Sunday, July 8, 2012

Thoughts about Interests and Postacademic Careers

I pulled down my last post because I really try to keep things that could tie back to my friends' identities off of my blog. I think that the details I used in that last post might have made my friend and hir colleague a little too identifiable, so I took it down. I want this blog to be about me and my experiences and critiques of academia in general, not snarky posts about people I know in real life who might recognize themselves in my writing.

Anyway, never fear ... I've got another critique about academia in the pipeline for this week. In the meantime, here's a positive post. :)


I've mentioned before that the job and industry I work in now is one I just sort of "fell into." It's a consulting job, broadly defined, working in an industry and subject area that has absolutely nothing to do with my academic work. 

This occasionally leads me to think (like I did last week) that I'm somehow a Bad Postacademic. That if I was "doing it right" (whatever that means), I would have gotten a job doing, basically, my academic work in a nonacademic position. I'd still be running statistical models, or teaching in a high school, or writing for a broad audience.

But I'm not, and as so many awesome commenters on my previous post pointed out ... that's just fine. I'm content with my job and find it challenging and not-dreadful. I'm happy with my life, and I earn a decent living, and work with coworkers who are nice to me and for a boss who treats me well.  I've got no reason to feel badly about my life just because I'm not doing anything related to academia anymore, nor am I using the skills and interests I've cultivated in other parts of my life.

..........But is this really true?? Am I really not using any of my skills or interests in this job?

Yesterday, I talked to my mom on the phone for awhile, which is part of my typical weekend routine. My mom has been very, very supportive of me every step of the way through the process of leaving academia. Sure - at first she had a hard time understanding why I would just give up my Ph.D. and not pursue an awesome, flexible job like being a professor! But once I took the time to explain some things to her (the crappy academic job market, the fact that I hated the work, the fucked-up culture of academia that was making me miserable), she has been really understanding and supportive. So, yay!

But anyway, yesterday we were talking about jobs. She is near retirement, and has a job at a company that started off terrific and has devolved into a horror show of a micromanaging, employee-screwing corporate workplace in recent years. But she'll be retiring next year, so she's just sticking it out until she's done.

But since her workplace is such a shitshow lately, we always wind up talking about work in a lot of our phone conversations. And yesterday was no exception. After she finished her litany of complaints about her job and I finished talking about how things at my work were going (and feeling extremely grateful that I work at my office and not hers - haha), we started talking a little bit about academia. I told her that only a couple of students from my department had gotten jobs in this year's market, and expressed happiness that I had cut and run when I had the chance. I said something like "even if I never wind up doing a job that's related to my interests again, at least I'm in charge of my future."

Mom agreed. And then she said something that really made me think. She said something about how she thinks I'm doing just fine, and that "everything will work out in the end." (This is JC's Mom's Life Mantra - everything happens for a reason. I've heard it my entire life.)

Anyway, she said something else that really made me think. "Well, JC, I don't know if you really aren't doing anything you like at your job. If you weren't doing anything you were interested in or liked doing, you'd hate going to work. You don't hate going to work, so you must be doing something you like, even if it's not obvious!"

She then went on to talk about one of my siblings, who got a degree in Mathematics but loves the glorified secretarial job she has. I've never really understood how she loves her job so much, since it's just admin work and she was interested in math and science. But in my conversation with my mom, she told me something I'd never known before about my sister's job - she's in charge of all of the budgeting and ordering and bookkeeping for the office she works in. Boom. She loves her job because she gets to use math every day, even if her job title isn't "Mathemetician."

I also thought about my dad, who majored in education but wound up working in a factory and then - after 30+ years at one company - got laid off. It was unbelievably stressful for our family, obviously ... even though he always hated that factory job. But after a period of unemployment, he found a job in sales that he enjoys very much. I'm glad he's happy, obviously, but it never made much sense to me, since it was so different from what he was doing before.

It never made sense until now, anyway. Now it kind of does. My dad's a talkative, outgoing guy. Teaching (his first career goal) is a profession where you interact with a lot of people and have a decent amount of variety in your day. Factory work? Not so much.

But sales work? It's social and flexible. No wonder he likes it.

So all of this led me to think more about the job I do now ... this job that's unrelated to my academic work and therefore not a logical next step from where I was two years ago. Nor was it a position that I researched and networked to get into - I just converted the part-time job I already had into a full-time job. It's supposed to be my "just for now" job. And I thought I'd be counting down the moments until I could find something new.

But to my surprise ... I'm okay with this job. I don't dread going to work every day. And it's never made much sense to me. Until this conversation with my mom.

Because after we hung up, I started thinking about what I do every day at my job. And realized that there are a lot of aspects of this job that tie in with interests and personality traits I've always had. Things I never even noticed before.

My job involves a lot of interaction with people - professional clients and their customers. I am on the phone a lot, and am always helping people work out problems or find answers to their questions. This appeals to me because I have always been very social and outgoing and very interested in helping other people, even if it takes extra time or effort on my part. My job lets me indulge those parts of my personality.

My job also appeals to the "completist" in me. Ever since I was a kid, I enjoyed finishing things. Academia drove me a little bit crazy in that nothing was ever "finished." At my current job, there are tasks and projects that come up every day that I complete. So I feel accomplished when I leave.

My job is also good for someone like me, who enjoys working out problems using logic. When clients or customers call me with an issue or question or problem, I am solely responsible for researching the relevant facts, chronology of the problem, relevant policies or laws that impact it, and ultimately coming up with a solution or answer. This is sometimes a simple process, and sometimes it takes a long time. But invariably, it appeals to the same part of me that always loved puzzle- and problem-solving. I really enjoy that.

Oh, and I don't work in isolation anymore. Part of me thinks that I could be happy doing anything, as long as I wasn't alone in an office talking to absolutely no one all day long.


So to sum up, I'd like to publicly thank my mom for the insight she gave me last night. :)

Am I saying that I'm going to stay in this job/industry forever? Nah. For numerous reasons, I know I won't. I'll find something else in a few years, and my partner and I will move, and we'll see what comes next.

But I guess I wanted to share what I realized through this phone conversation and afterward. That when academics think about what they're "interested in" (and therefore what kind of jobs they could get with their graduate degrees), they tend to think in terms of their academic interests. So they think, "I'm interested in 18th Century Flemish Basketweaving. No one will ever hire me to think about that. I'm screwed."

But think deeper than that. What is it, specifically, that you loved about studying basketweaving? Did you enjoy poring over the detailed blueprints of how the basketweavers made their baskets? If so, then maybe you'd like a job as a proofreader/editor of some kind, poring over the details of documents other people have written. Did you mostly enjoy the writing and the teaching, with your interest in Basketweaving being secondary? Well, in my experience, there is no shortage of employers who are eager to find people with writing and public speaking skills. Then, you can read about basketweaving on the weekends.

So maybe - like me - you can find a job where you can do the basic tasks you enjoy doing, while saving the time you spend on the subjects you're interested in for your off-work time. So if you've been pursuing a Ph.D. in history? Maybe you can find a job where you teach kids about your state's local history at the local children's museum ... but still read about 17th century Greek military history on the weekends. You're still indulging your interest in history and teaching at work ... but geeking it out with your academic interests on the weekend.

I can vouch for the fact that this isn't a bad life. If you have a day job where you can explore some of your interests and the free time outside of work to explore the rest of them? It's a decent life.

So despite what academia may tell you about the importance of "loving your work more than anything," I think that a lot of people would be happy with a job they like, that touches on some of their interests ... and the free time to devote to the rest of the things they love to do. To quote a commenter on my post last week:
Do I want to love this job? Hell no! I want to enjoy it but what I "love" is my family. What I "love" are my hobbies and my writing. What I "love" is other people and the human spirit. I don't want to love a job. I want it to support me well enough so I can build a life I love.
I really couldn't have said it better myself.


  1. The notion of translating skills you used IN academia to life OUTSIDE of academia does, in many ways, seem like a rather foreign concept. You make an excellent point when you state that

    " can find a job where you can do the basic tasks you enjoy doing, while saving the time you spend on the subjects you're interested in for your off-work time".

    This really made me think about how my skills will translate into the corporate world and you remind me that I really DO have skills outside of teaching and advising. In fact, they've been leeching out into little projects I've created in an effort to make my job more interesting which has been unsuccessful in the masters only lower ranks of the academic world.

    I got my resume professionally done recently and while it looks great, I had a hard time believing that I had talents such as "quality assurance" and "analytical thinking skills" and "Excellent customer service skills". But the truth is, I do. And the more I look at that resume and think about those skills, the more I realize I have them. As do you. Whew! Nice to have an affirmation that I can do more than teach, advise, grade papers, and sit on useless committees that take months to make simple decisions nobody cares about anyway.

    I wonder what the 8-5 after work Tuesday happy hour is like? Sounds like a lot to celebrate after using skills you enjoy to produce something useful, all day.

  2. I wrote about this some when we were posting so much about WHAT COLOR IS YOUR PARACHUTE? It really helped me re-envision myself and the things I like/dislike and how that might translate into work. Academia encourages us to identify with our fields of knowledge -- I'm an historian/engineer/neurologist/whatever -- rather than what we DO as academics. I think that's part of the way academia tries to stay special, and one of the ways we get shamed when we leave (I get the sense that my adviser thinks it's a shame I won't be "using" my knowledge of literacy anymore).

    But, like you, thinking about characteristics/interests/quirks of my personality and how that would translate into a workplace setting made me realize that there are a lot of ways I can be happy without being a classroom teacher (which I admit I'm nervous/sad about leaving, if I don't adjunct anymore). There are lots of ways I can interact with students, and I really LOVE doing that. I generally love a social atmosphere and hate the isolation of academic work. While I am great at starting things and generating momentum, I'm terrible at drawing them to a close. If I get the job I'm waiting to hear about, it would be a very sociable environment where I would work closely with students, and my job would be very structured. I think that might be right up my alley, even if I'm not teaching students reading strategies (although I'll probably squeeze some of that into one-on-one conversations). All of this makes me think I might REALLY LIKE this job.

    If you think about it, most people don't pick a job based on what it's ABOUT, they pick it based on what you DO. Why academia insists on being outside that paradigm is beyond me.