Thursday, March 13, 2014

What You Can Do With "Any" Postac Job

The other day, I happened to notice a twitter conversation going on between several postacs and near-postacs, in which one of them seemed to be lamenting the fact that if their efforts at networking and job hunting didn't pay off shortly, they would have to take "any" job after leaving academia.

The implication there - not necessarily coming from that person, but in general - seemed to be that taking "any" job would be a letdown for a postacademic - a signal that you'd failed, or would no longer be doing postacademia "right" or something like that. Right? Because if that wasn't the case - if there weren't good or bad postacademic jobs, as I've argued - then "any" job wouldn't be second-best, right? "Any" job would be what you were going for!

So of course, I jumped right into that conversation, arguing that there was nothing wrong with taking a "just for now" job, and that a person who took a job like that should still have plenty of free time to work on furthering their career (or whatever else they want to do).

After jumping into that conversation (and sending out some random tweets later that night), I thought that this might be a good week to write about what my first job after leaving academia (three years ago!) has meant for my financial stability and plans going forward.

(This post is also a partial response to some criticism that we've received on the privilege piece at HTLA, in which some commenters (one at Versatile PhD in particular) have suggested that we are doing postacs a "disservice" by pointing out that some of them are in dire straits and might need to find a temporary, just-for-now type of job to pay the bills while they work on their future careers. I'm not sure if I understand why such advice is a "disservice" - because it's bad to point out that some people are struggling? Because everyone should follow a certain postacademic path, and deviating from it - even out of desperation - is a bad idea? I don't know...but I know I disagree.)

In brief: taking a random job to pay your bills does not mean that you will stay in that job forever, or that you've given up on your chance of having a different or better career. And to bring it to a meta level: recommending that a struggling new postac go work at a temp agency or to wait tables to pay their bills does NOT mean that we are telling them to stop thinking about their career dreams, or to stop trying to be an entrepreneur, or to stop working on skill translation or networking or anything else.

This has seemed obvious to me from the get-go, but it seems that not everyone understands (or at least agrees openly) that this is the case. The mindset in a large segment of academia (and therefore postacademia) seems to be* that it's an either/or prospect: you either find a new Great PhD-Level Job and continue your career, or you take a "just for now" job and give up forever. 

I've wondered why this mindset is the case for some time now. Is it because most of us trained in grad school for One Career and one career alone - an academic one - and were looking for a job that would (theoretically) be our One Job For The Rest Of Our Lives? Or is it just because many academics are snobs who think that office work or some such thing is beneath them?

My instincts tend toward the former; many people who've emailed and commented here have suggested the latter. But no matter what the motivation, I want to refute this idea.

Many people coming from academic backgrounds (seem to) think that if you take a fulltime job outside of academia (especially one that does not require a PhD), you will never have free time again. You won't have time to network, or volunteer, or build a business, or anything else. And, apparently, you won't be able to move out of that first job into a better one, either?

I don't know. The "doing a disservice" comments and the distinction between a good postac job and "any" job after someone leaves academia don't make sense to me in any other context. Why does it matter what job you take if you're just trying to rescue yourself from unemployment, and if you're just going to be looking for something better after that anyway?

Wait, let me clarify this for you on Twitter:

When I left academia, I kept the job that I'd been doing on a part-time basis in grad school. And I kept looking for something else. I applied for research jobs, and government jobs, and jobs in the industry I currently work in. I got a couple of interviews. Then my current boss offered me a promotion, so I stayed here for the time being (since that meant that I wouldn't have to move and my partner could work on his career for a change).

But I looked for a better job for the first year or so after I left, and had some interest from employers. Ultimately, I did find something better. Granted, I'm still at the same company. But the point is - I got a job that was better for me, and I am not still working in the same job I was in when I left.

Meanwhile, the old postacademic blogosphere is rife with stories of people who moved from job to job - Recent PhD was a secretary, and then got a more prestigious job. Kathleen left her job at SAP to take a far better job at an online university. The folks who contributed essays to our e-book often wrote about taking one job for a short while, only to move onto something different or better a short time later. That's how the nonacademic world works.

So new postacs who take a "next job" to pay the bills shouldn't worry that they'll never find anything else. And people who want to critique our advice or our comments about privilege and postacademia also need to acknowledge that reality. Sometimes, a job is just a paycheck. A means to an end. A stepping stone to the next job. And that's fine for postacademics, just like it is for people in the "real world."

Of course, anyone who doesn't NEED a fulltime job shouldn't feel pressured to take something they don't want. But people who DO need a fulltime salary need to be encouraged to find something - anything - that they can get. And once they find that something, they need continued support. Because their job/career hunt is not over.

I work 9-5, Monday thru Friday.

In my non-work time, I volunteer two days a week. I write this blog. I help maintain the HTLA website. I did the final edits for our e-book and got it up on the two sites we are selling copies through. I spend time with my partner and my friends, and I travel, and I go out to dinner, and I go shopping, and I go to the gym a couple of days a week, and I lay around on my couch watching TV. And for the first year after I left, I applied for about 30 or 40 jobs.

Oh, and I get several weeks of PTO a year, in which I can take care of things that need to be taken care of during the day.

(Now, of course, it's true that all nonacademic fulltime jobs aren't as flexible as mine. But neither is mine some outrageous outlier. So spare me the critique that "lots of office jobs aren't that good!" I know that. But many of them are. And either way - very few of them have the type of expected workload that academia has.)

Taking a fulltime job does not mean that you have no time for anything else. That there will never be time to take a class in something that interests you or might help you further your career. That there will never be time to do informational interviews, or to set up a website for your small business, or that you'll never be able to take a day off to go to a networking event or an interview.

Fulltime jobs have defined hours, yes. But very few of them require you to be chained to your desk 24/7, with no time to yourself where you can pursue your own interests. In fact....

I was far, far, FAR busier and more overwhelmed and under pressure to work constantly and never take breaks when I was in grad school than I am now. The last three years have been a literal breeze compared to what it was like to teach and write my dissertation and hunt for academic jobs and work on other projects and meet with my advisor and go to seminars and everything else.

Sure, the 40 hour work week is kind of a drag. But trust me when I say this - I have more free time now than I ever did in academia. If I wanted to look for a new job or do something every single night of the week without a break, I could.

The pressure to work constantly is gone. My work day is over when I leave the office. Evenings and weekends are mine, to do with them what I wish. I can take days off with no guilt.

And perhaps more importantly - especially for less-privileged postacs?

Working for three years and earning a normal adult salary in my boring old job means that I am much, much closer to being able to go back to school, or to start over in a new career, or to pick up and move across the country, or to start a small business, than I was when I first left.

I wasn't in a position to do those things financially at first, but I am nearly there now.

My debt load is more than half gone. I have an (admittedly small) savings account for the first time in my life. We have a much larger financial cushion in our budget now than we did three years ago.

And do you know what that means? I can now start thinking about whether I might want to take some classes. And I can think about whether I want to start over in a new career path, possibly with a pay cut. And we can now think about moving to a more expensive city without having to demand salaries that are more than twice what we're currently making in order to pay down the debt that we incurred while trying to make ends meet while I was in grad school.

I'm probably still a year away from making any moves (since my partner got a new job last year and wants to put in some more time there before leaving). But these days? My future feels much brighter. I feel like I have many more options than I did three years ago. And this is entirely because I took my just-for-now job. 

I had no financial security when I left academia. I was in piles of debt, and my student loans were about to come due, and I had no idea what I wanted to do next. So I took my just-for-now job. And now I am financially stable. And about to be (*knocks on all the wood*) even more so.

I started out as a postacademic who was barely hanging on, financially. I'm now in a much better situation. I could NOT have taken time off to job hunt full-time when I left in 2011, nor could I risk the financial insecurity of starting up a small business from scratch. I needed a job, and I needed one fast.

I was that less-(financially)-privileged postacademic. And I was that person who worried that taking my just-for-now job meant I was giving up on my dreams.

But now? Today, in 2014? I realize that it has been this just-for-now job that has let me dream again. 

So, postacademics or almost-postacademics...if you can't find your dream job or can't afford to start up your small business right after you leave, don't be afraid to take that "just for now" job. Your life - and your career - is not over. It is just beginning.


*Note the words I'm using: "large segment" rather than "all," and "seems to be" rather than "is." I am not talking about what every single person literally thinks. I am talking about what the overall conversations sound like to some listeners.


  1. I just got an interview for a part-time babysitting job on for anyone who's desperate. For the record I'm only considering part-time work because I cannot find full time work after 4.5 years of trying. I have been depending on family and savings I accrued while living with family to pay the bills my part time work doesn't cover. But I would love a life that JC just described. However it seems like a fantasy from where I now stand, unfortunately. This is certainly not a criticsm of any kind JC, it's just an expression of my own story and where I'm at now. Anyway just putting it out there for anyone who's desperate and still in the abysmal soul- crushing, health-crushing searing fiery hell of applying for real jobs for months or years and hearing nothing. You might find a little something on

    Also, Occupy Wall St is having a Worldwide Wave of Action event on April 4th. Check them out on FB for details.

    Thanks for your help JC.

  2. A great post JC, thanks. The alt-ac part-time job I took was not exactly what I thought would be perfect either, and I will honestly say that the pay sucks! However, I took it because I did not want to remain unemployed too long as that would have bad consequences indeed, and I saw it has having some potential to grow or just offer the possibility of applying for internal only advertised roles. Almost twovyears in now and my manager has created a new role for me after the organsation did some restructuring. The new role is much more focused on my strengths (which he pointed out as the reason) and it utilises so many of the skills I developed from my PhD. Unfortunately, the pay still sucks! And I don't have the energies to move now. The other benefits, flexibilty and sensitive values of the organisation make up for that at the moment.

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  4. It's always good to hear your thoughts on PhD careers. There was also a time when I asked myself where are PhD jobs near me after academia.