Friday, September 20, 2013

How To Leave Academia In the Press

Excited to be mentioned in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. 19 Sept 2013.
As Web sites became easier to build, and blogs became common, more and more forums were developed to share information about nonacademic careers. Some of the best include Lexi Lord's Beyond Academe (for historians), Branching Points (for scientists), and How to Leave Academia. (Readers: If you've found other such helpful sites, feel free to mention them in the comments below.)

Deciding who to work for: finding employment outside academia

This guest post is from Chris Humphrey at Jobs on Toast, a post-academic career advice blog. Check it out!

‘Who do you want to work for?’ and ‘Where do you want to work?’ are two questions that you’re unlikely to hear in any discussion of the current academic job market! Given the desperate state of the market today, with many more candidates than posts, the idea of a new PhD having a choice about their first post in academia seems crazy. People are resigned to going to places where they can get a job, even if the position and location aren’t a particularly good fit (adjuncting in North Dakota anyone?).

If you ask these two questions in the context of jobs outside of academia however, you get a very different response. Try it yourself! The sheer amount of options can be quite overwhelming at first: ‘You mean, I get to CHOOSE who I work for, and where?!’ Well, obviously you still have to apply for and get the job! But you definitely have more control over your employment terms (salary, workload, work-life balance, location) in comparison with your options inside higher education. So let’s look at the abundance of career opportunities outside academia, with a view to helping you choose your first job post-PhD.

Careers outside academia

We might mistakenly imagine (from inside academia) that PhDs can only venture out of higher education as far as publishing houses, or into research labs. The reality is that PhDs are enjoying successful careers in a broad range of organisations outside of higher education. I recently listened to a radio profile of Angela Merkel, a PhD in quantum chemistry, who as Chancellor of Germany is running the biggest economy in Europe! There are a number of dedicated websites where you can go and read interviews with PhDs who are working outside the academy. Just take a look at PhDs At Work ( for instance. This fantastic site has profiles of PhDs who are employed across a range of sectors, from coaching to environmental health to film and the arts (look out for me!). They are succeeding on the back of the skills and experience gained through their doctoral research, not in spite of them. You can check out my blog post on ‘Life after the PhD’ for a list of the top websites which carry interviews and profiles with PhDs employed outside academia.

Who do you want to work for?

So, who do you want to work for? You might decide that you actually want to work for yourself! An increasing number of PhDs are doing this, setting up their own businesses in fields like marketing, consulting and coaching. Being your own boss may not be that different from being a PhD – a lot of the same skills are required, such as time-management, self-motivation and dedicated hard work.

If you decide you want to work for someone else, you have three main options – non-profit, government and business:

1. Working for a non-profit, you are going to be using your skills to support the organisation’s mission. This mission could be health-related, environmental, artistic or may involve helping disadvantaged groups in society or in another country. This is a great way to put your expertise to work, in a research capacity (e.g. with a medical charity) or as a subject specialist or an administrator.

2. Your second option is to work in local or national government. In local government you’re going to be responsible for the delivery of a service to the public– this could be heritage, libraries, schools or planning, to name just a few of the options available. I know several PhDs who’ve gone into museum management for instance – they are now heads of their own collections! If you go to work in national government, you can find a home for your research skills in a policy unit, or perhaps further afield as a diplomat. One of my contemporaries from the University of York is now the British High Commissioner to Kenya!

3. Your third option is to work for a company. From the perspective of academia, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to business, and think that you have to sell your soul to work in one. Actually, there are many companies which are doing a great deal of good in the world. I would strongly encourage you to do some research into small and medium-sized companies with an ethical, social or sustainable mission. Companies in the ethical and green sectors tend to have an open-minded recruitment policy, and want to employ people who are aligned with their values – ideal if you want to change the world!

Where do you want to work?

Having spent a long time living and working in a university town or city while completing your PhD, it can be quite a wrench to have to up sticks and move for the sake of a job. Certainly for new PhDs, it would be quite unusual for a suitable academic position to come up locally, so relocation is a very likely prospect. When considering your career options outside of academia however, the ability to stay put can be a nice perk. Why not start your business in the location you know best – your home town or city? Or go to work for a local employer who’s looking for someone of your calibre and potential? While the offices of big employers like Google or Microsoft may be located hundreds of miles away, you may find that one of their subcontractors has an office just down the road …

On the other hand, if you fancy a change of scenery, a job outside of academia can be your passport to a dream location. Very few jobs will come up at the University of Hawaii for instance, but if you look for work outside of higher education, and are prepared to be flexible, an opportunity may present itself!

It’s your choice!

If you follow any commentary on the academic job market, you’ll know that it’s currently dominated by feelings of scarcity, compromise and under-employment. PhDs are taking temporary, low paid teaching work in universities in the hope that by ‘staying in the game’, something more permanent will eventually come up. This is an understandable strategy, but realistically the odds are stacked against you, and you have no control over when or where you’ll finally get a job. By contrast, we’ve seen how you can get back a degree of choice and self-determination, if you opt for self-employment, or if you go to work for an organization locally or elsewhere. I would love to hear your answers to the two questions posed at the beginning of this post – please leave your comments below!

Dr Chris Humphrey is the founder of Jobs on Toast, a blog dedicated to helping masters students and PhDs find fulfilling careers outside academia. Chris obtained his PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of York (UK) in 1997, and he is the author of The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England. Since leaving academia in 2000, Chris has worked in a range of project and programme management roles in the areas of sustainability, transport infrastructure and training. Chris regularly gives workshops at UK universities on the subject of marketing yourself for a career outside academia, and he will shortly be launching an online directory of paid-for products and services benefiting doctoral researchers.

PhD PTSD: Find the Joy in Your Sorrow

Guest post by Sacha Siskonen. She currently exists somewhere between academia and the non-academic world in a nether region of teaching. She hopes to exit this realm in the near future, but she has been told she is overqualified for any jobs that pay a living wage. In the meantime, she blogs at The Saskatchewan Review.

When I first began my PhD program, a friend and I used to joke that the people who were ahead of us in the program—fifth and sixth years, the occasional seventh+ year—were afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. When we chatted with them about the program or the faculty at department functions or social events, these otherwise vibrant, intelligent people suddenly became drones with dead eyes, parroting the party line. It seemed to us that some time around year three or four people in the program stopped questioning the program, and started repeating mantras of “that’s just how it is here” and “you get used to it.” I was told that faculty members who seemed incompetent or even cruel to me “were actually really helpful.” It was creepy and disconcerting. There were lots of jokes about drinking the Kool-Aid that first year.

By my third year, I’d started to exhibit some of this same behavior. I was bitter and angry, stressed and frustrated more of the time than I wasn’t. I felt dead inside. Studying for my preliminary exams was slowly driving me insane; “prelim brain” became the shorthand in our program for the confused mental state, inability to focus, and constant worry exhibited during the exam year. My advisor was unhelpful, dismissive and absentee. But worst of all, I could no longer see the goal at the end of the struggle. I didn’t want the degree anymore. The job market was, and continues to be, disastrous in my field (English/Creative Writing), a tenure-track position seemed almost impossible to get, and I was racking up student loan debt at a quick clip with little hope of a starting position that would allow me to pay it off in my lifetime. The people around me on the tenure track seemed miserable, and I feared becoming them. I was turning into someone I didn’t recognize and didn’t like.

I decided to leave my PhD program last fall at the beginning of my fourth year. The semester had already started and I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I stayed for the year, took a Master’s degree and made plans for my next move. At first this decision made me euphoric. I was finally free of all the stress and resentment I’d been holding on to for three long, hard years. I got a good six months of relief and excitement out of the decision. I was very happy to be leaving. I felt like I had taken back control of my life.

Now, I’ve been out for a little over four months. Emotionally, I feel unbelievably better. Even the stress of a job search outside academia cannot compare to the stress I felt while in the program. And I’m no longer taking on debt, which is great. But I have been surprised by how shaken I feel by the whole experience. My confidence has definitely taken a hit. I’ve got a case of PhDPTSD, self-diagnosed. [I say this partly in jest, but certainly don’t mean to make light of PTSD, which is a real and serious problem.] Leaving a PhD program where you felt abused, poorly treated, ignored, marginalized, etc. can have very real effects on your sense of self, your feelings of self-worth, and your ability to function in non-academic society. I believe these effects are temporary and can be overcome, but acknowledging them is certainly the first step to healing and moving forward.

My PhDPTSD mostly takes the form of a need to confess my status as a PhD dropout. As though mentioning that I left a PhD program recently will explain any erratic behavior or odd tendencies I might display: flights of criticism, rambling introductions, excessive citation. Being in academia was a huge part of my identity and it’s going to take some time to redefine myself. Like an addict in recovery, I feel the need to declare my problem. So when I run into a friend or acquaintance, or communicate with someone whom I haven’t talked to for a while, I find myself telling them, without prompting, “I just dropped out of my PhD program.” To their credit, no one in my life, family, friends, strangers, inside academia or outside it, has said anything unkind about this. I wish for everyone leaving academia the support I’ve gotten from everyone I’ve come in contact with. Even my dismissive advisor offered her help when I told her I was leaving the program!

I’ve been using the word “failure” pretty freely in the last few months. I feel like I’ve failed. I wanted to leave. I’m happy that I’m no longer in my program, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like a failure. A few of my friends have been kind enough to say this isn’t true, and to reframe leaving academia not as failure, but as success, survival, self-actualizing, etc. I appreciate their reframing immensely. But I also never want to run from using the word “failure” or be afraid of failing. As a writer, hell, as a human being, failure is inevitable. For me, confronting that feeling of failure, letting myself feel it and saying it, is helping me move past it. There’s something freeing about failure. It’s a fresh start, but not a blank slate. Failure is how we learn. Failure is how we improve. Writers are fond of that Beckett quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The part of my PhDPTSD that’s harder to admit is that I also still want credit for the years of struggle and work I put in. I made the mistake of looking at my transcripts recently. All the time and energy I sunk into this endeavor, and I don’t even have a degree to show for it. I imagine that people who did get their degree but are no longer working in academia might feel similarly. You invest so much in a program, in your education, and if you don’t tell anyone or people don’t know that you did all that work, then why did you do it? Maybe for some, who are more evolved than I am, just doing it is the reward. But I want some validation! I’ve been in school for most of my life; I still want the gold star, the “A,” the pat on the head. I want to be the best at dropping out of grad school. And that’s something I need to let go of too. Or rather, I need to let go of the need for that validation to come from an authority figure, some doting or dismissive professor.

Part of this need to confess, in my case, comes from my love of self-deprecation—a quality that was not appreciated in academe where pretention and self-aggrandizement are the norm. I love to tell my friends and family stories about the awful things that happen to me. So this failure is partly fodder for me, a way to entertain and connect to people. Likewise, telling my story is a way to free myself from shame and embarrassment. The more I tell it, the less power it has over me, and the less it hurts to tell. Leaving academia can be traumatic, but remember trauma comes from the Greek word for “wound,” and wounds heal. They’ll heal with or without help, but a wound that’s attended to leaves less of a scar.