Swimming Against the Tide: Alternative Careers after the PhD

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source: wisciblog.com

source: wisciblog.com

Sometimes we find ourselves caught in a current, headed toward a known, but undesired destination. It takes a little effort to reset our course, a few strong side strokes to pull us out of the momentum of the moving water until we are picked up by another stream.  For the last six years, I have been training to be a professor.  The English PhD program at Northeastern has taught me to be an astute reader of culture, a critic of discriminatory ideologies, an observer of systems, a writer skilled in argument, and a teacher ready to pass on these skills to a new generation of learners. As I moved along the stages of coursework, exams, and dissertation writing, the tenure track carrot dangled before me. But, half way through, disillusion set in.  I’m not here to share the doom and gloom that clouds today’s academic job market (you can find plenty of that here).  While I enjoy teaching, I wanted to engage with a wider community beyond the university boundaries. Finding an alternative career path takes some effort, but can lead you to promising horizons.  Here’s what I learned along the way.

Search Your Soul, Then Do Your Research

After many years pursuing a PhD, it felt like defeat to turn away from the professor Holy Grail.  But, I could no longer ignore my feelings of disconnection.  Coming from rural Maine, I want to mediate the gap that divides the world of academics and the working class in which I grew up. I brainstormed careers that would serve my goals of public engagement in the arts, community building and cultural education.  After some research, I realized my skills could find a home at cultural centers, publishing houses, museums, historical societies, nonprofits, research and philanthropic foundations. Be open to alternatives if you want your career prospects to widen.

Tap Your Network

When I initially approached my dissertation committee with my career doubts, I feared I would be ostracized for ‘dropping out’ of academia.  My announcement was met with some caring resistance. Trained as professors themselves, my advisors worried they would be unable to give me the alternative career advice I sought.  As my career goals solidified, they helpfully suggested colleagues working in publishing and nonprofits that I could contact for informational interviews.  I also discovered a burgeoning online community of PhDs like me seeking alternative academic (alt-ac) careers. Following the #altac community and tapping my network gave me the language to articulate my growing interests. 

Create Opportunities for Growth

To learn more about arts administration, I began to seek opportunities to test those waters.  I volunteered with the English Graduate Student Association’s (EGSA)  annual conference doing administrative tasks like booking rooms, creating marketing materials, and setting up receptions.  Finding I had a knack for organization, I proposed the EGSA add an art exhibit to the conference.  The first exhibit was a modest two day show featuring local artists, yet, in my mind it was a success as I watched an idea come to fruition.   The next year I dreamed bigger and secured a space in Gallery 360.

Photograph by Genie Giaimo

Photograph by Genie Giaimo

That same year, I dabbled further in arts development by creating an online journal, The OrrisThe Orris was a collective of graduate students, writers and artists who sought an outlet for our creative work.  Eventually, The Orris team disbanded as dissertations, families and careers took precedence, but during our time, we created a media brand, crafted mission statements and editorial policies, developed work flows, strategized marketing plans and hosted community events with a volunteer team, little funds and few resources.  With a little extra effort, you can create your own opportunities to learn new skills and make career connections.

Seek Out Mentors

The Orris experience solidified my desire to work in the arts and culture industry, but it also showed me where I need further training.  Entrepreneurship is a much touted value in today’s world, but to be an idea maker, we must first learn the logistical intricacies of putting ideas into action.  Mentors play an essential role in providing leadership guidance for young professionals. Though I am blessed with a supportive academic committee, in the year ahead I look forward to gaining a new set of mentors to teach me how to be an effective manager and leader.

As I begin my final semester and finalize my dissertation, I am eager to see where this new current will carry me. In this blog series, I’ll share my experiences on the alt-ac job market as I count down to graduation. From now until May, join me on the First Thursday of each month for resources on turning CVs into resumes, identifying transferrable skills, the value of networking, and developing your professional persona online.

Lana Cook - HeadshotLana Cook is a PhD candidate in the English department at Northeastern University. Her dissertation traces the development of the psychedelic aesthetic in mid-twentieth century American literature and film. Lana is a 2013-2014 graduate fellow at the Humanities Center.  She received her bachelors of arts at University of New Hampshire.  You can follow her on Twitter @lanacook or Linkedin

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