Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The "Next" Job v. the "Forever" Job

In comments over at Another Academic Bites the Dust's place a few days ago, thedustbiter and I were discussing the emotional process of leaving academia, and how it can be difficult to remind yourself that once you leave the structured path of academia, you're looking for your next job, and not necessarily your forever job.

Here's the thing. As grad students and early faculty members or postdocs, we're (by default) being trained for a forever job. In other words, a tenure-track faculty position that is assumed will become permanent after about 6-7 years. There is really no such thing as an entry-level faculty position. Sure, an assistant professor is considered to be more entry-level than an associate professor and so on, but your responsibilities and duties will generally remain about the same throughout your academic career at that college or university.

And sure, there is some mobility in the profession - many faculty do move from one school to another throughout their careers. But even if you switch schools, you'll still typically be a faculty member with similar teaching/research/service responsibilities. You won't be leaving one set of duties and obligations for a completely new set.

So when you leave graduate school, you are expected to immediately search for your "forever job". You may switch between university employers, but as long as you work your rear end off, you are told that you will be employed in that capacity, as a faculty member, for the rest of your career.

The outside world is going to work a little differently. You're no longer on a defined, structured job market cycle in which all of the jobs will post in the fall, everyone who gets hired to a new position moves in the summer, and all new jobs start in the following fall. Every potential job you could qualify for outside of academe will not consist of different combinations of the teaching/research/service trifecta. Every potential employer out there is not a university or college that works on the academic calendar.

So thinking in terms of your permanent "forever job" as your next step upon leaving is not the way to look at it. It'll drive you crazy, and will likely not get you anywhere. You will see a myriad of possibilities, but you're supposed to be looking for your next career??? You'll be thrown for a loop. Fairly quickly, I started to be consumed by the idea that I needed to pick a new career! Right now!!

But oh my gosh, how could I possibly choose between all of the available possibilities???

But I need to hurry and pick a new career! Time is running out! All of my friends have their faculty positions in hand! Why am I slacking???

It can be discouraging sometimes. You'll have a lot of ups and downs. It's an emotional rollercoaster to adjust not only to a completely new career trajectory, but to a completely new way of looking for jobs.

What I encourage you to do, though, is to try - however you can - to get your mind reoriented a bit. Of course, you do want to think about what career fields you'd be interested in long-term. Absolutely. For me, I am interested in either student advising (which I've never done on a formal level) or applied research in a field I have only a moderate level of experience in.

So I sincerely doubt anyone is going to hire me off the street to do either of those jobs full-time right now, especially not at the Ph.D. or even masters' level. I don't have perfectly relevant work experience, and I don't currently know anyone who works in those industries. It's going to take me a little time to make some contacts and to convince people in those fields that I can do the work.

So what I'm going to have to do - and unless you're looking for an outside job that is very similar to an academic career, what you'll likely have to do as well - is look for my next job. Not your long-term career job. Your next job. Try to keep that in mind.

The next job can take on one of two forms. It could either be something like what I'm doing right now - a completely unrelated job that just pays the bills while you figure out what you want to do next and how to break into that field.

Later on, you can either leave that job off your resume altogether or leave it on as an indicator that you - former grad student - can work in an office setting with coworkers! Buts if you take this type of "next job," you will buy yourself a little financial breathing room and possibly a slightly more manageable work schedule so that you can consider your next step. Don't discount the value of this type of job for helping you do the mental and emotional work necessary to make the leap out of academia. In addition, it could also provide you with the opportunity to gain some volunteer experience in your chosen career field if possible, which can be helpful in ultimately getting that "career job."

Alternately, your "next" job could be an entry-level job in the field you hope to work in long-term. That's what I'm hoping to find next - either a lower-level job to the fields I'm interested in above, or some part-time work in those industries that can lead to a full-time position someday.

Both of these types of "next jobs" will most likely not be at the Ph.D. or even masters' level. But that's okay. You're trying to break into a completely new industry, and you're breaking away from a field (academia) that has some very specific and rigid rules that won't directly translate into outside employment.

And taking a "next job" says nothing bad about you. You're making a big transition here, and it's normal to have to backtrack a bit. It would be surprising if you could, for example, jump immediately from a Ph.D. in history to managing an entertainment marketing firm without first proving to someone that you can handle the low-level work in that industry first. Would you hire a research assistant to take the reins on researching and writing the first draft of your latest paper if you didn't know they understood how to search for journal articles or run statistical analyses? I don't think so. Other industries are going to work the same way.

So even though it might be emotionally difficult, you need to focus on getting the next job in your life journey. If you do that, the career job will eventually come.


  1. It's interesting that over at Selloutyoursoul we find the exact opposite advice: "choose and commit to a career direction. If right now you absolutely don’t know what type of job you want to do or what industry will suit you, then your inability to commit to one career direction is really what is holding you back. The sooner you can commit to a single direction, the sooner you can begin to take the steps necessary to succeed in your chosen field."

    I often find the advice over there to be practical, but on this point I definitely agree with you. It makes absolutely no sense that -- after spending so many years in academe -- you should, upon deciding to leave, immediately settle upon your NEXT (haha!) "forever" job. I certainly don't have any idea what that's going to be after a mere 6 months on the outside. Maybe that means I'm dooming myself to doing administrative work "forever," but I think even just thinking in those terms is limiting. It's so hard to know where and how you will find your niche. If I had to pick a type of job now as one to aim for, I'd still have to say "writer/editor," but I find that I have no interest in journalism, advertising, or technical writing. Yet, here at Think Tank, almost everyone writes, even when "writer" isn't in their job title. So...I'm in a place where I can write a bit, edit a bit, and acquire the kind of admin experience that could lead to a better paying job should I never end up figuring out what kind of writing I want to do...

    Almost nobody I've met out here these last six months committed to a single direction early on.

  2. Huh, I hadn't seen the latest post at Selloutyoursoul yet ... that is interesting.

    I stand by my advice, though. I think his advice to jump immediately to your next career works if you are someone who's known for awhile what alternate career you want to follow. In that case, sure, why waste time? (Although in most cases, you'd still be looking for a "next job" in that field, not a final job).

    But I think most post-academics leave either abruptly or somewhat against their will, so this advice isn't the best for them. From observing myself through this whole process as well as reading about so many other people’s experiences, I think leavers really need to take a little time and think about their options. Not only do I think they owe it to themselves to find something that they *really* want to do after the academic disappointment ... but I also think that there is some emotional work associated with leaving academia that people should attend to before deciding what to do next. I mean, you know the drill - virtually everyone who writes about this transition notes that they have to process a whole range of emotions, anger, guilt, etc. I’m not sure that advising people to choose their next path while they’re going through that kind of emotional upheaval is good advice.

    All I know is that while (like you) I have no intention of staying in the field I’m working in long-term, I’m earning a decent paycheck and giving myself a little time and breathing room to work out my emotions and think about what comes next. Jumping right into the next career sounds to me like the same old academic advice again – “pick one career and drive directly for it and never consider other options.” I strongly, strongly disagree with that (although it’s worth noting that I think the rest of his advice is pretty solid).

  3. Hi Guys,

    I think that both perspectives are need some time to figure stuff out and to test out different options. Nothing wrong with drifting a bit for a year or two--especially after the intense straight line that grad school puts you on for so long.

    But ultimately I think that if you want to find success in a different field, you will need to take that leap of faith and commit to one thing. And I don't think there is one right answer to the direction you choose. For example, I was thinking of becoming a magazine writer. Or getting into PR. Or going into advertising. I decided on the last option. And things really came into place once I did that because I could then start learning about the industry, developing the skills, and learning what employers are looking for.

    But I could have been happy in any of those other fields--and it's not to say a job at a magazine wouldn't have been a negative to getting into a different field like PR.

    But I mean, I mowed lawns for almost 3 years. It doesn't happen fast and it feels good to just relax and figure things out.

    James from

  4. Hey, James! Thanks for stopping by.

    I do agree that the "next job unrelated to your future career" phase shouldn't last longer than a year or maybe two. Honestly, I'd say that even two years of "wandering" might be a little too long (for me, at least).

    But as I said in my last comment, I think that folks leaving academia who don't have a clear picture of what they want to do next would do well to give themselves a little bit of time after leaving to clear their heads, get over their resentment/sadness/guilt/anger, and to consider various options and make an informed and clear-headed choice about what career direction they'd like to head in.

    I know that when I first left, I started applying for jobs outside academia in one particular field that I knew I'd be suited for due to my academic work. I thought I *had* to go into that field since it was the one I was best qualified for. But after a couple of phone interviews, I realized that I wasn't at all excited about that kind of work, and that I needed to give myself a little bit of breathing room to think about some careers I'd actually like. Therefore, the "pay my bills" job has been great.

    So yes, I think that people do need to seize a career path and start pursuing it once they have cleared their heads and identified some fields they'd enjoy working in. That's the step I'm just beginning right now. But I think they also need to attend to a "clearing their head" period after leaving academia ... and finding a way to pay the bills while they relax and figure it out is a good strategy for people who need a little time.

    Thanks again for reading!

  5. Thanks so much for this post. I hadn't thought through the difference between the way academia trains you for jobs and the way that most jobs work before. I have definitely been in the academic mindset, thinking that I need to find the one thing that I'm going to do for the rest of my life and get started. But realizing that this is a specific career structure that doesn't apply to most fields is so freeing.

    James, thanks for clarifying your stance. This makes a lot of sense to me, especially after taking some time to figure out what career path makes sense. Since my only idea for an alternate career requires two more years of school, I'm taking some time to research and explore so that I don't repeat my mistakes. It's entirely possible that there is something else that would fit with my interests that didn't require a degree and that I just haven't found it yet.