Help For Academics Thinking Beyond The Professoriate

Jennifer Polk, photo by Shawn Jurek

Jennifer Polk, photo by Shawn Jurek

Dr. Jennifer Polk, PhD is an academic, career, and life coach who specializes in helping people who are transitioning out of academia or who are contemplating doing so. Her transitioning clients include everyone from graduate students to tenured professors. She runs the website From PhD to Life and is running a conference the next two Saturdays (May 7, 2016 and May 14, 2016) with numerous speakers and panelists with insights about how to use one’s PhD beyond academia and how to make the transition out of academia and into a different kind of career path. This conference should be an ideal supplementary career training experience to help fill a crucial gap in the professional development offerings in most graduate departments. I am delighted to let my readers know that I will be participating on one of the panels (the Freelancing and Entrepreneurship panel). Below is my interview with Jennifer about issues relating to transitioning out of academia and the Beyond the Prof conference. 

Daniel Fincke: Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed , Jennifer. I’ve been fascinated by your business for quite a while and have read a number of your posts. Can you explain for people who are new to you what exactly the problems are that many graduate students and PhDs are facing in assessing their career prospects outside of academia?

Jennifer Polk: Thanks Dan! Sure. It can be a really tough transition — and I use that word advisedly. In addition to the practical challenges that come with any career change, most PhDs face not insignificant emotional hurdles. Going through graduate school, being socialized and professionalized into academic culture has consequences that many don’t recognize when they are in it. Good metaphors for this include “breathing the air” or “drinking the Kool-Aid,” i. e., individuals come to value what academia values, and those values may not align with their personal priorities or goals. I bet individuals who are part of other “total institution”-like professions understand what I’m getting at. Academics are. Working as a professor is most often referred to as being a professor. Your identity becomes wrapped up in what you do. When you face the prospect of not being able to do what you are, that can be a real crisis. It requires a process of disentangling who you are from what you do. You have to get at the roots of what you do and then seek out places in the world where you might practice those things, though the context in which you do so may be very different from what you’re used to!

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Daniel Fincke: There are three issues that spring to mind when you talk about the institutionalizing effects of academia, so let me just mention them and you can address your thoughts on them. The first is the issue of “quitting”. The prospect of leaving academia appears to looks like the ultimate failure to many graduate students. Both because of internalization of the academy’s standards of success and because of this existential equation of their being with their vocation that you’ve mentioned. A second closely related issue is the fact that many in the humanities (at least–and I’d be interested in what you know about whether this is different in more obviously skill-transferable fields) have the mindset that they’re not qualified to do anything outside academia, which makes the prospect of leaving academia even more unthinkable. These observations lead to the third and key issue: Do you think that better education of graduate students about their prospects beyond academia should lead to more graduate students taking seriously in advance working outside of academia even if they don’t feel pushed out of academia? Do you think they should be in general thinking more carefully about whether their default should be academia? And secondly, what strategies do you employ to help people work through this feeling that leaving is failure? Thirdly, are you one of those who thinks destigmatizing leaving should be a high priority?

Jennifer Polk: First, the question of career education in graduate school. I think this is extremely helpful. To my mind a huge issue is that within the relatively isolated world of graduate school, individuals cut themselves off from the very many different careers and lifestyles that other smart, creative, ambitious people have. Once they graduate — or leave their programs without graduating, which is common — PhDs have spent several years not learning about other possibilities. They’ve probably internalized some negative, incorrect assumptions about “regular people” outside the Ivory Tower. They may have come to believe that the “life of the mind” is noble and good, whereas any job in business is sullied by capitalism. Of course, we know that we are all implicated in capitalism, so let’s not delude ourselves!

So, exposing graduate students to other professionals doing other kinds of jobs while they are in school might help change this culture. Inviting back departmental alumni to give talks to participate in panel discussions can be awesome. Maybe think about hosting a departmental or faculty networking event with current students and graduate alumni. Make these events regular occurrences within departments. And that’s crucial, because so much of what happens in grad school happens within a student’s department or disciplinary subfield. Think about incorporating alumni news and profiles in the departmental newsletter or website. Definitely include all graduates in the “placement” page. Change the culture by embracing and celebrating . . .by simply acknowledging and including alumni, no matter the particulars of their post-PhD careers. Treat everyone equally.

We live in a world that doesn’t necessarily value taking time to ponder one’s own values and priorities. When you are finishing a degree or leaving a job, the obvious question is, “What’s next?” But that’s disingenuous because often what’s next is a period of uncertainty and flux, and that is an absolutely necessary step. In terms of what this means in practical terms, I encourage graduate students to consider what’s important to them, and to do it right now. There’s so much to figure out when making career decisions, and the better you know yourself, the better decisions you’ll make. That is as true for individuals committed to an academic career as it is for anyone else. There’s so much variety in the types of jobs potentially available to PhDs that they must consider what they value, what their goals are, etc.

With my own clients and when I engage with individuals who are in the “ughhhhhh” phase, I try to help them see their situation in a different light. So I may not use the phrase “leaving academia”; instead, they are building a good-for-them career. Turning the negative into the positive can be empowering. Words do matter. Same with “quitting.” Again, you’re not quitting. You’re embarking on a new journey, you’re starting a better life, you’re standing up for what’s important to you and your family. Those are commendable!

It may be interesting for your readers to learn that many of my clients are tenured or tenure-track professors who are considering or actively pursuing other careers. Life as a full-time professor can be wonderful, but there are zillions of other sorts of jobs out there. It makes no sense at all that PhDs must all go into a limited slice of careers. That’s silly. The world is rich and fascinating and there are important, meaningful, energizing things to do in all industries.

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Daniel Fincke: Well that was a lot of blasphemy for one answer. That was fantastic and very helpful. How would you defuse an anxiety that I think is common. I felt like reassurances that humanities bachelor’s degrees pay off very well and that industries liked liberal arts trained people for their analytical thinking skills and their creativity, etc. didn’t apply to PhDs because we were so much older and lacked typical work experience of people our age. Is this a myth? And are there any other common anxieties about one’s training or skills not being transferable or appreciated that you’ve not yet addressed that you can dispel here?

Jennifer Polk: In my experience, it’s not a myth. Many PhDs do lack the sort of work experience that our non-PhD peers have by now. I was 32 when I completed my doctorate, and that was after going “straight through” from high school to PhD. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that I was literally unprepared for jobs that were seemingly suitable for me. I had some important, high-level research, writing, critical thinking, and communication skills, but I lacked crucial industry- or job-specific skills. And I was ignorant about things that 30-something professionals might take for granted, like how to dress on a client visit or how to interact with a manager. I didn’t have the knowledge that many individuals without PhDs did have by then. One can see that there’s a reason employers may think PhDs unsuitable for many non-academic positions. So I think it’s useful for graduate students, advisors, and graduate schools to recognize that there may be legitimate gaps in knowledge, both in terms of content, technical processes, and cultural norms, between what PhD graduates have and what employers expect. Acknowledging this gap can suggest ways to fill it in, whether on an individual level or by implementing program changes.

The good news is that once people wrap their heads around what employers are looking for, and how they match up to other job applicants, PhDs are quick studies. They can sort themselves out. At the moment, the onus is largely on them to do it for themselves, and usually after graduation, and I hope that can change. Some strategies that my clients and others employ include working part-time or on a freelance or contract basis; volunteering; networking broadly both in-person and online; doing MOOCs or taking other professional development courses and programs; and accepting entry-level positions. These can be great ways to learn skills, gain relevant-to-employers experience, and build a professional network.

One thing to keep in mind is that while it may take a while to figure it all out and launch oneself in a new career, once someone is launched, they move quickly. All those years of academic work do come in handy later on. An employer may want you to learn the basics of their industry or company, but once you do, you can draw on your higher level skills to move up the ranks. I try to balance out genuine positivity — yes, there are lots of things to do after a graduate degree — with real talk about the challenges. I think that if we understand the issues that PhDs face, it can help graduate students and graduate programs get better prepared for the future.

Let me end with an anecdote. The other day I facilitated a panel discussion of PhDs and ABDs who are now working in a variety of jobs, from tenured professor to business owner. The professor is in an engineering faculty, and she explained how her students have all had good jobs upon graduation. She described how career development and exploration was built into the graduate experience. What she described amazed the other panelists, who all came out of programs that didn’t offer anything as robust. So it could be that there are examples on campuses that humanities and other departments can learn from. If an engineering PhD can transition smoothly into a job as a science educator (for example), then there’s no reason a philosophy PhD couldn’t transition just as smoothly into a position in a marketing firm (again, for example). So much depends on the particular preparation and experience of individual students. Departments and advisors can certainly embrace career prep if they wanted to. It would be a process for them, for sure, but clearly it can be done.

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Daniel Fincke: Can you say a bit about your upcoming online Beyond the Professoriate conference and why graduate students, PhDs, and even members of faculty or university administrations that want to better serve their graduate students should attend it? Will this serve as a crash course in the kind of non-academic professional development that’s sorely lacking? I am thrilled and delighted to be on one of the panels participating in this endeavor. Besides seeing what I have to say, why should people tune in?

Jennifer Polk: Yes! They should definitely tune into your panel on freelancing and entrepreneurship. That’s a path that appeals to so many of the people I interact with, though they may have plenty of reservations about why they themselves could never do it. Nonsense! Of course they can.

Beyond that, I do see this conference as a “crash course” as you put it. Maren Wood — also a PhD — and I collaborate to produce it, and this is our third annual event. It’ll happen over two days, namely, 7 and 14 May 2016. On the first day, there are four panels, including yours. Each panel features four PhDs who will speak about their career journeys and what they do now. Audience members will have an opportunity to ask questions. I love these panels because it’s incredibly important for graduate students and academics to interact with PhDs who are working beyond the professoriate. One of the fears academics have is that they’d never be fulfilled or stimulated in a non-professor job. But I challenge anyone watching to come away not moved by the creativity, intelligence, and thoughtfulness of our panelists. They will inspire. I promise.

Oh, and this is an online conference, so anyone can join. And we’re also recording the sessions, so although live will be better, people can watch later if they miss anything. We’ve set up a Slack channel to facilitate attendees engaging with each other. We expect to have a bunch of people tweeting during the conference, too. Our hashtag is #beyondprof.

On the second day, we’ve got 6 wonderful speakers who will each present on topics related to the PhD job search. We recruited our speakers this year, and we were thrilled to get everyone we wanted! The day will start with a session on hiring from the employers’ perspective (crucial!) and end with a presentation about starting and building a small business. In between we’ll learn about resumes vs. CVs, LinkedIn, transferable skills, and networking. It will be excellent, and all aimed directly at PhDs. To register, click this link: beyondprof2016.eventbrite.com or read more at beyondprof.com.

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Daniel Fincke: Thanks so much, Jennifer, I wish we could keep going indefinitely here as I have so many more questions and ideas to bounce off you. But those will have to wait for the conference! Is there anything else you want to let people know about your services at “From PhD to Life” in conclusion?

Jennifer Polk: Thanks Dan! Your readers can find me at FromPhDtoLife.com, and on that site they’ll see tons of resources, including links to all my University Affairs blog posts, my Transition Q & As (highly recommended!), and other information. I work 1-on-1 with academics around the world, mostly graduate students finishing up or PhDs who are seeking out what’s next. There’s a lot of variety to the latter group, and it’s one of the reasons I love what I do so much: it’s completely fascinating to see how individuals navigate transitions in their own ways. Tweet me at @FromPhDtoLife or write me at Jen@FromPhDtoLife.com to contact me directly.

Daniel Fincke: For interested readers, my reflections on my own transition out of academia can be found in my posts On The End of My Adjunct Teaching Career and Reflections of a Post-Academic Philosopreneur. Click the banner below to learn about my philosophical counseling services or click here to learn about  my independent live interactive online videoconference small group non-matriculated philosophy classes open to all. In 2013, a few months after starting my online teaching business, I gave a podcast interview to The Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog that I recommend to everyone who asks me about how to go about doing what I did.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.