Escaping the Ivory Tower
January 25, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

I have a PhD in English. Enough said. No? Okay. How can I ease a transition out of academia and into the private sector, while still doing the part-time teaching thing?

I recently completed my PhD in English. I've been teaching part-time at the institution that granted me my degree. For the past many years, I've done nothing but "do" English — reading, teaching, researching, writing, all for an academic audience. But, this year, a string particularly rough professional experiences have me with my eye fixed on the door.

For now, I am teaching as a sessional. The money's okay, right now, albeit with no stability. I'm not exactly living large but I get by and am working on paying down some student debts in the process. But, I have no interest in become a life-time sessional professor. Teaching was always secondary to me to research anyway. Yep, I'm one of those notorious profs who teaches to pay the bills while being really interested in getting back to that article I've been working on. Not that I am a bad teacher — I get generally positive feedback from my students and fellow professors who have seen me at work.

But, in the meantime, I'm getting tired. I always had a time limit in mind for getting a TT job, but I find that my patience has run out before the clock. The idea of actually working from 9 to 5 once in a while, of being able to have weekends off sometimes, is sounding really, really good to me. Knowing that I won't have to reapply for pretty much the same job every four months? Heavenly.

The trouble is, well, I am an English PhD. I didn't do any non-academic work while I was doing my PhD. I worked as a teaching assistant, as a research assistant, and now I'm a teacher. I can write well, at least for an academic audience, and I'm a good researcher. It is pretty depressing when I look at the job listings that ask for these kinds of skills; the most recent job postings that came my way were for writing resumes for other people at $14 an hour. I live in a town with a particularly bad unemployment rate — one of the worst in Canada — but moving isn't exactly feasible either, as my partner does have a full-time job here that she likes and it's probably easier to find one job here than two somewhere else.

There are a few jobs I think I might be good at, even enjoy, but they are the sort of job every failed English professor goes after (editing, copywriting, policy analysis) and I'm sure there are more than a few of us these days; more than that, they all seem to ask for "real world" work experience that I do not have. I don't think I can afford (financially or mentally) going back to school to do something else. Nor can I afford to stop teaching and devote myself to finding work full-time, or do an internship. We simply need the income.

Is there anything I can do in the meantime, while I am still teaching (to pay the bills), to make myself an attractive job candidate if I do try to get out? Is there any hope for me? Where is the path out of this? What do I do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Some colleges offer seminars on technical writing and grant applications. Does yours?

Technical writing can help you find freelance work (at least). Some university departments and large companies employ people for the sole purpose of supervising/constructing/co-authoring grant proposals for various departments.

Either of those job types would certainly benefit from the methodologies and skills gained in attaining a PhD in English.
posted by oddman at 10:45 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend the book "So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia. It give very practical advice about representing the skills you have developed as an academic to a non-academic audience, and also helps you recognize the skills you might not think would be applicable in non-academic venues. They also have many interviews with people who have gone on to all sorts of jobs after academia.

I'm currently still in an English PhD program (for now, anyway, but that's a different story), but not planning on teaching, and this book really helped me feel better about being here.
posted by apricot at 11:27 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

editing, copywriting, policy analysis

Huh, I work in a policy-adjacent field and I don't actually know any English PhD types that do policy analysis (IME it's mostly lawyers, social scientists or people with some sort of technical expertise). However, there are quite a few humanities refugees in the nonprofit sector, particularly in communications, new media and development. Have you been involved in any professional associations or student groups during your time as a student? That might help provide a bridge.
posted by lunasol at 11:47 AM on January 25, 2012

Try being a blog editor or creating your own blog about something you love. Your writing skills can go a long ways in the online space.

I had a coworker, who was also an English major, who got offered a position at Expedia helping with their content. She now writes articles for them and gets paid a hefty wage for it.
posted by xylandaria at 1:19 PM on January 25, 2012

I say look for any part-time job that you can combine with the teaching and that will give you "'"real world' work experience" or a ladder towards same. If there's any area of work that genuinely interests you, keep trying to get entry-level jobs as near to it as you can get. For me, it was digital humanities and academic librarianship. While I was still in grad school (it's too bad you no longer have access to student jobs), I took as many opportunities as I could to work on digital projects. I also started out as the Saturday night closer at a campus library, picking at my dissertation and scanning barcodes on books until midnight. After a while I got some weekday shifts, and the librarians noticed that I was smart and motivated, and I got offered some projects to work on, and eventually I ended up with some great stuff on my resume. After finishing the Ph.D., I kept plugging along with a mix of part-time and freelance gigs, applying for full-time jobs, until I landed my current job. Now I work in digital humanities, but not as an academic, which suits me PERFECTLY. I work reasonable hours, I don't ever have to grade another paper, and I don't make myself sick with stress over the job hunt or the "publish or perish" imperative. It's beautiful, I tell you.

You don't have access to student jobs any more, but you are in a position to look for part-time opportunities if you can make them mesh with your teaching. I think a few things are important to keep in mind:

1. You don't have to go straight from your degree into a full-time, salaried position of the sort that requires X years of related experience. It can be hard to make that leap, both because employers are unwilling to hire you and because you don't know what kind of jobs to go after; it's hard to imagine what you would enjoy and be good at. Part-time or freelance work gives you a chance to try on different industries and roles and learn more about what you need in a job and what you can offer to employers.

2. That said, when a job ad says you need X years of experience, you shouldn't necessarily take that at face value. If the job looks interesting to you and you think you have enough skills to do it, go ahead and apply. The worst they can do is reject your application, and then you're out the time it took to apply. I think a lot of employers don't know exactly what they're looking for, or in the job ad they put their ideal wish list, but in reality they're willing to take somebody who doesn't exactly match that description, if the person seems capable and easy to work with.

3. As with defining an academic research project, choosing a focus that sustains your interest will help guide your search and decisions. Developing a dual focus on digital humanities and academic librarianship helped me filter through a lot of potential opportunities and decide what to go after. It sounds like you don't have a definite focus yet—you mention editing and policy analysis and so forth, but you don't sound terribly enthusiastic. Is there anything that really lights a spark for you? Is there any kind of work you can happily get lost in for hours?

4. Unless you've pissed off everyone you know in town, tap your social and professional networks. Let people know that you're looking for opportunities and what your main area of interest is. Not only can other people help you find opportunities, they might also help you think creatively about what fields might suit you.
posted by Orinda at 8:03 PM on January 25, 2012

I will chime in with my patented advice: provincial/federal internship programs. If you're in Ontario, go with the OIP. You missed the deadline this year, but you can apply up to 2 years after you graduate. I would imagine other provinces have something similar? If you really want policy, try this.

In the meantime, keep teaching and get your hands in as many fires as possible. Freelance editing, proposal writing, do volunteer research for non-profits in your area -- this will give you some wider experience to use in your resumes.

Also, think very carefully about what you did as a PhD. Yes, you "only" taught, researched and wrote. But were you on any academic committees? That's good experience to have.

Feel free to memail me if you want advice about positioning your resume out there in the real world.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 6:14 AM on January 26, 2012

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