Abandoning a sinking (academic) ship: what career next?
September 6, 2010 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Help me brainstorm a career change! Catch: $45K, in the midwest.

I am a professor. Over the past five years I have gradually come to realize that I hate my job. Academia is a bad fit for me, as is my present location, but I didn't want to be a quitter. Well, now I have tenure, and I want out. The paycheck (fairly meager, as academic paychecks go) is the only thing keeping me here, and that's not a sufficient reason to resign myself to 25 more years of misery. I also feel guilty about holding onto this position when there are literally hundreds of unemployed and underemployed PhDs who would do a better job than me, and would be happier doing it.

So I want to start over. Is there a new career for me somewhere? I am willing to consider almost any career path, but I have a couple of desiderata: I want to be closer to extended family in the Great Lakes region. I like analysis and short-term problem solving; while I can get things done independently, I am happiest with a fair amount of interaction and feedback, which my current career does not provide at all. (The only serious evaluations of my work over the past 10 years were done by outside reviewers during the tenure process -- and those evaluations were confidential, so I never saw them. Not knowing for years at a time whether I was doing a good-enough job = unbelievable stress.)

I really would like to find work that is useful, in a field that is not overcrowded with job seekers. Benefits and predictable working hours would be great. And when I started making about $45K I was able to stop worrying about money, so I would be happy to find employment at that income level (or even below, if there was a better than average chance of getting back to that level within two years). Other than that, really, anything goes.

I'm a quick learner, and I am not afraid of tech or numbers or getting my hands dirty: I did a fair bit of hard science and higher math and even some programming as an undergrad, about 20 years ago. But I have been in my present field (literature) for, well, 20 years. I don't have current expertise in anything except teaching, which I do not enjoy and would prefer to abandon altogether, and academic research/writing, which, along with $3, will get me a cup of coffee. I am ready to work at acquiring new skills, but I would like advice about where a middle-aged person can start (and also about how to start building a network of contacts in a new field, in a region far away from my current place of work and residence).

The "leaving academia" threads on the Chronicle discussion boards have been an interesting read, but I'm not anguished about leaving the ivory tower as so many people on those boards seem to be. That decision has been made. I'm now interested in the practicalities of making the move.

I know times are tough for job-seekers. Still, I think I could make myself useful, if I could just figure out where there's a need. I have the time and resources to do almost any kind of training course or degree, especially if elements of the training are available online. But every day I'm getting older, and unhappier with my situation. Time's a wastin', and the sooner I can make my move, the better.

tl;dr: Hate my job, hate my location, want to go home, willing to learn. Please give a burned-out academic your best advice for career prospects in the Chicago-Grand Rapids-Detroit-Cleveland region.
posted by philokalia to Work & Money (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Are you willing to consider university administrative jobs? No more summers off, but in compensation no more late nights grading, either. I meet a lot of administrators who are former professors, so it's a fairly common switch to make.
posted by Forktine at 9:02 PM on September 6, 2010

It's not without its own risks, but what about law? The word in my academic department is that it's a popular field to go into for disillusioned humanities PhDs. Three years of school, and then even with the weak law job market, you should easily be able to pull in well over $45K.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:15 PM on September 6, 2010

If you can get you programming skills up to scratch, you sound like a fairly 'typical' perl hacker
posted by singingfish at 9:28 PM on September 6, 2010

sorry posted too quickly. Plenty of openings for this kind of programmer in Chicago to my knowledge.
posted by singingfish at 9:28 PM on September 6, 2010

oinopaponton: and then even with the weak law job market, you should easily be able to pull in well over $45K.

I'd strongly disagree with oinopaponton about the state of the Midwest legal job market. Admittedly, my experience is as a legal admin, but the two fields are tied together enough to at least let me be a good witness to the job market for associates, and I can tell you that there are unemployed associates a-plenty in Chicago and have been for the length of this unemployment.

Maybe the situation will be different in three years' time; I'll definitely give you that. But if you're predicating a search based on the current job environment, law is one where, in Chicago, there's a lot of supply already when it comes to holders of law degrees.
posted by WCityMike at 9:29 PM on September 6, 2010

Could you get a job as a paralegal, especially if you took a pertinent course or two? I've read that there's still fairly healthy demand for paralegals, and many Chicago firms have programs that put their star paralegals through law school.

I make about $45,000 annually as a computer technician for a small business, and I basically learned how to do my job while on the job.

Could you do another year at your current job and focus on getting seriously involved with nonprofit/charity/volunteer work? Then maybe you'd be a candidate for some sort of "officer"/administration position at a nonprofit.

Interested at all in finance/banking? A lot of banks have "management trainee" positions. You do a year at like $30k but then you're eligible for assistant branch manager (or higher) positions that usually start in excess of $45,000.

How about becoming a store (assistant) manager? My cousin was the assistant manager for a large Barnes & Noble and made around 45k. Granted book stores aren't in the best of shape right now, but there are plenty of large retail stores that would probably value your experience.

Would you be interested in becoming an archivist?

How about curriculum development?

Also search www.usajobs.gov. There are a ton of government jobs which would fit your salary requirement and for which you'd probably meet all the qualifications.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 9:34 PM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Apply to McKinsey or other management consultancies. They love academics.
posted by anniecat at 9:37 PM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

What Color is Your Parachute certainly helped me during my career change away from teaching. It's a wonderful book, not only because it talks about the importance of research, networking, and also provides a whole bunch of useful exercises that help you narrow down what you really want to do, but also because the book stresses the importance of self actualization, and of faith, either in oneself or in a Higher Power (I chose faith in myself).

You're lucky, in that you know you need things to change, and you know you need to find a fulfilling career of some sort. The rest should be easy.

I wouldn't worry about the recession: you'll find a job. Very generally speaking, you are not in the demographic of people who are out of work. You can leverage the diversified skillset represented by your PhD and your teaching background to be successful in other areas, such as survey design, analysis, management consulting, and training.

I would be curious about your actual background: what is your specialization? What is your research focus?

It sounds to me like you have a background in English, so copywriting is always an option. I myself switched to PR and eventually government after being a teacher; thanks to the recession, I was laid off from my government job last year.

I'm actually doing some consulting that is connected with my former government job, and it is lucrative. However, it has taken me 5 years to build up the network of contacts and the track record to get my consulting gigs.

Since getting laid off, though, I have been sure to seek out a diversified number of contracts. About 30% of my time is spent doing (white hat) SEO/SEM marketing writing, as well as managing campaigns.

If you like to write, and if you like analysis, SEO marketing may be something you might like to try.

You can work from home (or anywhere in the Midwest), but since SEO marketing is extremely results-oriented, you will also be getting feedback about your efforts each month.

It can be quite lucrative, and you like it you will very likely be good at it (or vice versa) and you can certainly hit your revenue target each month.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:41 PM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you have quantitative skills?
posted by k8t at 9:47 PM on September 6, 2010

USA Jobs . Gov is your friend.

If you're a social scientist, do an alert for social scien*. There are tons of listings. Good money too.
posted by k8t at 9:48 PM on September 6, 2010

Oh wait - literature?

What about teaching community college or high school? Won't be $45k but maybe you could do something on the side?
posted by k8t at 9:50 PM on September 6, 2010

Nursing. Administration. Educational technology support. Library Science.

Depends what you like to do, of course.
posted by washburn at 11:03 PM on September 6, 2010

I'm really tempted to tell you to go get an MLIS and become an academic librarian, because I think you would love it (I do!), but it's certainly not lacking for job seekers. In my experience, though, they're very keen on librarians who have phds. And if you're good with tech and the internets, all the better!
posted by Hildegarde at 5:46 AM on September 7, 2010

"I'm a quick learner, and I am not afraid of tech or numbers or getting my hands dirty: I did a fair bit of hard science and higher math and even some programming as an undergrad, about 20 years ago. But I have been in my present field (literature) for, well, 20 years."

Tech writer?
posted by true at 6:40 AM on September 7, 2010

For the love of god, do not go to law school and become an attorney if you have been happily living on 45k. The loans will make it impossible to live happily on 45k--although that's likely the most you'll make--and the job market is tanking and there are high levels of dissatisfaction in the profession.

There are lots academic flavor research and writing jobs in the nonprofit and government world. I worked for one group right out of college (as a receptionist) and several of our staff researchers were former adjunct professors. The one I work for now (as a researcher) shares office space with another group doing social science research and most of their researchers are current and former professors. This sentence of yours: I like analysis and short-term problem solving; while I can get things done independently, I am happiest with a fair amount of interaction and feedback. . . . describes my job exactly.

In in my experience, however, it's a very competitive job market. Having grant-writing experience would definitely help. Perhaps you can find and apply for a grant to do a semester of independent research? If you can direct that research toward an end product paper which touches on a social justice issue, or a public policy concern, or a global problem, then you have a credential that starts you toward a move to a nonteaching, nonacademic research/writing job. You can submit it to publication to a public policy institute newsletter or journal and you're on your way to the transition. You can probably even get your school to fund part of your trip to a relevant conference, if you get a paper accepted. If you have spare time to volunteer your time with a public policy institute of some kind, you can make appropriate personal connections, too.

Surprisingly, there are lots of public policy researchers who do not have a background in hard sciences or social sciences either because the most important skill you have is organizing and presenting ideas. You have that if you've gotten a PhD.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:41 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

academic research/writing, which, along with $3, will get me a cup of coffee

Well, there's always scholarly publishing. When I worked for a while at a journal publisher, all the editors were subject-matter PhDs and academic dropouts. The field is not exactly robust, but University of Chicago Press has a job posting right now which might be a fit. The money is certainly not great, but you should be able to make more than $45K as an editor (with possibly a couple years at a lower rate while you transition).

If the freelance life suits you, you should also consider copyediting and (especially) indexing. If you're willing and able to work on dense scholarly material and you're good with deadlines, you shouldn't have trouble getting enough work.
posted by libraryhead at 7:48 AM on September 7, 2010

Dave Ramsey always recommends that Dan Miller book to people in your situation. Good luck.
posted by bunny hugger at 7:53 AM on September 7, 2010

This is a terrible economy, and likely to remain so for a while. You have a stable, extremely secure job. Take your time, and really, really check things out. Your current job has a pretty high degree of status, reasonable hours, a generally pleasant environment. Assess the things about your job that are pleasant, and that others think are pleasant. Compare those things when you are considering new jobs. There are a number of vocational aptitude tests; take a bunch of them. Interview people in other fields. What Color Is My Parachute used to be the standard process for career-changing; go to your library and find out what's currently the standard.

I know a couple of people who ended up staying in jobs they thought they hated when they went through the career-assessment process, and I know plenty of people (including me) who happily made career changes after career assessment. In this economy, I would move especially slowly and carefully.
posted by theora55 at 8:24 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think teaching high school is your best bet. Elite private schools would kill to have a former professor teaching classes, especially if you could provide college-level assignments for AP classes. You won't make much over $45k though. Public school pays better but requires a teaching certificate.

You will not make much headway in the corporate world. HR people will look at your resume and assume that since you're vastly overqualified for entry level work, you're not likely to last long. Meanwhile you don't have the management/technical experience to get a higher level position. Very small firms without HR departments may be more flexible.

Communications, marketing, lobbying, or fundraising for a college might work. Colleges will respect your previous experience as a professor. Do you have the social skills to get donors to give a million dollars to your school, or convince a politician to buy you a new building?

Lit teachers have been very slow to adapt to new technology. I've often thought a Wiki-like system to analyze texts would be very popular. Maybe you could make that happen.
posted by miyabo at 9:20 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I toyed with going into academia, but then I realized that I could do most of what I loved about academia through other means. And I wouldn't have to deal with the parts I didn't like. I run a consulting business, which involves running the business, managing contracts, doing research and analysis, writing, sometimes making presentations, looking after projects and so on. I also write a lot and I've developed several information products. In fact, self disclaimer, part of my business depends on helping other people become consultants.

$45k a year sounds very possible if you go into consulting. At $75-$125 per hour, that's ony 7 to 11 billable hours per week. If you were to move to solution-based pricing, you could work even fewer hours and make that, assuming you find a market for your services. But, honestly, you'd be an ideal independent consultant, I think. You can work independently, achieve expert status, write it all up, present it -- really, it's what you're doing now.

If that sounds daunting, you could explore a few revenue streams. Scale back on teaching - or maybe shift to doing something online for a distance program. Do facilitation. Mark SATs. Freelance write. Get a book deal. Find a part-time job. Start picking up consulting work as you go along and eventually go to something f/t.

But I'm conservative. Unless you have a big emergency fund and a whole lot of confidence, don't dive right it. Explore the idea. Work out a plan. Build in lots of safeguards. Make sure you have an emergency fund. Ideally, diversify your income stream. And make sure you have a great support network. That being said, you sound like a good fit for consulting. And, in today's dollars, I was making about what you're making in my first year of consulting...at age 23. So I think you can do it. If what a stranger on the Internet thinks matters. It's really what you think that matters.
posted by acoutu at 10:21 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you have the perk of being able to take free classes through your university, DO IT. Take a class in programming, one in accounting and one in something else. See if one of them tickles your fancy and makes you feel like "Hey! I could do that!"

If it's not too late to enroll for one this very semester, do it.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:15 PM on September 7, 2010

Lots of avenues suggested here that I never would have thought of: thanks!

Just to be clear, I don't want to teach. Sure, if I could design the courses and choose the students, it would be fine -- but I don't even have that kind of autonomy now, since the U tells me what courses I will teach and what the enrollment will be. And I would rather muck out stables than teach high school...

I will definitely call up some friends at nonprofits and ask if they can use my help on any projects or grant apps. I have written a couple of successful grants for my own research, so I do have a little background of that sort, and if I can extend that to the nonprofit world, great. I'm also looking into some certificate programs in project management, information systems management, and (alas!) instructional technologies (since I can probably leverage my classroom experience, much as I'd hate to do that.)
posted by philokalia at 6:23 PM on September 7, 2010

Philokalia, I know you don't want to teach, but I must say that it is an entirely different experience when you are teaching experienced adults who are keenly interested and motivated in the subject area, especially when you don't have to mark papers and so on. Around these parts, the universities pay $75/hr and up for continuing education courses. Just something to think about, if you could stomach it for a while. (I happen to like teaching, but not everyone does. But maybe you could stomach it if you had the right students and it was only for a year or something.) Also, if you get into running workshops, you kinda can choose your students.
posted by acoutu at 9:46 PM on September 7, 2010

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