What DO I want to be when I grow up?
April 26, 2012 6:59 AM   Subscribe

If you left academia, especially in the humanities, how did you figure out what you wanted to do?

I'm a recent PhD in an MLA field. I'm currently teaching part-time, but the writing's pretty much on the wall for me. Not enough publications to be competitive; not enough jobs, anyway. To compound matters, I don't think I'm all that passionate about teaching, though I love research and writing.

Anyway, I'm trying to position myself as best I can for the non-academic job market, but I'm having a very hard time simply because I don't know what I want to do outside of the university. I've spent the last ten years of my life fixated on the tenure-track job, and now I feel as though I don't even know what else is out there.

If you left academia, by choice or otherwise, how did you figure out where to focus your job search? There are some things that I am interested in, but they either don't seem conducive to a stable job and income (watching sports) or else they require what appear to be highly developed skill-sets that I don't know have or feel too far behind everyone else to develop (web site development, though I do know HTML and a bit of CSS; professional editing; marketing). I feel like if I could figure out what I really want to do, I could concentrate some energy on developing my skills and building a portfolio or something like that, but so far all's I've accomplished is starting my own damn blog.

A unpaid internship isn't an option; I can't afford to be without income for very long. I'm also lucky enough that my partner has a stable income, and we'd like to stay put where we are. Even if it were, I'd have no idea what field to target. Nor can I afford more schooling at this point. I really just want to get my career going so my partner and I can move forward with our lives.

Anyway, thanks, from one very anxious, over-educated Ph.D.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
My boss left a PhD program in English to work in fundraising for nonprofits. A lot of the writing skills transfer well. MeMail me if you want to chat about the field.
posted by anotheraccount at 7:05 AM on April 26, 2012

I asked an overlapping question recently; some of those answers might help. I'm in a similar situation--steady part-time teaching work that pays the bills, but not a lot of prospects. Copy-editing is one thing I'm looking into; your PhD might be a valuable prerequisite for editing books in your field.
posted by Beardman at 7:14 AM on April 26, 2012

How do you feel about looking for an administrative position in the university? I went from adjunct instructor in English to a position in student services. One of my PhD friends from the same department is heading a writing program in the university's business school, another is running the Honor's program.
posted by feste at 7:18 AM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I left academia after I finished my master's degree in Spanish. In my situation, I knew I still wanted to work with the content, but wasn't interested in the academic life. My program had a TAship where we were responsible for our own classes, and I ended up leveraging the teaching experience into a higher ed publishing job in editorial, where I've been for almost two years now.

Without knowing your discipline it's hard to comment on what kind of opportunities you might have if you were interested in working in this industry, but there are a lot of academic refugees here, at least in my department (one Ph.D that I know of, the majority educated to the master's level). Feel free to memail if you'd like to chat more about it.
posted by Kosh at 7:30 AM on April 26, 2012

My husband left the field of history halfway through a master's. He just interviewed for a paid, benefits-eligible electrician's apprenticeship. He read Shop Class as Soulcraft at my urging after seeing it recommended just about everywhere online, and it's making him feel much better about his decision.

Other things we looked at were programs as web server administrators and the like, for which he would have taken about a year of courses at a local community college. Some of the jobs you're talking about--editing, particularly--are ones you could go into a program for, or you can just try to find an entry-level job. You might also look at literary agency internships, which, though unpaid, tend to be not too onerous and would get your foot in the door for a job which involves both editing and marketing. For these, check NYC craigslist for telecommuting agency internships.

You might also try to work an ETS scoring job. I've worked for them for two years as a failed academic myself, and it's paid enough and been flexible enough that I was able to establish myself in a new career during that time without having an office job. It's not a perfect job--hell, it's ETS--but it's income, and income that let me explore the possibility of being something else.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:58 AM on April 26, 2012

I would recommend you join LinkedIn and emphasize your writing/editing background if you like research and writing. Then join some writing/editing groups on the site. LinkedIn will send you notice of jobs in that field and you can check them out. There actually are lots!
posted by PJSibling at 8:22 AM on April 26, 2012

Lots of director-level positions in nonprofit administration ask for a PhD. Find out which nonprofits have missions aligned to your subject area, and there might be something there. Have you checked out Idealist?
posted by smirkette at 10:05 AM on April 26, 2012

It's hard, isn't it? The last year or so of my PhD I alternately obsessed over formulating an escape plan while despairing over the seeming impossibility of it. I didn't have any particularly compelling skills - just lots of editing, teaching, research, plus some hobby-like graphics experience. On the one hand, everyone says "good writers are always needed!" On the other hand, what makes a good academic writer isn't necessarily what makes a good writer in the eyes of the rest of the world. I tried to do some freelance writing and I just wasn't that good at it. I also didn't like it.

I hatched many, many schemes for employing myself, as a tutor, a writer, a researcher, etc. I built several websites and then took them down immediately. It seemed like I would never be able to get that "first" job that would get me started.

It was not fun. You have my full sympathies.

What worked for me was researching every possible "program" out there. I was very lucky to get into a (paid!) communications internship program through the government. Holy cow - I was so insanely lucky. Is it a dream job? No. But it's a start and I recommend finding whatever you can that will get you ahead, regardless of whether it's what you truly see yourself doing.

The funny thing is, now that I have my foot in the door, I realize that the particular skills I thought would be really useful in communications (writing and editing) haven't actually advanced my standing in government. At no point has anyone said to me, "I'm so happy to have an editor like you around!" The skills that have gotten me noticed are things I never thought about, like my ability to plan large projects or to reorganize content or to design visual elements. Now I know what I'm good at and what I want to move into, but I would have never known without taking a job that I was pretty sure wasn't the best fit.

For this reason, I don't think you should discount your web skills. Instead, do as much as you can to develop them and try to market them. There are many more people out there who can code a website, but not all of them will ALSO be able to write well and research.

The short answer, then, is do what you need to do to get a career doing. Once you're settled, then you think about what you want to do. You may be surprised.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 10:54 AM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

The answer depends on how willing you are to work in a bureaucratic environment and how interested you are in mastering personal finance.

If you're 100% against working under people, try tutoring families like mine for a living! E.g., my old SAT tutor cost $150/hr, my younger sibling's tutors charge $60-$80 depending on the subject in question, and my current MCAT tutor charges $200/hr. The tutors get away with exorbitant fees because they're extremely qualified, talented teachers who make their tutee's jobs simpler by making standardized test taking and the admissions rat race more manageable. If you're a really good writer, you might be able to score an editing gig at one of the hundreds of Ivy college admissions editing sites out there; Peterson's immediately comes to mind. (You'd probably have to keep your rates at like $65 when you're first starting to build your clientele in your city's prep schools, though.)

If you're willing to handle a 9-5, you have slightly better options depending on what you think is a decent salary.
- $100K: nonprofit, government office, or public policy think tank. (This might be your best bet because you'd be able to pursue some of your research interests all day, every day.)
- $250K: management consulting. (Interesting work with little pay and little vacation time. The only perks I can think of include lots of adultery and free pens, if that's your thing.)
- $350K: pharmaceutical rep. (These people have the easiest jobs ever: they buy dinners for local doctors to convince them to prescribe their company's medications, hand out awesome stationary items, give away free medicine samples, buy the doctor's children candy, and occasionally take the doctor's family out on vacations. Not that I convinced my Dad to keep allowing the Pfizer people to buy me chocolate or to keep buying us trips to LA, lol...)
- over $500K: finance. (Dishonest, unethical work with great pay and the "models and bottles" culture.)
posted by lotusmish at 11:18 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

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