Image: Welder -trainee Josie Lucille Owens plies her trade on the SS George Washington Carver (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration 1941-45)
I opened a new bank account the other day and the teller asked my occupation. I didn’t know what to tell her. The same issue arose recently when trying to update my Twitter bio. Now that I’m no longer an academic, my professional identity is fragmented and therefore not easily defined. Social media doesn’t understand nuance. Professionalism doesn’t appreciate ambiguity. We must either be one thing or another, and we must be able to state what that thing is in two sentences or less.
Facebook is forever nagging me to complete my profile. A Twitter bio without text is naked. LinkedIn wants my résumé to be 100 percent complete. The internet is dying to know what I do for a living.
At the bank the other day, I couldn’t come up with a succinct occupation when the teller asked. The bank wouldn’t accept my money until it could define me. The teller patiently waited as I scrolled through the options. Writer? Editor? Not really, though I get paid to do both of those things. I build websites on a freelance basis, but I’m definitely not a web designer. I’ve been known to restore vintage furniture -- more of a hobby than anything else, though. I suppose I could refer to those ventures as small businesses. Entrepreneur? Eh, I consciously try to resist that label. I couldn’t squeeze into the required professional box.
The world doesn’t know what to do with my occupational liminality. I dread the inevitable question I get when meeting new people: “What do you do?” I always fumble around for words and end up with some lame response about how I do “lots of different things.” I’m sure my interlocutor walks away thinking I’m unemployed.
What job am I? What job are you?
My Twitter bio is now a list of disparate professional spheres that I might occupy on any given day: writer. editor. website builder. app designer. vintage furniture dealer. backpacker.
It occurs to me that, for the past year or so, I’ve been creating jobs for myself. I like to think of it as a DIY career. Making it up as I go. Each day something new.
The DIY career track is definitely not for everyone. Financial stress is a constant in my life. I have to be willing to step outside of the box occasionally and pivot when a potential income source falls through.
Working as an adjunct taught me how to live with this kind of financial stress and how to get creative when it comes to paying the bills. As an adjunct, I always had to have a backup plan in case my paycheck was late or my contract wasn’t renewed. That tenuous existence prepared me well for my DIY career. I became comfortable with the unknown.
I hesitate to call this coping mechanism a useful life skill, but I guess it is. Adjuncts know how to get creative and do what needs to be done in order to survive. Many former academics are actually well-equipped for a DIY lifestyle. We carry that resourcefulness with us as we enter our unknown nonacademic future. Going DIY is scary and stressful, but it’s also kind of exciting. I’m not limited by the social and professional labels I once was. I can do anything I want. Last month, I even collaborated with an iOS developer and released an iPhone app, something I never even dreamed of doing previously.
Who knows where my DIY career will take me next. I’m faced with a lot of uncertainty these days, but I can assure you that knowing what to call myself on Twitter is the last thing on my mind.
Are you making a go at a DIY career? I’d love to hear from you. Tweet me your thoughts with the hashtag #DIYcareer. Or join our Flexible Academics group to talk over transition strategies.