Tonight I read a recent post over on the excellent website/resource “How to Leave Academia” about “What is the Right Academic Job.” The post bemoaned the impression that seems to be creeping along in post-ac and alt-ac circles that one should find the right kind of non-academic job, one that’s not only one that’s well-paid, with benefits, but that it makes full use of the impressive skill set a PhD is supposed to bring to the world outside the academy. The post also suggested that the stories of people just starting out on their post-ac paths were somehow not getting quite the same press coverage. This post in particular, and this blog in general, is trying to be an answer to that call.
Thankfully, the post by JC led me to breathe a much-needed sigh of relief, since I’ve spent the previous long while worrying a bit that my own current work as a part-time evening library circulation supervisor isn’t making enough use of my skills. Yes, I get to work with interesting people and train them (which is kind of like teaching). And frankly my geekier side loves the techiness of the library – ILL library codes and MARC catalog records are a little bit like knowing a secret code, after all. But I don’t do much writing, research, or analysis, and I do miss that. (Thankfully I get a bit of that in my other part time job, and that keeps me sane).
I wonder if the skill-set in question has to do with what might be called the Big Picture. At a recent meet-up with folks from the Versatile PhD board, one attendee mentioned that in her current stop-gap job providing customer service for a large company, she’s realized that she doesn’t like solving short-term problems that take five minutes to figure out. She’d much rather work on assignments that look at the Big Picture. As I recalled the conversation later to my Professor Spouse, I thought it made total sense. Doctoral candidates and professors are all about the Big Picture: we plan our research and writing projects; we organize and plan our courses. It’s big picture and small details all together. We set goals that can take weeks (in the case of an assignment), months (in the case of teaching a course), or years (in the case of a dissertation) to achieve. What I’d ultimately like to find is a position that allows me to use these skills on a similar level to what I’d be doing as a tenure-track professor. And I think the lack of Big Picture thinking is what might make some post-acs and alt-acs wonder if a job is the “right” kind of job.
The more I think about it, though, I need to remind myself that a job is just one step on a longer career path. (Not to mention that I just had a baby nine months ago, and she’s not in daycare). My position and title (should they even really matter) might be very different twenty years from now than they are now. As old as the mid-thirties might sound compared to if I hadn’t gone into my doctoral program and had started regular work in my mid-twenties, I still have a good twenty or thirty years of work ahead of me which might lead eventually to more Big Picture jobs.
I do think the literature (blogged and print-published) about post-ac job searches can give the impression that one might be able to jump from finishing the dissertation to a major management position at a company or organization, and in some cases, this might be true. My own experience over the course of the past year has been of a much more middling nature.
In the past year, in addition to having a baby, I’ve had a few job interviews, including one at the bottom of a totem pole, doing very basic work digitizing and scanning documents, and one at the other end of the very same totem pole, as the head of that department. Neither was a great fit: as Goldilocks might say, one was too hot, the other too cold, and neither resulted in an offer. The second job opening, at almost the top of the totem pole, would have been a dream alt-ac job, one that was connected to my academic field and drew on my alt-ac work experience. It would have been the kind of well-paid, difficult, challenging Big Picture job that made for the capstone of any career, and I would have been quite happy to tell strangers what I did for a living. Obviously, I was not well-enough qualified in terms of years of experience for it. I think I knew this from the outset, but I was honored and thrilled to get a screening interview with the recruiter, and also a first-round telephone interview with the company. The interview showed me something that might come as an unpleasant truth: it take a few years before I’ll be ready, from an employer’s perspective, for the kind of job that will most fully engage my skills.
I’m still building those skills, and that might mean I’ll have to be more selective about the kinds of jobs I apply for: ones that are neither too hot or too cold, but that fit well enough for now, and will eventually lead me to a job where I can do more Big Picture work. But for that, the baby has to be older, the resume has to be longer, and the timing needs to be right. In the meantimes, I’ll try to blog more about the semi-trenches (because really, my own trenches could be a lot worse) of the early phases of alt-ac career life, so that these stories of people just trying to figure life out still get told.