3 Stories From #Post-ac Consulting – Jessica Langer

In this post Jessica Langer opens a window onto the work she’s been doing in Post-Ac Consulting with The Professor Is In.  Her clients have been extraordinarily successful in getting the interviews and jobs she’s helped them prepare for. I asked her to tell us about the work.

Stay tuned for a new webinar she’ll be offering next week on “creating your post-ac story.”  As she explained,

One of the things I do daily as a marketer is help companies figure out how to tell their story to the public. I think that post-ac folks could use that sort of thing, too, because after all, the job interview process (and materials) are really marketing materials…So often, my clients are really worried about how to conceptualize their departure from academia. They don’t know how to explain it in a way that’s positive and not negative. I generally encourage them to discuss it not in terms of going “away from” academia but rather going “toward” whatever else they’re doing – but then they get stuck on how to make that leap. I want to help people to understand how folks from different fields have managed to make the transition to post-ac life in a way that seems smooth and part of a coherent narrative.

That’s next week. Meanwhile, read on for more about her work!

by Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Many of my clients thus far have been in STEM fields, whether in the social sciences or hard sciences. No mathematicians yet, but plenty of people whose work would make my brain hurt.

Know what’s interesting? No matter the field, whether they’re in my own home humanities field(s) or all the way over in the hard sciences, the narrative is so much the same. There’s a deep dissatisfaction and sense of betrayal: academia is a broken system, we are all coming to realize, and none of us is immune.

(Names and all identifying details have been changed. If you think you know who any of these people are, I guarantee you don’t.)

One of my clients, Beth, is a social scientist who’s looking for work in the Canadian government. She’s done some amazing international fieldwork in Southeast Asia, both for her PhD and for a private consulting company, and for her doctoral work she coined a really interesting new framework for what she was investigating.

Beth’s biggest problem was that she was hesitant to take ownership of her accomplishments. In her job search materials as she sent them to me, she would discuss how she was “striving towards” and “working towards” things that she had already done.. and had been doing for years. She had the mindset of a student and hesitated to describe herself as an expert in her field, when in fact the PhD process is one of developing expertise.

(I’m happy to report that of the two jobs for which I helped her work on her application materials, she’s now been scheduled for interviews for both of them.)

Another client, Antoinette, has an incredibly interesting background; a “portfolio career”, as the Times Higher Ed has dubbed a work life in which one is able to pursue many different interests professionally. An historian by training, with a PhD in early modern, she has an impressive academic career including teaching, publishing and a stint as a guest curator at a major history museum in Boston. She also has a few years’ experience in the business world and speaks 4 major languages.

Antoinette, however, struggled to see herself as a good candidate for anything. She saw her experience as a curator as expected, not impressive. Similarly, her facility with languages was dismissed as somehow not impressive.

“I’m just an unemployed PhD,” she told me once. “Who would hire me?”

The cognitive dissonance was astounding. Here was this woman who had just finished up a gig at a museum that any of us reading this will have heard of, with a doctorate, 4 languages, and even some experience in business… and she considered herself unhireable? My first order of business was to help her change this mindset: to work with her to understand that the culture inside of academia is very different from that on the outside, and that accomplishments that seem pedestrian on the inside are incredibly impressive on the outside.

Thomas also has a “portfolio career”, though he’s trying to balance two things at once. He’s working on his PhD in political science at one of the top schools in his field, and has just received a major grant to travel to Eastern Europe for some archival research. At the same time, he’s cofounded a small ed-tech startup with one of his friends and is trying to manage the sales and client service side of the business. His days are long and his time is pressed. My role, more than anything, was to help him decide which path to take: academia, business, or a bit of both.

One of the things I find most interesting about Thomas is that he actually flouts the conventional narrative of feeling-like-a-failure. If he leaves academia, it will be because he likes something else better, not because he felt like he couldn’t make it as an academic. But even in the best possible case, choosing to take one’s academic degree into a non-academic context can be hard… because for many of us, Thomas included, our work is genuinely fascinating to us. We love it.

And here’s where I confess that even though I make my living outside of academia, I haven’t fully “left”. I still teach occasionally – granted, I teach business school, but the substance is the same (and the money is better, but not that much better). I still publish in my field; I have an interview with a major figure in a major journal coming out early next year, and I still write at least a book chapter or article a year. But the best part is that the work is so much more fun, it’s so much sweeter and more fulfilling, when I do it for the sheer love of it and not because I’m worried about whether it will get me tenure or promotion.

The big secret is that “leaving academia” doesn’t have to mean leaving forever. It doesn’t have to mean leaving entirely. It doesn’t mean burning down the building, or even slamming the door and locking it. It can mean choosing to do something else to make a living and pursuing one’s academic work as a hobby or in our spare time. It could just mean reading articles and enjoying them. None of this fixes the broken academic system… but on an individual level, it might work for you. Leaving academia doesn’t have to mean walking away from something. It could very well mean choosing something else to walk towards.

Which is why it’s so important for those of you who are “traditional” academics to support the work of independent scholars… but it’s also important for those of us who make our living outside of academia to, frankly, stop giving a toss what academia thinks of us.

And which is why it’s so crucially important for those of us who forge paths that aren’t the traditional academic path to have streetlights and signposts along the way.

Consider this one: you are not a failure. You are choosing a path that works for you, for your life. You are honouring your circumstances and your needs. And in doing so, you have already succeeded.

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