Help me work like an adult
May 10, 2023 6:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm a "failed" academic (PhD social sciences on the job market for 6 years before giving up) currently working in a toxic environment and want out. If I could, I would go live in a monastery or take up wood working or farming, but that's not realistic. So how do I just accept my lot in life and find a job?

I am buried in student loan debt, so I need to work at a non-profit or similar to continue towards loan forgiveness but I also need to make a decent living to support a family. My skills are in research and evaluation but I am no longer interested in either - and this includes grant writing - there is too much rejection and I've had enough. I've tried getting adjunct teaching positions to no avail. I am over qualified for some positions but inexperienced (like supervising) for many other positions. I feel trapped but also ashamed. I don't know where to begin to rebuild. I started therapy but I didn't click with the therapist. I apply to new jobs every day but nothing seems to work out. So you strangers in the interwebs what words of advice do you have for me?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Hi! Sounds like you're scattergunning your applications - which feels good when you're doing it "I've applied for more jobs!" but actually can burn you out without any point if they are being unsuccessful.

You need to think more strategically, which I get it's hard to do when you need out of a toxic spot. But, it's time to think "skills-based" not "role-based" in terms of jobs. What skills do you have right now that you want to use in a job?

Do some searching about. What sorts of areas could you apply for that you haven't thought of? I used my PhD research and evaluation skills writing for a travel comparison website. Then I parlayed that into a community manager role.

Be more targeted. If a job doesn't spark any excitement in you - you're saying "I could do that" - not "Ooh!" I think that comes across in the application. Quality over quantity. You'll know when you're honing in on a likely area because you'll start to hear rejections or interviews rather than total silence.

It's so easy to feel trapped and ashamed in job searching. Not feeling good enough, all that rejection. It's horrible, horrible, horrible.

I stick to a once a week search when I'm looking and working at the same time. Hone your key words. Save your search links. Open them all and put your effort into one top quality application for something you really think you could get and you would actually be ok with doing.

Also - big up yourself! "I was part of a successful x" versus "I played x {important part} in a successful y which taught me z about this area and since then I have read/learned more about this area and feel like I understand how we could have made y even better by..." Nobody else is going to toot your horn.

Good luck!
posted by london explorer girl at 6:51 AM on May 10 [7 favorites]

Annoying advice but: try a different therapist. Therapy isn't a panacea but it might help some with things like "trapped but also ashamed" that sound like they make it hard to go through the already not fun for anyone process of job hunting. But the thing that gives therapy a chance of helping is the "fit" between you and the therapist and it takes some shopping, sometimes. You're not going to click with everyone, and that's ok, and you're not doing anything wrong if you say to a therapist "this doesn't feel like the right fit" and try a different one. If you try a new one, let them know during your first session (or consultation call if they do those) what didn't work for you with the therapist you didn't click with.
posted by less-of-course at 6:51 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Hello from a fellow failed academic, now nearing retirement.

I stayed in the nonprofit world partly for student loan forgiveness, and I now feel that was a mistake. If I'd gone into the for-profit sector, I think I could have earned enough more to make up for the amount of my loans. I also think having a higher salary for all of those years would have put me in a better position for retirement than I'm in now. Maybe you have a lot more in loans than I do and the math wouldn't work the same, but I just wanted to raise this as a possibility.

Also, just want to say that this is an extremely hard position to be in, especially since you develop a kind of Stockholm syndrome in academia where everyone seems to believe that an academic life is the only kind worth having (which is why so many people with PhDs continue with it with no benefits or job security and salaries so low they qualify for food stamps). One thing that was useful that my therapist said was that I didn't fail my program - my program failed me. It's really hard to let go of the shame, but this internet stranger wants to tell you that you did nothing wrong. It is not your fault. You fell into a messed up system.

Also, for general job-search stuff, I strongly recommend the Ask A Manager website. I wish it had existed for me when I made the switch into the nonacademic world.
posted by FencingGal at 6:56 AM on May 10 [38 favorites]

I have a Ph.D. and never worked in the thing I qualified for, but I don't consider myself a "failed academic." Academia is dysfunctional beyond belief, and it's academia that is "failed."

What I did was decide what kind of job I liked doing and get a job doing that (in my case teaching kids). I did that for a long time and loved it. What Color Is My Parachute? is too darn long, but it's that kind of thing that helped me figure out what I liked doing and do that long enough to pay off my loans, save some money, and keep health insurance.

My advice is to try to disentangle yourself from the shame you're feeling, though it doesn't help that people always ask you why you're not doing [Ph.D. thing]. They also like to ask things like why you have or don't have kids, why you insist on calling yourself [preferred name and/or pronouns], or how you can stand to do [what you're doing], if that helps.

I did adjunct after I retired, and it isn't worth the money, but it's a great retirement job because you honestly don't care about how little you're making or how unfair the whole setup is.
posted by Peach at 7:24 AM on May 10 [10 favorites]

I feel you! I was in a similar position almost thirty years ago. My new PhD wasn't getting me the job of my dreams and I was both over-qualified and under-qualified for the endless other jobs I applied to. I ended up going back to school for a masters in library science, became an academic librarian, loved it. I'm not saying this is what you should do, just saying that going back for a masters in something that will likely lead to a real job may be your best bet. And yeah, I got my student loans wiped out for public service. Check out the occupational outlook site and see if there is something that appeals to you.
posted by mareli at 7:26 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]

If I'd gone into the for-profit sector, I think I could have earned enough more to make up for the amount of my loans

Without any actual data to back this up, I would expect this would be correct in the majority of situations, for two reasons. First, non-profit salaries are famously low. As long as the difference between your for-profit salary and your non-profit salary is greater than the amount of your yearly loan payments, loan forgiveness is actually losing you money. But the second thing is, there are income-based repayment plans - usually around 10% of your income. Which, if you do that, means that the difference between your for-profit salary and your non-profit salary can be pretty small and still make for-profit a better deal. If you'd make $50k at at for-profit job, you'd have to make more than $45k at a non-profit job for loan forgiveness to benefit you. $5k is not much at all - it's within the realm of negotiation for all but the lowest-end jobs. And third, there are just so many more for-profit jobs, which means that you're far more likely both to find a job that will hire you renumeratively and to actually like that job than you are if you just stick to non-profits. And more jobs means it's easier to climb the ladder - work at a kinda low-paying job at first, then parlay that experience into higher-paying job a couple years later, and repeating. As one data point, I've increased my salary by almost $60k in ten years by moving up. Can you get that kind of salary growth sticking to non-profits? I'd be surprised.

As to what kind of job you should look for, I don't know. But as I've said here before, I got started in my career by taking a job at a call center after moving back in with my mom when I was 30. Sometimes things find you.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:39 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I agree with FencingGal - if you're not interested in research and evaluation and grant writing and you need to make decent money, that's raising your challenge level in the nonprofit sector. If you've already assessed potential corporate salary growth and the math doesn't work out, then I think you might want to focus on foundations and government jobs, rather than charities/implementers. But if you haven't analyzed earning prospects in the private sector, it may be worth a look.

I would also add to london explorer girl's good advice - maybe you are losing out on some positions due to limited experience, but don't feel like you have to 100% meet all the qualifications to apply for a job. (I know this is pretty common advice but I struggle with it every time.) I've considered applicants who got to maybe 75-80% of our qualifications because it's usually hard to tell from a job ad what the non-negotiable vs the more flexible qualifications are.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:40 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Many of the "failed" academics I know (I agree with the comment above that actually the academic system has failed them, not the other way around) have gone into state government. It has decent pay, amazing benefits, lots of stability and transparency (very different than academia in that regard), and there are lots of pathways to develop and advance. Entry level jobs don't pay a ton, but mid-level and above pay well. The hiring process is slow and bureaucratic, but way faster and easier than for federal jobs. (Federal jobs would also be a worthwhile avenue to look at, but the hiring process is slow and requires a lot of work.)

Where I work (in the private sector) we have lots of "failed" academics, myself included. The majority of us bailed out prior to receiving the PhD, but others got the degree and then jumped ship. It's private sector so there's less stability, but the pay is higher and the benefits are not much worse than the public sector jobs. However, there would be no way to qualify for the loan forgiveness here, so you'd need to do some math per the above comments if you were considering private sector options.

Good luck! My experience is that people value the qualifications and experience you bring, once you can get across the start line.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:53 AM on May 10 [5 favorites]

I've considered applicants who got to maybe 75-80% of our qualifications because it's usually hard to tell from a job ad what the non-negotiable vs the more flexible qualifications are.

Nthing this. I've actually seen a job changed to entry level because no one who applied met the qualifications.
posted by FencingGal at 7:56 AM on May 10

Just to add one more thing about people transitioning to public sector jobs: the strategy I'm seeing people repeatedly use is to take just about anything they can get as a way to get in the door, then over the following year or two work on building connections and eventually transitioning to a different job (perhaps at a different agency) that is a better fit, since the main barrier is getting in and making it through the probationary period. At that point you are in the system and can qualify for internal hiring.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:00 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Hi, anonymous. I quit academia without quite getting the Ph.D. and am now gainfully employed in another field. It's doable. I think you should separate out in your mind not getting the Ph.D. (and what other part of the economy expects you to sink several years into job training with no effective guarantee of any kind of job at the end of it???) from needing to find a new line of work. I know it's hard. But grad school is in the past, and while some of your skills may be transferrable, "failing" it or not (not!) has nothing to do with whether you're hireable now. Think of yourself as just having left a job that wasn't a great match after several years and wanting to do something new. With that in mind...what do you want to do? I don't know that I can advise you specifically on that--there are probably people answering here who are more skilled at it--but this is where a lot of the standard books/advice/coaching for mid-career people looking to retool may be of help to you (just don't give money to scammers).

Keep in mind also that being directly employed by just about any level of government in the U.S., including tribal, counts for PSLF, and the federal government isn't just in DC. Take a look at USAJobs and see if anything in your physical area catches your eye--the feds hire for far more types of positions than you might think. Take a look at your state government site, too.

Without any actual data to back this up, I would expect this would be correct in the majority of situations, for two reasons.

This is not universally wrong, but your math is way off:

(a) IDR plans generally recast your loan to a 20- or 25-year amortization. PSLF forgives at 10. This means you will be paying a lot more in interest over the life of the loan with an IDR plan paid to maturity (even with any interest remaining being forgiven [taxably] at the 20- to 25-year mark) than as against either the standard repayment plan or a PSLF-forgiven loan.

(b) You will be eligible for IDR while working towards PSLF, so your example overstates the benefit.

(c) PSLF forgiveness is nontaxable federally and in most states, whereas regular student loan payments are made with after-tax dollars. While the interest component of student loan payments is tax-deductible, the deductible amount is capped fairly low and the deductibility begins to phase out low, too. Especially as the debt gets larger, this can make a huge difference in the end.

Will you probably pay off faster if you choose a Biglaw job starting at $195K plus bonus than if you decide to be a PD earning $45K plus a free pair of nail clippers? Yes. But for many the choice is not that stark.

All the best to you, anonymous! It can be done!
posted by praemunire at 8:16 AM on May 10 [5 favorites]

I also came here to mention (assuming you're a citizen). I am a humanities PhD looking for work, and if you have quantitative research skills you'll qualify for way more jobs then I do - not all of these are strictly research jobs, though it will be one component. You may also find jobs there that will value your expertise in whatever you wrote your dissertation on.

And yes, also check for various government jobs at the state level.

And then, I just want to gently challenge this:

My skills are in research and evaluation but I am no longer interested in either - and this includes grant writing - there is too much rejection and I've had enough

As someone who just finished their sixth cycle of the academic job market, and have had more first-round interviews than I can remember, and was a finalist for five jobs this cycle (but never a winner!) I totally commiserate with you about feeling like you can't handle more rejection. But a lot of the government jobs that will value your research skills will not be the hyper individualism of academia - you'll be working as a team, and so while it's not to say there is no potentially for individual failure, it will be much more shared with a higher-up that will ultimately be responsible. So I wouldn't have your current feeling towards academia lead you to entirely rule out any job that would utilize the skills you worked so hard to gain.
posted by coffeecat at 8:33 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]

Hey. I quit academia after fulfilling the requirements to earn tenure. I looked at my toxic department, the job that had burned me out to the point of mental breakdown that I'm still in therapy for, humanities departments and academia as a whole and realized that it is a failed system I didn't want to be yoked to for the rest of my life. At this point in the conversation you've already heard "academia failed you," but it's important to point out that leaving academia, especially after earning a PhD, is a bit like leaving a cult. You've been in it for decades, living the lifestyle, internalizing the idea that you can't do anything else. Academia perpetuates this idea to keep you locked into what's essentially an abusive system based on medieval-style trials and hazing. And leaving academia involves grief. A lot of it. So, be easy on yourself. But, also, rejection is part of life and something that you're going to have to face again at some point, so I'm not sure you can create a rejection-proof reality.

Nthing the idea of trying therapy again, or at least reading Leaving Academia if you haven't yet done so. The Professor is Out is also a good resource.

Besides that, have you spent time trying to become really, really interested in something else? Because you're good at being really, really interested in things and it sounds like you're just not that interested in what you're looking at, currently. If you can do some playing around on LinkedIn, looking at people who work jobs you might be interested in, taking note of how they got into the field and maybe even doing some exploratory interviews with them--no stakes, just informational--about what it's like to work that career, that might help you get in touch with your own interests and skills. People are also surprisingly generous when you do this. They might have a job opening or be able to suggest a resource to you that you hadn't thought of before.

You're putting a lot of financial pressure on yourself, and therefore the job you take, which might be mentally holding you back right now. It's OK to take a job that is not a "career" job for the moment (freelance writing or editing, market research, making coffee, whatever) while you figure out the answers to the bigger questions.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 9:15 AM on May 10 [12 favorites]

I’ve heard good things about using a (paid) coach / mentor to leave the ivory tower. No specific recs though since this is second hand info.
posted by oceano at 10:09 AM on May 10

Many federal jobs qualify for student loan debt repayment help up to $10,000 per year. Under 5 U.S.C. 5379, agencies may repay the student loans of federal employees in order to attract or keep highly qualified individuals. These repayments may not amount to more than $60,000 in total. (FEDWeek, May 2023) GSA Student Loan Repayment Plan
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:27 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]

I've tried getting adjunct teaching positions to no avail.

Traditionally, academics do 3 things: teaching, research, and service. It should like you've ruled out 2 of these, but not really given teaching a try?

In my experience (California, Social Sciences) many colleges & universites are fairly desperate for adjuncts, and will sometimes even hire people with only a Masters degree.

In a system such as the California State University, which has a strong union, the Adjuncting work/pay/benefits equation is only "fairly bad" rather than downright abusive.

For example, a full-time CSU adjunct would start at no less than $60k/year on a 9 month schedule (summers fully off) and get excellent benefits: medical, dental, vision and the CalPERS defined-benefit retirement plan.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 2:30 PM on May 10

There are non-profits that do research for the federal government under contracts. It's not the grant world, but your skills are directly applicable. There are a couple that are large enough that you can avoid the "eat what you kill" problem that a lot of smaller companies have and that you have experienced with grants. You can have a stable, well-paid, 40 hour a week job at these companies with benefits. Take a look at the job boards at these places and see if you anything looks interesting: PIRE, RTI, AIR, RAND.
posted by OrangeDisk at 2:56 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

There are non-profits that do research for the federal government under contracts.

Note that working for a government contractor will usually not qualify you for PSLF.
posted by praemunire at 3:21 PM on May 10

Yeah, make sure you're looking at positions with 501(c)3 organizations or that are directly employed by the government. Don't know if this happens much at the state level, but at the federal level, sometimes an agency contracts for-profit firms to hire people to do government work. So they're sitting in a government office and working on government projects, but not actually working for an eligible employer. A colleague got a little snarled up with PSLF and one of those arrangements a few years back. Some nonprofits win government contracts, so it can get tricky to sort out what's what, but 501(c)3 orgs are registered with the IRS and searchable on their site.
posted by EvaDestruction at 6:17 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

I was also going to suggest government jobs, and in particular policy jobs especially if they are in a sector you have any tangential or adjacent experience in. Research and evaluation skills are useful, but its usually your ability to synthesise effectively that is most prized. While you do get ambitious and competitive people working for government, success looks and feels different and being a small cog in a wheel can be its own cushion against the feeling of rejection.
posted by plonkee at 1:08 AM on May 11

Have you considered the Census Bureau? That's always been my backup plan. (I left school ABD and have worked in academic research centers ever since.)
posted by metasarah at 7:27 AM on May 11

Another book worth reading: Designing your life. To fast track it, you could just start at chapter 6 then go back and read earlier chapters as needed.
posted by StrawberryPie at 10:52 AM on May 14

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