FAQ from the Lecture Circuit

by Susan Basalla May
Chronicle of Higher Education
March 19, 2007

In 2000, Maggie Debelius and I published So What Are You Going to Do With That?, a book offering advice and support for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s seeking careers outside of academe. While revising the book for a new edition released this month, I started thinking about what has changed in the world of alternative careers since we wrote the original manuscript.

The first major change is obvious: The dot-com boom is over and, with it, a period of unusually high demand for graduate students in the corporate world. When Internet companies needed people who could think in new ways and adapt to a fast-growing medium, graduate students fit the bill. While it's sad to see that era end, Ph.D.'s continue to have plenty of nonacademic career options.

The second big change is the substantial increase in the number of universities that have hired career counselors who work exclusively (or at least most of the time) with graduate students.

Ten years ago, it seemed that only a handful of elite universities had graduate career counselors on staff. Virginia Steinmetz, director of career services for graduate students at Duke University, tells me that the Graduate Career Consortium -- a group of career counselors for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s -- had fewer than 10 members in the early 1990s but welcomed close to 50 attendees at its most recent annual meeting. That news is heartening, as such counselors continue to be a crucial yet often undervalued resource.

But when I think about the many graduate students I have met over the years as a result of the book, I am struck by how little has actually changed, largely because the population continually renews itself. I've given more than a dozen talks to graduate students about preparing for a nonacademic career and the question-and-answer sessions always seem to return to a similar set of concerns.

While the revised edition of our book deals with those issues in much greater depth, I thought it would helpful here to outline a list of frequently asked questions along with my usual answers.

How do I explain to potential employers that I didn't finish my dissertation? The good news is that few employers will hold an unfinished dissertation against you. The bad news is that your dissertation is usually irrelevant to an employer.

Your dissertation may have soaked up every ounce of your mental energy for the last several years, but unless it provides you with direct experience in the nonacademic field you want to enter, an employer is unlikely to be interested in that work.

If an employer does happen to ask why you didn't finish, the best approach is to describe your disillusionment with the esoteric nature of your project and your desire to use your skills to do something more practical, something more hands-on, something that will serve a broader audience. Pick one or all of those reasons.

The real challenge in answering questions about your dissertation in a job interview, however, is managing your own anxiety and emotions. One of the most common mistakes you can make is to talk too much, or too intently, about your dissertation during an interview. It's important to resolve your own feelings about your dissertation (such as frustration with your adviser or self-imposed shame about not finishing, for example) before your job search in order to be sure that you can keep your answers short and relevant when talking to potential employers.

How do I get started as a freelancer? Many graduate students are drawn to the idea of being their own boss, setting their own schedule, and working from home. If the business you're looking to start is related to academic work (such as copyediting research papers) or involves a field in which you already have a good deal of experience, then I recommend visiting your university's career center or local library to find resources.

But if you're hoping to establish yourself as a freelancer in a new field, then I suggest you reconsider. It's difficult to establish a profitable freelance business under any circumstances, but it's nearly impossible to do so without a long list of contacts who know your work and will be eager to hire you.

The best approach in this case is to view self-employment as a longer-term goal: Look for a job within the field in which you eventually want to freelance. That way, you can build a list of contacts and learn a set of skills and then, a few years later, make the transition into freelance work.

How do I get a job in management consulting? Consulting is often recommended as a possible career for former academics. The analytical skills that you honed in a doctoral program are good preparation for consulting work, and a job that seems to place a high value on brainpower is understandably appealing. Your university career center is the best resource for learning about the different consulting firms and their unusual interviewing style.

However, it's important to recognize that for those of us without demonstrated technical or quantitative skills, the chances of being hired as a consultant are slim.

If you're considering consulting as a career, you should ask yourself some key questions: Do you understand exactly what the job involves? Do you have experience in the business world? Do you have reason to think you would enjoy the culture of the workplace?

I failed to ask myself those questions when I tried to get a consulting job after graduate school and wasted a good deal of time trying to land a position in a field that was entirely wrong for me. In retrospect, I realized that my ego was leading me astray. I was hoping that getting a high-paying, prestigious job would save me from looking like a "failure" in front of my academic peers. Today, I actually work in consulting, but only after many years of gaining the right experience and for the right reasons.

Did you talk to any tenure-track faculty members who decided to leave academe? It's easy enough to imagine a much-abused adjunct or lecturer abandoning academe for another career when the financial and emotional cost becomes unbearable. But most people assume that anyone lucky enough to land a tenure-track job would never leave unless forced out.

Over the years, however, I have heard from a number of former faculty members who did just that. It's not a common tale, by any means, but it's not the impossibility that many imagine it to be. Their reasons for leaving were similar: feeling isolated in their new department, longing for the collegiality of graduate school, and, in some cases, being disappointed with their students' level of attentiveness or preparation at their new institution.

Those negatives are familiar to many new professors. Graduate students often experience varying degrees of culture shock in their first year as a full-time faculty member. Financial and emotional strain caused by relocating to a new area and/or being separated from loved ones can compound the problem.

But for most faculty members, those negative feelings are outweighed by the joy of reaching the academic summit (almost) and the hope of eventually earning tenure. What distinguishes the professors who decide to leave is that the scales never balance for them.

While those are my usual answers to some of the questions I am asked most often, keep in mind that the details of your particular situation might prompt me to respond differently. I recognize that each person brings a unique set of skills, talents, quirks, preferences, and values to their search for meaningful work, and that's exactly why I enjoy talking with graduate students so much: Every story they tell and every question they ask has the potential for sparking ideas and connections that I would have never have made on my own.

Susan Basalla is the one of the two authors of So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, recently released in a revised and updated edition by the University of Chicago Press. Basalla earned her Ph.D. in English from Princeton.