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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

The Career Counselor Is In: Advice From 'The Other Side'
May 5, 2008 - 1:36pm

Editor’s Note: Megan Pincus Kajitani will be answering your career transition questions here each Monday. Read on, and send your questions to mamaphd@insidehighered.com

I struck up a conversation recently with a woman who works as a consultant at my hair salon -- turns out she has a Ph.D. in psychology. I drove by a van a few months ago with the logo Ph.D. Plumbing. And I read a great health article in a magazine last week, where in the writer’s bio she calls herself a “Ph.D. dropout” (she has a Master’s in biology).

Now, many academics may think, “Gasp! How awful for these poor people!” But, I see a very different picture. I see individuals who were on the academic path and changed course. Not a judgment, just a fact.

And since roughly 50% of people who start doctoral programs finish them, and an only slightly larger percentage of Ph.D.’s become tenured professors, there are actually more former doctoral students on “the other side” of traditional academia than there are still in it. Contrary to some misguided beliefs, by the way, almost all of us who exit do so not because we aren’t doing well enough, but because we just realize we want to do something different (thanks to Barbara Lovitts for doing the research that backs this up).

People change course in their careers all the time. In fact, labor statistics show that Americans today change careers on average around three times in their working lives (and jobs 10.5 times).

Still, I understand that in academia, the thought of leaving the tenure-driven fold is terrifying, humiliating, even shameful. I was inside, too. I know how it works. I was a doctoral student, a Javits fellow no less, from an academic family. And my erstwhile advisor never spoke to me again after I decided four years in to change course.

Ironically, what I changed to was a full-time position as a career counselor for graduate students at my research university. And after many tear-filled nights before taking the plunge those several years ago now, I quickly realized I had no regrets. I loved the job; it suited me and I felt like I was making a difference. (And I saw clearly who my real friends were.)

I also got the great gift of seeing that my own anguish in leaving the professor path was far from unique. Doctoral students with similar quandaries flooded my office (including several from my own Ph.D. program – who, of course, never uttered a word of their dissatisfaction when we sat in graduate seminars together).

Many, like me, wanted to have families, to choose where they live, and other crazy notions that don’t always jive with life in the professorate (obviously, they sometimes do jive, but there’d be no Mama, Ph.D. book, including many angst-filled stories, if this combination was accomplished effortlessly). I wasn’t alone after all, as so many graduate students feel they are.

As a university career counselor, I co-created (with a campus psychologist) a five-session workshop for doctoral students called “Questioning Career Transition.” I helped with career decisions, interview skills, résumés, and alternative career research. I listened, commiserated, referred and advised.

Now, I freelance (mostly as a writer/editor, my pre-academic career), and I mother. Another transition and, again, after more difficult decision-making, I landed where I want to be. You can read my whole story in our anthology, Mama, Ph.D.

And, now, thanks to Inside Higher Ed, you can send me your own career transition questions here, and I’ll answer one here each Monday.

Anything on your mind about careers on “the other side,” or how to get there, please ask. I can recommend career resources, offer insights and tips, and lend support. (And, don’t worry, I’ll have no problem steering you in whatever direction is right for you – for some it’s to the tenure track, for others it is nearly anywhere else.)

Plus, this being a blog and all, other readers can share their own thoughts on your questions, and my answers, and hopefully we can have some important and helpful conversations about careers, transitions and all that goes with them.

Fire away – I look forward to hearing from you!

 

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