Ivory Towers in the Rearview Mirror: Allison Yakel

We continue with our new column, featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!

Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Allison Yakel

I received my PhD in May 2018 from the University of Houston in Hispanic Linguistics. When I first started my PhD, I knew I wanted to be a lifelong learner. I also knew I didn’t want to work in corporate America. I figured academia would be the best fit for me. 

I had a great experience in my PhD program – I was in and out in four years and had an incredible committee who supported me every step of the way. When it came time to get on the job market, I dove in headfirst – and landed a tenure-track appointment at a small, private liberal arts college. It was basically an academic dream job. I got to design my own course load, and teach from within my specialty (alongside the general Spanish language classes) and had an awesome chair and department.

I loved working with students, but I was very unhappy otherwise. Grading papers and exams didn’t make me happy, but helping students grow and learn did. Learning made me happy, but not in isolation. Ultimately, I wanted to work in a job that was closer to the social work field and even began looking into programs to go back to school in the Houston area.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to go back to school; the post for my current position came up, and it all fell into place. In my full-time role, I manage the language services department at a state-funded, acute-care inpatient psychiatric facility. I spend about 90% of my time interpreting Spanish/English between patients/their families, as well as the psychiatrists, social workers, nursing staff, psychologists, and any other member of a patient’s treatment team. I also arrange for interpretation services for speakers of languages other than English or Spanish. 

I get to work with an incredible group of people – social workers, psychiatrists, etc. – whose goal is the same: to stabilize patients who are in crisis, and set them up with outpatient services so that they can go on to live their lives safely and happily.

I do have student loans, though (lots!) and so I have taken on a second, part-time job as a Computational Linguist for a large company helping its AI become better at understanding human language (think Siri/Alexa/Kitana/etc.) in the context of U.S. Spanish. My role is very specific to my research and is remote. It is super fun because I know I am playing an important role in the development of natural language processing.

At first, when I finished my PhD, I wanted to become a tenure-track professor. Because that is what I thought was the clear and obvious next step… but then I realized I just wanted to do something helpful in society. Before beginning my PhD, I wish I had known how many non-academic opportunities there truly are, and to start looking at them sooner. The process of doing my PhD shaped my career goals by making me realize that I can really accomplish whatever I want, but that I work much better when I am happy. When I transitioned out of academia, I had to retrain myself to work an 8-5 job, and also to relax at home when I’m not working. After all – I don’t have any more writing guilt! 

Transitioning out of academia, I truly felt supported by every mentor I have ever had. I first reached out to my pedagogy instructor from my MA program, who had left academia shortly after getting tenured. She assured me that my decision was NOT a bad one. From there, I told the rest of my committee and mentors… and honestly, they were pretty awesome. I know that is not often the case.

I only encountered a few coworkers who were unable to process why I would give up such an amazing opportunity and did not support my career choices post-PhD. To all my peers thinking about forgoing or leaving academia post-PhD: IT IS OKAY. Whatever you want to do, is just fine. We only have one life; so make sure that what you decide is what is in your heart.

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