On being practical about what you want in a career
December 30, 2018 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I work a dead-end job, but I don't know what my next steps can be. The only career paths I think I actually want -- in libraries or universities -- are the kinds of things people warn you against. How do you make a career path for yourself, when it seems like you can only come up with impractical ideas?

I'm sorry in advance for being wordy, this is just a hard question to articulate. I'm not entirely sure what this boils down to.

I graduated from college in May, with highest honors and awards. I had a brief stint in the corporate world, on a very practical route through the telecom industry ("you have a very bright future in regulatory compliance!"). I burned out and completely hated everything about my life.

Now I work at a retail job -- the best retail job I've ever had, but still a retail job -- and I can't support myself like this. I feel like there must be more for me.

For a while I thought I had no career goals, but I realized recently that I do. I loved working in a library, and would love to get an MLS/MLIS/MSAS and work as a librarian or archivist. I love teaching and research, and would love to get a PhD and find work as a professor. Many people have told me that with my grades, experience, and references, I could probably get into any grad program I wanted. I've spent my whole life learning to have confidence in myself and my abilities, and I feel like I shouldn't just completely ignore how much I accomplished as an undergrad. I've gone from high school dropout to high achiever, and I don't want to write myself off like I used to.

But I've heard from so many people that grad school is a terrible idea. People keep writing cautionary articles, warning that only the incredibly lucky or incredibly privileged can find happiness in these fields. According to the internet, the absolute worst thing I could do is get a library degree or a PhD. Even the best grad program, they say, isn't a guarantee of anything.

I really don't want to do anything else, though. I'm enough of an adult to know that one must make sacrifices, but where do you really draw the line? Is becoming a librarian really such a pie-in-the-sky idea? Is getting a PhD such an awful idea?

In other words, these feel like an OK career paths, except that so many people say they aren't. Is that just the new reality, that if I'd been born 20 years earlier they might have been viable options, but they aren't now? How can I proceed forward in spite of these warnings? What's the adult thing to do here -- forge ahead with confidence in my desires, or just accept that these were never real options in the first place? How do you come to that decision? What do you need to consider in order to figure it out?

Or more generally, like I said above the fold, how do you come up with a vision of your own future, when it seems like you only have unrealistic goals?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Work & Money (29 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
There are stable, well paid jobs at universities that supoort research but don't rise to the level of "professor". Your undergrad institution very likely can still provide you career counseling, including informational interviews with alums in fields of interest to you. There are masters programs that will provide more flexibility than going straight into a PhD. What I'm trying to say is there are many, many options that fit your criteria aside from "librarian" and "professor"; many are attainable and realistic.
posted by Ausamor at 4:53 PM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Signed up for an account just to answer. I'm a PhD. I've been faculty at an Ivy League institution, a for-profit institution, and two large public universities. I've never had a TT position (although I've turned a couple down), but have always had good stable jobs with benes that supported my family on just my income. There are still lots of good jobs for PhDs in universities. There are still jobs for academic librarians. Yes, these jobs are harder to get than maybe they once were. They are more precarious, maybe. (But what isn't, in 2018?) But if you love the work, you are likely to excel at it, and that does indeed count. Try to get into a top grad program in your field, one that is well-enough funded that you will be offered fellowships and assistantships and can take on minimal debt. Prepare yourself to apply so that you are competitive at a top program. Then enjoy the work and do your best. You may not end up with the ideal position in the end, but you won't be less employable then than now, and you'll have a better sense of your potential and skills.
posted by shadygrove at 5:09 PM on December 30, 2018 [20 favorites]

I'm an archivist who works at a public Midwestern regional university. I have been in the field for roughly a decade (and became an archivist shortly after undergrad). The career path that I and my more successful peers (i.e., late 20s/early 30s) followed was to take a job - any job, preferably full-time, usually paraprofessional - in academic libraries while pursuing our MLIS part-time on the side. Then once we finished our MLIS, this gave us the freedom to transition from paraprofessional work to professional work. This often, but not always, means leaving the institution where you did paraprofessional work. Everyone's experience is different, but it is very typical to have to do some level of unpaid internship labor during grad school and/or change institutions frequently at the beginning of your career to find a good fit (I know archivists who change institutions every 2 years. It's not for me, but it's also the quickest way to more than single-digit salary increases and leadership if that's a priority).

If you are thinking of going down the archives path, I strongly encourage you to get involved with Society of American Archivists or a regional archives association. Attend one of the conferences, go to some mixers, sign up for any navigator or mentor programs.

The standard advice about becoming an archivist is find a way to get your foot in the door of the kind of institution you want to work at first, then get your degree second. MLIS holders are a dime a dozen - what will give you a somewhat competitive edge in the job market is having real-life job experience you accrue during grad school. And you need to be willing to move anywhere and take shitty pay for your first few years in the field - while there aren't lots of archivist jobs per se, I do know that it isn't unheard of for rural archivist positions to lead to a failed search because the applicant pool is so small.

Something to keep in mind is that most archivists work for institutions that are suffering the worst effects of late-stage capitalism - whether they work for government, higher education, or cultural heritage organizations. As a result, almost every archivist I know has at least a sense of a backup plan for what they might otherwise do if they weren't an archivist - be a records manager, personal organizer, digital asset manager, etc etc.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:55 PM on December 30, 2018 [8 favorites]

Those people writing those articles DO NOT KNOW YOU. Why do you care what they say? So many many questions here are basically "I don't know what to do, how do I figure it out?" You DO KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. Just go for it, and determine to enjoy the process.

Good luck, you lucky dog!
posted by kestralwing at 6:31 PM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

It strikes me that having just graduated from college, it is easy to see how staying in the academic or library fields might suit you because you have had a chance to interact with those professions. However, before you commit so much time and money to a new career, spend some time being really creative about the question what you would like to do next. There are hundreds of niche careers that you have never heard of or certain never thought about. Read some books, do some interest/career testing, see what kind of career counseling resources you can get access to - anything that broadens your scope. You might still come back to your original idea but at least you will know better what you want and why.

Second, talk to as many people as you can who are doing the job to see what they like and what they hate about their jobs. You can also talk to them about how they got where they are and what advice they have for someone starting out. Make sure that the day to day work is worthwhile - lots of jobs sound good but can be killer on a day to day basis unless you have a good ability to tolerate what ever is the most grinding for that profession.

I did a mid-life career change in a different direction. One thing that was so valuable to me was that before I committed to going back to school, I did some research. I made a list of question I wanted to know about the field and I just called people (from a list of members of a professional society) and asked for 15 minutes of phone time. I got a decent response rate and after a dozen interviews, there was enough consistency in the responses that I felt like I had some idea what I was getting myself in for. In contrast, many people in my graduate program had no real idea what might be waiting on the other side of the degree. Some of those dropped out before finishing or decided not to use their degree at all.

Bottom line: The more you know - about yourself and about the career, the better your choices.
posted by metahawk at 6:37 PM on December 30, 2018 [22 favorites]

Presumably you are straight out of college and in your early 20s. If that is the case, why not do a PhD if you really want to? Make sure you find a funded program and try to avoid racking up debt. Basically this translates to making 30K for the next 6 years, but if you can keep your expenses down and aren't in a hurry to buy a house or have children, it's certainly doable and you end up with a PhD plus a lot of useful skills in critical thinking and writing. Most people who get PhDs do not end up being professors, but there are lots of other interesting and rewarding jobs out there you can do with a PhD background. I think the biggest caveat here is how much student loan debt you currently have, and how much having a high salary in your 20s is important to you. I did undergrad, Peace Corps, then a PhD and didn't make over 30K until I was in my early 30s, and didn't get out of debt until I was about 34. But I now have a very rewarding career and a comfortable lifestyle.
posted by emd3737 at 6:41 PM on December 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

You graduated in May and have "burned out" ...

I'm getting the feeling that there's more to the story. If everything else is fine, folks don't usually burn out in under a year.

I'm not saying you shouldn't go for your MLS or PhD -- and I'm not saying you *need* to consider anything else before you do. But there are probably some possibilities that you'd enjoy that wouldn't involve going back to school if you don't get more comfortable with that idea. Metahawk's recommendation is pretty solid for whatever direction you're looking in.
posted by bunderful at 6:50 PM on December 30, 2018 [12 favorites]

I had a sort of similar trajectory, except I ended up in a really awful tech support job, then went back to grad school for 6 years. One important consideration is that you'll be coming out of grad school with (or without, in my case) a Ph.D, several years behind many of your peers professionally. This is a weird thing for me because I'm in my mid 30s with only about 6 years of "real" work experience. It worked out okay for me because I was able to leverage my gradschool connections into a career, but it's chancy and you're giving up some earning years to do it, which may or may not play.

Couple of bits of advice I was given:
1) Don't pay for a Ph.D. I know this is less possible in the humanities, but you should fish for TAships and etc to take on as little debt as possible.
2) Only pursue grad school (particularly a Ph.D) if it is the only thing that will open a career door for you, and you are completely 100% sure (not "I think I want to be a professor" but "I have shadowed professors and talked to them about the good and bad parts of their job and I really seriously want that to be my life) that it's what you want to do.

I'm not saying "don't do it," I'm saying "think about it and be sure the costs are worth it to you, and minimized as much as you can."
posted by Alterscape at 7:00 PM on December 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Do it. Go for it. Reading this question from the perspective of Different Industry Still Books, I was you, six years ago. Shitty corporate and retail jobs I excelled at but despised, well-defined impractical dream, trying to talk myself out of grad school in my thing because I defined myself on being cautious and practical, reading too many Mefi questions about why not to do things in an effort to talk myself out of it.

Yeah, you do need to be those things in adult life, that's true, but if this is what you love and you are financially able to do it and you have a plan, do it. Nothing is certain and everything except like three career paths on Earth are risky and life is random and weird, but you're going in with what sound like wide-open eyes. You also sound passionate and smart and determined. You don't have to do a PhD right away. It's possible you could do an MLIS and work and then decide what the next step is.

It's perfectly normal to be burnt out after college working jobs you hate, too. Congratulations on finishing!
posted by colorblock sock at 7:16 PM on December 30, 2018

Don't pay for a Ph.D. I know this is less possible in the humanities,

On the contrary. If you are not a fully-funded student in the humanities, you know they are not taking you seriously and/or are not a reputable program, and should not go.

Many people have told me that with my grades, experience, and references, I could probably get into any grad program I wanted.

Oh, boy. No, they don't know what they're talking about. I mean!!! I'm sure you're a great student, etc., but--in the humanities at least, which sounds like what you're considering (?)--what they ("they" meaning "schools that might possibly end up placing you at the kind of job you might want," which usually have acceptance rates well south of 10%) are looking for is not generic good students. It is outstanding students who have already demonstrated a commitment to and success in a specific area of study more or less congruent with the interests of one or more of their faculty. Usually, this is done by cultivating a relationship and working with a well-known professor in your field as an undergrad. "I like teaching and research" as your mission statement gets you nowhere; in fact, it shows that you are, at least at this point, just that generic good student, unprepared for serious commitment to a several-year course of study which is intended to lead you to doing specialized research in that field for the rest of your life. Because you don't even know what teaching and research at that level is really like.

Look, I did a Ph.D program in the humanities. I didn't finish. I don't regret having done it; it's not a bad way to spend your twenties, all things considered. (I was also very lucky that my timing allowed me to switch to a more lucrative career that allowed me to retrieve my financial situation afterwards!) But you need to have a passion. Doing a Ph.D. is really hard work, for a long time, at low pay, with many opportunities to lose your way, and even if you do everything right, the odds of finding secure employment are still badly against you. It's one thing to chase a dream against the odds. But it's got to be a dream! If I hadn't loved the hell out of my field, what a waste those years would have been. Maybe you were reluctant to be more specific in this post, but I don't see any particular calling here. No passion for nineteenth-century French poetry, or the Hittite verb system, or the development of the Icelandic parliament. What you've expressed mostly is a preference for the academic world. Which I, obviously, sympathize with--but will not get you into and through a Ph.D program.

So, seriously, don't apply to a (humanities) Ph.D. program, not because you're not worthy in some abstract sense, not because the odds are against you, but because you don't actually seem to want what it really is. At least not now. Maybe you can find that passion?
posted by praemunire at 7:46 PM on December 30, 2018 [18 favorites]

Do it - you’ve got the right background, you’re young, so you’ve got time to recover if it doesn’t work out, and it’ll be harder to do later. Almost any reasonable masters (excluding ones you haven’t mentioned so I won’t go into that) will give you better options than no masters, when it comes to jobs in government and non-profits, at least, and probably a few other sectors. Even if you don’t end up doing what you imagined, you can spin it and do something related. It’s capital and credibility.

Re a PhD - I will say that the people I know who are both happiest and most successful on this path: are *very* organized, have a certain amount of mental and physical stamina, have clear goals, maintain balance in their lives whenever possible (hobbies, friends), and don’t struggle *inordinately* with mental health problems. People who aren’t like that have a less good time. (This is less about the odds of achieving success than about getting through the effort in one piece, which imo matters tons. But even if you occasionally struggle with things, you could at least try, and see how you do. Worst case, you finish early and end up with a masters.)

You’ve got time on your side and not much to lose, and you’ll never know what would have been possible if you don’t at least give it a shot.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:08 PM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, boy. No, they don't know what they're talking about. I mean!!! I'm sure you're a great student, etc., but--in the humanities at least, which sounds like what you're considering (?)--what they ("they" meaning "schools that might possibly end up placing you at the kind of job you might want," which usually have acceptance rates well south of 10%) are looking for is not generic good students.... Because you don't even know what teaching and research at that level is really like.

I want to respond to this, because I think you've been misled by my breezy summary of my academic achievements. I'm not going to lie, I'm a little offended you assumed so little of me, but I can see where I left things open to interpretation. I did not intend "teach and research" to be a mission statement, and I didn't mean to give the impression that I'm a "generic good student." I just wanted to save space and didn't think it was necessary to toot my own horn. I won't list everything I did, but please take my word for it when I say that I did exceptionally well. I had close relationships with top professors in their fields, I earned the university's most prestigious research scholarship, conducted graduate-level research (professors' words, not mine), and earned my university's highest research award. I have received offers to publish papers with elite scholars, and I've been encouraged to publish a condensed version of my thesis in a journal.

To rebut the notion that they don't know what they're talking about, the people telling me I have good chances for grad school were professors and grad students in my department. This is one of the top departments in the world, and I was told that a 4.0 from this department in this school gives me very good chances.

Yes, I do want to teach, but I only mentioned that because I was thinking long-term. In the short term, I want to go to get a PhD because I loved my research and felt like I was barely scratching the surface. I have a strong idea of what I would like to do in grad school, and why I would like to go, and I'll leave it at that. I know there are some factors to consider, like my age -- I'm going on 33, and I know age(ism) matters. I am also concerned about stress, and I know from talking to other grad students that you can get tired of studying the same thing for years.

But the reason I wrote such a lengthy response -- and I'm sorry for writing such a lengthy response -- is to push back on the idea that I have only a vague idea of what I want. No -- if there were no other factors to consider, I would know for sure that I want to go to grad school. The issue isn't that I have only a vague idea of what I want, it's that I need to balance that against real-world considerations.

(Also, it's taken me a very long time to gain confidence in my own achievements, and despite my casual treatment above, I am very proud of everything I accomplished, and I don't want anyone to think I mean otherwise when I say I did very well in school.)
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:42 PM on December 30, 2018 [8 favorites]

I think the balance is if you have the risk tolerance to go for something like a PhD in the humanities and also be able to come up with other plans if you don't get the kind of job you want at the end of your studies. That's basically it, right?

I am sure you're qualified for a PhD program, especially with alluding to your accomplishments. That's great. You should be proud of your hard work. I think the advice of only going for a PhD if it's needed to open career paths and doors for you is pretty sound. Which is to say, if you want to take the risk and do it then go ahead and do it but recognize the work and the risks involved. If you have programs in mind, and have faculty support then that seems like you might also be able to get funding. I would also look at the job placement of graduates and talk to students and recent grads.

If you want to be an academic librarian, awesome. Get some kind of library experience before going to library school and then make sure you get as much experience at all levels of library work before you graduate. People graduating with their MLIS and no practical library experience are frightfully common, it's hard to get hired. There are so many other candidates with some experience and the degree.

And there are so many different roles for people with PhDs in universities that even if you don't end up TT, you'll probably be fine. I think a lot of the caution stems from people being disappointed and disillusioned when things don't work out. I work with librarians who have PhDs and found academic librarianship because other plans didn't work out the way they hoped. Some are fantastic colleagues and wonderful librarians. Some are dreadful snobs who so clearly hope to be regarded as faculty and put themselves above others without the PhD, because they see themselves as somehow more academic. Librarians are in service to the university, which might include research and teaching, but also so much more administrative stuff that's just as important. (And really all library workers are valuable and vital to the operation of a library, degrees are often a kind of credentialism.)

For non-TT faculty, I know many who are able to have stable careers but I also know many who keep thinking this will be the year they will get on the TT path somewhere. These are smart, educated folk who think they will be the exception. There is so much of that in academia from undergrads, grad students, and then post-docs and faculty. After working in the system for a decade, I see that most people are optimistic they will be one of the successful ones and you kind of have to assume that if you're going to get a PhD. But if you aren't, it's not the end of the world, you're still wicked smart.

So I guess the balance is figuring out how you'll best determine your self-worth? It seems like getting a non-retail job would be the first step, so that you're in a more stable situation before you make a decision about grad school. Good luck!
posted by kendrak at 10:22 PM on December 30, 2018

I'm not going to lie, I'm a little offended you assumed so little of me, but I can see where I left things open to interpretation.

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disparage you, but the material you omitted is extremely relevant information in determining whether a Ph.D. might be a good idea for you! There are about ninety million recent undergrads with excellent grades who "love research" and whose nonacademic friends of their parents tell them they should totally go to grad school but for whom it would be a huge derail. (You can be extremely intelligent and not have a passion for a subject that fits into our research system.) That's about a million times more than the number of recent undergrads who are actually prepared to jump in to a Ph.D. program.

I don't think 33 is too old to start a Ph.D. program, all other considerations being favorable. However, to some degree it may depend on your other life commitments; I don't know anything about yours. It is much harder to fit a Ph.D. program in with the kinds of family commitments many people in their thirties have than to do it as a freewheeling singleton in your twenties. And if you are already laboring under substantial debt, it will be hard to manage on a research stipend or TAship.

If those concerns are not an issue for you, then the only concern I would have before encouraging you to go forward is one that really only you can address: what is going on that you couldn't bear six months in what sounds like a conventional rather than ultra-demanding job (i.e., not the kind that has you working 80 hours a week or routinely being screamed at) in the corporate world? I mean, with the new information, it sounds like you would very much like to pursue your subject, but you instead chose regulatory compliance...and then were done in six months. Is it that you feel you betrayed a dream and it tormented you, or does academia represent an escape from some other personal issues that made it hard to keep your corporate job, even for such a brief period? If there's any of the latter, you'd be well-advised to try to address them before starting a Ph.D. program, because God knows nobody's going to be looking after your mental well-being once you're in. Trying to deal with such problems with no money, the relentless psychological pressure of grad school, and lousy university health insurance is even less fun than doing it with an ordinary job with decent pay. But, truly, that's something you will know and the rest of us cannot.

I think a lot of the caution stems from people being disappointed and disillusioned when things don't work out.

No need for psychologizing. A humanities Ph.D. in the U.S. will rarely be done in less than six years and often takes longer. That's six years of forfeited earnings (running up a bit of consumer debt unless you are very very disciplined, too) and not building some other career. Under those circumstances, it is foolish to do a Ph.D. unless (a) you don't need to worry about money or (b) it's essential or at least highly advantageous in your career. It's the same with JDs, and those eat up a much smaller chunk of your life.
posted by praemunire at 12:05 AM on December 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry again for the lengthy reply! And sorry for being so defensive. But thank you for responding.

I should also explain that I burned out on the corporate job because it was an absolutely atrocious work environment. Literally everyone thought so, except for my two bosses. Horrible mismanagement/micromanagement, excessive workload, and criminally low pay. I left when I did because they'd selected me for senior-level responsibilities, and things were ramping up quickly (even though I was making entry-level pay, and hadn't even been trained on the entry-level stuff). When my colleague told me we'd be working 15+ hour days together by May 2019, I decided to leave before things got worse for me, and before my departure would royally screw over my colleague. It didn't help that I was actively opposed to the corporate mission, but it wasn't that alone.

Sorry, that's the one other thing a couple people have mentioned. I was trying to be concise with my question, but I guess I left out some pretty crucial details. I'm not arguing with the points about being able to handle academic work environments, but I did want to clarify why I left that job so quickly.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:25 AM on December 31, 2018

If you love research and want to do research for a career, apply to grad school. At my grad schools, the non-traditionally aged students generally did better than the 22 year olds. It is healthy to consider your options and realistic to recognize it will be a struggle. But everyday, people less qualified than you are applying to grad school and ultimately some of them are the people getting tenure track positions.

Grad school is hard, lonely, and frustrating, but so are lots of other things you could be doing for the next few years. On the other side of it, I counsel my own mentees really carefully about the pros and cons, but I am honest with those who I think would be awesome researchers and teachers, both about the struggle and the rewards.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:35 AM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

So yeah, it sounds like that corporate environment was really unhealthy and horrible. If you're on the fence about whether/when to go back to academia, try another corporate job. There are at least a couple of questions on the green about how to find non-toxic work environments. Several years ago when I was considering an MLIS there were at least a few local corporations for whom it would have been a relevant degree, which might possibly have paid for all or part of it (I never dug into it, that's dimly recalled advice from a prof so YMMV) - if there's a local company similar to that with some temp openings, maybe check it out.

Your retail job isn't paying enough so - short term - check out temp work or other options with better pay, just to stay on top of expenses while you sort this out.

Good luck to you. Sounds like you have a lot of options and I know from my own experience how hard that can be. My response was freezing up and letting fate chose for me - I want to say don't do that but ... honestly, it's worked out fairly well, possibly better than most of the things I might have chosen consciously.
posted by bunderful at 5:31 AM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Stepping back from some of the details, I think the generic best way to approach this question is to think about what life you want to be leading, then think about what jobs support that life, then choose from within that pool of jobs, picking the one that you have the greatest passion for and that is most likely to succeed.

In considering that life you want to build, you might consider: where do you want to live? what environments do you enjoy working in? do you want to have kids? If so, when do you want that to happen? Where do you want your household finances and career to be at that point? How flexible does your career need to be related to the kids? (Do you want to take a couple years off? Do you want to go down to part time for awhile?) Whether or not you want kids, what kind of lifestyle do you want to afford? (Be very realistic here. Think about what you buy and wish you could buy now, looking not just at the ways that you are frugal.) What will housing costs be for your desired residential location? And so on. Then start researching what careers match that profile of work hours, location, and pay, with a focus on the kinds of careers that appeal to your passions, proclivities, psychological needs (working alone vs. a team, being on stage vs. being in the background), etc.

Academia is a tough path, and I wouldn't be scared off it if it is your greatest dream. You only get one life, y'know? But also, don't think of other paths as selling yourself short. I think the best service you can do yourself is to build the life you want, not just the career you want, and that takes a lot of thinking.

Where I think academia fails so many people who would be great scholars is that they spend 6-8 years getting their masters and Ph.D., getting burnt out and jaded to a certain degree, and then they enter a period of great instability, when they're expected to move around for post-doc projects or to take the best teaching job they can find, or maybe they don't even find any steady work and take a series of adjunct gigs -- right around the time that people are wanting to settle down with long-term partners and/or start a family. The "will you really be accepted in this career path?" funnel occurs very late in the path compared to most careers, and at an inopportune time when people are really ready to settle down. It also means missing out on some real financial opportunity. (You could have earned serious credit toward a pension at some public agencies by then!) For those who sprint through the Ph.D. phase to the point that they have a tenure track teaching job in a place that both they and their partner want to live, it seems like those people end up pretty happy. But that all depends on things like how marketable your interest is, whether you have the no-nonsense pragmatism to get through quickly and with an eye toward future jobs, what the competition ends up being like, and whether you'd be content if you ended up in a random state. And if that doesn't work, how easily can you transfer to a job in other sectors?

In any case, good luck! Sounds like you could succeed in a number of careers.
posted by salvia at 7:18 AM on December 31, 2018 [9 favorites]

You might want to dip your toe into the water of academic librarianship before doing a full immersion. And by that I mean, look for an institution that has job openings at the library assistant/library technician/paraprofessional level.

Three reasons:

1. Most institutions have a program that will pay all or part of an employee's further education at that institution. This is the having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too option, where you get experience in the workplace and get much of your further educational expenses paid.

2. An awful lot of traditional librarian duties have been downshifted to the library techs/assistants/paraprofessionals, while the librarians have either been assigned totally new duties or are given more time to manage their remaining workload. This means you'll gain librarian-related experience and skills even in those support positions.

3. Look at the salary grids for those civil service library support positions and compare them to what the actual librarians get paid. You may be faintly stunned. I was, when after a mere half-dozen years in my position I discovered I was earning more than newly-hired librarians with, you know, actual degrees. Yes, those degreed professionals would eventually out-earn me - but after how many years? And did the additional time and money invested in the degree make it worthwhile? All I know for sure is that an awful lot of us library assistants/techs/etc have degrees, whether in library science or anything else - and yet, we choose to stay in our existing positions. Reasons will vary, but I'm sure stability (not having to relocate to find work) and the relatively decent pay and benefits are two of the biggies.
posted by Lunaloon at 8:06 AM on December 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

I agree with the notion that you should look for ways to trial your desired career before you commit to many years of low pay and uncertain career prospects, like being a research assistant or looking for fellowships (knowing a little more about your field would make it easier to give advice). The experience will help prepare you for grad school - picking a topic, learning your research style and the norms in your field, making more connections. It may also prepare you for being a professor - look for opportunities to manage budgets, supervise staff, and publish. Follow up on the chance to publish your research! It is generally a long process, so keep it rolling along.

It sounds like your first office job was unusually awful - there is a lot of space between "lifetime of horrible jobs I actively hate" and "spending my 30s making little money and working hard for uncertain gain." Don't discount continuing to apply for office jobs where you can make decent money, publish your stuff on the side, and rest a bit while you plan out the future.
posted by momus_window at 9:41 AM on December 31, 2018

The thing that's hard to think about until later is opportunity costs. After 6 years at another job in just about any sector, assuming you found something that was a decent fit, you'd have decent senority -- you'd have gotten a couple promotions, they'd trust you to work from home, you'd be accruing vacation time at a speedy rate, you might be able to switch to consulting or starting your own firm, etc. You'd have some level of comfort and would be established. Compare that to having just finished a Ph.D. and facing challenging job prospects, having to start new adjunct jobs each semester and piece together enough research funding for the summer.

Extreme example of opportunity costs: I met a Lyft driver last week who was in his mid-30s. He said he worked at the nearby military base and was preparing to retire from the military -- at age 39, he had been there for 20 years and would begin receiving 50 percent of his current salary for the rest of his life, all while starting an entirely different career.

Then again, all the people who have earned all that seniority etc. wouldn't have the experience of earning a Ph.D. or the chance to work as a professor. So, a lot depends on where you want to end up.
posted by salvia at 10:09 AM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are many, many different corporate jobs in the world. I would suggest looking at/for other ones. There are corporate jobs that involve research, either in whole or in part, though (depending on your field) a PhD or specific background may increase the likelihood of that.

There are a lot of white-collar, tech-adjacent jobs that involve analyzing results to solve problems, for instance. A lot of jobs that involve statistics. If you now have experience in regulatory compliance, that's an area that definitely needs experts and companies will search to find them, although you'll find yourself often at odds with colleagues and have to be able to tolerate that.

If you are devoted to a specific topic and being the one who sets the direction, a PhD is probably required in the humanities but you might have an eye toward think tanks and similar institutions. But if you're ok with library work it doesn't sound like you are devoted to a specific topic so much as the process of research and those opportunities are much more widespread.
posted by Lady Li at 10:51 AM on December 31, 2018

You could certainly apply to grad programs and investigate the grad programs you get into and the level of financial support they offer before you actually make the decision to do the Ph.D. You don't have to decide prior to applying. If you can get real numbers on the percentage of each program's recent graduates that have found full-time employment in academia, that would be extremely helpful.

If you're geographically restricted in any way, I would recommend against it though.
posted by vegartanipla at 12:25 PM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Look at the number of PhD students in your discipline. Compare that to the number of advertised vacancies. That is your competition. There are not enough academic jobs for every PhD student to get one. I'd be surprised if there were enough vacancies for 20% of PhD students to get a good job. (There is a similar problem in law school and library school.)

If you get a funded PhD place at one of the very top universities in your discipline, then that will give you best start at a chance of 'winning' the competition in academia. Then you need at least to doggedly pursue finishing the degree, networking with your future colleagues, and be geographically flexible. And a bit lucky. And probably a few other things besides. It's not impossible, but even though you have a lot going for you it's probably at this stage less than 50:50 chance of 'winning'.

If your field is the humanities, then it is unlikely that a PhD will payoff if you don't pursue an academic career (it most likely won't get you more than a masters would, and it is a huge opportunity cost). Do it only if an academic career is what you really want, and cut your losses early on if you decide that's not for you.

Alternatively, my boss has a PhD that she did part-time while working in her chosen profession. Her PhD is in a crossover area between her undergraduate study and her professional field. She now lectures part-time as well as having a very good job that pays real money.
posted by plonkee at 1:48 PM on December 31, 2018

I would advise you to do a lot of informational interviewing or at least hanging out on relevant forums. One of the things that's frustrating is that often what students see is the "fun" element of specific job--teaching, doing bench research, designing experiments, etc. You don't see the part where they're writing yet another grant at 2AM or putting together a slide deck or negotiating departmental politics or trying to politely get out of yet another committee or putting together the world's most tedious promotions dossier or writing and grading tests and essays. There's a certain amount of that in any job, of course, but it's a good idea to get past the more public aspects of a job and figure out whether the backstage action is something you can stand doing.

When I was trying to pick a specialty in my field, the best pieces of advice I got were 1) know what a bread-and-butter day looks like for the average person in that field, and 2) Think about things like lifestyle and how that life will be in 5, 10, 20 years. If you're a successful researcher in a STEM field, for example, it's almost eventually your day is going to become more about managing the grad students and undergrads who are actually performing the research and finding the money to do more of it and less about the work itself.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:58 PM on December 31, 2018

This is very long, and rather late. But. A few years ago, I was where you are now. People were telling me just what they are telling you -- both in terms of academia being impossible and in terms of my being a great fit for academia. I ended up going to graduate school in the humanities. I'm not going to try to argue you out of going, but I would like to tell you some things no one told me about. This will be largely humanities-specific, because that is what I know, but this applies across a large swath of disciplines, because my program was highly interdisciplinary in nature and I have friends and colleagues in a variety of disciplines and geographical locations.

- Age isn't really a consideration. Most of my cohort was 25+ and the overall consensus, from faculty and from students, is that being a bit more mature is an asset in grad school. It's stressful, and having a little more life experience beyond college is usually a benefit. Younger grad students are still growing out of adolescence, and there's a fair bit of emotional turmoil in the early 20s for many people, and if you've gotten some of that out of the way already, you're at an advantage. I know people who went in a straight line from high school to college to grad school, and they were (mostly) fine, but even some of them have wished they'd taken a little more time or waited a few years. Don't worry about age too much.

- Getting into a "fully-funded" PhD program, even without an MA, is the easy part. Most people do enter with MAs, which are rarely funded, but if your GPA and GRE are both decent, you can pull it off. I did. The background you provide suggests to me that even higher-tier programs may take you without an MA, though you would need to apply only to programs that state they will take BA applicants, and you may get some offers to the MA instead of the PhD programs at your chosen schools (which, again, will probably not be fully-funded).

- The funding you get when you're "fully-funded" is not long enough for most people in the humanities to finish and defend their dissertations. Even good programs tend to top out at five years of funding. Most people need six or seven years -- this is particularly true if you don't come in with an MA, because you'll need to take additional coursework. If you do not have outside financial support from a partner or family, you'll have to work while you finish your dissertation. This will slow you down a lot. Some people get lucky and nab graduate-assistant or research-assistant gigs or outside fellowships, which are less taxing than teaching or working, but these are rare and highly competitive, and generally you'll need an advisor or well-placed reference to help you out.

- Grad programs and departments can be as toxic and awful as any workplace. You can perform your due diligence and sound people out during campus visits or online to try and avoid bad situations, but chairs and deans and provosts and institutional funding/budgets can change at any time, and always do. When a workplace goes bad, you can at least try to find another job and leave. When your grad program goes bad, you are stuck. Leaving basically means dropping out or applying elsewhere to start your whole PhD over from scratch; transferring is virtually unheard-of. When transfers do happen, it's usually because someone's advisor got a new job elsewhere, and bargained (at the expense of their limited social capital at the new department) to bring along their advisees. When this does work out, it means you have to move with your advisor to a new department in a new school, possibly in a whole different state and possibly with less/no funding. But this rarely happens, so sometimes your advisor just... leaves. Then you have to scramble and put together a new committee with busy academics who have limited prior history with you, who may know little about your project, who may not give a shit about you or your research, and who probably already have more advisees and personal work than they can handle. Which means they can say no, leaving you with no advisor at all. Sometimes entire departments get shut down or reorganised, again leaving you to scramble. And, as with all workplaces, some of the people may be abusive, or racist, or just generally broken and horrible -- grad students and faculty and administrators alike. You, as a grad student, have very little leverage if any of that proves to be the case where you end up.

- This is what you have to deal with before you defend and go on the market. It sounds like you already know about the market. But a lot of people, even very smart ones with great projects who are fully-funded at well-respected institutions, never get that far. If I don't finish, I'll still be exactly where I started, in terms of employability, despite the passage of time. Arguably I'm less employable, since I'm further away from the non-teaching work experience I had previously. And since my undergraduate student loans have been in deferment, but deferment doesn't mean interest stops accruing, I owe far more than I did going in to grad school.

- If I do finish... well, you've heard what the market is like. My own goals, going into grad school, were relatively modest: I wanted a teaching position, preferably at a small liberal arts college or a community college. But since jobs are so few and far between, my desired job is the kind of job all the hard-charging, heavy-publishing, high-achieving PhD candidates end up "settling for," when they really wanted to be at well-regarded R1 universities. Publications matter far more than teaching evaluations, even for positions that are ostensibly teaching-only, and you must focus on publishing to the exclusion of all else, including your teaching and your personal wellbeing. In the current climate, even entry-level private-sector jobs will prioritise candidates with BAs, even when the degree isn't necessary or applicable for the work, because there's a glut of qualified candidates and they can. The same is true for the academic market: huge numbers of incredibly qualified candidates will apply for every position. The CVs of my adjunct friends often outshine the CVs of the tenured faculty at the departments where they adjunct. People are regularly turned down for job interviews despite having more publications than the tenured people conducting the interviews -- that's how competitive things are. There are department chairs at well-respected institutions who wouldn't even get a Skype interview if they were applying for jobs at those departments today.

- When I began, people were telling me how constrained I'd be geographically, how I'd probably have to live in a less-desirable location if I wanted a chance at tenure. Tenure is now an unchaseable dream. The most widely-available and relatively-stable positions are lecturer positions, but those are usually year-long contracts, and are only sometimes renewable. So lecturers must be willing to accept an itinerant lifestyle, either teaching at more than one school or regularly moving from school-to-school (even city-to-city or state-to-state). Best-case-scenario: you have a friend at a school who gets you a relatively stable lecturer gig. Some of those go on for years. It's still not tenure-track, though -- always year-to-year renewable. The pay is generally between $40K and $50K a year -- considerably better than adjuncting, but you usually don't get a raise, and you won't get offered more pay for being more experienced. If you've been lecturing for more than a few years and haven't become a 'regular' at a particular institution, you will probably be axed eventually in favour of someone who has more recently defended their dissertation, as they're perceived to be fresher, with more relevant research and more recent publications. (It's hard to keep publishing when you're teaching a 4/4 or 5/4 load.)

- Most lecturers and even some adjuncts are offered benefits like health insurance, if they're at a unionised institution and if they qualify, but those benefits aren't always affordable -- in one case, my health insurance premiums for a semester would have cost me more than I was getting paid to teach for a semester. And, of course, if your contract isn't renewed, that's the end of the benefits. You generally get little notice regarding renewals. The months of April and May are always spent in panic, hoping that some combination of courses will be approved, hoping that the rent will get paid.

- I'm assuming you're US-based. I know exactly one person who has landed a tenure-track job in US in the past three years. Everyone else is struggling to keep their heads above water with some combination of adjuncting/lecturing/unrelated work. Things are a little brighter if you look outside the US: I know a few people who have gotten long-term lecturer jobs in China and the UAE, though I don't know how long those hiring trends will continue.


Is that just the new reality, that if I'd been born 20 years earlier they might have been viable options, but they aren't now?

Pretty much. The difference between a CV that would get you a job 20 years ago and the average unsuccessful candidate's CV now is pretty stark. There's just not enough decent employment to go around. Universities and colleges keep shifting more and more to contingent/nontenured/adjunct faculty. When tenured faculty leave, retire, or pass away, their tenure lines vanish and are turned into multiple adjunct gigs. It's a cost-savings measure, because adjuncts don't get paid as much and don't qualify for benefits. And adjuncts don't make trouble, because they have no leverage and no security. These trends are unlikely to slow, let alone reverse, and there are already a lot of people competing for even those insecure and poorly-paid jobs. PhDs in the humanities don't really qualify you for much outside of being a professor of the humanities, at least in my experience -- not even teaching K-12, which requires a whole different set of qualifications for which you will have to return to school (and acquire more debt). If you are in a social-sciences-adjacent field, your prospects may be brighter, but you may be able to find work that you really love with only an MA, or with the BA you have now.
posted by halation at 12:24 PM on January 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

take a job - any job, preferably full-time, usually paraprofessional - in academic libraries while pursuing our MLIS part-time on the side

This is exactly right, and honestly is my advice to anyone who is even slightly interested in any flavor of postgrad education -- get a job in the field (even tangentially) and go to school part-time, preferably with your employer paying for it.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:35 PM on January 2, 2019

Bit late to the question - but have you thought about studying abroad if that is a possibility? In the UK and most of Europe, a PhD from a leading institute takes maximum 4 years and there is funding for international students. You do much less teaching in general, and, of course, you don't have to worry so much about health insurance. Mostly, you don't need a MA or MSc to do a PhD. At some universities, you might have to do a '3+1' PhD, where you also get a MSc or MA, but that tends to depend on the field and funding.

I was offered a funded PhD (in STEM) in the USA, but was told it would take probably 6 years and the funding was very tight. In the end, I stayed in the UK and it took me just under 4 years at a truly fully-funded top-three institution. I started in 2004 and cost of living has gone up, but most stipends have too. You generally don't have to take as many classes here, although my own PhD students now often get to take a lot of classes in transferable skills (i.e. academic writing, presentation, statistics etc), which I am told are very valuable. The job market is also tight, and of course there is the general bad news about Brexit, but if you have a good research background then there is certainly the possibility for funding. I have quite a lot of colleagues from all over the world who studied in the UK, Germany, Norway, France, Italy, Denmark and who have all done well - some have gone to the USA to tenure track positions! In the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Scandinavia, all theses were written in English and almost all daily interactions were in English as research groups are very international.

Not sure what the situation is in the USA and Canada, but here, most theses are now written 'by paper' rather than as a big hulking tome, so that you have at least one or two publications when you finish, and the rest to be polished - this may be more relevant in the sciences though. There is a lot of buzz here in cross-disciplinary subjects - perhaps you could lever your interests between the more technical side of library science and humanities if that is relevant?

Feel free to memail me - happy to provide more specific advice if you let me know what field you are in etc. I studied with lots of friends who were in the arts, and also worked in an academic library (where I was very tempted to stay!)
posted by sedimentary_deer at 1:07 AM on January 3, 2019

The people I know that have been successful on this route generally come from fairly privileged families, usually with parents, or extended family/networks in academia. They are brilliant and very hard working. They have strong social skills. They generally have living/healthy parents, supportive family, and have been relatively lucky in terms of health and other possible crisis.

All of this gives them financial and psychological breathing room as well as support for a difficult path.

If this describes you, at your age and with your academic accolades, I think you're pretty well placed to pursue your academic ambitions.

All those warnings, they're really for people who really need to create their own financial sustainability sooner rather than later and don't have room for error. They need to provide their own health insurance, income for themselves and possibly others, a debt load they can manage while maintaining stable housing, etc. There was a short window when a smart talented hard working person could safely go into academia or law as a first generation professional and create prosperity for their family. Now it's not so, and that's what all the articles are about. But they don't apply to everyone, and they may well not apply to you.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:42 PM on January 3, 2019

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