Image: Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890-1907)
Last year, I interviewed two former adjuncts who had gotten fed up with contingent work and decided to make whatever changes were necessary to improve their lives and advance their careers. We called it the “How I Got Out” series. Lately I’ve been drawn once again to that narrative -- regular folks pulling themselves out of bad situations by sheer willpower.
I find it inspiring to talk with people who take their future into their own hands and jump into the great unknown, recognizing that whatever happens next is up to them.
Back in 2012, I found myself in a similar situation where I either needed to stick with a career I knew wasn’t ideal for me or start making changes that would move me in another direction. I’ve written many times that my adjunct position at the University of Georgia was much better than most contingent posts. I liked my job. But I knew I had more to offer, more skills to explore, and, frankly, more income to earn. Even though I mostly enjoyed my work, I couldn’t continue to just break even. So I decided to make a change.
The big question I had to answer: “What else can I do?” I had spent the past seven years on a college campus, cultivating the skills required to be a good teacher of freshman composition. How could I explain that training in ways that nonacademic employers would recognize and value? How could I pare my CV down to a one-page résumé? And, more important, what should I include on that résumé?
At the time, my primary strength was in writing. I had a master’s degree in English and several years of experience both teaching writing and doing freelance writing for money. So for awhile, I thought I would head in that direction. Capitalize on my primary skill and use it to pivot into a new career. Unfortunately, my experience on the writing market revealed that writing is really not a unique enough skill to be valuable -- in and of itself -- to employers. Being a good writer helps, but it usually isn’t going to be the X factor that lands you a job.
I needed something else I could pair with writing that would make me more attractive to hiring managers. I knew I enjoyed working with websites, but my experience was limited to using Wordpress templates to create sites for myself and a handful of clients. I didn’t know any programming languages and I didn’t have any real-world experience in web design. But I did have a passion for the industry and a ravenous appetite for knowledge.
- Reflection: Think of a few of your hobbies that make time disappear. What would you do with your life if money didn’t matter?
Learning a New Skill Set
So I had identified a hobby -- working on websites -- that I really enjoyed. Now what? Time to increase my skill set. I began dabbling in basic coding languages like HTML and CSS. I was fascinated by the fact that a simple CSS rule could change the font color of all the paragraph text on a web page. I realized how powerful computer languages are, and how a skilled speaker of those languages could do basically anything he wants to a website. I had been studying languages all my life so I found it interesting to think about computer code as a language of web development.
The problem-solving aspect of web design also appealed to me. I liked discovering the necessary code to make sure an image rendered properly and then to wrap text around it. Once I started playing around with Photoshop and reading about typography, I was hooked for good. I became obsessed with fonts. I added pixels of padding to navigation menus until each list item was perfectly spaced. That kind of thing not only interested me, but it was actually fun. After a few months of digging into web design in my spare time, I knew I had found my new career path.
- Reflection: What would it take to convert your hobby into an income?
Bringing a New Career to Life
Now that I had begun developing a new skill set, my next challenge was figuring out how to demonstrate my prowess in this new field. None of the work experience on my résumé reflected my ability to design websites.
The world of web design and development is vast and has many different career classifications, each with its own unique skill set. In my research, I happened upon a job category that stood out to me: “web content management.” The job description contained traces of my former life. A web content manager handles the front-end presentation of a website. Articles, images, videos, social-media posts -- all of those bits of content fall under the realm of a web content manager. In that job, you must be very aware of a website’s intended audience and must be a good writer, editor, and communicator. Now there was something I already knew how to do! A good content manager should also have a decent grasp of front-end languages like CSS and HTML, and some experience with Photoshop and Illustrator. Check.
The point here: I figured out a way to highlight aspects of my existing work history and demonstrate why it naturally qualified me for this new role. I could show that my career transition made sense. Part of your reinvention must be about understanding how to frame your existing skills to fit your new career track.
- Reflection: Reach back into your past. What work have you done that can be refashioned and applied to other fields?
Create Your Own Work History
Sometimes, even when we have the skills and a strong résumé, we still can’t land a job. I dealt with that frustration for almost a year after I left my adjunct position. I knew I had what it took to be a web content manager, but I was having trouble convincing anyone else of that conviction. The big problem was a gaping hole in my résumé. I didn’t have a single job entry that proved I could do the work. So I had to create my own work history.
No, I don’t mean exaggerate or make things up. Don’t do that. That’s bad. I’m instead referring to the concept of the DIY career. If you can’t get someone to hire you, sometimes you just need to hire yourself.
I put my shingle out and started advertising my web-design work on a freelance basis. I had no money for marketing, so I had to get creative. Craigslist, social media, networking events, even hitting the bulletin boards at local coffee shops. I had to get my name out there.
Eventually, I landed a couple of small gigs. Build a website here, write some copy there. All the while, I was working on my own websites and honing my skills in my free time. I found a company called Treehouse to be particularly helpful for picking up skills in web design and development. Definitely check them out if you’re interested in the field. Lynda.com is another good one. After a few months of freelancing and practicing, I had a small portfolio of work I could use to demonstrate my talent. And I also had a line item for my résumé that specifically read “web content manager and designer.”
- Reflection: What is keeping you from breaking out on your own? Fear? Procrastination? Time? I’m willing to bet those are only excuses you are using to protect yourself, which is certainly a valid response to the unknown. You can start a side gig during evenings and weekends for very little initial investment.
Landing a New Job
Once I updated my résumé with these new skills, I started getting bites from employers. Combining my writing and editing history with my new web work helped me stand out in the résumé stack. It wasn’t long before a position came along at the University of Kentucky that matched my skill set. I applied, interviewed, and got the job. After a couple of years dedicated to my reinvention, I accepted a “web content” position that allowed me to do the work I set out to do.
My reinvention story has been a good one so far, but there are a couple of things in this discussion I want to make clear. First, I’m very aware that reinvention is not ideal for everyone, and I don’t mean to suggest that all adjuncts should quit their jobs. For some, teaching is a calling worth fighting for and I have a lot of respect for everyone who feels that way. We need great teachers who are completely dedicated to the cause. This piece is for the others (adjuncts or otherwise) who feel like I did, for those who know they want something else but aren’t sure how to get started with a personal reinvention.
I also want to be careful not to look backward and minimize the struggle. It took some lucky breaks and a lot of work to reinvent myself. You will have to work far more than 40 hours a week and you often will receive no pay for the work you do. Reinvention requires unwavering dedication and a good bit of optimism. It’s damn hard work and most of us have no financial support or savings to fall back on when things get tough. Be prepared to fail before you finally succeed. On that note, I’ve found the following Churchill quote to be particularly helpful during my process of reinvention: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.”
I spent years in the trenches of adjunct life and I met many people who, like me, wanted to some day make a change. If I can help, please feel free to contact me. Life is much better on the other side.