Elizabeth Keenan

Columnist at vitae

Ph.D.s Do Have Transferable Skills, Part 2

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Image: "Defehrt epinglier pl2," designed by Goussier, engraved by Defehrt. Diderot's Encyclopédie (1762).

Years ago, right when I started grad school, a friend gave me a copy of So What Are You Going to Do With That?, the standard guide for Ph.D.’s considering careers outside academe. I was pretty insulted: I hadn’t even finished my master’s, let alone my Ph.D. I wasn’t even ambivalent about a career in the academy yet! I was just venting to her about my weird department, which surely was different from the rest of the academic world. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.) What the hell was this person thinking, forcing a nonacademic career on me?

In retrospect, I know my friend was trying to give me options (even if her timing was poor and she didn’t quite understand that I am, by nature, a complainer who lets go after the complaining is done). It wasn’t until much later that I actually read the book. But even then, I felt left out. What if I didn’t want to be a teacher, a librarian, an editor, a consultant, or an administrator? What if my postacademic career didn’t fit the expected parameters?

That’s where I was 18 months ago — filled with terror on the precipice of a new life. I wasn’t sure where I fit, or what I wanted to do. I only knew that what I was doing — adjuncting, conferencing, and applying for tenure-track jobs — was not working, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.

And so, in fits and starts, I set about finding what I did want to do with the rest of my life. In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about how we as Ph.D.’s can begin to think about our transferable skills. Now, in Part 2, I have some suggestions, based on my own experiences, for how to cope with the challenges and stresses of a career transition.

Failure Is Good for You.

If you’re anything like me, you didn’t come to the end of your academic career willingly — you crashed into it in a blaze of disappointment and depression. Or maybe you did leave by choice, but you’re still feeling a tiny sting of failure as you start to think of what’s next. That sense of failure is completely natural. And, I’ve come to believe, it is useful for figuring out next steps. Failure is sometimes our fault, and sometimes it isn’t. But it’s always instructive.

In my case, my failure in academia showed me a few things. I was great at the research part of the job, and I did well in translating the research to students, but my writing style was never as “lofty” as some folks thought it should be. (I’ve had people tell me to “muddy my thoughts” and “your writing is too fluid”.) Maybe I was never cut out for scholarly writing.

My other failing lay in my inability to negotiate long-term power relationships. Basically, I am not strategic enough to play the type of stressful political games (and, yes, they exist; academia is not a meritocracy) that get you ahead in departments, because I’m not good at being anything other than a loud feminist. I am, however, very good at assessing short-term crisis moments and prioritizing the here-and-now, and dampening down the loud feminist to get through a particular situation. Maybe what I needed was a job where I wouldn’t have to work with people I didn’t like for the entirety of my life (as is generally the case with a tenure-track job).

Again, other people may have different failings. Maybe you are great with students, and you hate research. Or vice versa. None of those shortcomings mean you suck as a human. They simply mean that, in your next career, you should play to your strengths instead.

You can work on your weaknesses, too. I’m now hyper-aware of how my actions can be perceived, even if I don’t intend them a certain way. I think more strategically, because I know I’ve been remiss about that in the past.

Read the Books and Take the Personality Tests.

Once you’ve identified your strengths and weaknesses, you may still think to yourself: Well, great. I know I’m good at these things, but I still can’t figure out ANY career other than academia where my skills fit.

It’s normal to feel that way. It’s also wrong. Your skills will fit in a lot of different places — some you expect and others you don’t. So ignore the quiet voice in your head that keeps telling you it’s useless to take personality tests or read books about changing careers. If you can get that voice to shut up, you will learn how you work and what your values are, and find career paths that match those values.

Ask for Help.

When I first started thinking about where I’d land, I worked with Jennifer Polk, a coach who specializes in postacademic careers. She listened well, let me verbalize what steps I wanted to take, and kept me on track as I sorted out my strengths and weaknesses. She was especially great at helping me to articulate what I wanted (a job with some flexibility but not necessarily the terror of freelancing) and what I didn’t want (a low-paid position at a nonprofit) without any sort of guilt or emotional attachment. (I felt a lot of guilt at first for not wanting to work in the nonprofit sector. Jen made me feel like I was under no obligation to go into any particular career. This was what I needed at the time.)

If you don’t want to hire a personal coach (though I highly recommend Jen if you do!), look tothe people around you for help.

Our friends and family might not have the same ties to academia that we do, but they do want to see us succeed. Although they may not recognize our pain — academia’s weird, y’all — they may be helpful in other ways. Some friends are good sounding boards. Some friends recognize skills that we don’t see ourselves. Some will be completely useless in this process. And some will give us career guides we won’t need for 10 years.

Do Informational Interviews. Lots of Them.

My first informational interview, with an acquaintance in marketing, was three years before I left academia. I learned a few valuable things from that first meeting: (1) A lot of people have weird career paths; (2) figuring out your personal narrative is important; and (3) I didn’t want to go into marketing.

See? Three useful things in one interview. Even if you only find out, “I would never in any lifetime want to do this job,” you have learned something. Still, the other lessons were just as useful. Finding out that other people have strange career paths gave me hope. Figuring out my own personal narrative was, at the time, a more difficult task than I could face.

Informational interviews helped me sort out the good from the bad — yes to this, no to that — as I shaped a vision of an alternate future. If you have done one informational interview, do five more. Or 10. You cannot possibly know what’s out there if you only do one interview. We cannot be what we cannot see.

If you lack contacts for informational interviews, go to alumni meetings at your university, attend Versatile PhD meetups, or make friends online through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Use free resources as much as possible, and, when you get to a solid place in your own career, pay it back.

Don’t Be a Career Snob.

And here’s where I talk about my mother-in-law. I adore her, though we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. For years, she was telling me, “I think you’d be really good in real estate.” But I heard: “Elizabeth, you are no good at this academia thing. Give it up!” Nowadays, I’m pretty sure what she was saying was: “I think you’d be really good in real estate (and you’re very unhappy in your current adjuncting job).”

My resistance was due to a few things. One, real estate is a “low-status” job. When I first told an academic friend that I was getting my real-estate license, she cried out, “What if you never think again?” (Must be like getting tenure! I kid, I kid.) Another friend made a sneering comment about capitalism and gentrification. A third said something about suburban housewives. And a fourth mentioned Donald Trump.

All of those friends were thinking about the status issues, and not whether a real-estate career would suit me. And it does. I like coaching people through the buying process. I like going to different properties and figuring out their value. I like telling people about great New York neighborhoods and where they can find a good bagel near their new apartment. (I also constantly think about things like gentrification, use value versus exchange value, and how Bourdieusian distinctions come into play in the Brooklyn scene. In other words, I’m still thinking critically even in my new job.)

I like my new job, and I’m really quite good at it. But I definitely resisted it for longer than I would have if I weren’t such a snob.

You Will Have Bad Days.

You will have moments where you are unsure about leaving academia. Is this the right move, when you’ve spent years working toward a goal you’ll never achieve? You will feel the sunk costs pulling you down, and you will doubt that you will find success anywhere else, because you truly love research and teaching.

I spent hours mourning my academic career. It was part of the process, and it’s perfectly normal. It didn’t help me identify my skills, or find another career, but the more I told myself that mourning was normal, the more I believed it, and the easier it was to let go.

We all have bad days. You will wonder if you really do have transferable skills. You will freak out that you’ll never get a job. You will think about the what-ifs and the if-onlys.

How you feel about leaving academia now is not how you’ll feel about it later. It may take a year. It may take 10. But you will find a life outside academe.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll talk about the daunting task of demonstrating your skills to potential employers. Good times!

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