Finding Meaning After Academe

It turns out you can no longer do what you love. Now what?

Brian Taylor

July 07, 2014

The "do what you love" mantra pervades academe, engendering seemingly rational people to forsake lucrative careers for the study of Mediterranean archaeology or, in my case, classical Tamil love poetry.

During my years in graduate school, that philosophy toward work was rarely challenged. On the contrary, in subtle and overt ways, my colleagues and professors reinforced the belief that it is more noble to pursue a love of literature, history, or science than to pursue financial stability. It was a seductive fantasy, especially since, for a time, my work—the teaching, the research, and the digging through archives in far-flung corners of the world—made me very happy.

The problem, however, is that for the vast majority of newly minted Ph.D.’s, it is now close to impossible to find financially viable academic work. Toward the end of my doctoral program, that grim economic reality eventually set in, forcing me to make difficult decisions about my future. I applied to hundreds of positions and went on dozens of interviews over the course of two years, only to find myself with no good options at the end of that grueling process. My choices came down to taking adjunct work or leaving the academy altogether. Reluctantly, I chose the latter: I filed my dissertation, started an internship at a public-relations agency, and put academe behind me.

In an essay in Jacobin magazine earlier this year, Miya Tokumitsu notes that the "do what you love" ideology embedded within academic culture makes Ph.D.’s prime targets for exploitation, most obviously as adjunct laborers. Undervaluing financial reward in favor of emotional satisfaction is one reason so many Ph.D’s are willing to perform high-skilled labor for so little pay. "Because academic research should be done out of pure love," she argues, "the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all."

But sooner or later, the question of compensation becomes impossible to ignore.

When confronted with the instability and poverty that accompany adjunct employment, many Ph.D.’s are compelled to consider alternative careers, and a significant number will cross over into the nonacademic realm. According to recent studies from the American Historical Association and Modern Language Association, 24.2 percent of history Ph.D.’s and 21 percent of English and foreign-language Ph.D.’s have, over the last decade, pursued nonacademic careers.

In my experience, the transition out of academe can be painful. Apart from the stresses of job hunting, one of the most challenging parts of the process for me was confronting the possibility that I might no longer be one of the lucky people able to do what I love.

Over the last three years, I’ve discovered that this fear was unfounded. I now work at a public-relations agency where I help technology companies refine their corporate messages and get media attention. My job is creative, intellectually challenging, and allows me to use my strongest skills: writing, public speaking, idea generation. I have found that specialized knowledge and critical thinking are highly valued across industries, many of which are willing to pay high-skilled workers commensurately. Teaching skills are also important in the nonacademic workplace in such contexts as explaining complex research and mentoring junior staff members.

It is true that I do not feel the same obstinate devotion to my PR job that I once felt about academe, but perhaps that is a good thing: The fact that I am not wedded to my job means that my employer does not have the power to exploit me in ways that universities exploit their workers. Also, while people everywhere fuse their personal identity with their work, that tendency is much more pronounced inside of the academy than outside it. In my new life, I can leave my work at the office and pursue my other passions in my free time, an arrangement that gives my life more flexibility and balance.

It took me years—and several paradigm shifts—to arrive at the conclusion that it is possible for a former academic to have a meaningful career outside of academe. Here are a few things I wish I had known earlier in my journey.

Notions of time. One of my greatest fears about leaving academe was that I would no longer have control over my time. After years of making my own hours, the concept of being bound by a rigid, 9-to-5 corporate schedule unsettled me. What I did not realize is that the fixed boundaries that demarcate work time from leisure time serve an important function: They separate workers from their work.

Academe, on the other hand, is an all-encompassing lifestyle that involves teaching, writing recommendation letters, fieldwork, speaking at conferences, producing manuscripts, among many other things. Without external forces compartmentalizing their time, it is easy for academics to wrap up their whole lives in their work, which is why, as Tokumitsu points out in her essay, scholars tend to fuse their personal identity so intimately with their work output.

While there are many parts of my new career that I enjoy—working alongside supportive colleagues, learning new technical skills, developing creative media campaigns—there is also less pressure for my work to be my only source of happiness. On a daily basis, I have both success and failure on the job, but in either case, my response is tempered because my work is just one aspect of my life. It isn’t my whole life. On bad days, when a client is in a bad mood or when I feel the ideas I’m pitching are lackluster, it is liberating to be able to leave the office, get a cocktail, and pursue my other passions. That is worlds away from the utter devastation I would feel as an academic when, for example, I received unkind criticism about my research.

Public intellectuals can thrive outside of academe. Another revelation for me: Academe is not the only place to find vibrant intellectual engagement. As I was changing careers, I feared I would no longer be able to contribute to the discourse in my fields of South Asian studies and gender studies, thereby squandering the years I spent acquiring expertise in those areas.

What I’ve discovered is that there are many spaces where specialized content knowledge is valuable. The Internet has made it easy to participate in conversations about a vast range of subjects. Online publications are always keen for fresh, insightful content that Ph.D.’s are well positioned to contribute.

Today, rather than writing for academic journals, I write for mainstream magazines, newspapers, and blogs, while also working on a book project. As people have shown interest in my published work, they have occasionally invited me to give lectures at libraries, conferences, and even universities. So in many ways, there has been continuity between my former career and my current life. It is even possible that I am reaching a wider audience than I would have had I confined my research to academic journals.

That horrible first year. While I have now found my equilibrium in the nonacademic workplace, it took time. The first year was particularly brutal: I was wrestling with a sense of loss about leaving my research behind and struggling to make sense of my identity outside the university. Those negative emotions were aggravated by the fact that my first job outside academe was not particularly exciting. As an intern at a PR agency, I was surrounded by colleagues and even managers who were younger than me. The work itself was elementary, involving things like creating simple reports and scanning the news for press coverage about the clients.

Unfortunately, that kind of transitional work is necessary for Ph.D.’s who do not have the corporate skills to be immediately useful outside the academy and need to learn the basics of their new industry. What I did not realize is that after the first few months, Ph.D’s have the potential to ascend the corporate ladder quickly. The combination of an impressive academic pedigree and corporate experience can make us very competitive candidates as we move through the ranks.

Had I known how much better things would be once I turned that corner, I would probably not have considered quitting quite so many times in that horrible, no-good, very bad first year.

Finding new meaning in life. In a recent article in The New York Times, Gordon Marino makes the case that the "do what you love" ethos is naïve and inward-looking. Self-fulfillment, he argues, can come from doing work that you had not sought out to do, but that simply needed to be done. Indeed, "we can be as mistaken about our views on happiness as anything else."

That was true for me. When you are thinking through what will make you fulfilled, you only have your own limited experiences on which to draw. It’s hard to know what might make you happy in unfamiliar realms. I pursued an academic career because I thought it would give my life meaning, but as I veer further and further away from the path I had initially set for myself, I have found that there are many rich sources of meaning in life. Over the last three years, I have stumbled upon fulfilling work that I never would have discovered had I not been nudged out of academe.

To the extent that my experience and Marino’s argument apply to others facing a similar, apparently bleak transition, the prescription is clear: Be open to alternative tracks, even if they are not what you had envisioned, and take the plunge. And maybe, like me, you won’t look back.

Elizabeth Segran is a freelance writer who writes for The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, and The Nation, among other publications. She is also a public-relations consultant at SHIFT Communications. She received her Ph.D. in South and Southeast Asian studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Her website is