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So What Are You Going to Do With That?

By Susan Basalla & Maggie Debelius


NOTE from Nick Corcodilos.
Take it from an ex-graduate student who escaped the academic dungeon: it hurts. Graduate students and professors shy away from mentioning the dreaded “B” word – business. To even consider defecting from the ivory tower is a holy and academic crime. Yet, every year many academics make the transition. Lacking guidance, each  suffers alone the trauma of leaving the tight-knit academic community for a “real job”.

Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius have written a book that I'd have given a year's worth of graduate credits for. It shows academics how to pull off a successful career transition. More important, it gives them the emotional support their advisors and fellow academics can never provide.

In this excerpt from their book, So What Are You Going to Do With That? (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), Sue and Maggie offer  tips – to graduate students, Ph.D. candidates and professors – on how to get started on their emancipation from the ivory dungeon.

So now what? If you are now or have ever been a graduate student, you’ve heard the universal question about earning an M.A. or Ph.D.: “So what are you going to do with that? Teach?” One of the occupational hazards of academic life is enduring this kind of questioning from friends and family. Your least-favorite uncle has probably called you overeducated and unemployable. And maybe, somewhere in the back of your mind, you also have occasional moments of doubt about your future: What am I going to do with my graduate degree?

In order to see through the fog that sometimes surrounds us in grad school, you first have to abandon some myths about postacademic careers and replace them with questions that will help you think about your skills and your potential in a more positive and productive way.

Five Myths About Postacademic Careers

1. No one would hire me. I have no useful skills.
Academics do suffer the disadvantage of being misunderstood by most employers. Few people will recognize at a glance that your research and teaching skills can be an asset to their bottom line. You must figure out how your experience can benefit their company – the burden is on you. Also, remember that when we ask how someone's new career is similar to his or her former academic life, nine out of ten times the answer is: “I do a lot of teaching in my work.” Figure out what the analogies are in your line of work, and then you can persuade others.

(The exercises in the book will help you recognize the many talents you've developed as a teacher and researcher.)

2. People who work in the business world are stupid and boring.
If all your friends and associates are academics, you may think this statement is true. Graduate school does forge wonderful, lasting friendships, but it also cocoons you with people who are exactly like you. Academia has its share of dull or boring folks, as does every other field. But the postacademic world offers a greater variety of backgrounds and more room for interaction than academia.

"The biggest myth that academics have about the world of business and government is that they’ll be working with people who are intellectually inferior,” says Howard Scheiber, a Ph.D. in linguistics who now works as director of staff development for the New York Public Library. This just isn't the case: There are very bright people out there, as smart as any you'll find on campus.

3. Jobs in the business world are stupid and boring.
Remember how when you were fifteen everything was boring? Shakespeare was boring, quantum physics was boring, the Grand Canyon was boring... pretty much everything was officially too dull for words. Why? Because you didn't know enough to appreciate it. But that's why you're in grad school. You got hooked once you realized that the more you learned about a topic, the more interesting it was.

Treat your career exploration as another research project. Don’t assume surface appearances are correct. Academic life is one of about ten million possible careers. How can you be sure that each of the other 99.9 percent of jobs in the universe isn't for you?

4. It's too late to change careers.
In a world where layoffs and takeovers are commonplace, the job market is full of people scrambling to update their resumes, leap into different fields, or start over in mid-career. There's no shame in changing tacks. The key to successful career changing is learning the customs and vocabulary of the field you want to enter and then articulating your value. 

“People just don't do jobs forever anymore," insists Carol Barash, a former professor who now runs her own advertising agency. “The tenure-track model of having the same job for life is outdated.”

5. I’m too old.
Oh, no, you're not. After we gave a talk at the Modern Language Association meeting in 1998, someone came up to us and said, “That's fine for you, but I'm much older than you are, and things are different for me." As it turned out, she was younger than we were. In fact, faculty members and older graduate students have a greater wealth of experience and contacts to draw upon than someone who's only a few years out of college.

Remember, we're not advocating making sudden, radical changes in your life. Gaining new experience, investigating other uses for your skills, and keeping a foot in another career are all wise pursuits at any age. Also, graduate students and professors are paid modestly compared to most other careers. That means employers can afford to hire you.

Five Questions for Re-thinking Graduate School

Try to replace the myths we’ve discussed with these questions. Focus on figuring out what you want for yourself and don't worry about what you should or shouldn't be doing:

1. How much experience have you had in the world outside academia?
How many people do you know who aren't academics? What do you enjoy doing aside from your intellectual work? Did you have another job before coming to graduate school? How do your peers talk about people who have other kinds of jobs?

2. What do you think it will be like outside academia?
Have you ever worked nine to five? What would you miss about academic life? Think of your friends who aren't academics. Who loves their work the most? Whose work interests you most? Which aspects appeal to you? What does that tell you about yourself? (If no other job besides a professorship appeals to you, then maybe you don't know much about what else is out there.)

3. Are you happy in graduate school?
Sure, "depressed graduate student" is redundant, but honestly… would you like to make a change but feel you can't, or don't know how? A short vacation from academia, in the form of a part-time job or volunteer project in a completely different field, could help you rediscover what you love about academia or show you alternatives that you would enjoy more.

4. What are your pressing concerns? Family? Finances?
Maybe you're pretty sure that you want to be an academic, but recognize that your dream may not come true. You may have a spouse and children, you may be racking up enormous amounts of debt, you may be taxing the patience of your parents or whoever is helping you pay for school. Maybe your significant other is also an academic and you can't find jobs at the same institution. Keeping one foot outside academia, in a part-time job or a computer class, may help you adjust more quickly, in both practical and emotional terms, if it turns out that you have to leave academia.

5. Why did you come to grad school in the first place?
Is your motivation for staying the same? Life as a professor probably looks pretty different to you now, compared to when you first mailed off that  grad-school application. How do your expectations match up to reality?

So what are you going to do?

Here's our radical proposal: Why not get a postacademic job while you wait out the market? This isn't an easy or painless transition, and it doesn't happen overnight, but just consider the possibility for the moment. 

You can:

  • shrink the pool of willing adjunct teachers and postdoctoral fellows.
  • earn twice as much money at a job that doesn't consume your life the way academia does.
  • live where you want to live maybe even in the same state as your spouse.
  • work nine to five and use your free time to teach a class on the side if you like.
  • start knocking down your mounting credit card debt, prepare yourself for another career and take back some power for yourself.

When the market comes around again you may decide that you're happy where you are. And, if you do decide to go back on the market, it'll be on your own terms. You’ll be a stronger and more confident candidate for having proven yourself in the outside world; plus, you won t feel pressured to take any academic job that's offered.

Yes, we know it's not that easy. But in the face of so much despair about what Ph.D.'s can and can't do with their lives, we are willing to err on the side of optimism. We're here to say that as intimidating as the process appears at first, there is a universe of possibilities open to you. This is the beginning of a new phase in your life – a chance for you to find out something unexpected about yourself.

Please tell us what you think of this article.

For more help with academic career transition, check Breaking Ranks And Rules and Making The Liberal Arts Degree Pay Off.

This article is an excerpt from So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A guide for M.A.'s and Ph.D's seeking careers outside the academy ( January 2001, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Copyright © 2001 by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. All rights reserved. Our thanks to the authors and FSG for their kind permission to share this excerpt with you.

Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius earned Ph.D.'s in English from Princeton University. Basalla now works as an online editor for the personal finance Web site The Motley Fool, and Debelius serves as editor in chief for LifeMinders, an Internet company.


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