with my personal life with being in graduate school. Leaving academia, then, became an incredibly scary proposition: if I left, who and where would I be?
It turns out that I am actually far happier outside of the ivory tower than within it. This is still a shock. I always thought of myself as someone well-suited to institutions with their clear hierarchies and achievement levels. In hindsight, I simply did not have enough experience to know that I could excel elsewhere. The non-academic jobs I had while in undergrad were all office-work centered. I hated being in an office environment, doing the grunt work like data entry and cold calls. In my limited knowledge of the work world, I thought I had to choose between a cubicle and a classroom. Seeing that the classroom environment was far more engaging and rewarding than the cubicle, I could only imagine myself working for a university. Of course, once I was a grad student, the whole professionalization process took care of the rest of my career plans for me: MA, PhD, post-doc, sessional work, and finally, a tenure-track position. It was all laid out for me … and as I neared the end of the PhD, I began to feel trapped and resentful.
Leaving academia at the end of my PhD was difficult in a myriad of ways, but despite all the emotional turmoil, fall-out depression, and chronic pain caused by constant stress, I felt free. Free to pursue any job I wanted and free to reimagine myself as something other than “student.” I guess the point of this post is this: being in school from the ages of 5 to 30 stunted my ability to imagine myself in different work environments. I never had a guidance counselor in high school and I neglected to use the career services offered by my undergraduate university. It wasn’t until I finally left university that I began to do the hard work of asking myself: what do I want? If I had stayed in academia, I would be living a life that was familiar, but deeply unsatisfying. Outside of the academy, I no longer have a set career path ahead of me – and I actually like it this way. I feel like I am becoming something greater than what I was, than what I thought I could be. For the first time in my life, I have no clue what the next year will bring … and that is so damn exciting!
Ask a Humanities grad student about their employable skills and there is a very good chance that their first words will be: “research and writing.” I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve heard this answer from people who are so much more than “research and writing.” Since the whole process of academic professionalization focuses largely on the practices of research and writing, many Humanities grads never receive acknowledgement of their other latent and trained talents. Most grad students also rightly consider their role as a teaching assistant as relevant experience, but again, they think of teaching in the context of academe. With only vaguely conceived notions about their skill set (which is entirely tied into academic work), it is not surprising that the idea of transitioning into a non-academic job can be frightening for Humanities grad students. However, as tenure track positions become increasingly rarer and the pool of applicants for low-paying, benefit-poor sessional work steadily grows, soon-to-be PhDs need to start thinking about their “Plan B” career options.
My first piece of advice: Look outside of your department. Chances are good that most departments don’t do a lot of talking about non-academic jobs, and if by some miracle a department does, it has limited resources in training its grad students for these alternate career paths. Every university, however, does have some sort of career counseling centre that is accessible for both undergrad and grad students. Go there. Put aside the “research and writing” mantra and explore the various career services the university offers.
I made several appointments with the career centre at my university: I learned about the value of “informational interviews” and tips on how to reconceive of my academic skill set as non-academic one (it’s all in the translation). I took a day-long “Career Planning” seminar over March break one year. It was like a group high school guidance counseling session: we were given personality, interest, and skill assessment tests (such as the Myer-Briggs and Strong Interest Inventory). A career counselor led us through a whole host of activities that highlighted our individual strengths and passions. As someone who had never gone through this kind of process before, it was exciting and enlightening (who knew that I had so much in common with forestry workers!). I came away from that particular seminar knowing two things: (1) academia is not my ideal work environment, and (2) I had an incredible list of employable skills that went far beyond “research and writing.” I still didn’t know what it was I wanted to do after my PhD, but I had greater confidence that I was not going to fall into some black abyss when I left academe.
In addition to using the career services at my university, I also began going to career training seminars arranged by the School of Graduate Studies. In particular, I attended free all-day workshops (for grad students and post-docs) offered by MITACS Step: Networking (run by the amazing Queen of Networking, Donna Messer) and Project Management. Talk about getting out of my department! I was the only Humanities person in the room both times. In the Project Management workshop, there was one Social Scientist, but otherwise, all the other grads and post-docs were from the Faculties of Science and Engineering. Not only did I benefit from the career training, but I loved talking to the other grad students. Within my own department, no one ever seemed too keen on my thesis topic (reading technology and the body in feminist SF), but the non-Humanities grad students I met during the workshops were quite interested and gave me a lot of positive feedback. One cranky Physics PhD student (and fellow SF lover) even told me that I “had the best job in the world” – it was a truly astounding professional moment, considering my usual feelings of marginalization within my own department. Stepping outside of my departmental silo exposed me to new people to add to my professional network and new ways of conceiving myself as an employable individual.
My second major piece of advice is this: Be patient and kind with yourself. Transitioning into a non-academic career is difficult after spending a significant chunk of your adult life training to be a professor. There are mental, physical, and financial wounds that will need healing. That takes time. I finished my PhD almost a year ago and I’m still in the process of reimagining my work-self and moving towards a successful and fulfilling non-academic career. I spent the first several months out of grad school feeling miserable and stressed about finding work right away. I came to realize (with help from my awesome and supportive partner, Andrew), that the kind of work that was available to me right away, was not the kind of work I wanted to be doing. Now, I have set myself small, attainable goals (i.e. launching this blog, networking, writing reviews, etc.) that will hopefully lead me towards a career editing/writing in the SF community (or to other unexpected, but welcomed, work). I know that this transition will not happen overnight, but I do know that I am a capable professional whose skills go far beyond "research and writing."
Looking outside of my department was the first step in moving away from academia. I am slowly building up a useful professional network as I engage with work that I truly love. I look forward to the future now that I am on a career path of my own choosing (instead of being locked into the process of academic tenure track work). Life is good outside of the tower ... I'm so glad that I decided to move out.