by Karen Cardozo
My philosophy of “careering” through life rather than settling on “a” career has been informed not only by years of academic contingency combined with a personality type that thrives on change, but also by my work with hundreds of PhDs and graduate students across the disciplines, whom I’ve helped usher into fulfilling new lives through TPII’s Alt/Out-Ac services. To highlight just five recent clients and their new jobs:
- PhD in Botany – VP of Research at a public botanical garden
- Phd in International Relations – Academic Dean at a prominent research university
- PhD in Psychology – Research Coordinator at a center for child abuse prevention
- PhD in Public Health—Program Director, Gates Foundation
- PhD in Urban Studies – Consultant, World Bank
None of these folks intended or predicted these outcomes when they matriculated into their doctoral programs, but they are happy with the results so far. And if these new situations lose their appeal over time, my clients will do what non-academics have always done: look for their next fitting opportunity.
Of course, academic socialization in general and the tenure system in particular is the very antithesis of careering toward authenticity, being an unequivocally conformist “track” mentality from K-12 forward. This has been apparent in the way my recent decision to leave the tenure system for an executive position in career development has been received. How people respond is more often a litmus test of how they view their own lives as it is about whether this is the right move for me. A brief sampling of initial reactions:
But what about tenure?!
What about your husband?!
What about the dog?!
Do you really want to live in Virginia?!
I can’t imagine this place without you.
It turns out that a simple “congratulations” is not the most common response, and thus the overall effect has been more like a hybrid “congratudolences.” Nonetheless I will forge ahead! And I do it in part for you, dear reader, because the only legitimacy I have in asking you to take a leap is to practice what I preach.
My coaching philosophy is revolutionary in asking academics to think very differently, by engaging in an iterative feedback loop of exploring opportunities in new sectors and being willing to adjust course in response. And especially for those of you without a secure academic job, why not ask where and with whom you want to live, and conduct a cross-sector job search from there? In these entrepreneurial times, that includes the possibility of your own job creation—this could be a venture you might build first as a “sidecar” off traditional fulltime employment structure (much as I have done by career coaching from the tenure track). Either way, this requires thinking more broadly about your “body of work.”
At my recent job talk for the Executive Director of Career Development position, I distributed a circular visual resume that shows how I originally started out in career services (12 noon on the clockface) and thus—despite decades-long detour into administration and academics (a turn of the clock from 3-9PM), I am in a coming full circle in a deeply meaningful way with my new role at Hollins. The caption above my visual resume is the title of Pamela Slim’s helpful book, Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together and the caption below is from Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:
And the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Although on an obvious level I am referring to my return to career services, the “place” I have come to know so well is really within me—it is the accumulation of all the experiences, choices, and values that make my life feel authentic, coherent and meaningful. It is the inner place where I fully recognize and claim my own body of work –something that can’t be contained within any single job.
When working with new clients I always ask them to list commitments and interests that don’t appear on their CVs or resumes, in order to glean the full toolkit with which they might build a new life. I also ask for a brief narrative envisioning their ideal work-life configuration in 5 years (if you can’t express what you want, it’s less likely to happen, but “if you build it, they will come!”). The clients I mentioned above all went through a process of considering multiple and authentic “bridges” out of academe by looking for the threads tying together their own unique bodies of work.
Many academics are so concerned about what they might lose in leaving the Ivory Tower, we overlook not only the potential gains (a better salary and health care coverage, for example) but also what we might be just as happy to leave behind (pressure to publish, grading, snarky colleagues), as well as what we can create.
I know from my own dark nights of the soul that what I am saying may sound like gibberish if you are in despair and experiencing the worst of academe—historic levels of debt, precarity, and devaluation of your professional identity. But the only way to get unstuck is to “get a life” – reclaim what my favorite life coach Martha Beck (herself a recovered academic) calls your “essential self” and follow that trustworthy voice wherever it leads. Just don’t be surprised if authenticity moves you in some unexpected directions!
I don’t know exactly what your next step might be, but I’ll bet that deep down, you do. So although academe has rarely encouraged it, go ahead and follow your own convictions. I promise they won’t steer you wrong.