Beyond Reseach and Writing: Transitioning to a Non-Academic Career

Wednesday, 20 July 2011 16:50

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.




  • Comment Link Kathryn Sunday, 28 August 2011 21:52 posted by Kathryn

    Thanks for commenting Sara. You are right to point out that my experience isn't universal ... but it is one that I know many others have shared with me. Which is crap.

    I also had a lot of good experiences within academia. I did manage to stay within it for the completion of my degree and made several life-long friendships with people I met there (both grad students and faculty). Nevertheless, I found honest and open conversations about grad funding discrepancy, class, and the academic job market few and far between. Writing about those issues here have helped made me feel more sane!

    I think that fandom has problems -- and they are ones that I recognize from academe. For myself, academia is not the ideal work environment. Good luck to you though!

    And I'm always up for convos about academia, SF, and everything in between with new people (virtual or real world).

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  • Comment Link Sara A. Saturday, 27 August 2011 16:34 posted by Sara A.

    There's so much here, I feel like we should have a long conversation over coffee. That may be impractical. But you never know...

    I had a very different experience in academia; I feel validated and appreciated in a way I NEVER did in my previous career, or in fandom. I also never got sneered at for writing genre fiction, which I have heard happens.

    At the same time, I can see some of what you are talking about. Interestingly, while the class issues were there in my program, the 'tude was mostly *not* coming from my professors who themselves mostly came from working-class backgrounds. (It's notable that the profs I got along with least well were the ones who didn't, however).

    I guess my point's there, but not universal. I kind of gave up on fandom for a while and feel much more optimistic about my role in academia. That could always change :)

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