A New Career Guide for Ph.D.'s Asks: 'So What Are You Going to Do With That?'

January 12, 2001

As doctoral students in English at Princeton University, Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius separately came to the same conclusion: Not only did they not want a job on the tenure track, they didn't want to pursue a full-time career in academe at all.

They set out to learn all they could about career options for Ph.D.'s. The result of their research is a new book out this month: So What Are You Going to Do with That? A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s.

The book is aimed at graduate students who willingly leave academe behind, as well as those who simply could not land a tenure-track job. The two authors interviewed more than 100 Ph.D.'s, A.B.D.'s, and M.A.'s who have gone on to successful careers as book-review editors, television writers, patent lawyers, high-school teachers, and even midwives. Besides profiles of these people, the guide includes advice on an array of topics, like "Five Myths About Postacademic Careers," "Should I Finish My Dissertation?" and "Cover Letters That Will Get You Hired."

The two women write partly from personal experience. Ms. Basalla, who earned her Ph.D. in 1997, is now an e-mail content producer for The Motley Fool, a Web site about personal finance and investment. Ms. Debelius, who received her Ph.D. just last year, is editor in chief of LifeMinders, a Web site that produces e-mail newsletters on topics ranging from health to pets.

"We had lots of late-night phone conversations trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives, and what made sense, and were we throwing it all away if we didn't go on the academic job market," Ms. Debelius says. "We knew that a lot of people must be having the same conversations. And that's when we came up with the idea for the book."

In a recent telephone interview, the two women talked about their experiences, their findings, and their advice for graduate students who are having doubts about a career in the professoriate.

Question: Your book makes a point of using the term "postacademic" to refer to job opportunities outside of academe, instead of calling them "nonacademic" jobs or "alternative" careers. Why?

Susan: We decided that "alternative" and "nonacademic" both have pejorative connotations. They make it sound like there's academics and then in the other bucket, there's everything else in the known universe. What we learned from our interviews was that people weren't making these sharp U-turns when they left academia. There was a lot of continuity between the interests and skills that they'd held inside the academy and the interests and skills they were using outside the academy. It was really more of a progression, and that's how we came up with the term of "postacademic" -- both temporally past and also in the sense of postmodern. Often these are very intellectual careers, and as fulfilling as an academic career, it's simply a different way of imagining it.

Question: What are the most important things that graduate students need to consider in thinking about a career outside of academe?

Maggie: You don't have tons of extra hours in graduate school, but you do have a few and if you need to make some money, don't be afraid to dabble in work outside of academe. It doesn't mean you have to leave the academy if you decide you want to do some freelance writing, intern somewhere, or work at a particular nonprofit organization. Just kind of get your feet wet, see what else is out there.

Susan: That's probably our strongest piece of advice in the book -- keep your options open and don't worry about trying to keep yourself pure for the profession. It's a big world. And be willing to start at what might seem like an appallingly low level for someone with a graduate degree. You may feel you should start at a higher level. I know I was certainly guilty of this. I felt that my first job had to be something worthy of my degree, and I was looking at lofty consulting positions that I was not suited for, that I was not ready for, but it was almost a question of pride. The most valuable thing I did was take a temp job. That turned into a full-time job and I moved on from there.

Question: For Ph.D.'s who do want to be professors, you recommend in the book that they get a nonacademic position while they wait out the academic market? Why? Aren't nonacademic employers suspicious of hiring Ph.D.'s because they doubt they are committed to the work?

Maggie: It's kind of a no-lose situation. Certainly in my job, and this has to do with the state of the economy, it's really not at all unusual for someone to only stay at my company for a year or two. We don't consider that a failure. No one holds the same job for 20 years anymore. And because of the strange job cycle of academia, the wait between M.L.A. conventions is so long, from the perspective of the Ph.D., I don't think he or she has anything to lose by taking a nonacademic job while they're waiting out the market. Because one of two things will happen: They'll either decide that they like it, or they'll decide they really do want to go on the academic market again. They will have learned something either way. From the employer's perspective, I don't think people are any more likely to leave for an academic job than they are likely to leave to go to the other nonprofit, or the other Internet company, or the other magazine, or whatever the competition would be.

Question: Is the academic work environment really so different from the "real" world? What are the key differences in the work culture?

Susan: At the Motley Fool, I work in a big open room where I can reach out and touch my co-workers next to me. It's an internet company culture, and it's a very open, lively, energetic, fun place. But compare that to someone who works for say, McKinsey Consulting, and is on the road three weeks out of the month and works these incredibly long hours and can't wear shorts to work the way I do -- a completely different work culture. One of the great myths of the academic view of the business world is people who say, "Oh I can't work 9 to 5, I couldn't wear a suit, I couldn't go to an office." When in fact, there are so many different work environments. And that's probably the single largest difference. There really is pretty much one environment in academia. Whatever college you're teaching at, they all have some basic similarities. In the outside world, I chose a company that suited my style and suited my personality, and I'll always do that.

Maggie: The big difference between the academic world and the job that I have now is the pace. I spent years finishing up my dissertation. I finally finished it up this year. But in my job at an Internet company -- I mean we haven't even been in business for years -- no project is allowed to take longer than three weeks. There's something deeply flawed if it's going to take longer than that.

Question: A lot of academics, when you talk about the pace of their work, get defensive, because they think it implies that they're slackers, that they've got it easy.

Maggie: I would never say academe is more laid back. I was actually much more stressed when I was in academia. I think there's just kind of a different standard of proof. I have to guess a lot more in my job now, whereas in academia, I had to go to England, and I had to find those original manuscripts by those 19th-century female writers and really quote them. I would never accuse academics of being slouches, because I certainly worked a lot of really late hours and I made lots of sacrifices to do the work that I did.

Question: How do you overcome the sense that is often conveyed in doctoral programs that you have somehow failed unless your first job is as a tenure-track assistant professor?

Maggie: If anybody out there is feeling like you're a failure if you're not in a tenure-track job, I would say read the book. Read about Ann Kirschner at Fathom. Read about Jorge Pedraza at Concrete Media. Read about Bryan Garman at Sidwell Friends School. Read about satisfied, happy people doing really, really interesting stuff. There's nothing that refutes the idea of failure better than finding out about some of the paths that these people took, and realizing, as one of our interviewees said, that the life of the mind is highly portable. These people are thinking, reading, contributing to society, they haven't turned their brains off. And some of them said they really felt like they turned their brains on by trying these nonacademic jobs.

Susan: Many of the people we interviewed were 15 or 20 years into their postacademic careers. Their stories really help give some perspective. When you're in the moment, and you're not in that first job yet, you're still defining yourself by what you're not. The best cure is to work on what you love. And as that develops, I don't think you can consider yourself a failure when you're doing what you love and you're doing it the way that you want to do it.

Question: You have a chapter in the book about turning a C.V. into a résumé. What's so difficult about that?

Susan: This is the most concrete manifestation of your decision to work outside academe. I can't tell you how much I cried when I worked on my résumé and I watched other people cry as I tried to help them on theirs. Because you literally look at the section called "conference papers and publications," and you just delete all that. This is years of work, and work that's very important to you. It's very difficult to separate out the emotion from what's the best way to present yourself for the job that needs to be done. . . . Every résumé that I've made since that first one has been pretty simple, because I know what I've done and I know a great deal about the jobs I'm applying for. But it took me months and months to make that first résumé.

Question: In your book, you seem to disagree with critics who feel that most people seeking a Ph.D. do it because they want to live a life of the mind. They want to be professors. They don't need a Ph.D. to work in an Internet startup or to become a midwife. These critics feel that it's an insult to ask people who've spent six years or more getting a doctorate to think about working as a stockbroker or whatever. Where do you take issue with this thinking?

Maggie: On the one hand, you certainly don't need a Ph.D. to be a midwife or to work at an Internet startup, but I don't think of my Ph.D. as necessarily a job qualification. I think of it as who I am. I know that it helps me to do my job better. Obviously there are plenty of people who work at my company -- most in fact -- who don't have Ph.D.'s and they perform well too. But it's one of the things that I bring to the table. And I also feel that just for my own personal satisfaction, I would absolutely do it all over again.

It's funny, people get really upset when you talk about the vocational nature of Ph.D.'s. It doesn't have to be a prerequisite for a job. It's a personal intellectual goal that I wanted to achieve, and I'm really glad that I did. And then I also feel like you have to be realistic about the alternatives out there. If every Ph.D. who wanted to work as a professor could get a job as a professor, it would be a wonderful world. But that isn't the world. There are plenty of people who have been suffering because of the market conditions. If the alternative is to adjunct for $4,000 a year, or however many classes you can cobble together, I think it's irresponsible to not be open to possibilities to help people achieve their full potential and earn a living wage.

So What Are You Going to Do with That? A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s was published this month by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.