This is short and sweet because the election has destroyed my focus.
Here is a new book about leaving the academy. It’s by Christopher Caterine and it’s called Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide.
It’s really good. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s published by crusty Princeton U Press. It’s the first academia-adjacent advice book I’ve ever read [that wasn’t my own lol] that is blunt in the way that I always try to be, and that I feel is ethically required.
He writes: “Today in the United States, only about 1.2 percent of people who enter a doctoral program in the arts and humanities earn a tenure-track position at a leading institution. People in ANY tenure-track job represent just 2-7 percent of those who start a PhD. To state the case inversely, more than nine out of ten academics don’t achieve the career most of us hoped for when we set out down the path to an advanced degree” (7)
It is also the first one that acknowledges the emotions, gaslighting, mystifications, and self-delusions that permeate this transition. Caterine deftly and engagingly weaves his own battles with denial and various other stages of grief into his analysis and advice. He writes:
“As a group, [academics] tend to view our work in higher education as more than a career: we consider it a vocation. The doubts we’re prone to feel as we think about working in a different sector thus go beyond the practicalities of not knowing what it’s like to do a new job. In a very real way, we worry that we don’t know who we’ll be if we cease to be academics.
When this anxiety collides with the realities discussed in the last section, it can trigger an unhealthy spiral of emotions. I raged at the cruelties of the job market, faulted advisors for not making me a more attractive candidate, and loathed the ABDs who beat me out for jobs….
These feelings were clearly misdirected, but I don’t blame myself for indulging them. If you are a ‘true believer’ in the academic mission, it’s natural to struggle as you come to terms with changing careers. The situation is akin to a breakup. .. Recognizing that your love will go unrequited is going to hurt.”
I like the spunky organization of the book, with its sections:
And I like that it’s short. And practical. And not only gives advice but the rationale behind the advice. Academics need that for a full buy-in, so it makes the book even more effective.
I like that Caterine tries to address what he calls the “overqualification trap” although I feel the advice falls down there. In this section, he gives excellent advice about translating your skills and abilities to non-academics without getting lost in the weeds of your specific academic research topics that, let’s face it, nobody cares about.
But this is not actually what I consider the “overqualification trap.”
That trap is one I have to explicitly address in the Q and A of every single live event and talk that I do on leaving the academy, and I consider it a major signifier of continuing academic exceptionalism, gaslighting, self-delusion and self-mystification.
To me this constant deployment of “what if I’m overqualified??” demonstrates just how deeply the asker is still (probably unconsciously) invested in the core belief in academic superiority.
Because: PhDs are not overqualified.
I don’t even know what that word means, to be honest. I’m not being snarky; it does not compute for me. You have a degree that is different than what they are looking for, ok. But your background is likely NOT obviously qualified for what they are seeking. So you’re not OVER-qualified. You appear to be UNDER-qualified and OVER-degreed. Even if the hiring party says to you, “you seem overqualified,” the answer to that is, “on the contrary, don’t let my degree mislead you; I am a good fit for this job/very interested in this job because of Xx, YY, and ZZ.”
Yes you have to do that translation of your record, but without participating in some illogical and elitist narrative.
In other words, your approach from the application to the interview has to address how actually your background makes you very well qualified in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Catarine’s advice hits that translation part brilliantly.
BUT LONG BEFORE THAT, you have to get your mind right.
Because if you’re walking into this job search with “overqualified” attached to your record in your mind, then you’re still operating within academic exceptionalism. You are, in short, still buying your advisors’/program’s/discipline’s/academia in general’s pernicious elitist bullshit in ways that–whether it’s conscious or unconscious – are going to sabotage your efforts.
I wonder if, because Caterine has not been a faculty member, and hasn’t seen the pernicious bullshit coming from the mouths of colleagues and administrators directly, he focuses a bit more on the individual struggle rather than the systemic indoctrination. Which is fine. As long as you can free your mind it doesn’t matter. But just never forget there is a whole infrastructure and indoctrination apparatus working very very hard to keep you loyal, by telling you how “special” you are, and views your departure as an existential threat.
The other thing I like about this book is that keeps a firm eye on the number one rule of job searching, whether it’s an endowed chair at Harvard or Starbucks.
That rule is: it’s not about you. It’s about them.
They have a problem and they need a warm body to solve that problem.
So any job app that drones on and on about your personal commitments, feelings, obsessions, opinions, viewpoints, and life history…. will likely fail. Because they don’t care. What they need is quick, efficient PROOF that you’ll solve their problem–the problem defined in the job ad.
Caterine says it like this:
“As I’ve said before, most people don’t care about the interior lives of others – they are about how other peoples’ experiences are relevant to them. But let’s be more precise. Apart from brevity, the big difference in my [preceding example] accounts is what narratologists call “focalization” – the perspective that a speaker or author adopts in telling a story. The long account I just finished offers an internal view: it emphasizes how I felt, why I acted, and what I responded to at each step in the process…. On the other hand, the resume version of this role offers an external perspective. I quickly tell you about my most significant accomplishments and convey that I achieved them through my personal strengths…They can all be verified through a reference or mutual contact. They consequently appear credible…” (118)
I’ve spent the last ten years trying to get my readers and clients to grasp this distinction in their academic job applications. If I could point to one core litmus test between effective and ineffective applications, this would be it. And it applies everywhere.
So, this is a good book. Buy it. Because leaving the academy needs to be your Plan A. And indeed your Plan B.
Academic jobs, should any even exist in your field, should be Plan C or just proactively ignored. The academy is not a legitimate career track at this time, and we know from the 2008-9 crash that the aftereffects will be felt for years. Don’t forget that we never actually recovered from that crash and so the starting point this time for almost all fields was worse than 2007. COVID has decimated an already catastrophically bad job “market.” Don’t waste your time. Move on, with this book in hand.
(And remember you can get post-ac coaching help from my marvelous team of coaches, and through recorded courses always available 24/7).