A Hobby Becomes a Career

Brian Taylor

January 26, 2010

Exploring your career options beyond academe sounds like an awkward and time-consuming exercise, but you may already be doing it without even being aware of it. That hobby you think of as a guilty pleasure, that part-time job you do only "for the money," that volunteer work you do because you believe in the cause—all of those experiences are low-risk methods of testing alternative careers.

For many former academics, nonacademic pursuits that initially seemed peripheral to their plans unexpectedly provided the foundation for a satisfying alternative career.

Abby Markoe's story is an excellent example of that principle. A long-time squash player, she saw the sport primarily as an escape from the stresses of graduate school. As she progressed through her combined Ph.D. and master's program in the history of medicine and public health at the Johns Hopkins University, her love of squash unexpectedly led her to a new career as executive director of a nonprofit organization related to the sport.

Her experience shows the importance of maintaining balance while in graduate school and the value of keeping a broad perspective on what it means to do meaningful work.

Question: Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

I studied history and philosophy of medicine as an undergraduate as part of a self-designed major. In college, I took several graduate courses, and it seemed like a natural next step to go directly into a Ph.D. program. I chose Johns Hopkins specifically because of the links between its Institute of the History of Medicine and the School of Public Health; I liked the idea of combining degrees in those disciplines. On a more personal level, I grew up with an academic lifestyle (my father is a mathematics professor) and thought I wanted the same lifestyle for myself. I always envisioned myself as an intellectual and an academic, so graduate school seemed like the right move.

Question: So what prompted you to take a leave of absence from graduate school?

During graduate school, I played squash at a club in Baltimore. It was my zone of relaxation that took me away from the stress of school. I had the idea to start an urban squash and education program in Baltimore, akin to other successful programs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. I knew about the success of urban squash programs in those cities, and I wanted to bring that unique kind of enrichment program to Baltimore City school students, many of whom need extra support academically and athletically.

I started developing Baltimore SquashWise with a group of people from my gym, as a personal project outside of graduate school. I was on the search committee to hire an executive director for SquashWise, which happened to coincide with a natural breaking point in my graduate career—after my comprehensive exams and before my dissertation research in Zambia. It seemed like the right time to try something new for a while, and I put myself in the running for the executive director's job, and I got it.

It was a difficult decision to make, but I felt grateful to have two good options in front of me. I couldn't make a bad decision. While it was a tough conversation to have with my department, I found that a lot of faculty members supported my decision to do some good for Baltimore, even if they were disappointed to see me leave the program.

Question: In what ways has your graduate-school experience been helpful in your work with SquashWise?

At first glance, my work with SquashWise—teaching squash and tutoring students—has little to do with what I studied at Johns Hopkins. However, I have noticed some interesting parallels between my new job and my graduate-school education.

Not surprisingly, my public-health courses taught me how to design and evaluate public-health interventions, giving me a comfort level with data collection and analysis. Even more fascinating is how I have been able to apply what I learned as a scholar of African history and the history of medicine. In studying colonialism, the history of public health, and my dissertation topic on the history of child health, I learned about poverty and the effects of structural inequality on health, education, and well-being. I have been able to think critically about the political and economic determinants of urban problems through my historical knowledge of these same issues in other parts of the world.

My graduate-school adviser taught me how to be a convincing grant writer, and how to effectively argue a point—skills that are invaluable when competing for money in the nonprofit sector. My critical perspectives on poverty and historical inequalities have served me well in conversations with donors, board members, parents, and the news media.

Question: What lessons have you had to learn, or new skills have you had to acquire, in order to be successful with SquashWise?

In graduate school you focus on a particular topic, and the tasks are time-intensive. You might spend hours reading one book, or many days or weeks diving into one historical archive. In nonprofit work, I have to be on top of a dozen tasks at a time and use several different skills at once.

A typical day as executive director may consist of tasks as diverse as accounting in the morning, a donor meeting over lunch, and teaching squash to middle-school students in the afternoon. I have also learned a lot from the students I teach about determination and commitment, despite adversity.

Question: Could you imagine ever returning to academe in the future?

It's not out of the question. After seeing how relevant my experience in academe has been to my current work, I now see graduate education in a new light. I had a good experience in graduate school, and I will always appreciate the knowledge and skills I learned there. If I do go back, I imagine that it would be for specific reasons relating to a career change or enhancement.

Question: What advice would you give graduate students who are considering taking some time off from their Ph.D. programs?

In graduate school, many of us tend to resist nonacademic opportunities out of fear that we will lose our momentum within academe. But take some time to evaluate whether you are trying to finish your Ph.D. because you really want an academic career, or because it is too difficult to envision your life outside.

Graduate students tend to be self-motivated people, so much so that we allow ourselves to get caught up in the momentum of our research at the expense of creative thinking about other hobbies, options, and perspectives on academic life.

Most important, find yourself a space outside of the university where you can get away from your work, your colleagues, and your computer. It doesn't have to be a squash court, but it's really helpful to find a neutral place to sort out your thoughts. In my own experience, the decision did not happen overnight, nor should it. It was a long process of weighing options, considering possible regrets, and honestly exploring my strengths and my goals.

Susan Basalla May is the author, with Maggie Debelius, of "'So What Are You Going to Do With That?': Finding Careers Outside Academia," now in a revised and updated edition by the University of Chicago Press.