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.”)