The following is a guest post from Sarah S. If you would like to contribute your own post about leaving academia, finding new employment, or any other topic, please contact us!
A current trend in career advice is to build your “brand” in order to better “sell” yourself to prospective employers and control your career trajectory.(*) In this digital age, the thinking goes, employers can find out all about people online and it behooves the jobseeker/career builder to stand out from the crowd with focused, personalized branding. I mean, if it works for soda and tennis shoes and software companies, why not you?
Transitioning academics likewise receive this branding advice. In fact, the difficulty of translating academic experience to employers in the “real world” makes concise, coherent branding particularly attractive. It can also supposedly demonstrate a post-academic’s business acumen as well, her awareness of market realities outside the Ivory Tower. I get these arguments. They make sense to me. So why am I so unable to discover and package my brand?
The Academy, at least in the Humanities, traditionally eschews this kind of corporate speak. And yet I was never so well branded as at the end of my PhD in English. In fact, I’d spent ten years honing and narrowing myself into an incredibly specific area and then spent hours perfecting my “elevator speech,” as well as articulating my philosophy of teaching (student-focused!) and area of expertise (British and American modernism, with an emphasis on the novel, trauma, and war!). I even had multiple distillations of my dissertation argument. First, the formal: “The Great War was so unprecedented it disrupted traditional mourning rituals, with their attendant resolution, leading to a traumatizing state of irresolvable mourning that I call ‘traumatic grief.’ This state caused post-war novelists from Britain and the US to represent the war as causing a widespread sterility, an inability or unwillingness to procreate, that manifests in characters, themes, and narrative itself.” And then this version, honed over beers and tator-tots, “World War I was major and it made people feel bad on their insides and then broke their baby makers.” By the end of the PhD I was this scholar-teacher—squished, narrowed, and branded within an inch of my life.
As we know, all the branding in the world can’t fix academia’s job issues and so after a fruitless year “on the market” I embraced my decision to stop applying for tenure track jobs and become post-ac, alt-ac, what-have-you. But one cannot transform on openness alone and magically transition from what she was to what she will become.
I tried the branding thing. I really did. I researched various careers. I participated in online communities. I did informational interviews. I wrote and rewrote (and rewrote and rewrote) my resume and cover letters. And I discovered a couple of things. First, getting a job is hard, ya’ll, even outside the Academy. Second, after the corseting I experienced by the end of my PhD, I didn’t want to “brand” myself, to limit myself to a single identity. Sure, I attempted to market my experience and goals for a handful of different career paths. Yet whenever I seemed to encounter a point where I really ought to buckle down and choose something, I balked.
I think there were several reasons for this. On some level, I was (I still am) gun shy; I put all my eggs in the academic basket and I remained wary of making the same mistake again with a new career path. I was also still connected to my identity as a scholar and teacher, and even though I was rationally comfortable with my decision to leave academia, the emotional and personal effects could not be wished away. When you spend years becoming a thing you cannot simply cease being it. Surely, as the soldier finds civilian clothes a little too constrictive and the transformed princess still wants to flap her goose wings so too the no-longer-academic forgets that she is not, anymore, a scholar, teacher, researcher, and so forth.
On the other hand, I pushed back against “branding” because I was also tired of being constrained. For so many years, I had been this very specific thing and now I wanted to take this new ephemerality out for a spin. Sometimes this flexibility involved uncovering things I’d always been, such as “writer.” I’d relinquished the right to call myself a writer after my MA when I chose the PhD path rather than, as did many of my peers, the MFA. They were writers, and I was this other thing called an “academic.” But as soon as I stripped off the title of academic, “writer” was underneath, like a worn undershirt. Other things I’ve come to realize as essential parts of me include “mentor” and “critical thinker” but also “story-lover” and “rock climber” and “political news junky”—none of which cohere nicely into logo form.
Apart from uncovering these bedrock components of myself, I also felt an expansiveness in self-definition, at times exhilarating and at others, I must admit, discombobulating and horrible. And yet even in the darkest times of uncertainty and seeming dissolution, I could not seize on a new thing: This is me. This is who I am. This is my brand! Would this experience have been different if I had been quickly hired into a job with a viable career path? Possibly. But I wasn’t and however I tried I found that, post-PhD, I encompassed far more than an elevator speech—for good and for ill.
I don’t write this post as a tirade against “branding” or to discourage anyone from taking the ubiquitous branding advice because it probably is good advice, or at least practical. I write merely to note that, at least so far, this approach has not worked for me. And so I embrace Walt Whitman’s declaration, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.” Despite the rigidity of academia, many of us loved it because of the endless possibility. Imagination alone limits one’s potential for reading and thinking and writing and teaching. I submit that the same holds true outside academia’s hallowed halls. Those who triumph with this approach are those wildly successful, entrepreneurial types who switch careers every three years and go base jumping. Meanwhile, the world also holds the rest of us, who may wish for greater specificity but will not relinquish our multivocality.
I thus prefer the approach of storytelling rather than “branding.” (I am a literature person, after all). Chris Humphrey has two excellent posts on this subject, one on overcoming the post-academic “failure” narrative and the other on telling a great story about your transition out of academia. Stories allow for so much more dynamism than a brand. Stories can develop and grow. Stories also honor the complexity that makes up a life’s journey, pulling together the splatters of experience, synthesizing the shared and highlighting the unique. And stories emphasize that I, that you, are so much more than a “brand.” In the end, practical or not, I’d rather be represented by a narrative than a catchphrase.
(*Here are a few examples of the type of "branding advice" that is referenced in this post.)