Jumping Ship: Navigating the Waters of Alternative Career Options

Alyssa Colton | January 2012

For those who always thought they'd be teaching in academia and now are wondering what else they can do

“The way they responded to me was a revelation. They knew me even before I walked into the room,” Chambers said. “My listserv had apparently made a huge impact on them—not to mention on the thousands of grad students who had benefited from it over the years, many of whom stayed in the community long after they got settled in nonacademic careers (and in fact are still there today).” Chambers has made The Versatile PhD her full-time occupation; the site currently has over 10,000 individual members and twenty-six institutional members. Chambers is an example of how seeing and responding to a need may open up otherwise overlooked possibilities.

One of the most powerful forces that prevent people from seriously considering all of their options is psychological. Many students progressing towards a PhD find that not only do they expect to eventually secure a tenure-track college or university position, but that their advisers expect them to as well. Yet academia “is one choice among millions, although we often lose that perspective after spending years surrounded by people who’ve chosen identical careers,” Basalla and Debelius write. One of the biggest barriers to job seekers fully exploring alternative careers, they note, is fear of failure.

Paula Chambers concurs: “The most difficult part, in my opinion, is the inner challenge of overcoming the feeling of failure or inadequacy that often accompanies thoughts of leaving the academy. The only acceptable career is an academic career—ideally a tenure-track position at an R-1 university. Your sense of self-worth totally wraps itself around that ideal, becoming distorted in the process.”

Sabine Hikel, a PhD in political science, writes in the blog that she kept for several years at leavingacademia.com, “When you’re thinking of leaving academia, there are a mountain of fears to face: what if I can’t get a job doing something else? I don’t even know what my other options are! What else could I possibly do with my life? What if leaving is a terrible decision that I regret for the rest of my life? But against those fears were, for me, some basic truths: I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t living up to my creative potential. I wasn’t being an agent of change.”

Can one be happy outside of academia? Basalla and Debelius cite a 1999 study published in the Communicator in which many people with PhDs in English working outside of academia reported high job satisfaction. Chambers lists many advantages of leaving academia: usually it pays better; you have more options in terms of location; there is more opportunity for advancement and variation throughout your career. She notes that the stories featured on her website highlight many happy post-academics.

Admittedly, it may be difficult to think about what seems like a full-throttle shift away from academia after devoting several years and probably no small amount of money to your graduate degree. If you are still in school, though, Basalla and Debelius recommend that you carve out some time to pursue other interests; perhaps take on a part-time job, volunteer work, or an internship that may give you insight into other areas of work. They especially recommend gaining skills in an office setting, not only because you develop skills in basic office tasks, but also because this experience can show prospective employers your ability to work in a team environment. They also recommend taking courses outside of your area, such as in a language, computers, or business. Such experience will not only help you on a practical level; it will also give you confidence to pursue other work. “If you can keep your horizons broad throughout your program, pick up work and volunteer experience along the way, and note down everything you do (for your resume); at graduation you will feel confident, capable, versatile, and you will not plunge into a black hole of despair if you happen not to get an academic job,” says Chambers.

Writers should use some of their creative energies
in envisioning a life that is both sustainable
and nurturing to their dreams.

Many of those interviewed by Basalla and Debelius seem to have almost stumbled upon their careers, often while doing part-time work in graduate school. However, Basalla and Debelius outline a more methodical approach. First, they recommend you look inward, identifying what’s blocking you from considering other options—such as fear of failure or the myth that it’s too late to change—and to replace these thoughts with questions that will help you narrow down other tracks. Once you’ve narrowed down your list to a few options, start finding people with whom to conduct informational interviews. These are meetings with someone in the field in which you ask questions about what it’s like to work in that field and what kinds of steps you might need to take to get there. The important thing to stress in such an interview is that your primary motive is not a job, but to gather information. These people are not only valuable sources of information, but they may also help you start to build a network.

Probably even more than other English PhDs, creative writers with ABDs or PhDs often have a variety of experiences in trying to find a sustainable path for their careers as writers. Erik Abbott, a playwright and director, is one example. Abbott is currently working on a dissertation for his PhD in theater from CUNY Graduate Center. He has always known that he wanted to be involved in the theater world, and after acting for a while, he began writing and directing plays. He received an MFA in 2000 from Hamline University in St. Paul. Currently, he lives in Luxembourg, where he is working on starting his own theater company. While he doesn’t see himself as being in a position to become a professor, he acknowledges the value of his MFA and PhD experiences: “I think the two grad school experiences will serve me very well in the attempt to start a theater company. Certainly I am a much better director—I have a much more discerning ear for a good script and a much better eye for the stage, largely because I know a lot more now. I also have a lot more confidence in my own abilities; I know I’ve had a very solid grounding and I have a lot of highly relevant experience. In short, at least on the production end, I know what I’m doing.”

Abbott believes that his training in writing in a variety of genres has helped him obtain good work in the past. Writers should use some of their creative energies in envisioning a life that is both sustainable and nurturing to their dreams.“People who can communicate clearly and creatively are sadly rare, and those who can do it on paper are more so,” Abbott says. “We have to be creative about how and when we can be creative. I try to devote some time every day to thinking about our theater project. I also try not to let that overwhelm my dissertation work. The dissertation right now is my job.”

For some, pursuing another job may in the end be just another step on the journey to permanent employment in academia. Mary Lannon, who earned her PhD in English in 2002, worked for two years as a reporter for a local newspaper. When she returned to the academic job market, she was able to sell her ability to teach journalism as well as courses in literature, composition, and creative writing, and she landed a tenure-track position at Nassau Community College.

Clearly, there are many options. Though none of them are necessarily easy, and many may not allow us to write as much as we’d perhaps like to, we also don’t have to be stuck in a rut that’s not serving us well.


Alyssa Colton earned a PhD in English with a creative dissertation in 2001 from the State University of New York at Albany. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at The College of St. Rose in Albany, New York. She is also a freelance writer and can be found at www.alyssabcolton.com. Grateful acknowledgment to Paula Chambers for her assistance with this article.

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