While I was driving from LA to Irvine to start my summer internship at the UC Humanities Research Institute, I decided to catch up on a This American Life Podcast. In a slight departure from the standard format, Ira Glass explained that his intention with “The Radio Drama Episode” (#528) was to remain faithful to the journalistic goal of telling true stories, but to do so in novel and dramatized ways. “The fact is, there are so many ways you can tell a true story,” Ira explained to me as I hurdled down the 405. “There are so, so many ways.”
[su_pullquote align=”right”]I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking–and authoring–alternative stories that are equally compelling and, to me at least, more exciting.[/su_pullquote]This idea that truth can be narrated in many non-competing ways is something that has resonated both in my PhD research on autobiographical texts by Italian women exiles during the Fascist period, and also in my self-discovery and exploration of my career path. You may be thinking now, “Well, yes–your PhD research overlaps with your career path because you’re going to be a professor!” But the truth is: I will not become a professor, at least not anytime soon. The market is still poor and the odds are not in my favor, and I don’t plan to dedicate the time and (emotional) resources to applying for jobs I probably won’t get. So while the PhD-to-professor route is the traditional career narrative for a person like me, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking–and authoring–alternative stories that are equally compelling and, to me at least, more exciting.
When I first decided to start my PhD program in 2010 my dream was to become a professor, but my goal was to finish my PhD I knew that the job market for Humanities professors wasn’t good (this was also around the time that seemingly every other op-ed piece condescendingly explained that only the independently wealthy or well-married contingent of society could responsibly decide to pursue a Humanities PhD) so I consciously decided to return to grad school without the final determination of success being tenure-track. I reasoned that self-discovery and the opportunity to contribute to the field were enough, and I don’t regret my choice (except in my darkest moments of dissertation-writing gloom, with which many of you can empathize). But as I’ve started to actively pursue jobs outside of academia I have had to wrestle my narrative away from the default:
[su_note note_color=”#6f948f” text_color=”#ffffff” radius=”15″]Young scholar returns to graduate school during the recession. Pursues PhD in the Humanities, studies a very narrow and specific research topic. When finding a professor position proves difficult, decides to explore the private sector with limited job experience.[/su_note]
That’s not me! I mean, it is me, but I don’t like that version of me. I much prefer:
[su_note note_color=”#6f948f” text_color=”#ffffff” radius=”15″]Recent college graduate makes a discipline-oriented career decision: still somewhat unsure of what type of work to do long-term, follows passion for all things Italian and enrolls in PhD program. While developing skills as a researcher, analyst and communicator, discovers through extra curriculars a passion for administrative organization and management. Decides to re-focus long-term career goals and pursues work-oriented career choices outside of academia to capitalize on the 5+ years of professional training received during PhD[/su_note]
Doesn’t the second version of me sound like someone who will get a job? But more importantly, doesn’t it sound like someone who will get a job that she wants?
[su_pullquote align=”right”]…employers don’t want to be your last choice any more than you want to work for your last choice, so if you’re going to have any success making Plan B work, you need to present it as if it were Plan A.[/su_pullquote]I recognize that for many graduate students, leaving academia is not desired, and that can make it seem like giving up on the dream is a failure. But there are many reasons to rethink your narrative when you do decide that it’s time to look for alternative careers. In the most practical of explanations, employers don’t want to be your last choice any more than you want to work for your last choice, so if you’re going to have any success making Plan B work, you need to present it as if it were Plan A. Will this feel disingenuous? Perhaps; that will depend on what your goals and dreams were going into the PhD But the other reason to rework your personal trajectory is that you’ll be happier if you can believe (at least a version of) it as well. It’s the same reasoning behind “fake it ‘till you make it,” eventually you won’t have to pretend you’re getting what you want, you’ll just be succeeding at life.
[su_pullquote]How many other people can say that they’ve led a diverse team (class) of 25 (or many more!) through difficult abstract problem solving (e.g. explanation of Sausurre’s “theory of the sign”)?[/su_pullquote]I have colleagues and friends who have left academia for really incredible jobs–the types of jobs that people go into debt at professional schools to obtain (I’ll avoid specific details so as not to unfairly “out” anyone). And I’ve heard some of those same people refer to their “useless” PhD, as if the time they spent in graduate school and the credential they received was truly without worth. Nothing could be further from the truth! Understandably, having a PhD will not set you up for a corporate job the way an MBA would, but the time spent getting a PhD is chock full of professional (yes, professional) training that most people never receive. Any job that involves research, analysis or communication is fair game for a PhD Do you have teaching experience? Great! Jobs that are looking for “leadership” or “entrepreneurship” are in the bag too. How many other people can say that they’ve led a diverse team (class) of 25 (or many more!) through difficult abstract problem solving (e.g. explanation of Sausurre’s “theory of the sign”)? These are skills, and the fact that humanities PhDs employ them in the complicated and ambiguous world of grad school means that we are uniquely positioned to translate those experiences into creative approaches to the private sector. We’re unique in a way that can only be taught once you get to 16-24th grade, and our hard-won training is valuable even if there are no tenure-track positions available.
UPDATE: Since writing this article, I have been offered a job at McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm that actively recruits PhDs. For a bit of perspective, out of my husband’s MBA class, not a single student got this position. That makes my PhD very, very valuable, and I can guarantee you will never hear me call it “useless.”