Taking Life Outside the Academy Seriously: Advice for Advisors

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by Tim R. Johnston

The year I was finishing my dissertation and entering the job market, my funding was abruptly cut by 75%. Unable to pay my bills and looking for employment, I reached out to my contacts in professional activism. After a bumpy month of cover letters, resumes, and interviews, I landed a full-time job, which I love.

I’m not the first person to leave the academy, and it isn’t news that academic employment and funding are ultra-competitive. There’s no guarantee you’ll get that tenure-track job, but what I came to appreciate, and what I think many academics take for granted, is the fact that the path from student to professor is laid out with comforting predictability. Leaving higher education meant giving that up, and graduate school did nothing to help me prepare for life outside the university.

The first and primary role of any graduate program is to produce excellent academics, but programs need to do better jobs of understanding the non-academic pressures graduate students face and acting accordingly.

Here are three ways to start:

  1. Remember what economic and professional insecurity feels like, and give appropriate advice

Two months after starting my new position, several tenured colleagues expressed disappointment in the fact that I hadn’t stuck it out for a couple of years on the academic job market. They were convinced I’d eventually get a job and make interesting contributions to the discipline. I was touched by these comments, but also frustrated that none of these people acknowledged that with 65% of my monthly income going to rent, I couldn’t afford to be without stable work for more than two weeks, let alone a couple of years.

Often, the decision to leave higher education has little to do with aptitude, publishing, or promise, and everything to do with economics. It’s also a decision made from a position of fear. Many graduate students, especially those saddled with considerable debt, are one or two stipend checks away from losing the roof over their heads. Faculty who respond to students’ fears by assuring them that everything will work out, or by brushing it off as a rite of passage (“All graduate students are poor. I made it, you can too.”) are not only doing a disservice to their students, they’re perpetuating a harmful system of economic insecurity rather than fighting it.

Pay your students a fair wage, use your tenure to fight for their rights, and don’t provide assurances that things will work out when they might not. Three additional years on the job market are three years that a student could be locating other fulfilling work and building a new career.

  1. Help your students explain their skills and build their resumes

Defenders of humanities education point to the fact that it makes us sharp critical thinkers and great writers. This is true, but those skills are useless if you don’t know how to explain them to employers. I’ve learned that my dissertation positioned me as a “thought leader” in my field, teaching gave me “strong cross-cultural communication skills,” and my department’s logic requirement sharpened my “strategic thinking and analytic ability.” This sounds like corporate doublespeak, because it is, but every field has its jargon, and students should be encouraged to articulate their skills across multiple idioms. Tell your students to visit the career center, monitor job advertisements in other fields, and think about how their work can be preparation for employment outside the university.

Relatedly, programs should encourage students to fill out their resumes by getting involved in projects, groups, activities, and activism outside the department and outside the university. My success on the job market is due entirely to the connections and skills I developed volunteering at social justice organizations. Potential employers will want to know what you’ve been doing during that 5- to 10-year chunk of time on your resume, and “rethinking Kantian aesthetics” isn’t going to fly. Departments can bring in speakers from outside the university to discuss their work, schedule classes to allow for volunteer work or part-time employment, and support, rather than censure, students who spend time in pursuits other than their Ph.D.

  1. Landing a non-academic job isn’t a failure, it’s a great accomplishment, so don’t dismiss candidates working outside tenured or tenure-track positions

I’ve been flummoxed by more than a few manuscript submission pages that won’t let me proceed without selecting my “College or University,” and I’ve attended conferences where my name tag reading “Independent Scholar” might as well have said “Don’t Take Me Seriously.”

I don’t begrudge anyone who has secured a tenure-track position, and I recognize that those who are able to devote all their time and attention to the discipline may be more in touch with current debates and literatures. Be that as it may, many people who spread their attention across multiple projects, or who work outside an institutional setting, are also fantastic philosophers.

I would love to see more departments recognize that working outside the academy for a time can enrich one’s thinking, reinvigorate one’s desire to teach, and also help others outside philosophy departments see the value in philosophical reflection and scholarship. I still publish, and there might come a day when I want to return to academic philosophy, but when I accepted my current job, I was told, “You have one year, maybe two, before a hiring committee will immediately toss your application into the trash.” Ignoring candidates who have spent time working outside higher education isn’t rational; it’s a form of gatekeeping that prevents qualified candidates from being evaluated on their merits. If you’re hiring, planning a conference, or evaluating journal submissions, use that as an opportunity to bring in fresh voices and give all submissions fair and rigorous consideration.

Leaving the academic job market isn’t a sign of failure, and planning for that contingency isn’t going to jinx anyone’s career. There’s a way to support your students’ academic aptitude and goals while also asking, “What can we do to strengthen your Plan B?”

Tim R. Johnston is the Assistant Director of Social Enterprise and Training for SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender older adults. He tweets at @johnstontimr, and you can find out more about his academic research and activism here

One thought on “Taking Life Outside the Academy Seriously: Advice for Advisors

  1. Congratulations to you, Tim.
    I hope your non-academic position becomes increasingly fulfilling for you as the years go by.

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