Another perspective on The Non Academic Job Search

by Cheryl Browne

Regarding "The truth about the nonacademic job search" posted in the last group email, I'd like to add a different perspective.

My decision not to go the traditional academic route was the best decision I've ever made, and my experience has been in many ways the opposite of that the author describes.

Granted, one reason my experience was so different from the author's is that my Ph.D. is in Psychology, which is arguably easier to transfer into the "real world" than Comp Lit, but still, in my graduate department only one or two other people that I know of, the entire time I was in school, decided not to pursue a position on the faculty of a university (or a postdoc toward that end). Plus, I completely changed fields after my degree -- from a very theoretical, non-clinical, non-applied area of Cognitive Developmental Psy to research on mental illness at Harvard Med School, without any background or experience whatsoever in the new field (or even any clinical background). This job is a perfect fit for me, and I get to do all the things I loved doing in grad school -- designing research studies, writing journal articles, attending conferences, and collaborating with brilliant peers. In the next year or two I will be appointed to the medical school faculty, without having to teach.

The author's decision to leave the academy apparently resulted in losing all his or her friends. I had several close friendships in grad school, including with my advisor. Every one of these friends was extremely supportive of my decision, which I made about half-way through my time there (eight years total). After teaching a couple of classes and realizing that research was where my heart was, I decided that I didn't want to spend a significant portion of my life doing something I don't enjoy. To me it seems that "friends" who are as judgmental and unsupportive as the author's are not really friends to begin with.

Regarding networking, my dissertation committee and several other faculty members in the department gave me contact info of people they knew in the Boston area (where I moved two days after my final defense because of my husband's postdoc at Brandeis). In several cases they contacted these people themselves to put in a good word for me. Unlike the author, I didn't solely rely on people from the academy I already knew. I also contacted dozens of Yale alumni (my undergrad alma mater) from a list on the school's website. I set up meetings with many of those in the Boston area, and each was more than happy to help me. I also told everyone I knew about my situation, including people I met at parties and other social gatherings, and some of them had very helpful advice. In one case a friend of a friend was directly responsible for landing me an interview. Networking is about casting the net far and wide, with the idea that anyone can potentially be helpful in some way - and you never know when you will meet that key person in a position to influence hiring decisions for a job you want.

The author also predicts you will lose your mentors. Again, every one of the faculty members who knew me respected my judgment and was extremely supportive of my decision, even though it was an unusual one in the department.

Further, my Ph.D., as well as the research and thinking skills I developed while earning it, was integral to my getting hired into my present position, even though my degree is not even in the same field. My employer recognizes that getting through a Ph.D. program at a good university says a lot about a person, and that content, by contrast, can easily be learned.

The author also predicts that you will lose your"definition of self worth." If your self worth is based on having learned a certain jargon, the number of pages of one's dissertation written in a week, or the papers you've graded, I'd say that's a broader psychological problem, not a professional one.

Finally, while it's true that when people change courses in any way, including career-wise but also through life events such as undergoing relationship changes, starting college, moving to a new city, and becoming a parent, they face a period of "not knowing what [they] will become," I don't see this as an inherently negative thing. I experienced it as an exciting challenge and as a chance to explore aspects of the world and life from which I'd been sheltered for so long. To me, life would be much less interesting if I always knew what I would become.

Like anything else, your career satisfaction is based not so much the cards you're dealt but how you play them.

Cheryl Browne, Ph.D. (UT-Psychology)
Research Associate
Division on Addictions
Harvard Medical School
Department of Psychiatry