Monday, October 04, 2010

Get Thee to Boot Camp: Combating Obstacles on the Non-Academic Track

Over the weekend I made a mental list of the top 3 alternate careers I would most like to pursue if I either cannot find a tenure-track academic job or choose to leave the academy irrespective of my future prospects in the ivory tower.

In no particular order they are:
1. Writer/editor/researcher (in an academic, government, or corporate setting)
2. Head reference librarian (university, research, or public)
3. University administration, especially something along the lines of "associate director and/or director of ______ program" (women studies, career services, and the like)

Now, all of these options sound fairly reasonable for someone with a Ph.D. who also works as a freelance writer on the side. But there are large, disheartening obstacles attached to each alternate career I have listed. I can sorta see the light at the end of the tunnel but am unsure whether I'm 100% ready and willing to start jumping through a new set of hoops, or climbing ropes, or scaling fences, or doing push ups. (Although the intense workout would be a pretty sweet bonus in any case.)

Am I fit enough to navigate my way through?
Working as a full-time writer, in whatever setting, usually requires several years of steady employment experience. Right now I have a checkered professional history, with most of my experience involving part-time undergraduate teaching in one form or another as well as unpaid or low-paid administrative positions. I have never actually been hired by an organization to work specifically as a "writer" 9-5pm, M-F; instead I write a column, occasionally proofread for others, and publish various non-academic articles here and there, depending on the work available. Is this enough to land a job as a staff writer, despite my lack of full-time experience or references outside academe? Only time will tell.

The 2nd option, working at a library, is even more fraught with difficulties. Becoming a reference librarian requires an MLS degree in addition to the Ph.D. I have looked into this and experienced a feeling of revulsion upon learning that I would need to pay for and retake the GRE; submit undergrad transcripts; find people willing to write letters of recommendation; demonstrate mastery of a foreign language (again); and pay thousands of dollars to sit through 36 more credit hours of schooling. Um, yuck. It's not that I'm against going back to school, I just don't know if it would be worth it to me in the long run as an unemployed 30 something, when there are so many other things, I hope, that I can do with just a Ph.D. But the idea of being surrounded by books 24-7, and not having to sell anything, is awfully tempting.

Breaking into university administration sounds less than glamorous, I must admit, but it would allow me to use what I know and tap into my type-A personality skill set. I like the idea of helping to run a program and continuing to work with academics and students. But would I enjoy working with university staff and higher-up admin types on a daily basis? Again, I have no idea. Therein lies the problem. With limited administrative experience, and no experience managing people or budgets, why would anyone hire me for an administrative position when there are more than enough qualified applicants looking for work right now? My sense is that HR would place my application in the "REJECT" pile straight away, unless I had special connections. Hmm . . . need to work on establishing those connections.

In sum, I don't have a steady employment history doing, well, anything; I've spent the last 10 years in school and part-time teaching but I no longer relish the thought of teaching as much I used to; I don't have the additional qualifications necessary to work in a library; my lack of administrative experience doesn't bode well for an office job; and I haven't worked long or steadily enough as a freelance writer to prove that I'd be a good hire for a staff writer position.

Ugh, back to square one. If I was really smart I would establish a "Kick Your Soft Ph.D. Ass Into Gear" career transition boot camp. As long as the fees were low, I bet there would be plenty of takers. Who wouldn't like to tone up, lose a few pounds and prepare for a new career all in one go?

Ready to get buff and make $!?!


Caroline said...

With writing/freelance writing, the only thing to do is to keep on truckin' with the side gigs and send out your resume to full-time jobs anyway. Brushing up on editorial and production skills can help because many entry- to mid-level editorial jobs require an editorial test. ( can help you prep for this) If you pass the editorial test, you'll at least get an interview. It's the closest thing to a meritocracy you can find in a job market!

WorstProfEver said...

The library is, as you say, perhaps not such a great option since it requires another degree. I know people who've done it and they tell me it's not worth it.

But university admin is definitely worth checking out -- a Phd friend fled the coop and got an "assistant to the assistant to the director/big kahuna" type job and she's already making more money and working far fewer hours than she was while teaching.

You could do some informational interviews to find out more about the work as well as to network (this is partly how my friend got her job).

Eliza Woolf said...

Thanks, Caroline and WPE, for your comments and suggestions. Glad to hear my career plan Bs are not completely impossible. (I appreciate the link to the editorial test, too!)
After reading the recent, helpful techno 101 posts @,
I'm pretty terrified to try to go the techno-writerly route. The sad truth is I'm just a simple humanities girl at heart with seriously limited technical skills and only a tepid interest in learning html, java, and so on. Maybe my opinion will change in the future . . .

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