Image: Bird Millman on Popular Mechanics cover / February 1917
A nonacademic job search can feel like a return to adolescence for Ph.D.s. Your emotions run high. Your mind is overrun with "Who am I?" doubts. The person you thought yourself to be undergoes a reinvention.
Added to that identity crisis are the very real challenges that academics face when trying to find their footing in a new profession. They feel, simultaneously, overexperienced and underqualified — “like elderly children" was one friend's scathing assessment.
But there are things you can do to ease a frequently awkward — though often exciting — transition into life outside the professoriate.
Ditch the CV. In the throes of my own postacademic crisis, I found myself in consultation with a tantric astrologer in southern India (as one does). I anticipated sage spiritual counsel. Perhaps an invitation to circumnavigate a Himalayan peak. But, no. He told me to stop dithering and get a job.
"How?" I moaned. I didn’t know what field to approach, let alone how to introduce myself. Was I a researcher? A writer? I balked at committing to a new self.
He sighed. ”Make three different versions of your résumé — each tailored to a different activity or industry that you're curious about."
When I first started applying to nonacademic jobs, I sent out a sad, spiritless laundry list of all of my earthly accomplishments — it was a CV, not a résumé. The CV is an encyclopedia; the résumé needs to be a short story (nonfiction, of course). Rather than a single, exhaustive hodgepodge, each new résumé should be curated and distinct. It presents a narrative of who you are and where you want to go. Having multiple versions allayed my commitment-phobia while broadening my search.
Fudge freely on your résumé, but don’t fabricate. “Book-length manuscript” sounds less student-y than dissertation, and is only ever so slightly misleading.
And for goodness sake, make it pretty. Plain CV’s are the hallmark of a serious scholar, unconcerned with the frivolity of design templates. But résumés are marketing documents, and they have only seven seconds to impress. Make them count.
Find a network. When I was in graduate school, my colleagues and I referred to all nonacademics as "civilians." We clung hard to our institutional identities. It is no wonder, then, that graduation was a bit like emerging from a book-filled black hole.
Back in "civilian" life, rather than a returned soldier, I felt more like a defecting monk. I wanted to break back into the world, but that world didn’t seem to know what to do with me. I had a revamped résumé and no professional networks. In fact, I knew nary a soul outside university life.
As a Ph.D. pursuing a nonacademic career, you will hear the phrase "informational interview" repeated enough to make your head explode. (If you’re the one person who hasn’t, this involves contacting people whose careers you find interesting and talking with them about their work.)
Seventy percent of vacancies are unlisted. When you “reach out” (another job-hunting buzzword) to people you admire for an informational interview, you can explore new roles and hear what their work involves. Will you get offered a job on the spot? Doubtful. But help can come from unlikely sources. I got my first contract through a random chain of introductions that originated with The Versatile Ph.D., a national network for Ph.D.’s seeking nonfaculty careers. It’s a good place to start.
Outside of academia, it may be difficult to account for the seven or eight years you spent alone in libraries. But never, ever apologize for your Ph.D. It is an asset — not a liability. Don’t let it be undersold.
Adapt to new work cultures. While slogging through my last dissertation chapter, I told my grad-school peers that I planned to pursue a nonacademic path. They were unimpressed. “Oh yeah, the whole 9-to-5 thing. Not for me,” one yawned. Others got snippier. “Have fun pushing pencils.” For them, only the professoriate guaranteed flexibility and fulfillment. As a career path, it had no match.
And that perception is right — if your only knowledge of the American workforce has been gleaned from repeat viewings of Office Space.
It's almost 2017. We have entered the DIY phase of professional life, where entrepreneurial skills are in hot demand. The gig economy may have eroded many benefits, but it also grants people the freedom to explore — especially if you're willing to get creative. More and more jobs allow you to work wherever there’s a WIFI connection. This past year, I freelanced from Sri Lanka, Nepal, and India. I wrote on mountaintops, in friends’ kitchens, and in village cafes.
If the life of a “meanderthal” isn’t to your liking, I’ve got more good news: 9-to-5 life isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Working collaboratively in a structured environment with regular hours can be a godsend for Ph.D.s who struggled with social isolation and lagging productivity during their academic careers. So if you opt for a nonacademic work life, you may well find much to appreciate. You sure won’t see anyone pushing pencils. In fact, I think we can retire that phrase.
Find meaning in a new path. When grad students in comparative literature mingle, a perennial icebreaker — more essential than trading first names — is: “What are your languages?” In academia, your research area defines you. It corrals your sense of self. It’s profoundly disorienting when reading and writing about a narrow field is no longer your primary function.
"I hated being pigeonholed, having such a narrow specialization, feeling like my whole life was work," a conflicted postac recently confessed to me over Korean noodles. “Now part of me misses it."
Many postacs negotiate a sense of loss, often confusingly tinged with elation. But moving on from university life doesn’t mean giving up on your intellectual passions or on the questions that motivate you. I studied nationalism. It’s a subject to which I often return, but am no longer tethered. In fact, it has been thrilling to let my purview expand, and to dust off old interests and pursuits.
Working for the weekends is outmoded. If academia isn’t right for you, figure out what it is you’re being summoned to do. Then seize the adventure. Don't worry about what your adviser thinks, or what your old cohort will say. Maybe you want to train to integrate new refugees, or learn what permaculture is, or open a bar.
With the casualization of the labor market and the breakdown of democracies worldwide, the world as we know it often seems to be going up in flames. The good news, at least, is this: So long as Rome is burning, you're free to live how you want.