Timing the Transition

Being an ABD graduate student with #alt-ac aspirations often feels refreshingly rebellious, but also (very) scary. For many of us, being an academic is more than a profession — it’s an identity, and when we think about giving that up, there’s a lot at stake. We feel judged. We grieve.

However, aside from this kind of existential crisis (and graduate students have plenty of those; impostor syndrome, anyone?), there are also more practical problems to consider — such as how to time a transition out of academe. One basic problem is that conventional academic job searches typically take the full academic year from ad to offer; people routinely apply a year in advance. Jobs in other sectors of academe or outside it, however, have much earlier start dates. In many cases, those jobs are available “now.”

In my case, I still have a dissertation to finish and my job/fellowship prospects for next year are as yet unknown. I’m not on the academic job market this year —  and indeed, whether ABDs should be on the market is a controversial topic: some academic jobs seem to be structured in such a way that people can’t finish their dissertations, other ABDs manage to work and finish writing, and others choose to defend and graduate before beginning the job hunt in earnest.

Most days, I feel like I should finish before looking. This way, I can strategically use the time I have left to prepare for a postacademic life: I can volunteer/intern to explore career possibilities and gain experience, conduct informational interviews, or even take some classes to develop skills I might currently lack. I can avoid, at least for a little while, the self-doubt and indecisiveness which is the job seeker’s plight.

Other days, however, I feel like my life is on hold, that maybe it’s fear that’s preventing me from really moving on from my life as a graduate student. These are the days I just want to apply for the alternative or non-academic jobs I stalk online and covet, and my dissertation will either be finished or it won’t, but at least I’ll have *done* something proactive about my life. (I’ve also seen the advice that academics should start applying to these kinds of jobs sooner rather than later, partly because it takes us a while to figure out the non-academic market, including preparing job materials for an entirely different audience than we’re used to.)

I started reading job ads in the first place as a way to figure out my options, but now they’ve created this anxiety about timing. When I was preparing for my qualifying exams and trying to figure out my areas of expertise, I was told to read the MLA job ads so that I had a better idea of how to make myself marketable. Seeing how historical and conceptual areas were defined by hiring committees gave me important insight into how to construct my own professional identity, with an eye towards marketability. Even though my gaze now wanders beyond the ivory walls, I still read ads for the types of jobs I think I want — not for typical faculty posts, but jobs in archives, libraries, historical societies, museums. Jobs for project managers, coordinators, researchers, advisors.

And while I do believe that doing so has given me a much better sense of my options and how to market myself for different audiences, I can’t avoid the feeling that I’m watching opportunities slip by.

And I keep asking myself: when’s the right time to make my move? (It seems the answer is always “just one more year.”)

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3 Responses to “Timing the Transition”


  1. 1 WorstProfEver November 10, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Yes, the “just one more year” clause can lead to a time warp that lasts ten or more years…I know it’s common wisdom to finish the diss, but I’ve got the damned PhD and I’ve got to tell you it’s not helping on the non-academic job market. But of course it also depends on how much time you’ve already put in, and how you feel about sunk cost.

    Re: the timing, you can’t wait for an epiphany, because it will never come. And the transition is never easy, no matter what the timing, and there will always be moments of self-doubt. So really, any time is the right time. The most important thing is to commit fully to the change — and, yes, lay the groundwork to start seriously job searching before your stipend runs out!

  2. 2 alternativephd November 10, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Hm, I guess there was a little bit of waiting for the epiphany going on. (Yikes! Just when I thought I was all about making active choices about my life.)

    And true, just not finishing is always a choice — and definitely one that’s easy to forget about. Something tells me that “vengeance” might not a good enough motivation for finishing (and then proceeding to hightail it out of conventional academia and kicking ass doing something way of the tenure track).

    • 3 WorstProfEver November 11, 2010 at 9:25 am

      Sadly, I did get my PhD mostly out of spite (my grad program was legendarily sadistic) and it worked all right. But again, I wouldn’t recommend it because it was the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory for my soul, bank account, etc.

      Sorry about the non-epiphany thing. I can tell you that I had literally thousands of moments of “I can’t take this any more”, which is why I can’t say there was a single moment of clarity. If I had to identify the actual turning point, it was when I said these words to my chair: “Actually, I’m not applying for renewal next year, and I’m not going on the job market. I’m leaving academia.”

      As they say in cognitive therapy, motivation follows action.


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