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Balancing Grad School and Non-Academic Opportunities
February 24, 2014 - 7:52pm

Graphic of balanced scalesLaura Mitchell is a guest author and an M.A. candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University. You can find her on Twitter @lb_mitch.

It’s not news that boundaries are blurring between the academy and practitioners in non-academic settings. From the ever-expanding alt-ac and post-ac conversation to trends in engaged scholarship, the ability to move between academic and non-academic settings has become an increasingly valuable skill for graduate students across disciplines. Whether you’re a master’s student preparing for a non-academic job, a doctoral candidate seeking alternatives to limited tenure-track positions, or hoping to incorporate new voices and approaches into your scholarly work, mobility both within and beyond the academy forms a powerful complement to your academic background. However, if you’re primarily familiar with the academic systems of mentorshipnetworking, and collaboration, figuring out how to participate in the non-academic sphere in a way that complements your academic work – and doesn’t require an overwhelming time commitment – can be challenging.

The question of time commitment is particularly relevant for graduate students. While there has recently been a flood of helpful articles on non-academic opportunities for grad students, many find the thought of balancing heavy academic demands with additional commitments overwhelming. Two ways to confront this challenge are to focus on people and to choose low-commitment opportunities that complement your academic work.

Focusing on the personal aspect of opportunities can allow you to access and engage with a wider network of people than you might within the context of your graduate program. Many graduate students have a strong network of cohort members, professors, and advisors within their department, but feel less confident about their network outside of this unit. Informational interviews are an easy way to meet people, and professionals in many fields are accustomed to receiving these types of requests. A key to leveraging informational interviews, particularly if you’re not immediately entering the job market or you hope to collaborate in the future, is follow-up. After a conversation with someone, check in occasionally and make yourself useful to her – for example, you could send her a recently published journal article with a short comment on how it relates to her work, or refer her to a helpful university resource. This low-level maintenance of relationships can prove beneficial in unforeseeable ways, for both parties.

If you’re looking to get more hands-on, you can find numerous ways to engage with people and projects that transcend the university but won’t take too much away from your academic work. When seeking out these opportunities, you may want to start with the resources already at your university – particularly in other departments and your university’s professional schools. Many departments and programs have already forged partnerships with local organizations, companies, and professionals, and they tend to welcome collaboration. Working in ecology? A law school environmental initiative might love to draw on your expertise in their work with community partners or to involve you in their advocacy efforts. Writing a sociology dissertation? The education department might incorporate your research methods into their work with high school students. Think creatively about where you might fit in, and take advantage of the office hours and other lines of communication open within the university.

Beyond the university, there are myriad ways to engage with the non-academic sphere on a low-commitment basis. When executed correctly, these opportunities can be a win-win-win: the organization benefits from your expertise, you hone skills and gain contacts that translate beyond the academy, and your scholarly work becomes stronger as a result of your experience. One option for engaging in this way is to offer up your services as an informal consultant or contractor, either on a paid or pro bono basis, to relevant nonprofit organizations. By identifying your skills, expertise, and specific areas in which you can provide key services to clients, you can take agency over the ways in which your abilities are framed and valued. Project work, which can be anything from writing grants to developing research instruments, is particularly beneficial for graduate students, as they can choose projects that demand less during busy times of the semester and are often responsible only for delivering a product, rather than clocking hours on a certain schedule.

Another option that gives you significant flexibility in schedule and time commitment is to write for blogs and other publications beyond the traditional academic sphere. True, writing may be the last thing you want to do on top of your academic writing load. However, it’s often refreshing to write outside the structures of your discipline and to share your interests in new ways. Many publications are centers of lively dialogue and always seek new content, and paying publications are often open to contributions by freelancers and new voices (for input on what publications pay for writing, check out Who Pays Writers). Regardless of whether you write about your academic work or another interest, writing for a wide audience gets your name out there and can often spark conversations and relationships you wouldn’t have thought to pursue otherwise (particularly if your writing includes a link to your Twitter handle or email address, readers may get in touch with new ideas or connections). It’s also an effective way to develop your skills in communicating ideas in diverse settings, which will serve you well regardless of career path.

While balancing academic commitments and engagement with the non-academic sphere can seem challenging, there are many opportunities that can complement your studies without becoming overwhelming. When seeking these opportunities, focus on leveraging existing networks and skills and building out from there, always being conscious of the value of relationships and your own agency over your position both within and beyond the university. From freelance writing for culture blogs to using theoretical models in a project with my university’s social innovation initiative, my experiences with moving between the academic and non-academic spheres have both sharpened my skills and broadened my outlook on the paths open to me. Particularly as disciplinary and professional distinctions continue to shift, being able to navigate a range of networks is a skill that provides an important complement to academic work, and it’s well worth it to develop this skill as part of your graduate experience.

How have you moved between the academic and non-academic spheres? What advice do you have for grad students looking to complement their academic work with other opportunities?

[Image by Flickr user mag3737 used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

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