The Office Space Myth

During the first weekend of the Humanities Without Walls pre-doctoral workshop, I caught the last half of Office Space on television. The fear of becoming a corporate drone is one many academics likely identify with. But the choice is not between Initech and academia. (Even if it were a choice between only those two options, academia has its own litany of issues — just check out the academic equivalent of Office Space, Tenure).

One of the most important things that the HWW workshop achieved was demonstrating the wide array of culturally and intellectually vibrant positions accessible to doctoral students. The organizers’ focus on “Public Humanities” (which emphasizes being a humanist in the world regardless of career) over “Alt-Ac” (“Alternative” academic careers imply a secondary status and suggest a preference for “regular” academic careers if they were accessible/available) demonstrated an openness that academic settings rarely achieve. I felt this openness throughout the workshop as organizers, participants, and presenters spoke frankly, building a wonderful sense of camaraderie.

Not pursuing a traditional academic position does not mean I’m “leaving” anything. I choose to have a fulfilling life and challenging work. I retain my right to be a historian and a humanist. My abilities and intelligence are not defined by the academic job market. I reject the (broken) system of academia.

It’s a Process

Somewhat recently, I had a professor tell me to think of the (academic) job market as a three to five year process. I continued smiling but immediately thought about how terrible the (academic) job market is. In part, because it actually is a multi-year process. You dip your toe in as an ABD and apply for a few good fits. The next year, you apply for everything out of complete panic. Maybe you get a postdoc or Visiting Assistant Professorship and keep applying. After that, maybe you’re part of the lucky half that gets a tenure-track job. Otherwise, you keep the dream for a few more years until you (hopefully) realize that you are worth more than continual temporary employment.

This is not to say that finding a job outside of academia is any less of a process. Most speakers during the HWWAltAc program have stressed the amount of effort, research, and time you need to put into your job search to find a good position for yourself. The process of a job search, however, gives you much more control than going on the academic job market.

For the academic job market, you do not need to do much investigating. The jobs are centralized on a list (or two lists if you check both H-Net and Inside Higher Ed*). The work is in finding every job for which you can stretch yourself to fit the description. After that, it’s about making a good impression and waiting for your call up to the majors^.

The nonacademic job market requires much more research and self-reflection. Because there are many positions in many industries, it is incumbent on the job seeker to find positions, companies, and industries that will provide sustainable work (emotionally, financially, and morally). There is no job list given to you. You need to make it. While this requires much more initial effort, it provides a much greater amount of control in terms of determining the work environment, location, and benefits you desire. During this program, many speakers have discussed the process of informational interviews (to learn about different fields and jobs), self-interrogation (to determine the skills you have, the work you enjoy doing, and the work environment in which you thrive), and patience needed to discover and work your way to a position that you find fulfilling.

Far too few graduate students bother to ask themselves if they’ll be happy being a professor (and especially being a professor at the type of institution that their department generally places). Whether looking for academic or nonacademic jobs (or both), don’t simply enter the market and hope someone buys you. Undertake a job search and discover a position that works for you.

* The italics are meant to convey the sarcastic nature behind this overgeneralization of the academic job market.
^ To use a sports analogy, as white men tend to do (without regard for who it may exclude)

It’s what you do that matters

Earlier in the week during the Humanities Without Walls workshop, we spent a whole day learning how to “pitch” ourselves. This kind of self-promotion often makes academics uneasy as “selling” yourself can feel awfully close to selling out. The fact is (as many people pointed out) academics constantly pitch themselves and their work in application letters, dissertation proposals, grant applications, and many other situations.

There is a big difference between academic and non-academic pitching, however. When pitching in academia, it’s who you are and where you are from. When pitching outside of academia, it’s what you do. For the world outside of academia, you want to gain skills and demonstrate your ability to use them. How you do this is irrelevant (generally speaking).

Think of the layout of a CV and what it questions it prioritizes. Where were you educated? Who were your advisors? Where have you published? Who has hired you? Who has given you grants and recognized your work? What conferences accepted you to speak? A CV asks who has already approved you and your work. The content of any of your research, writing, speaking, or teaching is far less important than where it took place — certainly for the first few rounds of cutting down the application pool.

When looking outside of academia for employment, the presentation of yourself becomes much more focused on what you do. You didn’t just teach a section of History 101. You constructed a syllabus, used educational technology, gave frequent public presentations (to your students), and managed the classroom. It’s much less important where you did these things than that you actually did them and could replicated the experience of (for example) speaking in public for your knew position.

One of the program’s speakers this week, a former executive at Google, said that ideas are overvalued. Many people (both in technology and academia) bury their ideas out of fear that someone will steal them. However, it’s not the idea that matters. It’s the execution. It’s not where you’re from. It’s what you do.

Brian Without Walls

For the next three weeks, I’m participating in the Humanities Without Walls Pre-Doctoral Workshop on alternative academic careers. We just completed day two and I wanted to blog a few of my initial thoughts:

I’ve noticed that the “without walls” metaphor is a great one for this workshop. Not only are we discussing doing the humanities in “the public” (outside the physical spaces of the academy), I find the workshop to be without the constraints (“walls”) of academia’s ideology. Most academic discussions of the job market focus on a duality. Are you in or out? Are you going to stay or leave? Will you choose a life of the mind or money? Will you prioritize your work or your life?

Thankfully, several of the speakers have explicitly rejected this duality. You do not need to be a professor to be a scholar. You do not need to be in academia to be an intellectual. You do not need to choose between a life of the mind and a life of basic material comfort. You can be a humanist while living any lifestyle. The concept of being “in” or “out” is completely artificial.

I think another important theme so far is value. The system of academia wants you to value being an academic above your financial stability and geographic location (among other things). I, and the many other graduate students seeking out alternative careers, choose looking for jobs that will satisfy our intellectual and material needs.

Speakers have encouraged us to think about the life we want, the activities we enjoy, and the skills we have in order to find careers outside of academia in which we would thrive.

One speaker made a point to emphasize valuing yourself as an expert. The hierarchy of academia says a graduate student is not yet a master, a “student.” In the public (the “real” world), we are already experts in many different areas. Valuing our knowledge and our skills opens the doors to a variety of fulfilling careers outside of traditional academia.

Academia puts walls up to make graduate students think they need to become professors. Breaking down these walls is vital to finding success in both life and work.