That First, Crummy Job
One fear that many academics have as they near the end of their academic stint is that they will end up in jobs for which only a B.A. is required. Even worse, they imagine, is ending up back in the same job you had when you were doing your B.A.
And yet, most people who leave academia take very circuitous routes to the work they ultimately end up doing five years after leaving. Almost all of the former academics I’ve ever met, interviewed, or heard about had some type of “corkscrew” pattern to their post-academic careers, rather than a steep upward or downward trajectory.
A really fabulous example of this is a woman named Helen Toland, who you can learn all about on an incredible British career resource called iCould. (I highly recommend this Web site to any career changer; as the site’s tagline states, “It just shows what you can do.” Specifically, there are hundreds of interviews with people doing a huge variety of jobs, including people with what the Brits call postgraduate degrees).
As Helen explains, she got her Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering, in part because she just happened to be good at school, because she thought that was what her parents would want, and because she lacked the confidence to admit to herself what she really wanted to do. Any of that sound familiar? Once she finished her degree, though, she decided to pursue her dream of working in the media, and is now a producer at BBC Radio Ulster working on an entertainment program. How did she get there? Hard work and perseverance, it sounds like — but also a willingness to do the grunt work needed to get the job of her dreams.
From her brief description, it sounds like Helen was both “on the dole” and working in a coffee shop for a couple of years once she’d finished her Ph.D. before she finally got on board as a full-time staff producer. It’s quite easy to imagine that being a Ph.D. working as a barista would involve struggling with some pretty intense feelings of shame and regret. And yet, doing that first, low-skill, non-academic job was well worth it to Helen because it gave her the time to build up contacts and do enough freelance contracts to build up the experience she needed to be offered a staff position.
But all too often, the idea of taking a crummy job strikes so much fear in the hearts of academics that they would rather stick with the devil they know — even if the money is just as bad (if not worse) and the career trajectory leads to an equally dead end.
Yet it is typically that first post-academic job that gives one an opportunity to detox from the traumas of academia (you know, like feeling dumb much of the time), which itself helps create the conditions for movement into a better, more professional-level job. It also offers a chance to get some experience in a different sector. This looks good on a résumé, of course, but it’s more important than that. That first job outside of academia — no matter how crummy — is a new kind of training ground, one where you un-learn so many of the conventions that you never even realized you were absorbing along the way.
That’s where you find out that people speak differently, think differently, and move at a different pace than inside academia (typically much more quickly, depending on the sector). It’s where you learn how to really leverage and transfer some of your skills (for example, your ability to absorb new information quickly really does come in handy when you’re a barista learning the names of 30 different specialty drinks). And it gives your brain the chance to adapt to the demands of a new environment.
What this adds up to, then, is a priming of the pump. When you are ready to move on to your dream non-academic job — the one in which you are able to be more fully yourself — you’ll have more skills, more confidence and more preparedness than you would otherwise have applying for that job straight out of graduate school.
Some of the transition jobs that former academics I know have taken include note-taking in college classrooms for students with disabilities, transcribing, working retail, office work, dog-walking, house-cleaning, researching for television channels, and other research contracts. One person I interviewed worked for an arts nonprofit in which he had to fundraise his own salary. In my own case, I worked as a closed captioning editor while making cash and contacts on the side doing freelance writing, podcasting, and radio producing.
It’s wise to bite the bullet with a job that’s below your skill set if it offers you a chance to deploy a grander career development strategy while you’re doing it. That would include jobs that are strictly time delineated (unlike adjuncting, which expands to fill the time you have), offering you a chance to network and build up contacts in your desired field. It leaves you with enough energy to do information interviewing, freelancing, job shadowing or interning (whichever suits the target field best). And it offers just enough money to pay the bills, but not so much that you’re tempted to stick with it over the long haul. Finally, it gives you enough mental resting space to detox from your academic experience, which in turn provides you with an opportunity to research and daydream your next career move.
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