Lessons Learned on Leaving Academe

May 18, 2004

Last spring, long after I had received my final call for an on-campus interview and enough months past the Modern Language Association convention that I could make grim jokes about the experience, I decided to leave the academy.

Maybe it was the realization that pursuing the life of the mind might lead me right back to the Bible Belt where I was raised. Maybe I didn't want to settle in a town where, by midwinter, the snow sits so deep that people give up shoveling the sidewalks.

Or, maybe it was the fact that no one had offered me a job.

As I climbed down from the ivory tower and began to search for work in the real world, I learned some lessons about leaving the academy. For example, when you give away hundreds of books, your mentor might worry about your mental health, but you'll find it liberating to dump tomes that you knew you would never actually read. Your decision will mystify some faculty members and cause them concern for the department's placement numbers, but most professors will be supportive.

The easiest part of reducing a bloated CV into a one-page résumé is erasing the publications and conference presentations. But removing the academic honors picked up over more than a decade of higher learning can leave you feeling defenseless.

Armed only with a few contacts, some volunteer experience, and more education than any reasonable person needs, I left my comfortable college town in Virginia and moved to Washington.

At first, it was remarkably easy. A single contact provided by a fellow graduate student quickly lead to more connections than I could keep track of without a database. One university vice president, after speaking to me about fund raising, gave me the names of high-ranking executives at other colleges and foundations in town. A curator at the National Gallery of Art took me to lunch.

I spoke to people at colleges, think tanks, foundations, and charities. With so many lunch appointments, I felt like an Upper East Side housewife. Few refused my request for an informational interview, and people were both kind and encouraging. They took an interest in my interests, and I was fascinated by their stories.

In a couple of weeks, I had learned enough about the world beyond the academy to believe that I might actually survive out there. Everyone warned me that I would be starting at the bottom, but after six years in graduate school I knew what the bottom felt like.

By following leads, devouring the Sunday classifieds, and surfing the Web like a porn fiend, I found advertisements for jobs that would suit me well. I could raise money for an organization upholding the separation of church and state. I could conduct research on plays and oversee educational programs for a theater company. I might serve as the executive assistant for the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

I crafted swift letters that answered every clichéd job requirement with a specific example from my experience. Excellent written communication skills? With a couple of articles and a "book-length" dissertation to my name, I had that one covered. Ability to present complex information clearly? Six years of teaching hundreds of undergraduates everything from irregular verbs to Platonic dialogues had taught me how to make complex subjects comprehensible. Strong research skills? Surely, my Ph.D. spoke for itself.

Two or three job applications left my apartment each day, but it seemed to be a one-way street. Several times a week, a card acknowledging receipt of an application appeared, reassuring me that the postal system still functioned. If the announcement didn't expressly forbid phone calls, I screwed up my courage and dialed the office to express my continued enthusiasm, although I couldn't tell if that helped my prospects.

And then, unexpectedly, I landed an interview, and I reminded myself that job searches take time, people have other concerns, and I can't expect to get a response immediately. For weeks after the interview, though, I heard nothing more about the job and no one else contacted me.

Then suddenly again, I got two additional interviews the same day, and I remembered that hiring is cyclical. I had been looking in the summer and people were off at the beach, and now things would certainly pick up.

Another month went by, and no one else called to offer an interview. Yet another month passed, and still no calls. I kept myself busy booking informational interviews. I honed my résumé and refined my search techniques. I learned to pull together an application tailored to a given potential employer's needs in an hour flat. I had become a seasoned job candidate, but it wasn't a skill I wanted to master.

Searching for a job during the worst employment market in recent memory felt like trying to get struck by lightning. In the end, no matter how polished a job candidate you become, you either get a job or you don't. After five months of searching, I hadn't.

Here's what 115 applications, 27 informational interviews, and 6 job interviews taught me: No one cares why you left academe.

Inside the ivory tower, we know that a Ph.D. in literature only qualifies you to teach, but in the real world no one considers a humanities doctorate as good for much of anything. You didn't step off an obvious career path; you just acquired a degree that makes no sense.

I found out that "smart" is a specific job skill. Having a Ph.D. convinces people that you possess "smart," but most jobs aren't looking for it. I discovered that it's not just in the academic job search and in casual dating where someone can spend time getting to know you, hint that you just might be the one, and never call again.

As my bank account dwindled and the bills continued to arrive, more desperate measures became necessary. Assuming that anyone could temp, I called some local employment agencies and was told that only candidates with at least four years of administrative experience need apply. One agency, though, noticed that I could speak Spanish and a few days later offered me a long-term, temporary assignment as a receptionist at a bank.

I had learned a valuable skill in graduate school, it turned out, or at least one that would earn me several dollars above the average hourly wage. And for the last seven months, that's where I've been. Answering phones, entering data, and filing documents in two languages.

Several people in the office have noted that I'm overqualified, and my duties seem to grow daily. I find some satisfaction in knowing that I must be the star of my officemates' most vivid anecdote about the anemic labor market: "Hey, you won't believe it. Our receptionist has a Ph.D."

After seven months as a temp, I've learned that if you keep your boss happy, your life will be better. In the corporate world, most people don't care how something was done, unless they now have the responsibility of fixing it. I've also realized that just working in an office is a skill. It's not a terribly hard skill to acquire, but it was clearly missing on my résumé before.

For the moment, I've stopped searching for a permanent job. In the next few weeks, I will test the waters again to see if things have improved. I'm hoping that when people see my résumé now, a little office experience just might be the edge that I need to finally get a job. Of course, a whole new class of freshly minted undergraduates has entered the competition for those entry-level positions that I'm after.

Todd A. Price, who earned his Ph.D. in Spanish from the University of Virginia, is searching for a nonacademic job. He writes a Web log called A Frolic of My Own.