3 Myths About the Nonfaculty Job Search

Misconceptions and oversimplifications still abound among Ph.D. students, and Victoria Bolf writes to set the record straight about three of them.

April 13, 2021
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For some time, accomplished, well-educated Ph.D.s in the humanities have been leaving the hamster wheel of adjunct, postdoctoral or “visiting” faculty work to build careers in more stable sectors. But misconceptions and oversimplifications about nonfaculty careers still abound.

As the coordinator for a graduate program in English at a large, urban, public university, I often speak to graduate students who are considering their post-Ph.D. options. Having a doctorate in English myself, as well as five years of experience in graduate student services, I have encountered many myths about what the nonfaculty job market is like -- and I believed such myths myself before I learned better.

I hope that busting a few of those myths will help you answer the question “What kind of work do I actually ​want​ to do, and how can I do it?”

Myth No. 1: Pursuing nonfaculty jobs is akin to slamming the faculty door behind you and throwing away the key. This is one of the most stressful myths I see in my work with graduate students. They worry that, the job market being what it is, taking even a micron of their laser focus off the faculty job search will mean they can never get back into scholarly pursuits.

Like many persistent myths, it has a kernel of truth: taking some focus away from your faculty job search will, in fact, impact it. But you’ll still find plenty of teaching and research opportunities to pursue. What’s more, you will probably be better able to take advantage of such opportunities from a place of financial and psychological stability.

In addition, for better or worse, after years pursuing graduate degrees, few people leave academe completely -- at least not immediately. Instead, they find a niche within the university and continue to pursue the things that interest them, leveraging institutional knowledge and building relationships along the way. Part of the reason people stay in higher education is that it’s sometimes easier to transition from graduate student to a staff position at a university, library, archive or scholarly society. Those types of employers often have a good grasp of the skills a graduate student has, and you will already have an extensive network and plentiful experience working with undergraduates, faculty members and researchers who can recommend you. Many people also find an overlap between the fulfillment they find in teaching and the student services aspects of such jobs.

Further, you will probably run simultaneous and competing job searches as you explore your options. For several years after finishing my Ph.D., I worked as a staff member at a university, networked and applied for better administrative positions -- all while maintaining my faculty dossier through teaching part-time and conferencing so I could apply to tenure-track positions that appealed to me. Although it sometimes felt hectic, it helped ground me in my decisions about the jobs I applied to and allowed me to feel that I was ​choosing​ my career rather than being forced into positions out of necessity.

Myth No. 2: A nonfaculty job will have a precise, crisp schedule and never ask you to take work home with you. This is an easy idealization to fall into, perhaps because we academics are encouraged to tie our identity so closely to our work, making work-life boundaries difficult. It is true that once the burden of grading is lifted from your shoulders, the free time suddenly on your calendar can make you feel giddy. But it is also true that a 9-to-5 job in this day and age often follows you home -- or accompanies you everywhere through your cellphone.

What’s more, although work on a dissertation, article or book never feels done, it is easy to underestimate the toll that a full eight-hour-plus workday will take on people used to choosing their own workspace, schedule and topic. That’s why the transition to a “normal” job can simultaneously feel like a break (suddenly you’re reading novels for fun again!) ​and​ completely draining (So many emails! Multiple projects with tight deadlines!).

The key to not taking work home with you is, of course, setting as firm a boundary as you can around the work you do and sticking to it to the best of your ability.

Myth No. 3: It will be easy to get a nonfaculty job. OK, so this one is not ​quite​ a myth. In terms of ​sheer ​​numbers, ​it is true that you will more likely land a full-time, benefits-eligible position in a nonfaculty job search. But in terms of the investment of time, money and networking required, getting a nonfaculty job is just as much work, if not more.

No, a nonfaculty job search will not usually ask you to compile a 50-page dossier for the privilege of being rejected in the first round. You will, however, usually need to apply and apply (and apply and apply) before you hear “yes” from a job you want to take. You may get an entry-level job that you don’t particularly like at an organization that you do, or a grant-funded position with a firm end date, only to have to start the search again -- just as you would as a visiting assistant professor.

A career that unfolds in a clear, straight line is vanishingly rare. Even tenure-track professors, who seem to have a straightforward career path, may twist and turn as they pursue a second book project or a job closer to family. This is even more true for those job seekers who decide to forge their own way from the Ph.D. into the wider working world. Careers are unpredictable, zigzaggy things for most of us, affected by life circumstances beyond our control (like, say, a global pandemic).

That is why operating from a grounded place, sure of your own values and desires, is so important. Following someone else’s plan for your career -- whether it’s your adviser’s, your parent’s or someone else’s -- usually ends in dissatisfaction and disillusion, if not cynicism, for most of us. Knowing what will make you satisfied in a career will more often than not pay off and make the struggle you go through to obtain it worthwhile -- whether it is in faculty work or not.

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Victoria Bolf is the graduate studies program coordinator in the English department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Loyola University Chicago.

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