Saturday, July 2, 2011

Practical Advice for Navigating the Leap - Part 3

Alright, so as I've written before, I don't feel qualified to offer advice to people reading here who are leaving academia and are looking for concrete advice for getting a new job. I do have a job outside academia, it's true ... but it's one that started out as a part-time job just to supplement my income - and I didn't even have to go through typical channels to get it. So I'm still a little clueless about how to get the next "career job" after academia. I'm learning and working on sending out resumes and networking, but I haven't figured it all out yet.

What I have been doing, though, is handling the transition emotionally quite well. As virtually everyone who has left academia knows and as has been documented on post-academic blogs and forums around the internet, this process is very emotionally challenging. We're told, as academics, that we are doing the most important job in the world and that anyone who chooses to leave is either deficient or making a tremendous mistake. Add to that the social isolation that many academics wind up in, and you have a recipe for some serious second-guessing and emotional upheaval if and when you choose to leave.

In the previous two posts, I detailed some concrete things you can do to keep yourself feeling emotionally stable as you decide whether you really might want to leave academia ... as you "test the waters."

Now, for this third part, I want to speak to those of you who have made the decision to leave - before or after you complete the Ph.D. - and are now feeling elated, terrified, and a bit unsure of what to do next at the same time. (These three categories of emotions, as far as I can tell, are very normal).

So, here is my practical advice for those of you who are reading this, but who have not yet landed your dream job outside of academia as the Director of Widget History at the National Archives of Widget Manufacturing. :)

Sure, some people land their dream nonacademic job right after leaving. But for a lot of us, there is some lag time between letting go of one dream and thought process and moving toward another. And while I haven't completely unraveled how to navigate this gap in terms of gaining the career job, I genuinely do feel happier, more relaxed, and more excited about the future than I have in several years. And I can point to several concrete aspects of my life right now that have left me feeling so emotionally great (save a few low points) about this process. So, I offer my practical advice for remaining calm and emotionally healthy as you step out of the halls of your academic department for the last time.

Here you go. Warning, this post is very long ... but I felt like it had to be. Hopefully you will find it useful and can look back at it later when you're feeling emotionally iffy about the process:

Get a job
But wait, I said that I can't tell you how to get your next job, right?

Nope, I sure can't. But what I can tell you is that if you don't have a new career job waiting for you when you leave your grad program or faculty job, the first thing - seriously, first thing - I recommend that you do is find yourself a nonacademic job. Something. Anything that you can stomach doing.

To grad students in particular, and probably adjuncts as well - if you don't do this, your department will likely keep offering you continued opportunities for a one-semester position here, a two-month research assistantship over the summer, then a poorly funded research grant for the next eight months ... and you'll never actually make the full break from your department, since you need the money and those opportunities seem to coincidentally pop up just as you think all hope is lost.

And if that doesn't happen - let's say you pack your apartment and move back in with your parents - well, I'd argue that the process of leaving will likely be far easier if you have a paycheck of your own and a place to go where you are gainfully employed, no matter how nominal the job is. You'll have a little spending money, you'll have job responsibilities to occupy your mind, and you'll get to chat with co-workers and reassure yourself that you have skills - any skills - other than academic skills. It'll help you emotionally get out of the academic bubble, and will loosen the hold that your department has on  you.

So, piece of advice #1 is to set an end point at which you are leaving academia, and find yourself a job to start by the time you leave. Any job. Serve at a restaurant. Work as a receptionist. Be a hotel desk clerk. Whatever. Just go do something.

Don't worry about your resume - you can always leave your "filler job" off it when you apply for real jobs. Don't worry about salary - if you were making the average graduate student stipend or adjunct salary of $12,000 or so, all you need to make is about $5.75 per hour at a full-time job to offset that salary. Just go find some work.

Read Job Seeking Books or See a Career Counselor
Something I've noticed in my reading of postacademic blogs is that most of us who look outside academia for work start looking immediately at jobs that are very closely related to academic work. Applied research, teaching at a high school, etc., And maybe that's really what you do want to do with your life! But then again ... maybe not.

When you've been brainwashed (yes, I'll say it) by academia to think that research and teaching is the be-all and end-all of life and the only worthy job, it can be hard to think outside the box of academia to what kind of jobs might truly make you happy. But if you have the time and financial stability to do so, I say that you owe it to yourself to read some job seeking books (I recommend What Color is Your Parachute) or even to go talk to a career counselor before you really start looking for real-world jobs.

You've just spent X number of years doing a job you didn't like because you were told it's the only thing you're qualified for and the only thing worth doing. Don't jump into the next position without doing some research about what you want to do, or else you might wind up in the same boat in X more years.

Get Nonacademic Social Contacts and Use Them!
If you are really leaving, you need to reconnect with or find friends (and family) outside of academia. I know I said this in part two as well, but if you are really leaving, this step becomes IMPERATIVE.

First, those folks can offer you practical advice about the real world job market, and also can provide you with valuable networking for jobs.

But more importantly for the advice I'm offering, this can help you mentally. You will drive yourself crazy if your only social contacts are academics. Trust me - the only time I fall into second-guessing and doubting myself is after I've run into an old grad student friend or a faculty member.

You know academic types - a lot of them are going to second-guess you, or try to talk you out of your decision, or try to encourage you to keep on going for one more semester or year and it will get better, or remind you that "all" nonacademic jobs are terrible and oppressive and boring. If you don't have any outside social contacts, it will be hard for you to break free of this mindset, but it's critical for leaving. You will need to be around nonacademic people ... both to avoid the academic mindset as well as to reassure yourself that there are happy, smart, interesting people outside of academia as well.

So get in touch with some nonacademic friends and family, and make sure to connect with them regularly ... especially at times when you're feeling a little emotionally shaky. It will help you out.

I understand that the process of making friends can be tough for some people, but it will really be far easier if you do this.

Revisit the Hobbies You Gave Up for Academia
We all have them, right? The hobbies you used to love, but that eventually got put on the backburner due to your academic responsibilities, so that you can't even remember the last time you read a book for fun or knitted a sweater or played on a soccer team.

When you've decided to leave, it will help you immensely to reconnect with your old hobbies. As quickly as possible. If you were a reader? Go to the library and borrow all of the romance novels or popular history or comic books or whatever you used to read, and devour them. If you loved working with your hands, get yourself immediately to a craft store and get to work. If you used to volunteer somewhere you loved, go find someplace similar and sign up immediately.

Revisiting your old hobbies will help take the focus off what you're leaving (academia), and will put the focus back on what you're gaining back (the things you used to love to do). You will remember what it was like when you had free time and a life outside of work, and if you're anything like me? It will feel amazing.

Get Out of Town
If you're like me, you won't be able to just pick up and move permanently out of the town you live in right after you leave, even though this might be ideal for really making the emotional break from your department. For various reasons, sometimes we're all stuck where we are for awhile.

But I would recommend taking at least a few days, soon after making the decision to leave, and get out of town. If you think you can't afford it - I still recommend doing it. Go visit your family (that's what I did, to save money), or go camping for a few days, or visit a friend in another town. There are cheap ways to do it.

But do it. For awhile at least, your identity as an academic and the city you live in will likely be intertwined. When you make the decision to leave, it will likely be very helpful for you to get out of town for a few days, to remind yourself that you are not the city/department you live in. You are more than an academic. You are a person, and you are not defined by your job or your school or your advisor. You are a person who is free to do what you want ... whether that means taking an impromptu vacation or leaving your grad program.

And you'll likely also reassure yourself that there's a big world out there, populated by people that do a whole wide range of jobs ... and that they're all fairly content and happy. And that you can be as well.


Alright, that's all I can come up with off the top of my head - although as I think of more pieces of advice, I will post them. And I still recommend that you follow the advice in my previous posts as well - especially the skills resume idea.

This process is hard, but it's not impossible. You can do it, and you will survive, and you will be happier. Probably even sooner than you're expecting to. Good luck!

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