Journeyman again

Preface (1999)

No one has born the weight of the decade's terrible academic job market more than young Ph.D.s. Caught between a culture that insists they cannot leave academia, a system that doesn't have enough room to allow them to stay, and a sense that Ph.D.s are not suited to nonacademic jobs and nonacademic jobs are unsuitable to Ph.D.s, they have too often found themselves deprived of opportunities and alternatives.

The high-minded narrowness of academic culture does no one any good. The truth is, many Ph.D.s find careers outside academia that make use of their training and skills, offer significant intellectual challenges, and provide time for research and writing. Academic culture has no term for a person who is not a professor but is still a productive scholar: the clumsy term "independent scholar" is more a euphemism than a category. That doesn't prove that such a combination is impossible. It only shows that academia's conception of the life of the mind is narrower than it should be.

In 1997, after leaving academia for a job in the corporate world, I wrote the first version of this essay, and argued that the life of the mind could be pursued as effectively and happily outside the academy as inside. Others have since made the same discoveries and similar arguments; all challenge the traditional views of scholarly life, and the comfortable provincialism of academic culture. The world of learning is a big place; the number of worlds that will find good uses for young scholars is far larger than you think; and the limits your advisors think you live under don't really exist. It's time to find out how to live differently.

Journeyman: Getting Into and Out of Academe (1997)


THERE'S NO GOOD TERM to describe it. Every year, Ph.D.s with years of experience in the classroom, a postdoc, an article or two, maybe even a book in press, are forced by circumstance and fortune out of academia. Colleagues and peers speak of them– their students and friends– as "leaving the field" or "getting out," phrases that have all the precision and charity of that greatest euphemism, the "independent scholar." The fact is, there is great diversity among those who stop pursuing conventional academic careers, in the conditions under which they move on, in what they do next, and their future scholarly ambitions. Some exit voluntarily, but many don't. Some live from year to year on a combination of pick-up teaching (often at two or more schools), the odd grant, and borrowed money, making financial sacrifices in order to stay on the margins of academe, while others start new careers in business, academic administration, or private schools. And while some abandon research and writing altogether, others continue to be productive scholars.

The imprecision of the language used to describe this population says more about academic attitudes than anything, and it points to a basic problem: academic culture is so focused on producing researchers and scholars that it doesn't even have the language to describe people who deviate from that path. It literally cannot describe a way to be a scholar without being an academic. The young Ph.D.s in question, of course, view the same situation differently: they're harsh realities, not abstractions or invisibilities. They've paid their dues, done everything they were supposed to do, and played by the rules. So why hasn't the system come through? And whatever in God's name, they wonder, do I do next?

In the spring of 1996, after five years on the job market, I left academia for a job in the corporate world. After years of graduate school, two postdocs and a lectureship, I became the deputy editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Many of my reasons for taking the job were positive, but I had concluded that I was never going to get a permanent academic job. I'd published half a dozen articles, revised my thesis into a book, and taught my share of survey courses. I knew, absolutely without question, that I loved the life of the mind. While I could have survived for a couple more years on postdocs and visiting positions, I calculated that the odds of getting a tenure-track job were dwindling to zero. It was time to go on to something else, something that I hoped would be interesting, make use of my academic skills, and allow me some time to do my own research.

My own trajectory is not representative of all Ph.D.s who leave academia. It can't be. But as historian Charles Rosenberg put it, while every career is different, no career is random, and even in autobiography one can see glimpses of larger patterns and morals. More than the particulars of my own story, though, what's worth reporting is what I've discovered, through my own experiences and in conversations with students, faculty, and other expatriate Ph.D.s since I left academia. The assumptions young Ph.D.s have about life on the outside and their chances of succeeding in it are wrong, and so is the conventional thinking about what "getting out" mean.

Most important, the life of the mind is highly portable: research and writing can be done outside the friendly confines of colleges and university, and some of us can even become better scholars for having experiences the worlds of commerce and public culture. Further, corporate life is different from the academy, but not completely alien: it has some aspects that are pleasantly familiar, as well as pleasantly different. Because of this, the skills that you develop as a graduate student and postdoc can be real assets in the private sector. Our talents, it turns out, are really quite marketable, and quite useful.

An Origin Story

MANY PEOPLE STRUGGLE OVER the choice to become an academic. Not me. My father is a history professor, an expert on imperial Brazil, and some of my happiest childhood memories are of playing in university libraries and bookstores. I never thought seriously about anything but an academic career. Thanks to my insider's perspective on academic life, I was unselfconscious about striking out on my own as an undergraduate, and a quarter of my college credits were independent studies or tutorials. Early on I discovered that I loved research, enough for one advisor to accurately describe my affection as more narcotic than romantic. As a graduate student, a fortunate combination of scholarships, supportive advisors who were comfortable with eclecticism and independent-mindedness, and a program that rewarded entrepreneurship made it possible for me to publish two articles before I was ABD. I turned in my dissertation in the summer of 1991, and left for a postdoc at Stanford University.

Postdocs, I discovered, are the very definition of liminal figures. Neither graduate students nor faculty, they labor under the burden of total freedom– freedom both from administrative drudgery and a well-defined place in the departmental community– and have no excuse for not buckling down, concentrating on research, and getting a lot of work done. If you're going to be simultaneously privileged and marginal, though, the Bay Area is the place to do it. After two hard years of dissertation writing, Stanford was strange and wonderful, at once intellectually intense and luxurious. The only thing pursued with as much single-mindedness as work was lifestyle, and the combination was a delicious change from Quaker Philadelphia.

From Stanford, I went to Berkeley on a two-year postdoc for minority scholars, and started the next rite of passage: turning my thesis into a book. Berkeley turned out to be the perfect place to write. Like Stanford it combined the search for the Absolute with the search for the perfect cappuccino (the latter, at least, could be found at Cafe Milano), and threw in a highly public intellectual culture of coffeehouses and bookstores for good measure. There, one could join a small sea of fellow students and scholars, all bent over PowerBooks, downing espressos and working through stacks of journals, conference talks, and drafts of chapters.

Neither Markets nor Heirarchies: The Academic Job Search

OR WRITING COVER LETTERS for job applications. Like all postdocs, much of my time and energy each fall was devoted to scouring the Chronicle of Higher Education, professional newsletters, and electronic bulletin boards for jobs. Applying for jobs, I soon discovered, is repetitive, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Not only does it take time to craft a cover letter, print out a c.v., select writing samples, fax advisors for recommendations, and send away for transcripts; there's no end of other things you can do to try to gain a tiny edge in the race. Researching schools and departments (most of us apply to at least one or two schools we've never heard of in a place we can't readily find on a map), collecting bits of intelligence about the competition, and reading between the lines of job announcements– all are efforts to divine what the search committee is really looking for, so that through clever tinkering and self-fashioning, you can turn yourself into what the department might– might — think is The Perfect Candidate.

This is a process that consumes large quantities of time and energy, and it weighs even minor decisions with consequence. Is it better to have a four-line recommendation from Professor Big, or a long detailed letter from Professor Nobody? How long is too long? Will they be impressed by a binder, or is a file folder okay? Should I FedEx, or just airmail? Believing your future life is going to be determined by your choice of resume paper is more exhausting than you'd expect.

It also reveals a deeper, more fundamental insecurity. Worrying that a search committee is going to deep-six your candidacy because you sent a Xerox rather than a reprint of an article is a sure sign that your professional future is pretty much outside your own control. My experience on the market didn't encourage me to think otherwise. Each year I applied for lots of jobs, and never got more than one interview. By my second year at Berkeley, I was really starting to worry: What was happening? After doing everything I was supposed to, giving talks at conferences, winning prizes, producing articles, and even being able to claim ethnic minority status– which according to critics of minority fellowship programs should have made me unbeatable, even had I been completely undistinguished– I couldn't understand why things weren't working out. Jobs were even starting to go to people younger than me, with less experience. Maybe if I'd just published one more article, I thought, or taught a little more, or written a better cover letter, or done something different, everything would click.

This isn't an unusual reaction. Young academics all seem to go through similar phases of soul-searching. But even while I went over my c.v., looking for that weakness that search committees found unfailingly, my sense that maybe it wasn't all just my fault grew. It was becoming very clear in the early 1990s that the academic market, which everyone had predicted would be wonderfully rich when I started graduate school, wasn't turning out so great: university budgets were flat or shrinking, and retiring faculty weren't being replaced very quickly. I also discovered that history of science was a more marginal field than I'd realized (despite its self-image as bridging the gap between the sciences and humanities), with the result that it was extra vulnerable to budget cuts.

Finally, the more I saw of academic culture and the workings of search committees, the less I trusted the whole hiring process. I learned at an early age that academic decision-making had its flaws: my father had been turned down for tenure after publishing two books and winning teaching awards. But the incentives to believe that the system is basically rational are powerful, not least of all because it lets you justify your own movement up the academic ladder as a reasonable reward for talent and hard work. Now as a postdoc I was in a position to see faculty life at first hand, to hear about searches from friends serving on their first search committee, and to trade news about Bay Area developments with sympathetic (or frustrated) peers.

The signs weren't hopeful. Intradepartmental factionalism split some searches, so that the only candidate who could be hired was the person least unacceptable to all sides. In a culture that prizes civility and conflict avoidance above almost everything else, bullies could exert a disproportionate influence over colleagues who preferred appeasement to confrontation. Even a smoothly-functioning committee not only dissected the work and credentials of applicants with incredible fineness, but made decisions based on highly local criteria. The choice between a social historian of American biology or a cultural historian of Weimar physics could be decided by a calculus whose variables included the power of the Europeanist faction, the need for a good undergraduate teacher in social versus cultural history, or the desire of the senior Americanist to get out of teaching the bread-and-butter U.S. history survey.

This didn't mean that the incompetent got hired over the eminently deserving; I never saw that happen, though I definitely questioned a couple choices. But the definition of what constituted a good candidate was more contingent, and involved more things outside my control, than I ever imagined. This all meant that my friends and I could take failure less personally; but thinking of the job market as so irrational didn't make any of us more optimistic about the long term.

Looking Outside

AT THE SAME TIME, I still loved the work itself. The bleaker the job market looked, the more I looked forward to getting back into writing, to losing myself in the library among the books, to wrestling with sources that were overwhelming in their numbers and elusive in their meanings and morals. I could spend days agonizing over the structure of an argument, struggling to get the balance of a chapter right, going over the same ground a dozen times before finally knitting it all together. My book manuscript continued to improve: some problems I hadn't had time to solve in the dissertation were finally getting worked out, and I was seeing things in my sources that I'd missed a couple years earlier.

All this was cause for a quiet, sustaining pleasure that was both warming and faintly absurd. There is something a little bit ridiculous about getting an adrenaline rush in the archives, or turning cartwheels inside when a stubborn problem finally yields to solution, or agonizing over a thought that is just barely beyond expression. But I'd never really cared about the absurdity, and still didn't care. Research was becoming less a means to a career than a consolation against its disappointments.

It became more and more clear that I might have to make a fundamental choice. I could pursue career-building and self-fashioning, or the life of the mind, but not both. Between crafting cover letters, assembling writing samples, getting recommendation letters together, and working the network of friends and colleagues for tidbits of gossip about searches, applying for jobs was absorbing an immense amount of time and energy that could be better devoted to research, which brought more pleasure and more certain rewards. Furthermore, not only was publishing– which conventional wisdom said was the royal road to a job– not helping my career, some senior colleagues confided that it might be hurting: my long but checkered list of articles left search committee wondering what I really was interested in, and whether hiring me was worth the risk. This only confirmed that I couldn't allow the uncertainty of career rewards to destroy the pleasure of doing the work I enjoyed. Allegiance to disciplinary subspecialties be damned. If I was to succeed, by whatever standard, the two would have to be treated separately.

Thinking about the life of the mind and the career as separate entities helped to make clearer what was really important to me. It also offered the first glimmer of the possibility that it would be possible to pursue a scholarly life outside academia. Other evidence accumulated. While browsing the shelves of Moe's and Cody's I discovered Jim Miller's The Passion of Michel Foucault , Victor Hanson's The Other Greeks , and Ray Monk's Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius , all books that are as intellectually rigorous and much more accessible than standard academic monographs, all written by people who didn't have standard academic careers. Miller was a Ph.D. who published on political philosophy and rock music, while Hanson's work drew more inspiration and insight from the family farm he managed than the seminar room.

Closer to home, Gregg Zachary, a neighbor and Wall Street Journal reporter, started writing a biography of MIT professor Vannevar Bush (about whom I'd written my senior thesis) that revealed all sorts of genuinely important things about Bush– things that really explained him– that I had never known. Why had he seen what I missed? Zachary put Bush's business consulting work and entrepreneurial activities (he cofounded Raytheon) in the foreground of his story, while I had never thought to focus on anything but Bush's life as a teacher and administrator at MIT. Doing scholarship from outside academia wasn't just possible, it now seemed; it could actually make you a better scholar.

This was a revelation. I shared my colleagues' disdain for popular historians and science journalists, lumping them together with motivational speakers and gossip columnists. But Miller and Zachary were impossible to dismiss as dilettantes. At the same time, the job search process was making academia seem less attractive. Even tenure– the Promised Land of professional achievement– was looking less useful for defending the bold truth-teller than protecting unproductive, middle-aged men whose first book had come out when I was a child, and whose best work was neither before nor behind them. Maybe the hum of Grub Street, and the higher risks of writing for the popular market, would provide more incentive to do good work than the guarantee of lifetime employment.

It took more than a year, turning these ideas over in my mind, before I could really believe that a nonacademic life, to paraphrase Eugene Genovese's famous line about a Communist victory in Viet Nam, was not to be feared but welcomed. It wasn't an easy conclusion to reach. I'd grown up on campuses, and was accustomed to the easy and intense familiarity of university life. After all these years in universities, I couldn't imagine a life that didn't revolve around scholarship and students and wasn't timed to the rhythms of the academic year. I also didn't want to lose touch with my friends, people with whom I shared so much– including a drive to succeed in academia.

Besides, I had no idea where I should try to go next, how I should make plans, or what marketable skills I had. I knew the small world of history of science very well by now, but the mechanics of finding a job outside academia were a total mystery. And truth be told, I shared the mild contempt for the business world that most academics have (and which is returned with interest). A lectureship at U.C. Davis gave me another year of grace to figure things out: I wouldn't have to move apartments, much less careers.

Exit Stage Left

AS IT TURNED OUT, I got a job before I worked out an exit strategy. In 1995 the Encyclopaedia Britannica , responding to the challenge of electronic upstarts like Encarta, reorganized its editorial division and created a new deputy editorship– basically a director of content development for print, on-line, and electronic products.

I heard about the job almost by chance: descriptions of the position were sent to the Board of Editors, one of whose daughters had been a student of mine at Stanford, who passed the notice on to me. After becoming accustomed to a complex and months-long dance of cover letters, conference interviews, campus visits, and committee deliberations, this search was unlike anything I'd ever seen (and a case study in the difference between academic and non-academic professional networks). The editor in chief made a detour from a business trip to San Diego to interview me; I flew out to the corporate headquarters two weeks later for a day-long visit; and the job was mine soon after.

It seemed nearly perfect. The Britannica was a two hundred-year old institution in the process of remaking itself; the job required mediating between the university and the marketplace; and the local culture genuinely respected scholarly achievement, even promising extra time off to do my own research. Not only that, but things that academic search committees found suspicious– my intellectual eclecticism, desire to reach beyond academic audiences, and experience on the World Wide Web– made me attractive to my new employers. The chance to go from teaching the Enlightenment to doing it was too good to pass up.

"You're Doing What?"

REACTION TO THE NEWS was mixed. My parents were glad that I'd finally gotten a job ("academia is dead," my professor father grumbled). My graduate student and Ph.D. friends were impressed by the corporate salary– more than double my lectureship– then returned to worrying about their own prospects. A couple faculty were genuinely impressed, but the rest were openly negative. Some wondered if I wasn't foolish to turn down a one-year postdoc I'd been offered in Berlin, while another declared that if I didn't appreciate the company of the foremost minds in academia, then I might as well leave Berkeley. An attempt to start a thread about nonacademic careers on an electronic bulletin board quickly veered into an argument over whether overproduction of Ph.D.s was a sign of disciplinary strength, and whether unemployed scholars could serve as more powerful agents of social change than faculty. The discussion became academic in the worst sense of the word, then petered out and died.

These responses– especially the discussion group's unwillingness to discuss the mechanics of leaving academia– signaled a genuine discomfort with the subject. The fact that it was raised by someone who was a productive scholar and an employment failure– a taxonomic paradox that raised all sorts of uncomfortable issues– probably didn't help, but the reasons ran deeper. Some academics think of themselves as refugees from "the real world" and its values, and find the idea of intercourse with Grub Street or Wall Street genuinely distasteful. For others, devotion to research and teaching, which are generally neither well-paid nor well-respected activities, compels belief that they are part of a calling whose rewards are intangible, unique, and unavailable anywhere else. Graduate students struggle to establish professional identities by exhibiting allegiance to academic norms no less than by producing dissertations, and are less likely even than professors to break with them. They also have more to lose if they do.

More important, though, is that almost everyone in the humanities takes for granted that the academy is the only place in which one can pursue the life of the mind. The assumption is so pervasive as to seem perfectly natural, and thus it goes unquestioned. Immersion in things intellectual seems by nature antithetical to the coarser interests of the rest of the world, and its absurd obsessions with money and power. If that is true, then there is nothing to be done about leaving: there are and can be no alternatives to the university to (literally) speak of, and no rational policies to pursue or plans to make. Outside the ivy walls lies oblivion, and the less said about that particular abyss the better. It's no wonder that our language for describing lives that aren't academic, but are scholarly, is so poor.

Corporate Life: An Ethnography

OF COURSE, THERE IS some truth to the idea that academia culture and corporate culture– or the culture of commerce more generally– are different, if not antagonistic. The fact that the former considers the pursuit of knowledge to be an end in itself, and the latter is concerned more with profit, yields two rather different kinds of worlds with different rules for defining professional identity, organizing labor, rewarding success, and punishing failure.

Some parts of management are downright alienating to someone accustomed to the library and seminar room. Putting together and justifying my first budget made me feel like one of the monkeys in front of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I still don't think I ever really understood spreadsheet programs.

But after a while it also becomes clear that many things are actually pretty familiar– sometime too familiar. Management often means muddling through uncertainty, being overwhelmed by too much to read, having your work judged by unclear but (you think) very high standards, and feeling certain that everyone else is perfectly competent and you're the only fraud. In short, it's exactly like graduate school.

But the similarities can be more positive, and one soon discovers that there are lots of things you learn in graduate school or as a young Ph.D. that are more much valuable in the corporate world than you might think.

For one thing, most people can't write. That gives Ph.D.s a big advantage over the average corporate drone– or even the average MBA. As we all know, it's terribly underpaid as a discrete skill; but it does make a big difference when combined with other abilities. Few people are so devoted to the craft of writing as Ph.D.s., and even if we don't become Shakespeares, we have the advantage of being on intimate terms with our word-processors, and can turn out pages quickly when we need to. The ability to write coherent prose is a skill whose value should never be underestimated.

I also soon discovered that the rhetorical tools I developed when writing cover letters and grant applications come in useful when making the case for hiring a new editor or funding a special project.

Making business presentations is a cinch compared to giving lectures. Years of teaching forces you to learn how to prepare, and teaches you what happens if you don't: there are few things worse than looking foolish in front of a hundred nineteen year-olds, and we quickly learn how to avoid repeating the experience. And it turns out that the kind of extensive experience with public speaking that most young Ph.D.s have is a rare commodity in the corporate world. Even academics who don't really like teaching have a great advantage over managers and marketers who consider any public speaking to be a kind of public torture, and cling to overheads, handouts, and bullet points like shipwrecked passengers to lifeboats.

This point was driven home after watching several highly-paid "strategists" from a large consulting firm give the following presentations: they would put up a PowerPoint slide, then read the slide aloud, then go on to the next slide and repeat the process. I found it mystifying: they were the dullest things I'd ever seen. At first I thought it was just an element of consultant culture, but the truth was revealed on terrible afternoon when the network went down: they were actually very bad at– if not terrified of– public speaking, and used the slides as a crutch.

The experience of writing dissertations and books gives Ph.D.s an ability to deal with large and unruly volumes of material, and a demonstrated track record of being able to bring complicated, multi-year projects to a successful conclusion.

Likewise, the world of the book comes alive in some unexpected ways. Dealing with people from Marketing and Strategic Planning, who see the world in terms of "agendas" and "action plans" and "deliverables," and who regularly transform nouns into verbs (as in, "we'll agenda to action plan on the deliverables") is a bit like dealing with French printers who think that killing cats is a great joke or listening to the heresies of a sixteenth-century Friulian miller. One is immediately aware of being in the presence of world-views that are totally foreign but contain a logical consistency and require an ethnographic sensitivity to fathom.

These differences in language suggest that, in certain ways, the corporate environment is actually more diverse than academe. Not in terms of ethnicity or gender: the glass ceiling seems to me to be a very real part of the business world, though Britannica also seemed to be to have a better-than-average representation of women in senior management. Rather, the diversity exists in the variety of world-views one must confront– and to some degree, cooperate with— each day.

Comparing Worlds

NOT ONLY DO ACADEMICS possess skills useful in business; the idea that academia is the only place to pursue the life of the mind, or even the best place to pursue it, is dead wrong. There are several reasons for this.

For one thing, young academics have much less time to do research than they expect. Junior faculty the world over– even at research-oriented universities– discover that a full load of classes, committee work, and the everyday logistics of being an adult/spouse/parent leaves them precious little time for their own work. Even full professors still look forward to the summers to finish articles and manuscripts. Given this, taking a better-paying full-time job outside academia, particularly one that requires or makes use of scholarly training, doesn't look like such a sacrifice.

It now seems to me that academia's version of intellectual freedom demands a conformity of style and narrowness of audience that, while useful for enforcing scholarly standards, can also be unnecessary and stultifying. This is given clearest material expression in the kinds of things that academics write. As an assistant professor of history you're rewarded for publishing two types of things: articles (which run around 25-35 published pages), and monographs (which start at 200 pages). Everything else is either discounted, suspect, or ignored. However, it may well be that 8 pages– a short essay– gives you room enough to express a terrific idea, or 125 pages is all you need to tell a fascinating story.

As a nonacademic, you can expand your authorial horizons, and minimize the downside of literary experimentation. No one likes the idea of sounding like a stereotypical academic, and I suspect at some point everyone wonders if they could maintain standards without having their prose dulled. That insularity of expectation also can lead to an insularity of experience, which influences the unseated assumptions we take to our scholarship. Particularly for those whose research requires an understanding of how nonacademic organizations and bureaucratic politics work– in other words, for just about anyone working on modern topics– time in the nonacademic world can broaden experience and widen perspectives.

Having worked on the history of printing technologies and visual representation, working in the encyclopedia business at this point in its history– when it passes from the age of print into the electronic age— has been an eye-opening experience: the kinds of things I studied and wrote about are happening around me. Being involved in the business of electronic publishing has also made me a much sharper reader (and critic) of the academic literature on hypertext and multimedia than I ever could have been before. Much of that literature is extremely interesting, but reflects the view of the faculty office and seminar, not the editorial office or design studio or server room.

Finally, not having an academic job can also mean more freedom to work on a wider variety of projects, for more diverse and popular audiences. Tenure is supposed to provide intellectual freedom; being a respected amateur may be the next best thing. Being a serious amateur does require a measure of self-discipline that you don't need in academia, but if you can hold yourself to a regular schedule, you can keep pursuing research and writing. It turns out that there's some truth to the Victorian idea that the "gentlemanly specialist," that amateur scholar and scientist who is highly-trained, intellectually serious, and devoted to their subject, enjoys privileges denied to both the dilettante and the professional, and has the freedom to pursue projects that interest them irrespective of disciplinary boundaries or professional reproach.


SO THE WORLD OUTSIDE academia is neither as frightening nor as foreign as we assume. It is possible to pursue scholarly work in non-scholarly contexts, though it requires the discipline and sacrifice of the sort demanded by any serious pursuit taken up in the off hours of a full life. Given the realities of professorial life, it may not be easier to do research than in academia, but for many of us it will not be much harder. For some, scholarly benefits might come from a job in industry or management; certainly it's possible to find intellectual challenges in the marketplace. And the skills you develop as an academic do have a value in the corporate world, though sometimes in ways and for reasons we don't normally think about. But how to make that jump, and when? After doing it myself, and seeing it from both sides, I think there are several critical things to keep in mind.

First, think honestly about the academic market and your chances.

We have to realize that the old social contract that promised a job to anyone who worked hard enough for long enough is no longer honored. The refusal of most graduate programs to cut enrollments has left the old moral order in tatters.

The job hunt, frankly, is also a game for the young. Most Ph.D.s get tenure-track jobs within one or two years of finishing their degrees, but the odds dwindle rapidly after that. This means that like it or not, you've got a window of two years– three, including your last year of graduate school– in which the odds aren't stacked heavily against you. This isn't fair, and every field has its notable exceptions, but generally it seems to hold true.

Outside academia, on the other hand, professional identities are constructed differently. We become accustomed to identifying ourselves and each other not just by discipline (e.g., history), but specialty (late Victorian astronomy), theoretical allegiance, alma mater, even advisor. Outside academia, however, you're a Ph.D.; the field matters for some jobs, but generally isn't all that important, nor will any of those other factors matter, either. It's a little disconcerting to suddenly be seen in these gross rather than fine terms, but it works to your advantage. No one is turned down for a corporate management position because of historiographic commitments or theoretical predilections.

But by the same token it's also essential to know that the nonacademic job market is different from the academic, in two especially critical ways. First, the rhythm of corporate hiring is much faster than academic hiring. Jobs are advertised faster, searches are conducted more quickly, and offers can be made in weeks, not months. This means that you have to respond to advertisements quickly, and you may have to leave your current position and home on short notice. But while judgments are made more quickly, judgments about who you are and what skills and potential you represent will be made more broadly.

It's important to know all this because many advisors neither know nor care much about looking for nonacademic jobs. I've had little success getting former colleagues to pass on word of positions at the Britannica to recent Ph.D.s, and now go straight to graduate students and postdocs. One professor said that his program's recent graduates had "had pretty good luck on the market" and therefore wouldn't be interested in a corporate job (they were all temping at community colleges); another, that his students were all intellectually ambitious and wouldn't want a job in journalism. This sort of paternalism might have been fine twenty-five years ago, but it doesn't help students now. Faculty are the only ones who can afford to look down at jobs that pay $10,000 more than an assistant professorship, are in a major city, and require the same intellectual skills employed in the classroom and conference.

Second, know what's important to you.

Your most sensible path will differ depending on whether what you want to do most is scholarly research, or writing, or teaching, or merely want the security that tenure affords. If the things that attract you to academia are things that exist or can be found elsewhere, then your options expand considerably.

Don't forget nonacademic interests and desires. Do you think it might be nice to earn six figures one day? Would it be interesting to know whether absolute power really corrupts absolutely? Does the idea of writing popular work– magazine pieces, management books, maybe even popular history– appeal to your mad, bad and dangerous to know side? Answer honestly.

Third, start looking for a nonacademic job when you're ready, not before.

Too many people spend too long as academic field hands, putting off families and pulling up roots every couple years in the vain hope that they'll finally land permanent jobs. But by the same token, it's a mistake to leave before you feel comfortable with the decision, and perhaps before you've finished some significant piece of work.

The two things are not unrelated: I'm glad I stayed in academia long enough to finish a book, because by showing (to myself at least) that I have what it takes to be a productive scholar, I could get off the tenure-track job market with a clearer conscience, and– by virtue of the experience, a certain measure of professional recognition, and the existence of a network of friends inside academia– am in a better position to do scholarly work in the future. But the decision to leave is not to be rushed. Years of academic training and socialization cannot be quickly and comfortably overturned.

Finally, know that leaving academia doesn't have to mean "getting out" of your research field, or your discipline, or your circle of friends.

Particularly for humanists and social scientists, it's possible to do good work and have a substantial presence in the discipline without a teaching job. It may not be possible to publish an article a year in scholarly journals, but with care and planning it is possible to keep writing. Examples abound already; think of all the good work you've read by someone who's either a gypsy scholar or working outside academia.

It also doesn't mean that you'll be abandoned by your friends and colleagues, or that you have to give up your scholarly identity. The number of people who manage to have lives outside universities and continue to be scholars is only going to increase in the future, and with those growing numbers will come greater familiarity, and some measure of acceptance that familiarity brings. In short, nonacademic scholars may continue to be outsiders, but no longer marginal– recognized by their tenured peers as being of the system if not in it.


NOW AND THEN, I still wonder whether I made the right choice. Maybe if I had just stayed in academia one more year I would have gotten a tenure-track job, and would have been in a position to make a real life of doing what I trained for years to do. Maybe I was too quick to leave, too skeptical of the system's ultimate rationality and ability to reward the loyal. Those "maybes" multiply endlessly, and absurdly. Maybe if I'd gone to a different graduate school I would have seemed less narrow. Maybe if I'd published fewer articles I would have seemed more narrow. Maybe I should have put my writing samples in the red folder rather than the blue.

The reality, however, is that I finally have a great job, one that is as stimulating and puzzling as any I could have imagined in academia. It's given me the opportunity to settle down and start a family, which as a journeyman academic was out of the question. And it pays vastly more than I ever earned as a postdoc or lecturer.

But that's not where the conclusion that I made the right choice finally rests. This move has shown me that the love of books and learning– which I very definitely acquired while training to be a scholar and teacher– is far stronger than budget crunches, or professional fashion, or the local knowledge of search committees. It took years to tease apart the strands that made up my academic identity, and to understand what parts are important and what parts aren't. But after years of trying to turn a scholarly pursuit into an academic career, it's only natural that it should take years to separate them. Academic self-fashioning is hard to undo, and that's probably as it should be; and I take great comfort in having discovered that an identity as a scholar, as a person of the book, is impossible to destroy.

That, at least, is as it should be. Perhaps any truly important thing, any thing that might be true your whole life, should take years to learn. Those years as a postdoc and lecturer were absolutely worth it, and I would do them all again without hesitation, for they gave me time to do a lot of rewarding work, and discover what really matters to me. But it's also good to learn, from being in the business world, that it is possible to be a scholar without being a scholastic, and that the outside is not so foreign for those of us with academic instincts and habits of mind. Maybe that blue folder was the right one after all.

23 thoughts on “Journeyman again

  1. Amy says:

    thanks — i’m just finishing up my undergrad degree and am making choices about grad school; this gave me some insight into the scholarly scene.

  2. Tyler says:

    Thank for the post it was really helpful, and its sure is going to help make the choice I’ve been wanting to make.

  3. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says:

    Lexi Lord has a good op-ed in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve no idea how long the link will be live, but right now, it’s available here (at

    In particular, she makes the good point that blogs and Web sites targeted at post-academics make it even more the case that “leaving academia doesn’t have to mean “getting out” of your research field, or your discipline, or your circle of friends.” Indeed, one can almost start to speak of a “community” of post-academics: Ph.D.s who have given up their attempts at securing academic jobs, but have not given up on learning or the life of the mind. It’s a great example of the Marc Smith Theorem.

  4. Paper Fire says:

    I came here via Bitch PhD. I’m about to leave academia and I really needed to read this. Thank you.

  5. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says:

    Thanks, Paper Fire.

    Stephen, I don’t know the Chronicle’s policy, but if you alert them about the URLs, they might be able to change or delete them.

  6. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says:

    Another link (but outside the Typepad trackback universe), from Ancrene Wiseass:

    “Although it provides a rather depressing view of the academic job market, it cheered me up enormously. I think this is because (1) I’ve already heard so much, so many times about how horrible the market is that hearing it again really doesn’t phase me (2) somebody’s managed to articulate very, very well the rather Byzantine and apparently ineffable politics of academic professional development and job-hunting and (3) it offers hope that, even if I *am* forced to leave academia, I may be able to find something intellectually stimulating to do that pays well. I mean, hey, I love teaching. But working for the Encyclopedia Britannica hardly sounds like a death sentence.”

  7. Bill says:

    Thanks, this was an incredibly helpful read for me. I’m a Victorianist contemplating a similar journey, after several tries at the job market. (I’ve been obsessing about stationary choices, too.) Do you have any tips about making the segue from academia to your specific field, futures and/or applied research? I really like the idea of solving problems with smart people–inside or outside of academe.

  8. Ben says:

    Good read-just like to state, though, that in molecular biology research, you find that you have to complete 1 if not 2 post-docs prior to being viewed as ‘acceptable’ for most tenure-track spots. This puts you in an even worse delayed-gratification type spot, where you must farm yourself out for between 2 and 8 years post-degree just to get to a point where you can start to aimlessly fire off applications en masse for spots. It’s NOT fun.

  9. Nancy says:

    I just want to know when La Academia will start again.

  10. Jon Steiner says:

    I often daydream at my office job that I should return to school to get a PhD.

    However, this article, and Philip Greenspun’s “Career Guide for Engineers and Computer Scientists” makes me realize what a PhD is really for (and what it can’t give you in terms of a career).

    I am happy to return to school part time in the knowledge that I am too old (35) to waste six years getting a PhD for which, in reality, there is little professional use.

    As a person who adamantly loves his chosen subject (math and cs) perhaps there is little more than that needed for professional fulfillment.

  11. App Crit says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Really. I’m a wannabe post-academic, who is right now in a faculty position for which I no longer care to sacrifice. It’s taken me about a year to come to my decision to leave the academy, as the next step is daunting. But your post has given hope.

    Thanks very much.


  12. John Gibson says:

    Great essay. I’ve been looking to get out of academia for a while, stuck in short-term research posts as I’ve been, but I’ve never really allowed myself to take the idea of leaving the profession entirely seriously – in fact, I think I’ve always seen leaving academia as a measure of failure in some way. Now I know this isn’t the case, and I am going to move on confidently and stridently.

  13. eh says:

    having spent time both in and out of school in the over the past few years (undergrad, then a couple years off, now first year of phd program) i can confidently say that academic life certainly does not have a monopoly on ‘intellectual satisfaction’ or whatever phrase you want to use. in fact, the menial jobs i held while not in school provided, in many ways, much more ‘intellectual satisfaction’ than my current highly rigorous education at a top-ranked department. as did the free time i once had to step outside the hermetic academic life. having once been one of the many people afraid of finding an intellectually satisfying career outside academia, i can now confidently say that this fear, despite its wide currency amongst people of my kind, is unfounded. us would-be academics aren’t such a special breed as we think we are. and life is always the life of the mind. in fact, when friends and family remark about how smart i must be, given that i am working toward a phd, i often reply that were i truly intelligent, i would have figured out a better plan!

  14. Michael Bramley says:


    Just wanted to say I really enjoyed the article. I’ve finished my honours degree here in the UK in philosophy and stand on the precipice, wondering whether to MA or not MA; purely to get a PhD; purely to get into academia.

    I have not much in the way of financial aid and am already 25, and am paralysed by a fear of philosophical impotence exhibited amongst friends who do not know or care about such things, should I be anything but a professional philosopher.

    Your article really helped put things in perspective and give me insight. I’ll try to find something that captures my imagination, requires serious intellectual effort, pays well and offers good job security – philosophical writing can be my hobby.

    After all, you have here written an article for anyone with an internet connection to stumble across and I can tell you that I have taken so much from it already.


  15. Jay says:

    Although this piece was written a couple of years ago I found it both enjoyable and helpful. Paradoxically, it fits perfectly in my current state of mind of starting my last PhD year (as a paid assistant prof at the same time – this is Europe) with much more enthusiasm and fun than I had in the previous two years. I feel like I’ve been given permission to write my own book, caring less about securing the right reaction of my academic peers. Thanks!

  16. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this article! I will be out of college in a couple of months and I’m really enthusiastic to continue and get a Master’s degree. This article made me think even deeper. Kudos!

  17. Rachelle says:

    Congratulations on a still-relevant and informative piece. I’m wrapping up a Ph.D. in psychology and a 15-year career in academic administration. Faculty jobs, even the rare tenured ones, are not what they once were. The workload has dramatically increased, especially grant proposals and teaching loads. Teaching remains undervalued, and there’s little time to get to know the students. If you love to teach, get a day job and teach courses as an adjunct.

  18. Steve at Cutting Edge History says:

    I think you’re quite right even another ten years on. The academy is dying. The recent PBS piece about education for profit is proving that. I’m sure it didn’t help that there has been a focus on math and science only in secondary education. The corporate world is important, but what about the other disciplines that are harder to translate into the corporate world? How do you make relevant art history for corporations? Artists sure, but art history?

  19. Eric Kim says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I too, am a recent graduate from UCLA in Sociology, contemplating going to graduate school for a PH.D. in Sociology.

    However, after graduating, I decided to take a year off and am currently working full-time. I have now realized that the corporate world isn’t as “evil” as everyone makes it out to be. I find myself intellectually stimulated everyday, from the interesting work that I am doing with social media.

    Not only that, but I feel that I have more MORE freedom to advance my own intellectual passions. After work, I am not bogged by “homework” and am able to direct my own development.

    Thank you so much again for this. I forwarded this to my girlfriend and all my friends in a similar predicament.

    TITLE: get to work
    BLOG NAME: thomas n. burg | randg
    DATE: 03/11/2004 01:03:37 AM
    Da ist immer der Blick nach Nordamerika, dort wŠre nicht zuletzt auch das Forschungs – bzw.
    TITLE: Journeyman
    BLOG NAME: Seb’s Open Research
    DATE: 03/09/2004 07:25:19 AM
    Nice (if a bit long-winded) article on getting into and out of academe by Alex Pang, a history of science Ph.D.

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