By Dr. Jenn Williamson
Jenn Williamson, PhD, is Vice President of Gender and Social Inclusion at ACDI/VOCA, an international development non-profit. She develops and oversees global gender equality, female empowerment, and social inclusion strategies across the ACDI/VOCA Family of Companies (ACDI/VOCA, Tanager, and AV Ventures). In addition to leading research studies, conducting trainings, and providing technical assistance to ACDI/VOCA’s worldwide programs, Dr. Williamson serves as the Gender and Agriculture Systems Advisor for the five-year, USAID-funded Advancing Women’s Empowerment (AWE) program. She previously served as the learning coordinator for the Women’s Economic Empowerment component of the USAID-funded Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) project, which published the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture (WEAI) Intervention Guide (2016). Prior to joining ACDI/VOCA, Dr. Williamson worked as the headquarters Gender Technical Specialist for Counterpart International. Dr. Williamson began her career in education, teaching at high school and university levels as well as working in higher education administration. Dr. Williamson holds a B.A. in Studies in Women and Gender and English from the University of Virginia as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in English, with a concentration in gender, race, and intersectionality, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This is the first of a three-part series by Dr. Jenn Williamson, who first shared this on our new Professor Is Out private mutual support group. Please join The Professor Is Out for dynamic, friendly, compassionate, and smart advice and support, no matter where you are in the journey heading elsewhere! Thank you, Jenn, for allowing me to re-post your writing on the blog.
From time to time I receive requests from people who are in academia — both current PhD candidates and those who have graduated but are unhappy with their job prospects. Most of those who reach out to me would like to learn more about my history because they are thinking about leaving and are looking for inspiration, reassurance, and advice about how to “get out.” I am always happy to connect, as I know how difficult it can be leaving a profession and a culture that has meant so much to so many of us.
I won’t go on here about the sadness, disappointment, and suffering so many people face due to the exploitation and abuses that have sadly become the norm in this system — that may be something we can discuss over a drink or the subject of another post. I will only say, for anyone reading this and feeling that way, that those feelings are shared by many. Please know that if you are having those feelings, that you yourself are valuable and worth taking care of, and that although we have spent years being told to define success in a narrow way — by achievement of positions that rarely exist and, when they do exist, rarely offer decent work — you do not need to define your success by those standards. You can define success on your own terms. You have a bright future and many opportunities available to you. In doing so, you can take back control of your choices and build a pathway toward fulfillment and a quality of life that is good for you.
I was inspired to write this narrative about my experience leaving academia because I found myself answering many of the same questions from so many different people, often regardless of their scholarly focus. I will attempt to write a coherent narrative that covers the most common questions. I am sure I will miss things, so I will consider this a living document. I may come back to update it, and I may add more to it if I receive additional requests for information.
Please know that this is my own story about my own journey, and I cannot speak for others’ experiences, nor will my story necessarily offer a precise roadmap for what anyone else should do. I merely offer it up in case my experience is helpful to others. At a minimum, I hope it offers inspiration and encouragement, to show that it is possible and worth doing, despite how daunting it may seem.
About International Development
I now work in the field of international development. If you are unfamiliar with international development, I’ll briefly say that it is a field that seeks to improve the lives of individuals worldwide through different areas depending on what they need or want — such as helping increase access to stable food supply, increasing participation in democratic processes, and strengthening underperforming economies. Development is linked to but different from humanitarian assistance and emergency response. Although development is often defined as economic development (which is how many countries are determined to be “developed” or “developing”), the field works in such areas as health, education, democracy, economics, agriculture, natural resource management, peacebuilding, and more. You may wish to check out the following articles for some introductory discussions on the industry:
My Current Role as Vice President of Gender and Social Inclusion
My current position is Vice President of Gender and Social Inclusion at an international non-governmental organization (INGO). The one I work for is non-profit, but there are also for-profit firms that are INGOs and do this work (there is a difference, which will affect culture within the organizations, so worth looking into if you are interested in this field.)
In this role, I am a technical advisor, manager, and strategic leader. This means:
Technical advisor – technical advisors are experts in a specific field of knowledge, offering information and advice to those in the field. As a technical advisor for gender and social inclusion, I act as a researcher and resource for ensuring that all projects are designed and implemented with attention to gender equity, female empowerment and equitable inclusion of marginalized populations.
Manager – I manage a team of headquarters-based gender, youth and social inclusion experts, who also provide technical support to projects and proposals. Our team provides guidance and support to project-based technical advisors. Further, I provide technical quality oversight of gender and social inclusion work across the organization.
Strategic leader – I guide the design, development, and uptake of technical strategies and tools in gender and social inclusion for the organization, including the organization’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Policy. I also represent the organization externally to promote our expertise and leadership across the industry as well as stay informed of emerging trends, promising practices, and new data/resources.
Please note that I didn’t jump from a PhD candidate into a role as vice president at an INGO. I worked my way up, starting out as an intern (more on that later). I then worked hard over the years to establish myself as a technical advisor. Over time, I gained experience managing other staff and moved organizations, where I not only expanded my role as a manager but I grew as a strategic leader. These opportunities were things I worked toward strategically and with the encouragement and support of mentors and champions along the way.
A Very Brief Summary of My Academic Background
I completed my PhD in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2012. My “major” concentration was 20th century American literature and my “minor” was slave narratives and American sentimental literature.
I did not apply for any academic jobs. I had spent a total of nine years in academia as a graduate student, completing two master’s degrees (MFA as well as the MA/PhD combination), in addition to two years working on the administrative side in a university chancellor’s office. I had spent the majority of my nine years as a graduate student teaching, although I also worked as a research assistant and editor of a journal. I had many publications, including three book contracts. I don’t say any of this to brag, but rather to be clear that I was well positioned to compete on the traditional academic job market, at least on paper. But I was fully aware that being credentialed in those traditional terms and ticking those boxes has come to mean very little in terms of actual job market success.
I decided to leave academia before graduating and began my process of transitioning to a new industry while completing my final year.
In many ways, I was fortunate to attend a PhD program that had a robust system for helping its graduate students go through the job market — lots of structured discussions as well as preparation and support from professors and fellow students. However, to me, this process reinforced the belief that the primary goal and the only definition of a successful PhD student was one who landed a tenure-track position at an R1 upon graduating. “Semi-successful” students achieved fellowships or positions at teaching colleges or universities that did not have the R1 rating, and they bore that “shame,” unless they were fortunate enough to prefer those positions. It was shocking to me how those achievements were openly viewed as “less than” by certain members of the faculty.
But the message was clear: success was defined as attaining a tenure track position at a university of high enough prestige. Otherwise, you were failing in some way. This, despite the dismal numbers of job opportunities, the ridiculously high competition for those few positions, and the obvious lie to the meritocratic arguments we were all fed repeatedly — that our quality and quantity of publications and stellar teaching/scholarly record would eventually lift us to the desired placement. This process was just how it was, and we were to continue to go through it without question, and to complain about the inherent systemic failures only among ourselves.
In my final year, as I was in the process of setting up my dissertation defense, I received the first email of the year announcing a meeting for all students preparing for the job market. I realized, as I read the email, that I was not only feeling the usual dread of just how painful the entire process was, but that… I didn’t want to do this anymore. The whole system was exploitative and abusive in ways I no longer wanted to be part of. And I couldn’t fix any part of it by continuing to participate in it. It hit me that I was done. And I would not be going on the academic market. Ever.
So now what? I honestly didn’t know. But I knew I needed to figure that out.
To be continued…
- From English PhD to Digital Marketing Entrepreneur – Langer 1
- The Power of Writing Groups for Women of Color – WOC Guest Post
- Introducing The Post-Ac Experts: Karen Cardozo and Allessandria Polizzi
- Ivory Towers in the Rearview Mirror: Allison Yakel
- The Job of an Academic Editor: Part 1 (Fruscione #Postac Post)