Need Advice on a Nonacademic Career? Don't Ask Me

April 10, 2013

At this point in the academic job cycle, when many searches are finishing and demoralized candidates are confronting their lack of success, I often find myself asked for advice on the Plan B stage of the hiring process—that is, how to find work outside of academe when your faculty search fails.

It's easy to see why I am asked. The need for information on Plan B careers is urgent. And as someone who left academe and created a consulting business offering mentoring services to graduate students who aren't getting enough help from their own advisers, I certainly would appear to be qualified to provide it.

However, I am not. The reason: My nonacademic path has been so entirely idiosyncratic that I feel it does not yield many generalizable insights for others to follow. In my consulting business, I help clients pursue a faculty career. I do not offer advice on their nonacademic career options because I am really useless for any information about the alt-ac job market, or about transferring the skills you've developed in a doctoral program to a nonacademic career.

After all, I created my odd little niche business from whole cloth, with no way of knowing whether it would succeed or flop. And after reading Thomas L. Friedman's recent column in The New York Times, "Need a Job? Invent It," I find myself reluctantly agreeing with him: Ph.D.'s may need to start inventing jobs instead of searching for them. It did work for me.

I was a successful academic. I found that first tenure-track job, earned tenure, secured a second (and better) tenured job, and moved from faculty member to department chair. I left academe— without bitterness. I didn't like the institution that I left, but I had generally positive feelings about academe as a whole. I just had reached the end of my personal motivation to keep working within it when my desire to relocate back to the Pacific Northwest was so much stronger.

When I left, I had no career plan at all. Basically our desperation to get out of the Midwest was so great that my partner and I agreed that if she found a full-time job that would support our family, I would quit and be a full-time parent. And that's what we did. It worked out all right until we realized that financially we weren't cutting it. And then there was the year I spent in a profound depression, mostly curled up on the sofa.

That year showed me just how much I had been shaped by academe's value system and world view. Academia is more like a faith than a job, and leaving it is like a believer leaving the church. In exiting, you have to cut out a part of yourself. Demons and doubts plague you. There is no sense of self-value or self-worth that can easily replace the all-encompassing identity of "the academic," for any Ph.D. who has experienced the years of indoctrination necessary to be able to claim that identity in the first place. To leave academe, in the humanities and social sciences at least, is to be a failed academic. Anyone not prepared to confront that sense of failure should think very carefully before quitting.

While battling those demons, I didn't go back on any job market, academic or otherwise. Instead, I worked on expanding a jewelry-making business that I had been running as a hobby for several years. It brought me joy, and by that point I had determined that I was really going to follow my joy. The business did grow and I made money, but not enough to give us financial security.

I like money and I like the things money buys—nice clothes, vacations, savings in the bank, and a retirement plan. I would skulk around the house muttering, "We need more money! How can I make more money!" One day my exasperated partner finally said to me: "Karen, as long as I've known you you've been motivated by rage. You do your best work when you're angry. So what are you angry about?"

I erupted, there in the kitchen, amid a stream of expletives. The tenured professors earning six-figure salaries and enjoying job security while doing next to nothing to help their graduate students join the profession. The passivity and obfuscation around basic tasks of an academic career like publishing, building a CV, grant writing, conference-going, and cultivating recommenders. The elitist denial of the real suffering experienced by advisees on the adjunct track. "Nobody tells those students the goddamn truth," I ranted. "That's what I'm angry about!"

"Well then, there is your business," my partner said.

And she was right. Rage may seem an unlikely source of joy, but, for me, they are closely linked. When I see something that enrages me, I feel joy in confronting it. I'd been trying to tell the truth to graduate students about the academic job market since I was still practically a graduate student myself. I was angry then and I'm angry now at academe's lax attitudes toward professional skills training for any job market. "I always tell them the market is impossible" does not constitute adequate training.

I thought I could create a business to provide graduate students—at reasonable rates—with the kind of mentoring they weren't getting from their advisers.

Shortly thereafter, Kellee went away for a long business trip while my kids spent a month with their dad, and I was alone in the house. During that month I created a Web site for The Professor Is In, set up a PayPal account and a Facebook page, and started a blog. I already knew how to do all of that, incidentally, from my jewelry business.

I blogged and blogged on all sorts of themes related to the faculty career and the academic job market, and gave my posts search strings that I anticipated might match what anxious job seekers were searching for on the Internet. Within a week I had my first client. A few months later I wrote a column on the sorry state of graduate advising for The Chronicle, and then came the deluge.

When I was starting my consulting business, an insight I gained from successful bloggers was that you have to give away your expertise freely before people will trust you with their money. That seemed valid, and so from the start I have offered volumes of free information on my blog, which readers have used to find and negotiate jobs, get grants, rock their conferences, and prevail in all the other challenges of an academic career. And indeed, that body of free information is the foundation of credibility upon which my fee-based business rests.

Demand for my services has been extraordinary and gratifying. I have achieved the financial security that I looked for; I make about three times the average salary of a full professor in the United States. And because running a business in line with my ethics is important to me, I also run a Job Seeker Support Fund that allows people who are really struggling financially to still have access to my services. It feels good to earn a living doing work that I believe in so fiercely.

I do miss hanging around an office, chatting with witty colleagues, walking across a pretty campus in the springtime, and feeling institutionally "important." Those regrets are outweighed, however, by the pleasure and satisfaction I take in being able to deliver a genuine good to people who desperately need it.

The few lessons about Plan B that I can provide are this:

  • If you are miserable, really miserable, in what you're doing in academe, you should stop doing it. Take some time to make sure your misery isn't just situational. For example, if you're miserable in a job, perhaps moving to a different job will help. But if you feel, deep in your heart, that you can't stand academe and its value system, then you should leave. Make no mistake, some people will judge you harshly. Your advisers may well despise you, and you will become an untouchable to some of your peers. Friendships will die when the foundation of common values disappears.
  • If you've given the tenure-track market your absolute best shot, over at least three years, and you have made no headway at all, then too, you should consider leaving. Do not hang on indefinitely in adjunct purgatory. That is no way to live. (Of course I would recommend you have me take a look at your materials first, since many unsuccessful candidates are sending out appallingly bad application materials.)
  • Connect to what moves you, what gives you joy, or maybe causes you rage—and those things might be connected. Academics have many excellent skills—public speaking, writing, teaching, time management, self-discipline, analytical thinking—that do translate to the nonacademic realm. And don't discount the skills you've picked up in hobbies and outside interests. They may well be what you use in the next incarnation.

There is an enormous world out there, but it is invisible to you so long as you remain within the academy's walls. Academe is a cultlike and cloistered environment that excludes values and practices that it considers profane—practices like doing nonscholarly work, or seeking to make a profit, for example. But gird your loins and step outside, and many, many new avenues will become visible to you.

Once again, I can't tell you what avenue is yours to take, or even how to take it. But I can tell you, it's there, if you look for it.


Karen Kelsky is a former professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Oregon who left academe in 2010. She now runs a consulting business and a blog called The Professor Is In.