I am delighted to offer another guest post contributed in response to my recent call for contributions to the blog by black women and other women of color.
Dr. Nneka D. Dennie is a Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She researches black intellectual history, black feminist thought, and black radicalism. When outside of the classroom, she enjoys cooking and playing soccer.
If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at email@example.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer. I welcome content on #MakeupMonday (the initial impetus for this as a Twitter follower expressed a wish for #MakeupMonday posts oriented toward women of color) as well as anything related to the academic and post-academic career.
Nneka D. Dennie, PhD
All academics share one trait: we love learning. Whether we prefer labs, archives, or a good, old-fashioned classroom, we are all, in our own ways, drawn to pursue graduate studies because we are fascinated by new ideas. Unfortunately, this fascination at times obscures practical lessons about how to navigate academia without being consumed by it.
Throughout graduate school I had multiple side hustles—in part to pay the bills—but also to curate professional development opportunities and communities for myself beyond the narrow purview of traditional humanities doctoral programs. Like many others, mine sought to prepare students to teach and conduct research in a college setting, without devoting significant attention to broader possibilities that exist for PhD holders. However, universities produce far more PhD graduates than available tenure-track positions. We will not all find ideal TT jobs at our dream schools and live happily ever after. While one can hope, hope is not enough. This realization taught me an important lesson: always have a side hustle. I share this lesson in a two-part series, among others I’ve learned from academia, in hopes that scholars will think seriously about how to simultaneously preserve their personhood and achieve their goals without being crushed by the pressures of higher education.
Always have a side hustle.
I completed my PhD in African American Studies with a focus on black women’s history. My experiences substitute teaching, being a research assistant for a Theater professor, and working full-time as a program coordinator at a university Women’s Center departed significantly from my formal training. Yet, each opportunity allowed me to imagine what my life could look like if I were to reject the notion that becoming a professor is the only career trajectory available to me. Collectively, they allowed me to detach myself from the academic version of the American dream while remaining invested in pursuing my doctorate. Furthermore, each side hustle let me cultivate skills that are both relevant to my field and transferrable beyond academia. When I worked in the Theater Department, I did not have grandiose delusions of one day becoming a dramaturge for a Broadway production. Instead, I did historical research on African-American college students’ experiences and saw how it was applicable to a creative project. I
began working in Student Affairs immediately after becoming ABD, which inspired several side-eyes and cautionary tales from well-meaning scholars. Nevertheless, working at a Women’s Center proved to be an important complement to my graduate studies. It afforded me the opportunity to bridge black feminist theory and praxis, as well as explore alternative pedagogies for teaching students about women’s activism. I created and facilitated workshops, taught a WGSS course, and coordinated my university’s inaugural black feminist symposium. Working 9-to-5 while ABD forced me to be intentional about meeting writing deadlines and applying for dissertation fellowships. After a year, I left my job for a fellowship at MIT; oddly enough, taking a nontraditional path led me to a more traditional goal.
Most importantly, however, spending a year away from my graduate institution reminded me that I am not defined entirely by my degrees. Having a side hustle made me divest my worth from my scholarly productivity. Research is what we do, but it is not who we are.
Side hustles can serve a variety of purposes. They force you to be honest with yourself about who you are when you strip away the awards and publications. They allow you to take stock of your skillset, and they open your eyes to other possible career paths. In the increasingly precarious world of academia, side hustles encourage you to develop skills that are both applicable to the work you strive to do, and transferrable if you ever determine that a tenure-track position is not your end goal.
Set boundaries for yourself and others.
Repeat after me: I am not my work. Once that sinks, it becomes much easier to set boundaries for yourself and others. Capitalist institutions—which include colleges, no doubt—will extract all the labor they can out of you. Chairs will volunteer you to be on committees. Undergraduates will send you “urgent” emails at all hours of night. You can easily fall prey to external demands on your time and energy. Or, you can say “no.” This act of refusal can be a radical act of self-preservation. As Maxine Waters has shown us, sometimes you need to reclaim your time.
Boundaries look different based on personal circumstances, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For some people, it may mean not working after 5 PM in order to maximize quality time with their families. For me, it meant placing a cap on how many jobs and postdocs I applied to, and only accepting a position somewhere I’d like to live. In the spring, I took a risk by turning down a tenure-track position for a postdoc. While I struggled to arrive at that decision, quality of life matters to me, and taking that particular job meant disregarding one of my boundaries. After spending nearly ten years in rural Massachusetts, I longed for a change of pace. As a young, black woman, I couldn’t picture myself working in a 95% white, largely conservative area far from my family and friends where much of the population was married with children.
Abiding by self-imposed rules encouraged me to balance the time I spent applying for positions with the time I spent writing. It also protected my feelings somewhat because—let’s be real—nobody wants to receive 50 rejections. When it came time to choose a position, my boundaries ensured that my wellbeing did not take a backseat to my career. I describe this experience not to suggest that this scenario nor degree of choice is universal, but to offer an example of how it is possible to prioritize your individual needs and preferences by maintaining your boundaries, whether big or small.
In part two of this series, I share lessons I’ve learned about networking, dissertating, and productivity.
I wish so badly that I had this advice during my PhD! The culture in during my PhD encouraged throwing yourself into your work and removing all distractions. While I prioritized time for family and exercise, I neglected my other passions, creative outlets, and hobbies in life. I am a few years out of academia and only now starting to rekindle these sources of joy and meaning in my life. I continue to struggle with a loss of identity. Even though I am happy in my new career, I am working hard not to tie my identity to it this time. Anecdotally, I find that the PhD graduates who do have side hustles, hobbies, community outside of academia, etc. have a stronger self of identity and are more resilient in the transition to work outside of academia. Not to mention, they likely have experience & skills developed outside of their PhD that, like you say, are transferrable to diverse careers. Thank you for sharing your advice!