Friday, June 8, 2012

Ask a Postacademic ... Question 1

Answering the questions commenters left on last week's post, in no particular order ... just starting with the one I find easiest to answer succinctly and moving forward from there.

If you have any other questions for me, leave them in comments. Inspire me for future posts! :)

Question #1, from an anonymous commenter:
Is the 8-5 terribly difficult to transition into? ... Is it easier to work a straight 8-5 instead of the flexibility of academia?
It wasn't hard for me, for a few reasons. First, I had worked a number of jobs before I came to grad school, so I was used to the 8-5 routine. Second, I've always been someone who has been more productive and less panicky when I work under a strict work schedule. Even when I was in academia, I would regularly set myself defined "work hours" each day and stick strictly to that schedule - only writing, say, between 12 and 4 pm after grading papers from 9-11 am.

So if this sounds like the way you work, the regular schedule of a nonacademic job probably won't be that much of a stretch for you. You might have to adjust to having to set an alarm earlier than you're used to or working in the same place for a longer period of time than you normally do - but if you function well by setting up a strict "work hours v. non-work hours" schedule, you probably won't find the transition difficult at all.

Now, if you're someone who really thrives on a nonstandard schedule or who has an impossible time getting up early in the morning, a job with a traditional 8-5 schedule probably will be kind of hard for you to transition into. But that doesn't mean you can't do it. After all, as a grad student you're able to keep up with a strict schedule of classes, meetings, teaching obligations, etc. ... right? The 8-5 world is really just that, at the core. You have places to be at a certain time of the day to work. It's just a different time and place and a different set of work tasks.

If you know you're not a morning person (like me), perhaps keep looking around until you find a job where you have to be in at 9 instead of 7. If you really value some daily flexibility in your schedule, keep looking until you find a job that allows flextime or staggered work schedules. There are a variety of work environments out there - not every one is "punch in at 8, sit at your desk until 5 with no breaks." Sure, those jobs exist. But every nonacademic office job isn't like that.

And importantly ... keep in mind that if you're looking for a job with an MA or a Ph.D., you are even less likely to wind up a drone working in a menial job with a tyrant boss who freaks out if you clock in two minutes late.

There certainly are jobs like that out there, and it's certainly possible that you might have to take one of those jobs for a little bit as you transition out of academia. But it won't last forever. You'll get a promotion that affords you more flexibility, or you'll change companies and find a job where you have a little bit more flexibility.

In other words, if you have a Ph.D., you probably aren't going to wind up with a career stocking shelves at Wal-Mart or working for Lumbergh in Office Space. It'll definitely be a little less flexible than academia, but it's simply not true that you will be locked into a job where you're chained to your desk without so much as a bathroom break or a weekend off.
Also, is it hard to not have your summers off?
Sure, I miss having a three-month break where I don't have to be in the office. Who wouldn't?

But honestly, when you sit and think about it ... do you truly have three solid months *off* in academia? Or are you still expected to be writing and reading or teaching and going to conferences during that time? Are you still getting emails from your advisors and coauthors or students? Do you still have project meetings and committee meetings and deadlines in the summer? I bet at least some of you do.

Sure, the summer schedule is more flexible in academia than in the real world ... but that's just the way academia is. It's not an 8-5 job.

But along with that flexibility of "always having the option not to work" comes the expectation that you're "always available to work." You're still expected to be at least marginally available to your department, right? (So that even if you refuse to answer student emails in the summer, I bet you still answer emails from your advisor or departmental chair!).

And you're still expected to be working a bit ... how many people do you know, especially at liberal arts colleges, who use their summers "for research?" That may be work that you like doing, so you don't mind it ... but it's still work, not vacation!

Contrast that with my job, where I get 3 weeks off each year (not counting evenings and weekends).

No, I don't get a three-month chunk of time off. But when I am off work, I am off work. I'm not still sort-of-kind-of expected to work like I was in grad school, where I feel obligated to lug work books with me to the beach and to keep an eye on my email.

So yes, I do sort of miss having summers (kind of) off. But honestly, I feel like I have more free time and more (mental) flexibility now. Sure, my breaks from work aren't as long as the academic calendar allows. But the breaks are true breaks, not theoretical breaks where my mind is still at least half-focused on work.

So if I go on a weeklong vacation, I put an away message on my email and leave my work on my desk. I don't bring paper drafts with me to edit on the plane - I bring a cheesy novel. If I'm visiting my family, I don't bring student exams (or reports from my current job) to grade/edit. I spend my time shopping with my sister or having lunch with my friend or playing cards with my family. If I spend a week on the beach, the idea that I "should really bring a work-related book with me" doesn't even occur to me.

So no, I don't get a three month vacation any more. But what I do get are shorter vacations that are true vacations. 

So I don't really miss the summers off. I vastly prefer actual vacations from work, even if they're shorter than summer break.

More answers-to-questions to come. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment or question. Have a great weekend, everyone!


  1. I'm another one, except I categorise myself as an ex-pre academic. I left with an MLitt, the PhD was beyond me for many reasons. Just wanted to say I've just discovered your blog and I can't wait to read more. This questions series will be very interesting I think!

    Thanks for writing.


  2. THANK YOU for answering my questions! When I first wrote them (even under the guide of "anonymous", I felt kind of silly. You make an excellent point about not being chained to a desk all day.

    I'm looking for a "civilian" job right now and I know it will be a transition. I actually prefer a standard schedule and find the academic schedule throws me off balance.And I DO feel that constant "you should always be available/we can do whatever we want with you/ you're lucky to be "here" instead of "out there"/if you don't comply you will be summarily "cast into the outer darkness and you can't handle that" type of attitude. There is always something hanging over my head.

    I wonder what life is like "on the other side"? I'm excited to find out! Thanks for your helpful blog. I'm going to copy this post and put it in my job search folder. :)

  3. I meant "guise". And no offense to our brave military when I refer to out of academia jobs as "civilian". I'm being incredibly facetious.

  4. Good blog post! I relished going to work during the day and not having crazy academic hours anymore.

  5. What you're describing sounds like heaven to me. The always-expected-to-be-sort-of-kind-of-working lifestyle is horrifying. I spend most of my time fantasizing about being able to go home at 6 PM, read any book I happen to want to, and then go to bed... without feeling like a failure.

    Thanks for creating this blog.

  6. One difference is that you don't have the daytime down time that you may have once used for things like appointments, meeting with certain friends, going to the gym, etc. It is freer in a certain way, but having a very set schedule is a transition. It can impact your socializing with other/current grad students. That said, the weekends are yours!!

    1. Yes, this is very true ... it's harder to squeeze in appointments and daytime socializing with a non-academic job.

      But, you know, it's not impossible. It's not like non-academics are never able to go to the dentist or to have lunch with a friend or whatever. It just takes a little more planning. :)

      There are certainly adjustments to be made and downsides to the decision to leave academia. But like I say in the post, I'm trying to push back at the (IMHO) prevalent assumption in academia that every nonacademic job is two steps away from indentured servitude, where you can never have even a tiny bit of flexibility ever again.

      These days, when a lot of grad students are facing nothing more than endless adjuncthood, I'd like to spread the word that the nonacademic work world isn't universally awful. It has positives and negatives, just like academia - but people need to decide what negatives they can accept in their own lives.

  7. yeah, I struggle with managing my life now that I have to be at work. But the good news is, it means that you spend less time managing it. That is, you only have a limited amount of time for figuring stuff out in your lunch break, so you get much more efficient at it.

    I am loving the leaving my work on my desk though - the amount of time you have to yourself once you're out the door is truly marvellous. Plus having a strict schedule makes you better at planning holidays :)