Jessica Langer holds a PhD in English and is CEO of ideas in flight, a social media and digital marketing agency that specializes in strategy, training and implementation for SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises). Jessica tells her post-ac transition story here. What I like most about this story is its specification of the “important decision” at every step of the way, and the “mission critical piece” of each decision. The transition to non-academic work requires active strategizing; it’s not something you can fall into passively. Jessica doesn’t just tell us that–she SHOWS it by identifying the steps she took all along her path to situate herself to be competitive outside the academy. I encourage everyone to start thinking about their own “mission critical” options now.
I thought I’d start with a story. This is partly because people love stories (I think I learned that in my first year literature class). And it’s partly because in my story, I’ll be identifying critical junctures and decisions that I made that helped me be successful later on.
So without further ado, here it is: my path from ac to post-ac.
Undergrad: I went to the University of Toronto for my undergrad degree. (I applied to U of T and Yale. Yale said no. My wallet said hooray.) I figured I was the kid who had always spent most classes in high school reading novels, so I’d major in English. I also signed up for Mandarin classes, which eventually turned into a second major in East Asian studies. Not, shall we say, the most ostensibly employable of combinations.
The important decision: Although I loved my classes – well, most of them – I understood that it would be important to start looking at potential careers from very early on. Marketing and communications appealed, because they seemed to appeal to the large part of me that was obsessed with narrative. I did think that I wanted to be a professor eventually, and at that time I had no idea the market was so terrible – but I wanted to make sure I had a couple of different potential plans.
The mission-critical piece: To that end, I got a summer job as a receptionist at a small startup called studentawards.com; I was soon promoted to marketing assistant. Why? Because I proposed a plan to turn the site from a pure search engine into a social network – an online forum, specifically. (This was 2001, when such things were reasonably newfangled.) In other words, I identified an opportunity to create something new and contribute to the business – what we sometimes call a “gap in the market” – and set about doing just that.
Graduate School: I attended the University of London’s School of Advanced Study for my MA, and Royal Holloway College at the University of London for my PhD. (I imagine that if I’d gone to Oxford or Cambridge or Yale, etc, I might have had a better chance at getting a top-tier academic job. But I must say that I never found my PhD-granting institution to be an issue on the job market.)
My success in grad school was due in part to a combination of luck and whimsy. Why was I in the UK? I’d met a lovely traveling Londoner at a bar in Toronto, and followed him there. (We’ve been married nearly 10 years now.) And why Royal Holloway for my PhD? I read a great science fiction novel and connected by email with its author, Adam Roberts, who happened to be a professor at Royal Holloway. We met, enjoyed each other’s academic company, and I became his PhD advisee (with a full scholarship).
Luck and whimsy aren’t enough, though. Many of my decisions during graduate school were made specifically to set myself up for success either in academia or outside of it.
The important decision: I chose to go to graduate school in a context where I was well-supported by my mentor(s), by financial aid awards, and by my departments. I would not have gone otherwise, not because I couldn’t afford it, but rather because I understood even at that time that my success would be determined in large part by departmental forces outside my control.
I also – and this is really critical – chose a UK program because it was a 3-year one, not the interminable 5- to 7-year disaster that the North American PhD often turns into. Therefore, I was finished with my PhD by the time I was 26, and was only a couple of years behind my BA-only peers in terms of workplace progression. It’s my understanding, though, that even an American PhD can be done in 4-5 years; this is crucial, if you want to go alt- or post-ac.
The mission-critical piece: Throughout my MA and PhD, I worked… but not just anywhere. During my MA, I worked in marketing, for a construction company in London, in a position that was a bit more senior than in my previous job. I also did a fair bit of freelance work in writing, editing and social media consulting the entire time I was in grad school.
On the academic side, during my PhD, I taught at Richmond American International University in London, but I also got involved in institutional governance wherever possible – going to committee meetings, contributing to curriculum – as well as on organizing committees for academic organizations and international conferences. And I published like mad… I think I ended up with 8 publications, 3 of which were in peer-reviewed journals, in 3 years.
Whatever I was doing in academia, I tried to make it maximally applicable to life outside of academia, and was already thinking about how I would explain its relevance to possible non-academic employers.
Post-PhD: In my ABD year, when I was 25, I applied for 15 jobs across Canada, 12 of which were real possibilities. I was flown out from London for 2 of them. I got none of them.
And what shocked me more than anything was the relief I felt. Because I knew – I had always known, because of the decisions I made and because of the parallel paths I had taken – that there was so much more out there than academia. And frankly, because I knew where I wanted to live – in my hometown of Toronto – and with those rejections, I was free to go live there. And I’ve never looked back. (Except that I did, and do, teach part-time… but my experience as an adjunct is very different than the usual one, and I’ll talk about why that is in my next post.)
The important decision: This one’s pretty simple: I had to decide what was most important to me. I literally could not have everything I wanted. I couldn’t live in Toronto near my family and be a tenure-track professor. I decided that where I lived and who I lived near was more important, to me, than what I did for a living.
The mission-critical piece: Again, this is pretty simple, but it’s also one of the most difficult things you’ll do in your post-ac life. I had to empower myself to make that decision. Academia is so often cultlike in its requirement for unmitigated devotion; if you leave, you’re seen as having failed. It makes no sense, but it’s the case. I had not only to decide to disbelieve that, but to believe that I had the power to make that decision. And it’s one of the more powerful things I’ve ever done, to be honest.
The upshot of this whole story, which is basically a theme for my entire life: I am very, very good at putting myself in opportunity’s way. I have a good nose for an opportunity and am very apt at getting people to give them to me, and of talking myself up without bragging. This is a trait that you must try to cultivate if you’re going to be successful in the post-ac world. Possibly one of the most important arts of the entrepreneur – heck, for the businessperson in general – is to learn how to offer one’s services in a way that comes across as offering to add value to others’ lives, rather than requesting that others give one their money/time/business.
In my next post, I’m going to explain to you exactly how to do that.