• October 31, 2014

The Truth about the Nonacademic Job Search

After an unsuccessful year on the academic job market, I decided to test the proverbial nonacademic waters for a year. I have watched colleagues struggle through years of uncertainty, low self-esteem, and pennilessness while adjuncting, and I imagined (rightly or not) that the nonacademic world had to be much better.

Upon receiving my Ph.D. in comparative literature last June, I spent the summer applying for writing and editing jobs, consulting career counselors and job-search books, and generally trying to determine which path to take. The nonacademic job, however, has not been as easy to obtain as I had fantasized in my post-dissertation stupor.

Furthermore, I found that the transition into the real world bears little resemblance to the success stories and promises of those job-search books. So I decided it was time for someone to tell the truth about the nonacademic path.

Truth No. 1: You will lose your friends. That unfortunate process may have started much earlier, of course, once you began to express doubts about the academic job market. I can assure you from experience that there's nothing that will scare off your fellow graduate students more than talk of leaving academe.

The idea that a different career, a different life, is possible in the nonacademic world seems to threaten those delicately balanced ivory towers. If you begin to test the strength of the towers, you will alienate others inside the university. In short, you lose your friends because you are daring to imagine life on the outside.

The irony of losing your friends is that the very means of finding a job outside of academe is by networking. Books on the nonacademic job search insist that the only way to find a job is by networking: while pursuing your favorite hobbies!; by meeting people at cocktail parties!; while doing volunteer work! You may have heard that advice before, back when it was in a guidebook to dating.

In neither case is it helpful, since you long ago had to give up your hobbies when you started graduate school, you've become increasingly anti-social while writing your dissertation and, as I already mentioned, you've lost all of your friends. Networking may be the best way to find a job, but you will have to be realistic about the success of that method as a recent Ph.D.

Truth No. 2: You will lose your mentors. My committee members, who read patiently through the drafts of my dissertation, have certainly been exceptionally helpful in the academic job search. I have been greatly indebted to them for their letters of support and words of encouragement throughout the process.

In the nonacademic job search, however, you're out at sea on your own, since the crew members you've come to need and trust can't venture that far from shore. That is perhaps the most startling part of the transition, especially after spending several years relying on a circle of trusted advisers and mentors. As you explore uncharted waters, you will have to learn how to navigate on your own.

Truth No. 3: You will be told you know nothing about "writing." In an informational interview with a technical writer, I was told that I knew nothing about real writing because I had never published an article in a magazine or newspaper. In that case, I'm not sure why I was unleashed on hundreds of undergraduates as a teaching assistant in essay-writing classes.

The writer I was interviewing had worked her way up as a journalist over many years and suggested that I build my portfolio of "clips" (published articles) by writing about something I know. For example, she thought I could write an article on my two fighting cats for a cat magazine. After spending years researching and writing a 300-page dissertation, I can't believe that an uninformed commentary on domestic cats would actually be more impressive.

I've concluded that jobs in "writing" in the nonacademic world must simply encompass different kinds of writing, from news reporting to technical writing. Academic writing, it seems, is not understood in the outside world. You will have to reinvent yourself as a writer, but not, I hope, by writing on topics like feline foibles.

Truth No. 4: Your Ph.D., awards, and accolades mean nothing. One of the curious elements of books on the Ph.D.'s nonacademic job search is that the authors, who have made the transition into the "real world," always begin their discussions by presenting their academic qualifications. Interestingly, they all published extensively, received glowing reviews from students, and piled up awards and fellowships. Their reasons for leaving academe vary, but they all insist they were extremely successful as graduate students and professors.

Similarly, I have tried to squeeze in "Dr." in front of my name at every opportunity, and my Ph.D. is proudly perched atop my résumé. A career counselor, however, advised me against that. The Ph.D., apparently, should be buried on the ésumé underneath lists of skills and abilities, for fear of frightening off potential employers.

The problem with that strategy, of course, is that you wouldn't want an employer who is afraid of a Ph.D., anyway. For now, I'm boldly displaying my academic credentials on my ésumé, with the hope that I will find a job that actually makes use of my qualifications.

Truth No. 5: You will have to throw things away. By that, I mean your papers, your jargon, and your definition of self-worth. A good house-cleaning after graduate school never hurt anyone, but your definition of yourself is perhaps the hardest part of your past to discard. New assistant professors, I've heard, suffer from a similar difficulty, since they have to negotiate the shift from graduate student to "professor."

I had built my sense of self-worth in graduate school on the number of pages of my dissertation that I had written in a week, or the research I had finished, or the papers I had graded. My academic work came to define who I was.

Without the security blanket that was your dissertation, you will have to allow your self-definition to shift. On the nonacademic job market, that means an indefinite period of time not knowing who or what you will become.

Truth No. 6: Rejection letters from last year's academic search will seem hilarious. Let's not forget the upside of taking a break from the academic world. In late July, I received a letter of rejection for a teaching position advertised last fall. I had applied and never heard back from the university, but in the letter the department announced it had received my application materials and, "after much consideration," had decided to offer the position to another candidate. It had, according to the letter, been deliberating for an entire year. The stressful, painstaking process of the academic job machine can, for a moment, look ridiculous. But that leads us to the final and unfortunate truth:

Truth No. 7: Finding a job outside academe is just as difficult. You may believe, as I once did, that the nonacademic job search is much less painful. The process of networking can be liberating, since friends and contacts can actually have a positive influence on prospective employers. The ability to choose to live in metropolitan areas rather than small towns can save your social life. And the fact that you are not constrained by the yearly academic job market and limited job openings means that you can, at the very least, apply for jobs year-round.

However, the real world functions in a manner as mysterious as the academic market. Most employers, I have found, specify "no telephone calls," which means you are left helpless and uninformed. I have, in some cases, eventually received automated rejections by e-mail, but I seem to be waiting by the phone just as dolefully as in December of last year.

Perhaps some will read this as a cautionary tale, but that is certainly not how I have meant it. The opportunity to redefine yourself and explore other, perhaps more rewarding career paths should not be undervalued.

In order to do that, however, you will have to venture out on your own, without the support of your colleagues, your dissertation, or your portfolio of awards. You will lose the security of the ivory towers, but also the fears instilled within. And you will learn not to be afraid.

Elle Madison is the pseudonym of an Ph.D. in comparative literature. She will be chronicling her search this year for both nonacademic and academic jobs.

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