I recently published an article in the Times Higher Education magazine. The piece is about how exploitative labor conditions in academia push people into other sectors.
I expected to receive feedback disputing that the dominant model of labor conditions in universities is to employ people on low wage, precarious contracts. Instead, I’ve been deluged with requests for advice on how to transition out of academia into the private sector.
I do not offer career advice services, but plenty of post-ac/alt-acs do. For example, The Professor Is In, Jobs on Toast, and From PhD to Life. (Note: I have never used these services nor do I receive a commission from these businesses.) I know Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is in and Chris Humphrey of Jobs on Toast and have found them to be intelligent and supportive.
For those who are unable to pay for career services, there is a whole world of advice online that did not exist when I transitioned. My alt-ac friend Daveena Tauber has curated this list of resources regarding self-employment and small business development. This is another interesting site. To find more, try the following search terms: post-ac, alt-ac, and quit lit. Quit lit is fun. 🙂
Which brings me to my second point. For years, PhDs have asked me about how I transitioned. I’m quite pragmatic, so I interpret this question to mean: what are the steps necessary to transform from being employable in academia to being employable in the private sector. I usually answer with this narrative: I approached an alumna from my university. She graciously gave me a list of contacts who would be interested in my skills and experiences. She also mentored me throughout the process. After many emails, phone calls, and meetings, I eventually obtained work, which led to more work, which is now a career.
However, for most advice-seeking academics, this answer does not suffice. Instead, it confuses them into silence. This has happened so often that I realize that the question they articulate is not the question with which they are grappling. What they are ‘really’ asking is, “how did you shift your mindset from one focused on an academic to a private sector career?”
The process for changing one’s mindset is more complicated than a how to guide comprised of steps and activities. The fact is, a list of steps and activities is not helpful. Most academics are ambitious and have had to do a huge range of detail oriented, administrative tasks to manage various facets of academic life. They organize conferences (event planning). They undergo the byzantine and excruciating process of applying for PhD programs, fellowships, and grants. They work as unpaid personal assistants for their supervisors. They are fully capable of the types of networking necessary to find a job outside of academia but they are so embedded in an academic mindset that they cannot imagine how.
In that sense, I’ve been fortunate because I’ve always been quite critical and ambivalent about academia, even while I was applying for a PhD. When I arrived at Yale and learned from the grad student union about the casualization of academic labor, I was not surprised.
I’ve since learned that this stance of critical ambivalence is unusual. My letter writers have been deeply invested in academia as a space to enact the life of the mind. They believe that teaching and research enable them to contribute to society as well as obtain a prestigious, well-paid, middle class job without being tainted by the crass commercial tasks of capitalism.
This is kool aid. As a result, the best way to transition out of this mindset and engage with reality is to read. Here’s a list of articles that helped me. Most are from 2013 and earlier, but they are still relevant for anyone suffering from kool aid withdrawal. Happy reading.