Q+A: Using my PhD to Build a Career Beyond Academia
Answers to frequently asked questions: please add your own in the comments!
This month has five Mondays and so, lucky you, an extra newsletter edition.
I hadn’t planned to do two Q+A sessions in a row, but I also have been getting questions about my career path a lot lately and, as it’s back to school/starting job hunting season for many, I wanted to share this now in case it’s helpful!
I'm frequently asked how I "did it," a.k.a. forged my own career path after leaving academia, even though "doing it" feels like a constant process and never like something that I've fully arrived at. I'm continuously revisiting and learning and growing, and where I and my business (and my writing practice, and my art practice, and...) are not where they were even two years ago.
I'm comfortable with lots of change, a fast pace of growth, with moving outside my comfort zone, and with exploring subjects that have resonance in a lot of different spaces. I don't know if any of that is the key to my success (or if there's a key?), though we all recognize success differently and I see many ways left for me to grow. I am friends with writers who are where I hope to be, and am told I am where other people I know want to be.
That said, I have found incredible joy and freedom in the work and life I've built, and I hope everyone can experience the same. I asked on social media what questions people would want to know about my work, and here are the questions I was asked. I hope they help you in your own work!
Do you have other questions?
Please leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them!
Many people get PhDs to become full-time, tenure-track professors; what made you chart a different course?
I initially entered my grad program with that goal in mind, but got a director-level staff job right out of school, which I was really fortunate to get, the job market being what it was and is.
I spent about a year applying for jobs when it was clear I was ready to leave that position, and actually got offers (including for TT faculty), but couldn't take them because they coincided with a time when I needed to do end of life care.
I could have gone back into academia full time I suppose, but I had been offered a clean break and saw how I personally wanted to grow in other directions, so I took it.
What was your single greatest challenge in creating your own path?
I don't really know if there was one single one, but if forced to pick I'd say my own uncertainty about things. When I feel uncertain about where I'm going or what I'm doing, it's a sign to me to sit down and journal/meditate/whatever I need to think about what it is I do want. Once I know where I want to be, it's much easier to see if I'm on the right path to get there.
How did you find financial security on your path?
Of all the questions I'm asked, this is the one I get most often, and I think it speaks to our collective (very justified!) concerns about leaving traditional career paths and working for ourselves. The shortest answer is: don't put all your eggs in one basket.
The slightly longer answer is that I have chosen a few different income streams, and this helps me stay secure (if I lose one, I won't go completely broke), but it also keeps me engaged and current with all my different interests.
Some of the things I do include writing coaching and occasional adjuncting or other teaching, in addition to Root and to my writing practice. I think the key is finding things that bring you enjoyment but also add value to your work and life: Writing coaching, for example, has been such a source of joy for me and has really helped me connect more deeply with my own practice as a writer. I'm grateful for that work every day, for reasons well beyond the money.
How did you manage the emotional rollercoaster of leaving one career and starting another?
This one would be more of a conversation to have over a beer than to have in a newsletter, but the short version is that my experience is probably going to be different than most people starting a business. The year I started Root I was also engaging in grieving + end of life care for my mom and grandma, who passed within a few months of each other, after leaving a toxic job at the start of the year. The rollercoaster from all that was really where my emotional focus was: the act of building a business felt really grounding in a lot of ways as a result. I think finding ways to make your work grounding and a source of comfort and joy is helpful, whether or not you're going through other major life upheavals at the time, because it helps you stick with it, keep it fun, and keeps your passion from turning into the same sort of Sunday scaries situation so many people have with their 9-5 jobs.
What did you wish you knew then about the path that has taken you to where you are today?
Honestly, nothing, because the mistakes I made got me to where I am. I would heartily encourage folks to mitigate risk (e.g. start small, don't hire a ton of people off the bat, keep overhead low, etc.) so that when mistakes happen, correcting and learning from them can be a learning experience rather than a massive financial blow.
It can be hard to launch a business; how were you able to do that after finishing your Ph.D.?
I wasn't really sure how to answer this, because they're both challenging in their own way. I think if you're someone who's willing to be curious, work hard, and learn a lot, either one is possible.
Any advice for a recent Ph.D. graduate looking to build a career beyond the traditional path?
Remember that the work you're doing is built of lots of 'transferable skills' that can apply to other industries beyond academia. Identify what those are, identify where they're showing up in job listings for the kinds of jobs you're interested in. Once you know what skills folks are looking for, really clearly articulate how your experiences fit into that skill set. I can guarantee if you've gotten a PhD you've had experience in project management and maybe some leadership/managerial stuff (teaching experience maps to this!), but there are plenty of other examples.
How do you juggle multiple things at once?
This one really depends on your personal working style, I think, and is something I talk a lot about with my writing coaching clients. In doing that, I've learned a lot about myself and how I work, and a few key points are: I prioritize my work first, and give it my best energy. I set clear routines, and I have workflows/templates/etc whenever possible rather than reinventing the wheel every time.
Also one big key to my success is hiring the best virtual assistant, who works a few hours a week and helps me handle the stuff that makes me want to curl up in a ball on the floor and cry (like talking to customer service about accounts or filing out tax spreadsheets).
Because I recognized I needed help, and because Victoria is amazing and does a fantastic job, it has freed up a ton of my mental energy which can in turn go back into writing, etc. I recognize hiring a VA isn't in the cards for everyone, but I definitely recommend it or at least recommend finding ways to compartmentalize life admin stuff whenever possible so it doesn't seep into your creative life. I have other strategies for compartmentalizing the less soul-feeding parts of my work life so they happen after I’m done with my generative work for the day.
What did I miss? What other questions do you have? Let me know in the comments!
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Kudos to you for forging a different path. I've been in academia for almost 20 years - non-tenure track with a Ph.D. teaching hospitality and tourism... post-pandemic almost feels like post-apocalyptic in my field. I've always preferred doing and building over researching and have managed to find ways to incorporate much of what I love into my day-to-day at school.
Julia - thanks for sharing your story!
One question I've been wondering recently is how should academics plan their transitions to industry given current turbulence in industry job market?