A Career in Tutoring

by Susan Basalla May

Chronicle of Higher Education
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Beyond the Ivory Tower--What you should know about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.'s

In interviewing former graduate students for a book on nonacademic careers, I often asked about the route they had followed to a career outside higher education. Over and over again, I heard them say that a part-time job -- undertaken merely to pay the bills during graduate school -- became the first step toward a viable and fulfilling alternative career.

Anna Patchias is one such student: She began tutoring elementary- and high-school students while working toward her doctorate in English because tutoring paid much better than being a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia. During her time in graduate school, she began taking on administrative tasks at a tutoring company, in addition to working with students. Thanks to her academic training and credentials, she was able to step into the role of executive director when the opportunity arose, and today owns the company.

Her story demonstrates that not only does working in a nonacademic environment offer valuable experience -- and often better pay than the usual teaching or research assistantship -- but also that, unlikely as it may sound, such a job can actually make it easier to finish the dissertation.

Question: Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

Answer: My dream was to become a professor of English literature. It seemed to be the best way to combine my three loves: literature, writing, and teaching. Plus, my father was a professor of economics, so I felt I had a solid understanding of the intellectual work involved, as well as the lifestyle that academe offered.

Question: Why did you decide to leave academe?

Answer: After a year or two in grad school, I discovered that I'd been nave about a great many things. First, I found the discourse of literary criticism to be off-putting and alienating. The writing seemed faddish instead of clear and historical. I couldn't envision spending my life writing in that way and for that particular audience. Second, there was a shortage of tenure-track jobs in the humanities, a crisis that had been brewing for at least a decade. This was a fact that admissions committees were not eager to call attention to, since they needed graduate instructors to teach their undergraduates. Discovering those harsh realities was a blow.

Question: How did you first hear about the tutoring job?

Answer: A company called Champion Tutoring was looking for tutors. I heard about it from a friend and fellow grad student who knew I was looking for part-time work. Graduate teaching assistants at that time worked long hours grading, prepping lesson plans, and meeting with students but were only paid about $8,000 a year (and also had their tuition remitted). We were not given health insurance back then (that has since changed). It was a no-brainer: Tutoring elementary- and high-school students was just as rewarding but paid more. As any teacher can attest, we all make missteps our first few years, but I quickly found that I could apply the skills I'd learned teaching college students to tutoring younger students.

Question: How did you evolve from tutor to administrator?

Answer: I don't feel that I possessed any special skills that allowed me to become an administrator. I started out as an office assistant. I was organized and efficient, I worked hard, and I knew that I was a people person. I had some customer-service skills from my years as a bank teller (my part-time job throughout my undergraduate years), but mostly I learned on the job.

When the executive director decided to take a leave of absence and asked me to serve in her place temporarily, that was a much bigger challenge. I remember lying awake wondering if I could pull it off. Could I really run a small business? Could I convey the correct sense of authority? Ultimately, I decided to draw confidence from the relationships that I had forged through the years with our clients, our staff, and our students. That enabled me to lead while also having to learn other elements of the job as I went along.

I was becoming burned out from graduate school, and working as an administrator gave me a chance to utilize other parts of my brain.

Question: What made you decide to finish your dissertation?

Answer: After six years in my program, I decided that I had to get out. Although I had won three teaching awards from the university, I realized that all of my work could be for naught. I'd amassed more than $60,000 in student-loan debt, so I felt I absolutely had to finish the dissertation before I left.

Although it may sound like a paradox, taking the executive director's job was directly instrumental in my being able to finish the Ph.D. The company paid me fairly, unlike T.A. jobs. In fact, it paid me more than I had ever made in my life. The job was 35 hours a week (sometimes more, sometimes less) and I could write my dissertation at home in the mornings. In the evenings, I would go to the office and fill my director role. It was a grueling life, working 75 hours a week, but I knew it was finite and the goal of finishing the Ph.D. made the struggle worthwhile.

Question: Do you ever miss academe?

Answer: Sometimes I miss the level of intellectual engagement that I had when I was writing my dissertation and taking classes. However, my circle of friends -- both local and across the country -- tends to be intellectual in nature, so I never lack for that kind of stimulation. Plus, my husband and I are voracious readers and we tend to befriend other bibliophiles, so again, there is constant stimulation.

Question: You were able to purchase the company from its owner thanks to an unexpected financial windfall. What is your life like today?

Answer: My job as both owner and executive director now is incredibly challenging. There is no typical day because I wear so many hats, but I do a lot of consulting with parents and teachers about pedagogy, which draws on skills I learned from my years as a graduate teaching instructor. I also learned how to multi-task in grad school, since I had to balance my scholarly research with teaching duties and several part-time jobs.

However, the practical, mundane, and grueling aspects of running a business were not things that were taught in academe. I recommend that all graduate students (especially in the humanities) explore part-time job opportunities that will give them skills they wouldn't ordinarily pick up in grad school. That approach will make them more marketable in the real world, which doesn't always value intellectual pursuits alone.

Today I make it a priority to hire graduate students because I believe I have a responsibility as an entrepreneur to provide fair wages and rewarding part-time job opportunities in my community.

Question: What would you be doing now if you hadn't had the opportunity to buy the company?

Answer: There were still many options open to me with a Ph.D. in English literature and training as a teacher and researcher. I considered working in a foundation or a non-profit agency, and also technical writing or editing. When I was in the English department, those alternate, nonacademic paths were hardly considered or talked about, but in other parts of the university, the realities of the academic job market were beginning to sink in.

Question: Do you still pursue your scholarly interests outside of your work?

Answer: Frankly, I thrill at the thought of never having to write for a scholarly audience again. I do have one project that I am hoping to begin soon: a screenplay that is based on work I did as a graduate student.

Question: What advice would you give current graduate students who are considering alternative careers?

Answer: My advice to all graduate students is to keep an open mind: You never know what twists and turns your career -- and your life -- will take. Just because you've always dreamed of an academic career doesn't necessarily guarantee that you will have one. After all of the grueling sacrifices of graduate school, it's important to be open to other options.

Susan Basalla May is one of 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 May earned her Ph.D. in English from Princeton University.