Bio: Julia Skinner, PhD is the Founder and Director of Root, a fermentation and food history organization based in Atlanta. She is also a food writer, writing coach, and occasional graduate instructor. She has a PhD from Florida State University’s School of Information, and worked in a variety of academic roles before leaving to start her business. When she isn’t cooking, teaching, or writing she is often out in nature, or making art for fun and (occasional) profit. You can follow her at @rootkitchens and @bookishjulia
- Twitter.com/bookishjulia and twitter.com/rootkitchens
- Photographer: Modou Jallow. Instagram.com/africanlurker
I haven’t worn business casual clothes in two years.
I’m either in scrubby casual wear on my laptop at home, overalls when I’m mucking around outdoors and, once in a great while, in a suit or an evening gown. But business casual? Not once.
I find the culture around business casual clothing, and in particular its role in university dress codes to be fascinating: One of the many vestiges of an often-controlling system that clashed with my introspective yet freewheeling work style. It wasn’t just the outfit (nothing wrong with a nice shirt and slacks after all), but a mentality that left me feeling boxed in and drained.
In 2018, I left a toxic position at an academic museum for the wilds of the job market writ large. I didn’t have another job lined up (terrifying!), so initially felt a sense of free falling as I tried to navigate the slow, lumbering, and intense academic job market as well as the quicker-moving but still uncertain markets in industry and nonprofit sectors.
But I recognized that with the safety net pulled out from under me, there was an unexpected freedom, too: For possibly the only time in my life, I had been given the chance to start with a clean slate. I knew it was a chance I couldn’t afford to pass up.
But now that the slate was wiped clean, how would I decide what to write on it? At a loss, I sat down with a pen and paper and began to write. My PhD, like me, is a bit unusual because it blends Humanities and Social Sciences, theory and practice. It fits with my interdisciplinary and connective approach to my work, and is one of the things that served me well as I began to reorder my professional world. As I wrote my list, a few things emerged:
- I love working with people, and I love helping people
- I love working with food, and recognize it as a tool that if used properly can be connective, educational, and the jumping off point for important conversations (e.g. Michael Twitty’s interpretive work and Studio Atao’s dinners)
- I love to learn new things, in the kitchen or outside of it, and need to foster a sense of discovery and curiosity in order to thrive.
- I firmly believe that understanding the stories behind things is important: Without knowing where we have been, how can we effectively chart our course to the future?
- Being a mindful steward of our planet is important, and each of us enacts this in different ways (one of mine is building classes and talks on reducing food waste).
So what job combined connecting with people, working with food, sharing stories, and environmental stewardship, all while paying me a sustainable wage? Well, there wasn’t one that had all the features I wanted (there were a few that came close). Without a dream job appearing, I decided I would make my own, and founded Root Kitchens, a fermentation and food history company, a few months later.
Root combines all the things I talked about above: I teach virtual fermentation classes (and in-person ones when we aren’t in a pandemic), and I teach private lessons and run events to get me connected and learning with other humans. I have a member newsletter and a Patreon, which give me space to research and share the history of different foods (with recipes, of course). I teach about food waste and regularly donate classes and healthy fermented food as part of my efforts to support the planet and my community.
In tandem with the work I do as a food writer, I’ve built a fulfilling career that draws upon my academic experience (experience I still treasure, though I’m no longer in the academy full-time) while allowing me to flourish in the ways I need. Since 2018, I’ve been a part of amazing collaborations, cooked for and taught folks around the world, and won awards. Of course I’ve put in a lot of hard work and had some (very) lean months, but that my business and myself continue to grow and flourish tells me I’m on the right path.
I also appreciate the fact that I’m still connected to academia: I occasionally teach, research, and publish in academic spaces, and I have a greater appreciation for all of that now that it isn’t my full-time job. One thing I love about this moment is that we’re seeing the folly in our artificial boundaries placed between “town” (and the town’s careers) and “gown.” As with a healthy relationship between theory and practice, both academic and alt-ac (or not-ac) careers can inform each other, benefitting everyone.
More and more, I see academics hungry to shape career paths beyond the tenure track or even as staff. Since I made the leap, I’m often asked what advice I would give. Here’s some of it:
Think about how your academic experience maps to alt-ac job listings, either in terms of your area of study or in terms of your job functions themselves. Be honest with yourself about your goals and limitations: Do you want to move? What pay do you need? But most importantly, sit down with a pen and paper and list out the things that bring you the most joy. Don’t tie it to a job or even an industry. What specifically makes you happy about the things you enjoy? Why do you do them (for example, I like teaching cooking classes because it gives people useful skills, and I get to see them implement what we learn in their own kitchens). What are priorities for you (work/life balance, teaching, etc.) and what are dealbreakers? Hopefully, you’ll be able to craft (or find!) your dream job as well.