Need help brainstorming/planning transitions to a postacademic career
October 23, 2014 5:42 PM   Subscribe

Yep, sorry, another "I quit my humanities PhD and I have no idea how the real world works" thread. Except I haven't actually quit yet; this is more like advance research. It's seeming increasingly likely that I may have to leave ABD for the sake of my mental health, so I'm looking for input on how to manage the early stages of a transition to a career (ideally arts-related) where I'll have little relevant background. This post is also an early step in my effort to encourage more constructive coping behaviors after fairly serious depression.

To make a long backstory as short as possible: I've had serious anxiety problems around academic writing throughout grad school. The intensity of those feelings--combined with, I'll admit, personal immaturity, avoidance, and a whole bunch of denial--led me to develop severe procrastination habits starting around the MA stage. The procrastination, of course, just made the anxiety a thousand times worse (I took my quals on klonopin), and the whole thing ultimately snowballed into me spending my first dissertation year doing not much of anything at all. As the procrastination dragged on, I became severely depressive and ashamed about the writing I wasn't doing (the solitude, and some personal life issues, contributed to this as well) and developed terrible secondary coping habits that killed my motivation in most other areas of life. At its peak, I spent two straight weeks in bed, and for seven months was spending huge chunks of every day on blahtherapy (which, if you've never been there, is, we'll just say....not the best place to talk about adult problems.)

Fast forward to today: I've had therapy and meds, and am overseas on a research fellowship. In the last month I've managed to start writing again, but the residual influence of all those bad habits is (I hope understandably) still huge, productivity is extremely slow, my focus is still not fantastic, and there is virtually nothing enjoyable about the process at all (nor do I feel terribly interested in my topic right now.) I'm slowly working my way out of the avoidant behaviors too, but again, it doesn't seem realistic to expect overnight change (right now I'm still at a point where going to the aquarium, or taking a long walk and letting myself actually enjoy it, feels like progress.) Denial about my future held on longest of all the problems (see this post, where I talked a lot about being lonely but didn't mention the academic uncertainties at the root of it because part of me still believed a week of good behavior would transform me into the hyper-functional King of Professorland), but lately I've started to feel like it would be a good next step if I started thinking about that from a more realistic/adult perspective too. It's entirely possible, given my current pace of writing--which, I've learned the hard way, I can't exceed without suffering big recovery setbacks--that I won't be able to finish the dissertation by the end of this fellowship. And even if I do, it seems healthy, given the way I feel about academic writing (to say nothing of the state of the academic job market), to start considering career options that don't require it.

And that, as they say, is where mefi comes in. I'm hoping you guys can give some preliminary advice on how to manage the early stages of what will (if it happens) be an awkward transition. I know any career path I choose is going to involve an adjustment process where I'm working my way into the field, but I'm less clear on how that process will be different because I'm a 33-year-old ABD PhD student. I've looked at versatilePhD, but most of their testimonials seem to come from PhDs (not ABDs) who'd already spent a fair amount of time volunteering or freelancing in the field they transitioned into--and who sound, from their descriptions of life in grad school, like extremely high-functioning people overall. My energy, by contrast, is still pretty depleted, and I think I'd be rushing myself to take on any secondary commitments right (maybe in a couple months, if my visa even allows it.)

As for specific careers, I'm open to suggestions, but my thinking seems to be slowly coalescing around "move to New York and do 'something' connected with the arts." This could mean publishing (university or independent, preferably), gallery/museum work, foundation work, advocacy, nonprofit, something to do with film, whatever. Something that involves travel would be ideal, if that's possible. So suggestions from people in arts/literature-related fields would be especially welcome. I'm willing to work my way up (of course), but I'm 33 and would like to be in a reasonably stable position (read: decent income, some advancement potential/connections/"real" responsibility) after not too huge an amount of time--although I have no idea if that's a realistic expectation. At the same time, academia has me pretty worn down at the moment, so being in a secure position with relatively basic responsibilities might not be such a terrible thing for a little while. I have 9.5 months left on this fellowship, enough time to work out a strategy.

So, questions! What kinds of transitional jobs (read: the job(s) I get to pay the bills right after I leave academia while I'm working towards the new career) are viable in my situation? What kinds of long-term careers make sense for me? Is it reasonable to bypass the internship stage when I have so much education (but not the PhD)? What are the hardest parts of the transition (any advice on managing moving logistics)? What are the first 3, 6, 9 months of the transition like? How do you "break into" a field that isn't necessarily related to your background? Will my age be a problem (I look younger than I am, if that influences things)? How/where can I research options in the time I have? Am I insane to think I can leave, ABD, after this much unproductive time in academia and still be successful in a different field?

Stories from people who left at the ABD stage and found their way to happy, creatively fulfilling lives would be especially nice to hear! Advice that plays up the benefits of finishing the PhD is well taken but not really what I'm looking for.
posted by urufu to Work & Money (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, some relevant pros and cons about me for those recommending specific jobs or giving logistical advice.

Pros about me: my degree is in literature and aesthetic philosophy, so I can see myself as an editor somewhere (the fine arts/museum circuit would be more of a stretch, admittedly); I can read and translate from Japanese (my conversational skills are comparatively weak but serviceable); I will have a few thousand dollars saved out of this current fellowship that can be used to offset settling-in costs (return airfare will be provided for me); having been a grad student, I'm used to room-sharing and living on not much money, and am cool to put up with that for a little while longer; and despite the mental health issues, I had pretty major successes in grad school which could presumably be spun to my advantage during interviews (won elite competitive fellowships, attracted the interest of major scholars from other universities and unrelated disciplines.)

Cons about me: I've had virtually no extracurricular involvement in anything since I've been in grad school; due to the mental health issues, my personality is a little withdrawn and defensive right now (although it's better than it used to be); being proactive doesn't always come naturally.
posted by urufu at 5:46 PM on October 23, 2014

Not in your field of PhD but let me be the first to say: everyone I talk to has similar feelings about writing. I think dissertation writing brings out anxiety in anyone prone. I write about hard data half the time and I still struggle with it feeling meaningful. Spending a day working and writing a paragraph is a huge bummer but totally normal. And I don't know of anybody who doesn't wish they were writing instead of surfing the internet at least some of the time. Best of luck with your job hunt. Way to think ahead.
posted by Kalmya at 6:11 PM on October 23, 2014

This is not "something to do with the arts," but several people I've known who were in your position are now working in various capacities in higher-ed administration-- student advising, development (i.e. schmoozing with alums), recruitment/admissions, etc. It's a field that productively utilizes the ivory-tower enculturation that PhD-dom is pretty much all about, it's filled with people who might plausibly be impressed by your existing academic credentials, you could probably utilize some of your existing network at your school, and while I haven't checked out the market, it seems as though it'd be less wildly overcrowded than the arts (because it's somewhat less sexy).

Just a note re: the PhD/ABD thing: if and when you get a concrete, definite plan worked out for leaving the academy, definitely mention it to your advisors and see what they think about the diss. In some cases, schools are willing to substantially lower the bar for completion if they know the candidate is definitively bound for somewhere besides academia after graduation.
posted by Bardolph at 6:11 PM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also know several people with humanities PhDs (or people who left ABD) who work in higher ed admin. This might be a decent way for you to develop some experience working as an employee in a 9 to 5 job, which you could then in theory use to bridge to another field. You could also take classes in things that might help with the kinds of jobs you're looking for (ie, grant writing, journalism, advocacy, nonprofit administration, etc.).

I do think you need some sort of bridge. When making a career transition, I think it's easiest to only make one big shift at a time; so in this case, you'd be staying in the same general world (higher ed) but shifting roles. Easier to do that than shift roles and fields (and location!) all at once.

Also, is there any way you can carve out 5-10 hours a week to work/intern/volunteer for the kind of organization you'd like to work for now (or in a few months if you need to work up to it), while you're still in your fellowship? I recognize that might seem like too much of a lift, but I think it could really, really help you in your search later. It won't magically open doors, but it will help you know more about what to expect, what employers are looking for, how to talk about the work, etc. It might also be invigorating for you to get a taste of life after you leave academia.
posted by lunasol at 7:14 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I didn't even get to ABD stage but I definitely went through all the avoidance/depression/procrastination/denial stuff for over a year before finally quitting my humanities PhD program. It was awful. But I'm a very good writer, editor and communicator with a strong attention to detail and now I have an excellent job that pays more than I ever would have made as a humanities professor (excepting those few, famous academic superstars). I had to get over feeling like I needed to work in some cool, artsy type of field that matched my academic interests or stay hanging around academia in some way, though. If I'd insisted on working in the arts and humanities I don't think I'd be doing as well, salary wise, and frankly a lot of those places seem to carry on the management dysfunction and cliquishness and funding problems and other things that made me hate academia. So I got away from that. My writing and editing skills from academia served me pretty well in the "real world," as did general savviness about the web and the ability to learn all kinds of software. Other things that bit by bit, made my life 1000% better as I detached from graduate school.. patience, going easy on myself, getting fresh air and exercise (cardio! but anything is good, long walks even), getting enough sleep, and making enough money at a full time job so that I wasn't a broke graduate student any more. Not having to buy secondhand things or being unable to afford decent housing and occasional travel. I'm never going back to graduate school full time and being broke like that again.

You'll be fine. I was horribly non functional by the time I left graduate school (as in, was recommended to try to go on disability for severe depression/anxiety) and I'm a completely different person now, because the environment of humanities graduate school was like 75-85% of the problem. It's a gigantic misery and shame producing machine in my opinion and the further away from it you get, the more competent, functional and contented you will probably find that you are. I don't see the need to limit your search for advice to that which is tailored toward those transitioning out of a PhD. Basically, just figure you're hitting a wide-open job market almost like a recent college graduate, apply for all sorts of entry-level jobs that are full time with benefits, gain some experience, and soon enough, you'll figure out what you like and don't, and start moving up.
posted by citron at 7:28 PM on October 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great responses so far! I feel better just listening to you guys. Some quick follow-ups.

Regarding university admin: I've thought about it. My gut feeling is I'd prefer not to stay there permanently, as I don't like administrative work--maybe that's an ego thing that will pass with time, I dunno. I also think I'd be very uncomfortable doing it at my home institution, and generally feel like I'm overdue for a change of scenery--hence the insistence on going to New York. Do you think it would be significantly harder getting an admin job at a school where I have no personal history?

lunasol: Also, is there any way you can carve out 5-10 hours a week to work/intern/volunteer for the kind of organization you'd like to work for now (or in a few months if you need to work up to it), while you're still in your fellowship?

I was planning on looking into that in another month or two. Not sure how useful the actual organizational experience would be, as I'm in a country where institutions tend not to behave like their counterparts anywhere else in the world (language issues might be a barrier to entry too), but it'd be good on the resume at least. Thanks for the suggestion.

citron: If I'd insisted on working in the arts and humanities I don't think I'd be doing as well, salary wise, and frankly a lot of those places seem to carry on the management dysfunction and cliquishness and funding problems and other things that made me hate academia.

Haha, that has all crossed my mind, definitely (and you left out "cult-like worship of fake happiness.") At the same time, I really do love the arts and would like to stay involved with them somehow--part of the rationale behind New York is that at least I'll be "near" it all. But maybe it's better not to make that my day job, I dunno. Still figuring that part out. May I ask what you do for a living now?

* * *

Another major, recurring source of anxiety is how to deal with my family's reaction. I'll spare all the Oedipal background info; suffice to say that they're extremely Type-A, controlling, judgmental about depression, bad at dealing with uncertainty, and "business class"/unconsciously classist--and that they understand academia poorly despite my repeated efforts to explain its culture in terms they can relate to (and my dad is elderly, which of course makes his grouchiness and anxiety even more difficult to deal with.) Right now I'm keeping them in the dark about my situation, because I frankly do not want them involved in the decision and don't think they'd have anything helpful to say.

I guess that's not a unique problem either. Not sure why I even brought it up, except maybe that I needed to vent a bit. Thank you guys again! You're a way, way better venting outlet than blahtherapy! :)
posted by urufu at 9:24 PM on October 23, 2014

Two quick thoughts as a current PhD student who has several years experience with arts organizations…

1) most of my job tasks were administrative tasks, and honestly, it's the same terribly boring administrative tasks that happen in any admin job, except the event or the program or the end goal is something you are more personally excited about. I worked at an arts foundation where I literally made forms in triplicate. Forms in triplicate! I was a paper-processing monkey. So you might need to loosen up your dislike of admin. This is often what arts groups live and die on, because no one wants to do the boring stuff.

2) tons of smaller cities have really interesting arts groups that would snap up an over-educated if under-experienced new staffer. I wouldn't set my heart on New York without at least first exploring other cities. New York isn't the only American city with a cultural sector! This could also help with the cost of living expenses.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:39 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

ABD also (4 years, then "took a year off" and never went back). My only regret is not leaving earlier -- looking back, I can see that I wasn't PhD material in the first place, and that's four years of my life I'll never get back. I do wish I'd thought ahead like you are thinking ahead, and kudis to you for doing that. I think you'll do well.
posted by Mogur at 4:36 AM on October 24, 2014

A follow up to the original poster, since you asked, "Web Content Manager" is how I would write my own job title if I wanted it to be accurate (it's actually Senior Communications something something). I am at a large nonprofit now and have worked for Big Government Contractors and honestly, though a lot of the content is not tremendously exciting, I deal with it by finding a lot of satisfaction in cleaning up copy and organizing sections of the site and fixing problems. But I am in the suburban DC area and we have a lot more Big Contractors and nonprofits than we have arts scene things. If I lived in NYC there would probably be a lot of web editing/production work on cool, interesting online publications and at arts-related organizations instead of massive intranet sites full of government regulations and the like. (The upside of DC's boring-ness is that I was probably able to land a well paying government contracting job in a technical field because frankly, senior level government contracting managers looking for someone to work on their intranet wanted to make sure my resume checked all the boxes they needed to check, and were not caring one bit if I had a hip, cool online portfolio and big time social media presence showing off my Rock Star(TM) level skills at whatever whatever.)

I'm sorry about your family. I finally had to tell my mother that if she had so many dreams about Ivy League advanced degrees she should go get one. And it was hard for me to give up that PhD dream for myself and I probably still have some grief to work through. Depression is not your fault. Lack of structure, very little money, lack of social support, a seemingly endless and unmanageable pile of work, and an uncertain future = the environment of humanities graduate school, and all these factors combined would make just about anyone depressed. I really think that once you get some distance from the grad environment, as long as you take care of yourself, you will find gradually the depression/anxiety improves and it is not you, and you are a really different person.
posted by citron at 10:28 AM on October 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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