This piece was co-written with Julie Miller Vick, who has retired as senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and now works there part time as a senior career adviser. To find previous columns in The Chronicle’s Career Talk series click here and here.
Jenny: What, exactly, is an “unexpected” career? It’s the kind we’ve seen a lot of Ph.D.’s find in our years as career counselors. After graduate school, many people end up in work unrelated to the disciplines in which they earned their doctorates. That's often portrayed as a bad thing, but is it necessarily?
Julie: Jenny and I have a personal interest in this topic as we each found ourselves on an unexpected career path. That probably happens most often in the humanities but it also occurs in the social sciences, and more and more in the sciences.
For Ph.D.s who have invested so much time and energy in the mastery of a single subject, the thought of a job that doesn't use that specific knowledge is often discouraging. Yet as career counselors, we have talked with many alumni and colleagues who found themselves in roles they’d given little or no thought to in graduate school, but today, they are satisfied and happy in their work.
Jenny: To tell some of their stories, we interviewed three people — from three different parts of the country, and of different ages and backgrounds. Let’s start with introductions:
- Mearah Quinn-Brauner: She earned a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. She is now associate director of graduate and postdoctoral professional development at Northwestern University. It’s a newly created position in the graduate school, designed to develop a strategy for increasing professional-development programs for students and integrating those opportunities within their doctoral training.
- Sarah Werner: She, too, earned a Ph.D. in English literature at Penn, but in 1996. Currently self-employed, Werner is writing a textbook about how books were made in the first centuries of the printing press and creating an accompanying open-access website. The project grew out of the years she spent as the undergraduate program director at the Folger Shakespeare Library. There, she taught seminars to students on early modern book history, but could never find a suitable textbook on the subject. Approached by a publisher herself to write that book, she initially resisted because, she said, “I felt like I didn't have the expertise. A few years later, I thought it was time, the publisher was still interested, and we hammered out a contract.”
- Eleni Litt: She earned a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the London School of Economics in 1983. Litt is now associate provost for faculty affairs at The New School, where she oversees faculty review, including tenure review, and is the point person in the provost's office for all new faculty hiring.
Jenny: We asked each of them to share (via email interview) how they found their way to their current positions. Not surprisingly, all three took circuitous paths.
- Mearah: “After graduate school, my first position was as a full-time, nontenure track writing instructor. This was the first time I felt I had a workplace, coworkers, bosses. I still draw on what I learned through that work — about effective teaching, advising, communicating with people from a wide range of backgrounds, writing for specific audiences, and working across units at a large institution. While I loved teaching writing in that program and felt I was effective in my role, I decided to leave and move across the country to be closer to my family. Because of my interest in continuing to work in an educational setting and a desire to contribute somehow to making universities more accessible for first-generation and underrepresented minority students, I decided to focus my job search on higher-education administration. I was a career adviser for graduate students for three years, at two different universities. I led career workshops and coached Ph.D. and master's students as they explored career options, developed application materials, and prepared for interviews.”
- Sarah: “My first jobs were adjunct work — teaching Shakespeare, drama, or composition. (I did my Ph.D. in English on Shakespeare and modern performance.) I had little geographical mobility, since my spouse was tied to a job in Washington and we had small children so commuting wasn't an option. But my familiarity with the DC scene and with the Folger — where I wrote my first book — led to them offering me a job to create a program for local students to come to the library to study book history. That wasn't a field of study I was very familiar with at the time, but I threw myself into learning the basics, and then over the years of teaching, discovered I loved it. I’d found my new field. And the experience of working in a library — not as a researcher but as a staff member — shifted my way of thinking about myself from being a teacher/scholar to being a librarian/scholar. (I've written about this trajectory in a post called “Make Your Own Luck” on my website.)”
- Eleni: “I earned my Ph.D. in anthropology at the London School of Economics and returned to the United States — to Philadelphia — while writing my dissertation. My research was on housing, income, and salaries in Athens, Greece, and while doing fieldwork there I taught English and earned an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) certificate. In Philadelphia I first worked teaching English to immigrants and then managed a grant for doctors, nurses, and teachers who were interacting with immigrants. Through that work I made connections with the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and then moved to my first campus job as director of the International Classroom at the Penn Museum. While working at the museum I was also involved with the Philadelphia Association of Practicing Anthropologists, where I met others who also approached their work through the lens of practicing (not applied) anthropology. Part of my museum work involved designing programs for incoming students. One thing led to another and I was invited to apply for director of Off-Campus Living at Penn. After working on housing I wanted to move over to the academic side and got the position of associate director of advising at the Wharton School, which was a great learning opportunity for me. From there I moved to assistant director (for arts and sciences) in the College of General Studies. When I relocated to New York, my first job was director of students-support services at The New School. Then I was asked to move to working with faculty.”
Julie: A common concern of doctoral students is: How can you prepare for a career when you don't know in what direction you might be moving?
Our three interview subjects offered excellent advice on that front. As Eleni suggested, “People with a Ph.D. who want to work in higher-education administration should think creatively — not literally." That is great advice for anyone, not just those interested in higher ed.
Jenny: Mearah gave particular advice to “humanities folks and others interested in nontechnical roles.” Don’t “fixate” on the degree requirements listed in the job ad, she said, adding: “Many of the jobs that may be of interest to you won't necessarily require Ph.D.s — particularly positions that might be accessible to someone just finishing graduate school. Instead, try to assess the quality of the job and how good of a fit it will be by other measures: Will it allow me to support myself? Will the work be interesting to me? Will I get to grow and learn new things? Is there room for advancement?”
Julie and I have worked with many Ph.D.s who moved into jobs that, at first glance, may have seemed like junior positions, only to find that they offered ample room for growth and advancement.
Julie: “Be open” and “make your own luck” are two pieces of career advice that graduate students often hear. But that advice can be discouraging, particularly when you are feeling pessimistic about your career possibilities. What do those clichés even mean?
Sarah defined for us how they helped in her career: “Sure, you can be lucky and stumble into something great. What's more important is that you create the conditions for that sort of luck. Stay in touch with people. Work hard at any opportunity you're given, even if it seems ridiculous. Be friendly. Most of all, resist the temptation to judge every opportunity according to whether you think it will pay out as a job. Instead, judge it according to whether it will let you learn something new — new skills, insights into a new field, new people."
Jenny: All of our panelists stressed the value of connecting. As Mearah noted, “Talk to people about their work. Talk to people who have backgrounds similar to yours and also backgrounds that are not like yours. Talk to people in jobs you think sound great — including faculty jobs, if those sound good to you — but also talk to people in positions you can't imagine yourself doing. You will learn a lot about how varied work and workplaces can be.”
Julie: We will end with what Eleni said about being open to possibilities. “It's essential to keep learning. Do something different,” she said, even if it’s just taking on a new hobby like knitting. “Learning something new keeps your mind agile and open,” Eleni said. “Second, volunteer. Do something that is not monetized. It will help you learn about yourself. And third: Seek connections in your own intuitive way. Talk with others. Approach all of this with a beginner's mind. No one knows what will work."
Try to build these recommendations into your life. We know that our own careers came to us by virtue of all or some of those suggestions, and we've certainly seen the same thing happen for many, many others.
Jenny: Our next few columns will also focus on careers in higher education and related fields. If you have a success story and want to share it, please do so in the comments below. We are interested in hearing from you.