Friday, January 25, 2013

I Hate My Post-Ac Job: What Happens When You DON'T Land The Perfect Postacademic Career

After days, weeks, months--maybe even years--you've finally made the huge decision to leave academia. You've navigated the tricky waters of identifying your transferable skills, you've given some though to other industries you might enjoy, and you've turned your CV into a resume. You've even managed to jump through the innumerable hoops of getting hired--phone interviews, in-person interviews, hiring committees--to land your first postacademic job. Congratulations!

But what happens when the job you've gotten is far--miles, oceans, light-years-- from your "perfect" postacademic career? What do you do now?

Lauren suggested I write this post, as the topic of bad first postacademic jobs is something I've been living through, and writing about, for the past seven or so months.

In my case, I really wanted a job in academic publishing quite badly. It seemed like such a good idea at the time! I even turned down another promising interview. I thought I wanted a job that kept me tied to academia. In academic publishing I would still be on college campuses, talking about course development, thinking about student's needs, and working in an academic cycle. In time, I imagined myself working as a marketer or editor for the company. My Ph.D. would be put to use as I cultivated and edited a superb Composition and Literature list. My years as an academic would be rewarded in and validated by this new industry. I was less certain about the sales nature of the job, but thought it would be a good opportunity to try something new.

In very short order, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. In fact, I am not sure I could have picked a career less well-suited to my likes, personality, and life style. Academic publishing and sales are completely  out of line with my values and sense of self.

It's so easy to feel like a failure when your first postacademic job sucks. I have spent copious amounts of time blaming myself. I've already felt like a total failure for not landing an academic job (I'm a Type 2 leaver, so leaving academia when I couldn't land a job has been fraught with feelings of failure and inadequacy). Graduating, leaving academia, moving to a new city, starting a new job, and then hating it? Sheesh. Let me tell you--it's hard to feel like a success story.  I find, too, that I spend a lot of time wallowing, feeling as though I was "dealt a bad hand." Why can't I have those awesome postac jobs other people landed?

I am still making sense of what has happened to me, both in terms of leaving academia and in getting such a shitty first nonacademic job. Sometimes I feel like some sort of the professional version of the Biblical Job. I don't have slaughtered cattle or locusts eating my crops, but I've got a horrible work/life balance and a job that's causing me physical and mental anguish. If I ever get it all figured out, I'll let you guys know.

Houston: We Have A Drinking ProblemCreative Commons License wackystuff via Compfight

In the meantime, here are a few things I have found helpful for when you don't land your perfect postacademic career:

1. Focus on other things in your life.

Work may be a substantial part of your day. In fact, it's nearly all of my day. I work seriously insane hours. Most weeks I am on the road, away from home Sunday through Thursday. Even still, it's not the sum total of my life or identity. So, I spend as much free time as I can consciously cultivating fun things to do in my off hours. My free time is far more "calculated" than it once was. Each day I try to make sure some of my time focuses on the positive things and relationships in my life outside of work. I savor each television show, blog post, or book read; I plan fun outings for Paul and I to do on the weekends; and I try to develop new hobbies or interests outside work. I find the latter to be crucial as, for so long, academia was my work, my social circle, my down time, my travel--my whole identity. I need some time to sort out who I am, apart from academia. Hating my new job so, so much has encouraged me to try and find more non-work things I enjoy. So far, I've taken yoga, Pilates, and have up-ed my cooking game. Find out what you enjoy outside of work and fight with every last breath to make this, too, a part of your routine.

2. Use this experience to explore what you want in your next job.

When I graduated, I thought a life in academic publishing sounded perfect. Like academia-lite. Yet now that I am doing the job, I realize I don't want academia-lite. In fact, I've realized I just may be happier cutting ties with the whole sorry business of higher ed. Staying in academic cultures has only made me miss what I once had/dreamed of having. It doesn't provide me with the familiarity and comfort that I thought it might. When I was recently offered another non-academic job I, initially, jumped at the chance. However, upon closer reflection, I realized that I didn't want this new job as it looked a lot like my current one. Long hours, lots of travel, lack of opportunity to help others, and the continued pressure to cultivate a sales identity--I now know I want none of these things. I've also become far more critical of employers and their "promises." The job I signed on for is drastically different than the job I am doing. I once thought an employer only had to qualify me. Now I realize you, to the best of your ability, have to qualify your employer, too. I'm using my bad postacademic job to redefine what I want out of a career--a better work/life balance, the ability to stay in Pittsburgh, the chance to help people, the opportunity to think my own thoughts, the chance to have "growth" and change throughout the span of a career (through new projects, certifications, etc). Now that I know the kinds of jobs that make me unhappy, I can begin to find a career that gives me meaning, purpose, and joy.

3. Let this bad job build your confidence.

Ironically, my horrible postacademic job experience has in many ways built my confidence. Although I hate my job, I do it well. When I left academia, I feared that I might not be able to cut it at non-academic employment. This experience has shown me that I can do postacademic work and do it well. I am heartened by this fact, and I am eager to see how my skills will transfer when I have a job I actually want.

4. Make a concrete plan to get out.

My job has been pretty intolerable. It has leeched my health and happiness. It's made me cranky and depressed and gloomy about life. It's also slowly killing me health-wise--constant pain, stress rashes, and serious gastro issues. I've known since my first day on the job that I need to be done, but getting out has been trickier than I'd hoped. At first, my strategy was to apply to as many other full-time jobs as possible. This has been exhausting and, ultimately, unproductive. Not that I recommend one stop applying for other full-time jobs when she hates her current one, but I highly recommend expanding the plan for making an escape strategy. Sign up with a temp agency, explore part-time work, consider going back to school, develop a side business you've always dreamed about--whatever your next step, create a timeline for quitting. I know this is hard--god, I know. In my house, I am the only "breadwinner"--imagine walking away from that stability? But I have to. I have to get out of my bad postacademic job and see what other possibilities are out there for me. I want to believe this postacademic life is going to be OK. More than OK. But I need to quit my current job to experience that. Identify your "next thing," make a concrete plan, and set a date to be done with your bad postacademic job. I have found that just knowing your misery has expiration date can be enormously helpful!

Do you have a bad (first) postacademic job experience? I'd love to hear about it in the comments, or send me an email at


  1. Great post, great advice! This line in particular struck me: "I once thought an employer only had to qualify me. Now I realize you, to the best of your ability, have to qualify your employer, too."

    Our post-ac experiences seem to have been pretty different so far, but this point is something I've come to realize, too. Not only is it important in helping you figure out what you want in a job, but approaching an interview with this attitude, I think, boosts how potential employers view you as a candidate. If you're interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you, it shows you're taking them and the job search process seriously. It adds to your credibility and how much they respect you, which works greatly in your favor if it's a job you really want. Make it YOUR job search, not just any old job search.

  2. One problem with your situation, I'm really sorry to say, is that for the next post-ac job, you'll need to show a record of qualifications for it. You can create a good story about switching careers an additional time, but it'll be harder to prove that you really, really, really want your next career move without some resume lines in that field.

    That concrete plan should include attaining work experience (or volunteering/interning) in the new thing. After all the exploration is done.

  3. With my first post-ac job I realized that most of my colleagues (without PhDs) hated their first job. The difference for us is that we're viewed as career changers when we move from academic career track to our first post-ac job so shifting a second time may leave us looking confused and without direction.

    Often we're so ready to leave academia or we're up against the clock to find out first post-ac job FAST or we're navigating a new career search process without much guidance. In this scenario there is little time and resources for exploring and sorting through our options. We explore our career transition when we're still so close to academia that we have a hard time defining ourselves, our lives, and our vision of success outside of that space. I encourage the graduate students I work with to start exploring options WHILE in school, creating with them a dual career path preparation guide. This way you can keep working on academic pursuits while doing a few key activities that can position you for multiple career paths.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.