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Much of the conversation about career alternatives for graduate students focuses on the way advanced skills transfer to a wide range of jobs outside the tenure track. We all need jobs, and as an alum at my institution told me last year, “The best job for you right out school is the job you can get.” And now the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs at higher ed institutions and in many other sectors, has significantly intensified the situation.

Still, I wondered if there were any exceptions to this general pattern -- if some Ph.D.s were working outside college teaching who were using their subject-matter expertise, not just their skills in research, writing, critical thinking, communication, determination and focus. So I polled colleagues and used Google and LinkedIn to find and contact experts I did not yet know. I asked them how their subject expertise informs their current work and to what extent they’ve been able to live their intellectual and political commitments after leaving the professorial track.

My first respondent was Derek Attig, assistant dean for career and professional development at the University of Illinois Graduate College and a “Carpe Careers” contributor. They wrote, “When I taught U.S. history, one of my favorite texts to teach was the Combahee River Collective Statement, written by a group of black feminist theorist-activists in 1977. The statement articulated a political vision based their experience of the world as enmeshed and intertwined: ‘We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’”

And they explained, “The kind of systems-thinking that is fundamental to this concept of intersectionality was crucial to my scholarship and my pedagogy, as it is to my work in graduate student career development now. Taking black feminist theory seriously means that I understand that the students are navigating academic and professional contexts shaped by hidden curricula, by implicit and explicit bias, by fundamental inequities of opportunity and outcome. And so, rather than one-size-fits-all solutions, I try to meet students where they are and understand their needs in broader, intersectional contexts. I don’t always succeed perfectly, but I challenge myself to prepare students to engage with unequal systems without suggesting those systems are just or natural.”

Attig’s values -- and their perspective as a professional historian -- continue to inform their work on behalf of students. Working in higher ed administration myself, I can tell you that Attig is far from alone in making intersectional analysis central to their work.

Scholarship That’s Not Irrelevant

My second respondent was Maria Bezaitis, senior principal engineer at Intel Corporation and EPIC board president, who wrote, “While my professional choices appear discontinuous with my training in literature, cultural studies and theory, I see a strong relationship between the kinds of problems and questions I engaged in both contexts. Today, I develop frameworks for understanding our socio-technological world and lives. I analyze language. I work conceptually to bring breadth to problem spaces. I unpack the assumptions made by a business strategy or technical focus area. I frame problems in order to show how business opportunities benefit from alignment with what matters to people. I encourage business and technology leaders to see their questions in social terms.”

She continued, “I see all of this work as directly related to my training in literary systems, close reading and interpretive work, theoretical models. What is different is my interlocutors and the setting. The tensions for me today originate in working with peers who think very differently about the world and what they make. This is also the political nature of my work; it is anchored in relational work with engineers, business strategists, general managers who are motivated by different assumptions and worldviews. My favorite philosopher/theorist in graduate school was Roland Barthes. I think he might look at my work and ask that I write the mythologies of corporate life.”

Bezaitis also provided a helpful reframe of the anxiety that grad students in many disciplines feel about “selling out”: “The question of ‘selling out’ should haunt anyone wherever they work. For me, this is not about a business vs. academic choice. After all, the academy is also deeply motivated by private-sector interests. I work for a corporation that delivers the products and services that have made the digital world possible. It is a hugely expansive context to work within, and I have the luxury of choice and great scope in the work that I do. I see the nature of my work in the private sector as deeply intellectual and political in the sense that I’m focused on changing the worldviews of engineers, technologists and business leaders. It’s relational work that is, for the most part, gratifying and energizing.”

Now, a reader might justifiably ask me: What about you, Mr. Religion Ph.D.? What are you doing with your subject matter, besides the one time that your 100-level grasp of Buddhism actually came in handy in a career coaching appointment?

My favorite thing about studying religion was learning about the vast spectrum of variations that exist within religious traditions, and the ways that constant transfers of ideas and practices between them belie the idea that they’re really separate, bounded entities to begin with. (Think of the incredible synthesis of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Transcendentalist, Romantic, countercultural and scientific ideas and practices that has produced the mindfulness movement -- and the uncannily similar movements that existed more than a century ago.)

This lens shapes how I think about graduate career coaching and campus programming (when we have campus programming). The history of religion is as much about creative improvisation as it is about claims of timeless truth and traditional authority. Spiritual innovators from Augustine of Hippo to Henry David Thoreau and from Swami Vivekananda to Jon Kabat-Zinn have synthesized ancient traditions and new paradigms to create incredibly impactful ideas. With no offense intended to my Crimson friends, Thoreau had to leave Cambridge to become Thoreau. When he set off for life in the woods at Walden Pond, his education and his highly trained mind came with him.

Studying religion taught me to be skeptical of hard boundaries, whether around identities, traditions, academic disciplines or career paths. It taught me the weight of history and the openness of life. It’s given me a highly developed nose for opportunities to improvise new ways to help my students.

It may feel unnerving to take your first tentative steps off the tenure track (especially during a global pandemic and economic crisis), but your training is not gone; your knowledge is not irrelevant. You will still find ways to live your values. In fact, you may find yourself a bit like Thoreau in Walden: “no more lonely than … the first spider in a new house.”

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