This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large.
Christopher L. Caterine, who has a PhD in Classics from UVA, left academia for the corporate world after he and his wife, also an academic, decided staying together in the city of their choice was more important to them than pursuing two elusive tenure-track jobs. In Caterine’s new book, Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide, he tells us how he did it. The book is written in an engaging style; it’s forthcoming, incisive, and specific.
Here are a few high points of Caterine’s advice that might convince you, the prospective alt-ac job-seeker, that this one’s the book for you.
Success may happen slowly.
Caterine writes that his search took two years, and “meetings with more than 150 people,” before he found the job that was his first step out of academia. He had the time—he had what he calls a “‘good’ visiting assistant professorship that only carried a 3-3 teaching load,” when he undertook the search—so this wasn’t a disaster for his finances, but the details of his story show how winding the path to external employment may be. Takeaway: If you think you may be on your way out of academia, start sooner, rather than later.
If it feels hard, that’s because you’re leaving a vocation, not a job.
Caterine is especially attuned to the emotions that come along with abandoning the hope of an academic position. “In a very real way,” he writes, “we worry that we don’t know who we’ll be if we cease to be academics.” The emotional turmoil he felt throughout his search is well-described; the story of how he and his wife decided she should forgo a chance at a tenure-track job in an undesirable location hits especially close to home. “Like most academics,” he writes, “we’d been acculturated to think that significant life choices were outside our control.” Once they stepped out of that paradigm, they started to see how much they had been sacrificing.
Informational interviews can be simple.
Caterine demystifies the process for academics, who are highly unaccustomed to seeking out these kinds of informal professional contacts. He includes good questions to ask—two are, “What skills do you wish you had before you started in your current role?” and “What have people gone on to do after holding your position?”—along with descriptions of the way these questions helped him understand new industries during his own coffee chats.
Networking isn’t bad.
“I long considered networking perverse—an attempt to use people for personal gain when they should have been befriended for joy and companionship,” writes Caterine, voicing the thoughts of many purity-minded academics who think of non-academic hiring as somehow less meritocratic than what goes on inside academia. After a while, he writes, he figured out that building professional connections is a practice that benefits not just the job-seeker, but everyone who participates.
Reframe your academic work for public consumption with one easy trick.
I joke, because Caterine’s advice is more subtle than this, but this one recommendation from him really helped: “Emphasize how you study, rather than what you study.” He includes several examples of ways you can circumvent discussions of subject matter in favor of a focus on methodology, when framing your academic experience for resumes, cover letters, and interviews.
Put your fellowships on your resume.
Caterine includes several concrete examples of post-academic resumes, along with a few pieces of advice that were new to us. One was that alt-ac job-seekers should include the money they made in grad school, through fellowships, grants, and other supports, on their resumes. It’s a way to show people outside the academy, who might look on the decision to pursue a PhD with skepticism, that they didn’t go to school only to incur debt.
Pull back from academia, for your own good.
The most controversial section of the book will, as Caterine acknowledges, be the one where he talks about the alt-ac job-seeker’s strategic retreat from academic obligations. Caterine recommends the candidate diminish their attention to teaching and research deliverables as the alt-ac job search continues—so that somebody still working in academia, but looking for a job outside of it, might dedicate a free hour to seeking out another informational interview, rather than tweaking a syllabus or taking another pass at a conference paper.
More dramatically, Caterine advocates that the alt-ac job seeker who gets a job partway through a semester, while teaching in a contingent position as an adjunct or lecturer, should, as long as they have the legal right to do so, think about leaving the classroom in order to take the job offer—even if this grieves and inconveniences the students and the department. He sees this kind of move as a political act: “While this advice may not be popular in some circles, attempts to correct the gross imbalance afflicting the academic labor market have thus far failed. I believe it’s now warranted to apply a different sort of pressure.”
Any opinions, findings, and conclusion or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Interfolio.