#Jobs4Phds or Finding a Job Outside of Academia

Yesterday, the MSU Grad School hosted an event called “How to Find a Job Outside Academia, Even if You Aren’t Sure that You Want One.” The speaker was Dr. Susan Basalla, co-author with Dr. Maggie Debelius of “So What Are  You Going to Do with That?” Finding Jobs Outside Academia.

Clearly, this whole question has been on my mind and I started blogging about it last week. It was interesting to note that the post got so little comment here: I was inundated with DMs, emails, and facebook notes after I posted it.  People wanted to talk about what I had written, but just not out loud.

The statistics the authors cite in the book are startling, and remind me of why I feel so hell-bent on looking beyond the ways of the academy for my career path. 30% of History Phds are working at a tenure track position. For English it was 40%.  Social Sciences/Education (my field) fare hardly better.  It seems to me that it is only wise to consider a job outside of the academy (henceforth to be called “post-academic” jobs via Dr. B) when they make up the whopping majority of what it is people do with these PhD thingies.

Which brings me to last night’s event. Dr. Barsalla, first of all, is charming, funny, and clearly very smart.  I am not sure I want her job, but I know I want to BE her: that confidence, that spark, that zest for living.  You can tell: she LOVES what she does.  And she has a PhD in English. And has a job.  My mind is blown.

And here is where I admit to my startling naivete when it comes to Higher Education. Even after two years working in the College of Arts and Letters at MSU, I completely missed that a post-academic job was failure. Apparently, this is the first and only commandment when it comes to Phd world: Tenure-track or nothing.  This still blows my mind.  How is it that the whole academic culture is set up to myopically focus on producing tenure-track professors? THIS MAKES NO SENSE TO ME.  Really, I don’t get it.  And I keep stumbling into conversations where I walk away puzzled because of the way I so highly value my non-academic pursuits when those around in me graduate school world are so focused on what I am publishing. Seriously? This is the way you are going to mentor me in this endeavor? To a dead-end job or no job at all? Um, no thanks. I think I’ll keep barking up this post-academic tree.

I came to my graduate program to be able to take my analytical and research skills to the next level. I wanted to read difficult things, grapple with difficult ideas, talk it over with smart people, and write a few things. As I see it, I get to do all of that, and, more importantly, grow the skills I highly value.  I don’t expect my graduate program to spit me out at the end, ready to take on the tenure track.  Maybe this path will lead me there, maybe it won’t. I certainly don’t see taking a different career course as failure. My favorite quote from the book is really early, from a Chemistry PhD who became a patent lawyer:

“People always say, ‘You’ve spent your whole life doing this, and now you’re throwing it all away,'”, Mrkisch says. “But they never think to say, ‘What a great stepping stone to other things (11).'”

In the end, the talk was mostly about convincing us, the eventual Phds, that getting a post-academic job was not failure.  I still am amazed that people need to be convinced of this, but looking around I see that this myth pervades.

Dr. Basalla also dispensed some Don’ts of the post-academic job hunt, which I dutifully tweeted (and tagged with #jobs4phds) for all of those who couldn’t join us in the room.  Here is the archive, in reverse chronological order:

Interesting to hear Dr. B discuss the attitudes towards searching for jobs outside the Academy. (It wasn’t good). #jobs4phds
The term is post-academic, thank you! Not alt-ac. Not a fork, but all available options. #jobs4phds #PhD
Dr.B is going to give us the 5 don’ts of the post-academic job search. #jobs4phds #PhD
Dr.B: 1st DON’T In post-academic job search: your dissertation is not your biggest accomplishment. Focus on skills, not topic. #jobs4phds
Note: outside the academic world, the details of the CV don’t matter. Transferable skills matter. #jobs4phds
Dr B’s 2nd Don’t: don’t spend more time on job boards than on networking. Get out and meet folks!!! #jobs4phds
Dr. B suggests that networking starts with Google stalking. I’ve got this part down. #googlestalker #jobs4phds
Dr.B’s 3rd Don’t: don’t underestimate the value of your non-academic pursuits. #jobs4phds
Dr. B notes that things without footnotes have value. #jobs4phds
Dr.B’s 4th don’t: don’t be afraid to start low. Think of this as a career switch–and high performance means rapid advancement. #jobs4phds
Dr. B’s final don’t: don’t do it all at once and don’t wait until the last minute. Start peeking beyond the walls of this tower. #jobs4phds
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9 thoughts on “#Jobs4Phds or Finding a Job Outside of Academia

  1. Academia has always confused me. I loved my professors, but damn, I’d never want to be them. Such pressure to publish and politics and no way to further develop professionally after tenure. I want to be in the trenches, take my learning and do something with it. This is all going to sound negative toward university professors, and it’s not that I think they’re “doing nothing” in their jobs, but I’d just prefer to be out in the real world using those new analytical skills for something different. But maybe it’s also because I don’t think I could hack it as a university professor. I had some great ones and those are big shoes to fill.

    • Thanks for the comments, Mary. I completely agree that there are a lot of ugly parts of the tenure-track, but that’s not my main objection. My main objection is the way that grad school is positing PhD students for ONLY the tenure-track while simultaneously shaming those who seek something beyond the walls of the academy. It is just the culture, and it isn’t all bad, nor is this the attitude of everyone within the academy. There are lots of wonderful professors, as you note, who have amazing careers. I do want to note that it isn’t beyond you to fill those shoes: they were so great because they put forth their best selves and did the good work, and that is really in reach for all us. :)

  2. I know we’ve talked about this at length, but I do think that our EPET cohort is different because so many of us are not tenure track bound. In fact, that’s not something that’s ever even crossed my mind. Perhaps this is because I took the realization that I wasn’t cut out to be a full time academic when I was a Master’s student very hard. Being a professor had been my lifelong dream; upon being faced with the reality that it wasn’t going to make me happy, I was absolutely crushed. In fact, I am still sort of shocked I’m in a Ph.D. program at all. However, when the opportunity came up to learn more about a field I love and be better at a job I’m truly passionate about, I didn’t think twice. Unlike my friends who took the traditional Ph.D. route, I am paying for mine out of my own pocket. At the same time, I have every reason to believe that I will be able to continue to not only work in the job I love, but also significantly contribute to that field in a credible manner by continuing my role as a practitioner. This is something I work hard to keep in mind when I’m stressing about paying my tuition each semester and wondering if it’s worth it. After spending a weekend with 100 teenagers talking about digital citizenship and teaching them how to use technology to improve their service learning outcomes, I’m convinced.

  3. PS. Do you have this book?

  4. Thanks for chiming in, Molly. Yes, I can honestly say that I am so glad that our EPET program from the start recognizes and values outside work. That being said, despite being in a program that self-proclaims to value a different path through the PhD process, I still notice that not everyone has received that memo. Ahem.
    I love hearing about your weekend with the kids! Your work is so great and I think as more of us stay true to our own individual desire to get a PhD to enhance our careers, careers that will remain post-academic, the more support we will receive in that track.

    • Ha! :) Well, it sounds as though Dr. B. is a revolutionary leading the way in advocating for alternative paths for PhDs. Academia is a culture with a deeply entrenched history as well as firmly established rules and norms. Many graduate students and faculty members need to be enculturated into a world where what they once knew to be true is not necessarily valid any longer. It takes time… and I feel fortunate that we are helping to be the ones leading the way!

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrea Zellner, Andrea Zellner. Andrea Zellner said: My reflection on yesterday's @MSUGradSchool event "Finding a Job Outside Academia" http://bit.ly/i8GKmI #jobs4phds #phdchat […]

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