The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors

I know, once again the weekend passes without a CFP roundup; I will collect some things for that in a couple of days. Something came up that was more important that I wanted to talk about: getting a job.

Most of us have, by this point, read William Pannapacker’s Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go, and all the other dozens of similar things warning us away from attempting to believe we’ll actually make a living in the humanities. Yesterday my friend posted a link from Slate titled, There are no academic jobs and getting a PhD will make you a horrible person.

That seems a bit excessively harsh, but the writer is clearly really bitter. And I guess that’s understandable, because a lot of people get bitter when their life turns out vastly different from the way they envisioned it. Look at practically every human comic book villain ever, not counting the ones who’re aliens or gods or something. And the job market is really, really hard. It is. What I’m not convinced of is that the non-academic job market is all that much better, or–the thing I keep hearing all the time–that grad school ruins you for everything else.

That last one I hear a lot. It goes along with the prevailing cultish attitude that having gone and got a PhD, a permanent academic post is the only measure of worth. It is terribly pervasive, and it’s something we need to move past. I don’t know how to make this happen, but this is the best way I can think of to start. Because sure, grad school, like a dead-end job or a long aimless unemployment–can make you horrible, but unlike those other things, it can also make you AWESOME.

There is no reason for you to listen to me, of course. I don’t have an academic job. I’ve spent two years being rejected for postdocs. But I am a person who had jobs–what are sometimes termed ‘real’ or ‘career-track’ jobs–before grad school, including a couple of years working in Human Resources. You know, the people who recruit and hire for jobs. So it’s the ‘career switch’ I’m going to talk about right now. Of course, everyone’s experience will be different, and mine might not mesh with yours. But I’m going to share some things that I’ve learned anyway.

Managing life expectations: why did you do this, anyway?

(No, not THAT kind of Doctor.)

Are you doing this to be a lecturer (researcher, professor, etc) or to be a scholar? This may sound like a naive question–obviously most of us start a PhD intending to be both. But here’s the thing–YOU CAN STILL BE A SCHOLAR. When you finish that PhD, you are a badass expert who knows a lot of stuff. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re that caught up in a thesis, but it’s really not just a longer version of the certification you could have got at vocational school. You don’t have to pretend it never happened.

If you get a job in something completely unrelated to your degree, there’s really nothing stopping you from continuing to read journals, go to conferences, publish articles, and participate in the discussions in your field. Some areas have a bit of a stigma against independant scholars, but not all, and it’s nothing you can’t overcome by having something intelligent to say. I know someone who did an MPhil in my department in a fairly narrow field, then, because he had a background in economics as well as Celtic literature, went to work for a financial company. He now gets to be a Celticist AND pay the bills, which I probably don’t have to tell you, is no mean accomplishment.

You might be wondering how to even begin doing that, because job hunting is scary, and postgrads are notoriously unequipped for the so-called Real World.

(Fortunately you can still apply for stuff online from under the blankets.)

It’s actually really easy. When you get to the interview, and the person you want to hire you asks, “Why are you applying here when you have a PhD in French counter-reformation literature?” this is your cue to reassure them you aren’t going to run off to the first adjunct spot that opens up. You don’t have to dismiss your PhD. You shouldn’t. Just tell them you’re proud of your work and plan to keep track of your field, maybe publish something, spend some of your holiday time at conferences–but that the scholarship isn’t the same as academia, and you’re applying for this particular job because you’re looking for something you can commit to without the uncertainty of temporary lectureships or whatever. Remind them that Einstein was a patent clerk if you must. Explain what you like about the job you’re applying for as well as what you can give to it. You don’t want it to sound like you’re going to half-ass the job, but you’re allowed to have outside interests. The working world is full of people who once wanted to do something other than what they’re doing, but ended up okay. They won’t think less of you for joining them.

(Also, Brian May from QUEEN has a PhD in astrophysics, though he got that later.)

Job hunting sucks.

I have a spreadsheet listing all the things I have applied for, or am going to apply for. One of the columns is ‘rejections’ and there are a lot of Xs in it. The thing is, before grad school, I worked in the media, was talented and good at my job, and I had a lot of rejections then, too–so many that I finally decided medieval literature was a better job prospect. Job hunting is a numbers game in the way that flipping coins is a numbers game in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead–it seems like eventually something should come up just because you’ve been playing so long, but the chance of getting hired for any individual job is still pretty low.

This is true in academia, and out of it. Getting a job is mostly luck. People will tell you differently, and there are definitely ways to stack the deck in your favour, but the necessary combination of knowing things, knowing people, and being in the right place at the right time still involves a lot of serendipity.


News flash? There is no magical job fairy running around giving out wonderful, well-paid, secure jobs to people without advanced degrees either. The only things you can automatically find a job as are doctor and hair stylist. The unemployment rate in the UK is 7.8% nationwide, and over 10% in some especially depressed areas. In the US, it’s 7.6%. And that’s without getting into the weirdness about how unemployment is figured, and how it doesn’t count people who have just given up. Our economy, folks, is crap.

Moving on isn’t giving up.

There seem to be three main ways of dealing with the fact there are hardly any academic jobs out there:

1. Complain about how there aren’t any jobs in any forum that presents itself.
2. Accept some minimum-wage, entry-level, or service industry job out of the feeling that grad school has left you unprepared for anything else.
3. Leave the PhD off the CV and try to explain away an employment gap because you don’t want to look overqualified.

You don’t have to do any of these. (Well, the first one is probably unavoidable, it’s just not a solution by itself.) Remember that outside grad school, you are a badass expert who knows a lot of stuff, not the bottom of the scholarly food chain! I know a lot of people who think that if they don’t manage a tenure-track job, they’re going to end up working at Denny’s or Wetherspoon’s. Give me a break. You can do a lot of things. What you have to learn to do is market yourself so that the hiring people know this.

Think creatively about how to use your skills. And you do have skills. I don’t mean spitting out jargon about Otherness or Foucault and annoying everyone in the vicinity. But other than a large piece of academic work, at the end of this PhD, I know six languages, can assemble grants like nobody’s business, write coherent copy, organise conferences, do public speaking…these are skills that are useful in the wider job world. You have them too. Which brings me to this:

This is a post in which a medieval studies PhD asks why more managers don’t hire us for our transferrable skills.

It’s discouraging to read, and the comments make me despair for humanity a bit, but here’s the thing. Job hunting is a skill that we are not always taught. (And don’t get me started on the ‘career advice’ that university job centres give out, it is HORRIBLE. I argued with a lady once at a careers seminar in Britain who was giving very bad advice on how to do one’s resume for jobs in the US. After pointing out that I had spent the last two years hiring people in the US, I gave up, because she was adamant it was what she’d been told.) You can’t do anything about it if someone applies who genuinely does have exactly the skillset they were hoping for–who has a degree and twenty years experience in making green widgets, and just happens to want to relocate to their city to be nearer family or something. That’s where that luck thing comes in. But you can still apply, and you should. A lot of the time it won’t work out, but sometimes it will.

If you want a job that is not in your field, your application has to address explicitly how your field prepared you for that job. It’s not a huge cosmic mystery.Go down the list of essential and desirable skills in the job particulars and explain, in your cover letter, in very clear language, how you are awesome at that thing. ‘I see you’re looking for someone fluent in French and German. I have a PhD in modern languages, so I can speak both of those, plus Spanish, Mandarin and Sanskrit.’ If you have ever been awarded money, include that–you’ve been successful at getting grants and funding? It’s not only the academic world that loves that. But you can’t assume the person hiring will have any idea what you’re talking about, so you have to spell it out. I’ll start you off: even finishing that PhD means you can stick with projects to the bitter end.

This is basically how the writing-up year feels.

Seriously, it doesn’t have to be a career in pizza delivery.

A lot of people seem to stick with the academia gig because they don’t know what else to do. This makes sense; we do get really focused and also, most jobs aren’t things you even think about. (My sister buys parts for aeroplanes. She is awesome at it, and it’s been a good career for her. But she got into it totally by accident, not because she finished her Creative Writing degree and said,’huh, I’ve decided what I really want to do is aerospace purchasing.’ There are a lot of good jobs out there that you have NEVER EVEN HEARD OF.)

So here are some of the things I can think of that have worked for people before. If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in comments!

1. Write books. I know, this is not known for being a lucrative path to fame and fortune either (apparently unless you write really popular rubbish) but it’s a thing you can probably do. Especially ‘popular’ science and history fields for the armchair academics.

2. Consult for TV or movies. I have only the vaguest idea how one does this, otherwise you’d see me on the BBC all the damn time, but I have known people who did it.

3. University administration. This has the benefits of being staff–library priveleges, the academic community, and so on–without the whole ‘publish or perish’ thing. Plus if you do want to teach or do research, you already know the people hiring. Bonus!

4. IT. And not necessarily tech support, but database admin and metadata/cataloguing jobs tend to attract former postgrads.

5. Private school teacher. These can be only too happy to have teachers with a ‘doctor’ in front of their name.

6. Journalism, translation, archives, museum curator, non-profit administration…you get the idea. All sorts of things you probably don’t think about right away.

Instead of looking at the job ads thinking, ‘this isn’t in my exact field–why are none of these looking for a person with expertise in Ancient Hittite?’–try to think, ‘how could my experience apply to this?’

[Short edit] I didn’t remember to suggest this when I was first writing out this post, but one way to get into surprising new jobs with a lower stress level can be to temp. It’s not a meteoric rise, but it’s been known to work. (It’s how I, my sister, and several friends ended up with their jobs.) Take long-term assignments, learn a new company, and apply for whatever they have you can do. You start out on better footing that way because they already know you, and you can deal with some of the concerns casually before the interview process.

Good luck. It’s a jungle out there.

A few other hopefully-helpful tips:

Take advantage of professional services that look over your resume and the like, if they are good. Not the Job Centre, because they’re rubbish. Or, find a friend or relative who has some experience hiring, or works in the field you’d like to get into, who can look over your CV and will give you honest feedback.

Spend some time thinking about how your PhD work relates to the rest of the world. This is not something we’re often good at doing, but it’s invaluable–especially in the UK, where the academic jobs are also now stressing ‘impact.’ Nobody seems entirely sure what that means, but if you can make a popular website, an exhibition, or a BBC documentary about it, you’re on the right track.

Be the professional you really are. No matter what kind of job you’re applying for, you are not a supplicant asking for a favour, but a highly-qualified professional with a good deal to offer. Act like it, because if you don’t believe it, they won’t.

And that could end badly.

And if, like me, you’re going to remain optimistic and determined for a while longer, remember this is good advice no matter what kind of job you’re after.

Some links worth looking at:

The Professor is In. This is brilliant stuff, geared toward the US tenure-track market, so not all of it applies to the UK. But some of it does, this guest post in particular.

Nadine Muller’s New Academic. This is invaluable for UK academics, if only because it explains how the hell the REF works.

And while I was in the middle of writing this, I came upon this post form Neon Anonymous, who is also a PhD student getting to grips with all this.

So look, I know it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s always discouraging when you’re looking for a job; there’s just something especially bitter about having trouble finding one when you’ve put so much work into something. But even for any of us who end up working in something else, that doesn’t mean it was a waste. You’re still contributing to the world’s knowledge and improving yourself as person, not to mention getting to read a lot of really cool stuff. It’ll be okay. Honest. And we all have to kind of help each other out. As a wise wizard once said–

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
-T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Good luck!


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