Image: Seinfeld (1989-1998)
In season five of Seinfeld, hapless nebbish George Costanza improbably turns his life around by doing the opposite of whatever his instincts demand. “I always have tuna on toast!” he bemoans to the long-suffering coffee-shop waitress. “Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of tuna on toast!” And it works. He introduces himself to a beautiful woman by saying, “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents” — and gets a date. He tells Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner that his management practices stink — and gets a job in the team’s front office.
When I inadvertently became academe’s poster child for job-market loserdom in 2013, I thought of George Costanza constantly. It was the closest to Georgedom I had ever been in my adult life: unemployed, possibly unemployable, and known primarily for being an unlikeable yutz. If there was a wallowing-on-the-couch equivalent of yelling “It’s Moops!” to a boy in a bubble, I was doing it.
That’s why, in the words of so much clickbait, you’ll never believe what happened next. Acting like George Costanza — specifically, doing the opposite of everything I’d been counseled for the past decade — is what made me solvent once again. And if you, dear reader, are contemplating an exit from academe (as the boulder of this year’s hiring cycle rolls ever so briefly back to the bottom of the hill) a turn as George might be just what you need.
The first George Maneuver I made was also the riskiest: I started speaking bluntly and honestly — about the academic hiring process and the prospects for new Ph.D.'s in the literary humanities; about the totalizing and near-intolerable extent of my pain, and my failure, and my unadorned rage at a system that rejects the majority of the scholars it creates. If there was a complaint that had been whispered among grad students, new Ph.D.’s, and even tenured faculty in the know, I was going to lace it with obscenities and scream it as loudly as I could.
The reaction was a collective gasp from the hallowed halls (along with, at times, some furtive nodding): That tone! How could anyone be so unprofessional? So uncivil? Surely the employment gods would punish me summarily. Instead, the more my gut screamed this is a terrible idea, the louder I got — and the better things turned out. I am now a full-time writer (slash screw-up-at-home mom), currently finishing up the manuscript of my first work of commercial nonfiction.
Now, this is not the specific path I would recommend for anyone else, unless you enjoy scrutiny, criticism, Schadenfreude, and vitriol, in which case, do it! But there is a universal applicability in this Costanza move: If the conventions of your academic upbringing are telling you to do something one way, do the opposite. I mean it.
For example, the academic standard when looking for a job in the professoriate is to wait in terror for listings of open positions. If, however, you want to put your Ph.D. to use in all sorts of other interesting jobs — editing, translation, freelance research, consulting, grant writing, museum work, teaching at a private secondary school — waiting is for chumps. Instead, be chipper but assertive and seek out people who have the sort of jobs you want, and send them short but admiring emails. Get as friendly as possible with all of those people. Do them favors. Prove yourself to be a solid, go-to specimen of a human. Then, months later, when you need a favor from them — a reference; an introduction — they will usually be happy to give it.
Or if you have a particular feeling about a specific line of work, find a company that does that work and — talk about the opposite of academe! — email its proprietor cold (again, short and chipper, the opposite of an academic job application). That is what I did when I found out there was such a thing as a “dissertation coach.” And while my friends were caught in yearlong vortices of 50-page dossiers, $1,000 interviews, and nerve-racking campus visits, I was having a short, sweet phone interview and getting hired on the spot. Sure, my earliest coaching practice consisted of a single client, at a very modest “training rate.” But it also gave me something no amount of money could buy: A new, recent line on my résumé that said: “consultant.”
This brings me to the next important Costanza moment in the postacademic job search. In academe, our “potential” is our currency, and the gazillion-page dossiers we send out into the abyss at our own expense are the supposed expression of that currency (and, thus, of our worth, which is part of what makes it so hard when they’re ignored).
Outside academe, “potential” means Jack. Diddly. Squat. You need “experience” if you want anyone to take you seriously in the corporate world or any other nonfaculty realm. Because, as a Ph.D. in your mid-to-late 30s or older, you are not going to be taken seriously for entry-level positions that often pay little more than adjuncting anyway.
It can’t be overstated: There is one thing that can help you land a new job above all else, and that is abject proof that you already know how to do it. If you want to get a job doing something, you need to get experience doing that very thing, even if that experience is barely part-time. (That is, indeed, often the only way to get started, which is why, if you’re even thinking about leaving academe, it’s smartest to begin these strategies a year or two before you actually depart.)
OK, so you might not be able to get away with saying exactly what’s on your mind all of the time, like George does when he tells Steinbrenner off, or like I did for awhile, before I had a child and no longer had the time to brush my hair, much less pick fights on the Internet with strangers. (My blog, once the go-to location for curse-strewn academic rants, now consists primarily of pictures of my baby and proclamations of how tired I am.) But unless you want your nonacademic job search to go just like your academic one (i.e., to end in you being ignored), George Costanza is, believe it or not, your best role model.