Choosing Your Own Adventure

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Image: Ancestry of Duke Ludwig (1568-1593), (kolorierter Holzschnitt, Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart), by Joachim Lederlin

By Joseph M. Vukov

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s will remember reading novels in the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Every chapter culminated with a choice for the reader: Want to go through the door? Turn to page 94. Want to stay and take your chances with the goblin? Turn to page 100. Things didn't always turn out well. Part of the fun was working back through your choices in hopes of changing the outcome for the better.

Wouldn’t it be nice if professional development in academe worked that way?

Unfortunately, you can't turn back the page and withdraw the choices you've made, the doors you've opened, and the ones you've left unexplored. But here's what you can do: Make smart choices that expand rather than restrict your career options and increase your chances of being satisfied with wherever the adventure leads.

That’s a pretty abstract recommendation. So here are some practical places to start:

Network outside your subfield, too. It's tempting to construct a network composed exclusively of people in your specialty, or even your subfield. Being well-connected in your field is important, of course, but pursuing a narrow professional network restricts the career paths that network will support.

So look beyond your most obvious spheres of influence and get to know a wide variety of people. How? I recommend sending one extra email a day: to old friends, to new LinkedIn connections, to potential collaborators, to scholars whose work you admire. Those emails needn't have an agenda. And some of them will go unanswered. But not all of them.

It's impossible to predict where your networking will lead. Someone you collaborated with from the institutional-research office might connect you with a think tank where she interned. A social acquaintance from an art exhibit may be aware of job opportunities you never thought to explore.

Wear several hats. People often present themselves as wearing a single hat: “I’m a historian,” or “I’m a librarian.” Most of the time, that's fine — we can't always present ourselves in all of our complexity. But thinking about yourself in singular terms is not only dangerous to your career, it's also misguided.

Historians, after all, are never just historians: They are also teachers, committee members, administrators, and advisers. Librarians are also software specialists, curriculum developers, and database builders. You’re not just a graduate student or a postdoc or a new assistant professor: You are also a researcher, an editor, a teacher, a laboratory specialist, and an adviser.

Professionals in the 21st century rarely wear one hat, so there's no reason to think you are any different. The more roles you are willing to inhabit, the better you can present yourself to a diverse professional audience. But it's not just that. The more hats you are willing to wear now, the more prepared you'll be for the wide variety of roles you will be asked to inhabit in the future.

Cultivate professionalism. It’s a habit that takes time to develop but carries weight in whatever career path you choose. So start early. Practice sounding professional on emails and phone calls. Learn the arts of small talk, networking, and matching the formality of your dress to a variety of occasions. You don’t have to work a committee room like a CEO. Most careers don't require that. Rather, pick out a senior colleague whose professional habits you respect, and emulate that person. Once your professional skills are honed, they will bring benefits in whatever career you end up pursuing.

Look for small opportunities. Some professional-development options are obvious — like a prestigious internship, an invitation to speak at a conference, or a book contract. But sometimes opportunity knocks softly, with a small, barely audible rap on the door.

And those small instances can reap wide-reaching benefits. Maybe you weren't invited to speak at a conference — you were asked to run the registration table. Maybe you didn't get the prestigious internship — you were asked to be the prestigious intern's assistant. Those kinds of opportunities can seem unimportant, but they can also build your professional profile in unexpected ways. The registration table, after all, is a locus for networking in a way the conference podium can never be.

Work on grants.Newsflash: Employers like employees who can bring in money. That's true in academe, the alt-ac world, and the world outside the academy.

Your goal here is to get grants but if you fall short, get any experience you can working on grants. Write one yourself, or join others who are already writing one. The experience will teach you how to work on teams, how to pitch a project to diverse audiences, and how to follow a timeline — all transferable skills. And did I mention the importance of bringing in money?

Look beyond the ivory tower. Like all-inclusive resorts, academic institutions are designed so you never have to leave. Need lunch? The cafeteria is in the student center. Need something to do on a Friday night? The English department is screening a movie. Want to make some new friends? The hall is buzzing with colleagues who share your dedication to the life of the mind. Why would you ever leave?

Here's one reason: your career.

Taking time away from academe is good for your mental health, certainly, but it can also offer opportunities and insights that you might otherwise have missed. Perhaps you enjoy building websites on the weekend? Keep at it, and you could unexpectedly gain clients impressed by your work. Maybe your spouse's coworkers invited you out this weekend? Go with them, and skip the movie at the English department. They might help you see the value of your research in a way you never noticed.

Take on more responsibilities. Yes, more. "Excuse me, but I'm teaching two courses, finishing a dissertation chapter, and preparing materials for a job search," you may reply. "I'm more than busy enough."

Nonetheless, take on more responsibilities. I'm sure you're busy, and that you could easily fill your time soldiering along at your specialized work. But that's not enough if you want to prepare yourself for multiple career paths.

A friend of mine compares academic work to a gas — it will expand to fill any space you let it occupy. So set some boundaries. And fill up your schedule with a variety of responsibilities: Find a part-time internship outside your field; take on a part-time job; teach a course at a community college; write creative fiction and submit it for publication; volunteer locally.You might learn you weren't all that busy, after all.

Ultimately, you don't know how this adventure will unfold — which opportunities will lead to a career, and which won't. Like a Choose Your Own Adventurestory, developing professionally toward an uncertain future can be daunting. But if you broaden your options, you'll be less likely to wish you could go back and take your chances with the goblin.

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