Reflections on a Year of Connected Academics

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When I applied to the MLA’s Connected Academics proseminar early last summer, I knew I wanted to explore alt/non-academic career options, but I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. So in my application, I focused on three ideas: my “commitment to connectivity” and public discourse about the humanities; my valuation of the project of translation; and my desire to increase my professional self-knowledge. I tried to show how I had a longstanding research and teaching interest in making connections between groups—an interest that matched the CA initiative’s goal of “integrating the values of humanistic study into society.” I talked about wanting to better accomplish the crucial work of translating academic practices into more general skills and abilities. And I explained that I wanted to become a better candidate for any job, whether in or outside of academia: to know my worth and be able to articulate it convincingly to employers.

It was only after I was accepted as a fellow and attended my first proseminar session at the MLA’s New York City headquarters that I began to understand the variety and vibrancy of the alt/non-academic career track. University administration, libraries, nonprofits, government, business, industry . . . I discovered that there are more intellectually stimulating, well-paying, and exciting careers available to literature and language PhDs than I had ever imagined. And when I say they’re available, I really mean that: there are jobs to be had—even, dare I say, many jobs to be had—alongside and outside of academia! Through monthly meetings at organizations like the New York Public Library, the Mellon Foundation, and ACLS; panel discussions with PhDs who hold interesting, creative, even entrepreneurial jobs; workshops on networking, social media, resume-writing, and more, my eyes were opened to endless possibilities.

The perspectives shared and practical advice offered over the course of the fellowship aren’t secret, by any means, but they aren’t things that we usually learn or are exposed to as grad students. In the interests of sharing as much with as many people as possible, then, what follows are my descriptions of what I found to be the three most valuable takeaways from my experience as a CA fellow.

  1. Self-worth. Let’s be honest: the academic job market can be soul-crushing. Exploring career options beyond the tenure track and learning how to pitch myself to a variety of employers gave me a much-needed sense of hope as well as an incredible boost of self-confidence. I realized that I was already a highly accomplished professional. I learned that many employers deeply value and are actively searching for people with my skill sets. I just needed to learn how to pitch those skills. And then . . . the things I could do! Oh, the places I could go!
  2. Transferable skills. A year ago, the term “transferable skills” was not in my job-application vocabulary. Instead, I was preoccupied with how best to show off my accomplishments, in the hopes that they would be impressive enough to get me an interview. I could articulate the key interventions of my research, the highlights of my teaching philosophy, and my commitment to service in a thousand different ways, depending on which school I was targeting. My CV was polished and thorough, stating my achievements in a format that was clear and easily digestible in a glance. But through all the drafts, the revisions, the re-revisions, I never spent any time thinking about my skills. The distinction seems small but it’s hugely important. In her article about transferable skills and resume-building (really-useful-resource alert!), Stacy Hartman—coordinator of the CA proseminar—says we’re “more accustomed to talking about what [we]know than about what [we]do.” My time in the proseminar trained me to appropriately translate my abilities, so now I can speak the language of doing. Academic-job me: I’m a highly effective teacher of literature and composition. Every-other-job me: I can “convey complex content to a diverse audience,” “manage the expectations of multiple constituencies,” “adapt to rapidly changing circumstances,” “master technical skills to manage and convey information in innovative ways,” and so much more. (Again, see Stacy’s really useful documents for these and many more tips on transferable skills.)
  3. Networking. I don’t like networking. It makes me feel vulnerable and socially awkward. But, as I heard over and over again throughout various proseminar events, it is absolutely crucial for success in many careers. Almost every gainfully employed, PhD-holding person who spoke with us emphasized the importance of networking. Social media—especially LinkedIn and Twitter—as well as attending discipline-specific conferences are places to start. But to really immerse yourself and make personal, concrete connections, go on site visits and informational interviews. If there’s an organization or company you think seems interesting and/or a great place to work, contact someone and ask if you can conduct a site visit: this is a chance to visit the office, speak to some of the employees, learn about what they do now and what they did to get to their current positions. It’s also a chance to demonstrate your interest in a particular field and find ways to get involved. (It’s NOT, however, a time to ask for a job.) Informational interviews are more individualized: reach out to someone whose career you admire and ask if they’d be willing to meet briefly for coffee and talk about what they do. Again, not a time to ask for a job, but a great way to find out more about a certain sector/industry/job. Even though I was terrified of being rejected, I quickly found that more often than not people are incredibly generous, happy to share their time and insights (and talk about themselves). The worst case scenario is that they say no, and then you try not to take it personally—because it’s not personal—and move on. But my experiences with both site visits and informational interviews have been positive and productive (i.e. have led to resume-building/job opportunities).

I feel quite lucky to have been a part of the CA proseminar’s inaugural cohort, and my subsequent decision to turn to the nonprofit sector—while still maintaining a foot in the academic door—has been exciting and encouraging. If anyone is considering applying to the proseminar (the deadline is June 1st), please feel free to reach out to me—I’d be happy to talk about the experience and discuss/read through application materials. Lehigh’s grad department is already leaps and bounds ahead of most other departments in terms of its support for alternative career paths, so continued ties with the CA initiative are, I think, hugely important. (Side note: my sense is that the program coordinators will be especially interested in working with doctoral candidates/PhDs who can create productive alliances with faculty, staff, and administrators at their schools that will help further the CA initiative’s goals. If you have ideas about how you might do that—a series of workshops, a collaboration with Career Services, etc.—definitely include that in your application!) And if anyone is considering a go at the alt/non-academic job market, I’m more than happy to share information and resources: be in touch!

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