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Thinking About Graduate School? Have a Plan B

Open book

Despite the somewhat clickbaity title of this post, I am not here to tell you not to go to graduate school. On the contrary, I think that if you are drawn to the idea of studying languages and systems of meaning, you should by all means apply and attend. I also think, however, that you should realistically consider what you will do when you are finished. This means considering both academic and non-academic options.

Things to consider:

  • Recent MLA statistics on the job market. Spend some real time with these numbers. Consider the implications of job availability. Research comparable data in other fields you may be considering.
  • The location of family and friends. This may not matter to you if you are a recent graduate. Starting over socially at a later point in your life is generally more difficult, however.
  • Your level of financial independence and durability. If a "typical" search for a tenure-track job can take anywhere from two to six years, then you will need to consider whether or not you will be able to sustain the financial burdens of either performing contingent labor for that amount of time, or trusting to year-to-year appointments.

If you decide to make the leap and apply, be sure to celebrate the undertaking. You will have an unparalleled chance to grow as a writer and thinker. People will invest countless hours in your intellectual development. If you are lucky, you will also have the chance to teach and dig into the archives. Sounds great, right?

It is. It really, really is. Apply, and godspeed. Just have a plan B.

What is a plan B?

What I mean by "plan B" is seriously imagining that, after years of hard work and long hours, you may decide for completely valid reasons not to pursue an academic career, perhaps for some of the reasons listed above. What then?

You will likely be encouraged to consider a few routes: independent school teaching, academic administration, publishing. I don't have experience with administration or academic publishing, so I will focus on teaching, along with another option:

Entering a non-academic field.

This has been a very positive development for me, for reasons I hope to explain at greater length elsewhere.

For now, let me offer you some advice on how to think about and pursue options in independent school teaching and pretty much anything else.

Independent Schools

Factors to consider:

  1. How important are research and writing to your professional happiness? Professional development in independent schools focuses on things like building formative/summative assessment models and cultivating grit—i.e. activities that revolve around student learning and behavior. When you are asked to engage with new texts, it will be through a set of paradigms distinct to the secondary classroom. These will not draw on the research-oriented aspects of your training, though you will be able to work with close reading techniques and other granular tools that may have been part of your classroom practice at the university level. For more information on how secondary teachers think about the discipline, check out the AP Literature and AP Language and Composition exam websites. The standards and paradigms you see here are indicative of practices in the field. Generally speaking, AP Lit will be the most "advanced" course you will teach. Although some independent schools in NYC and other metropolitan hubs are moving away from APs and toward subject-specific electives, the pressure around college admissions makes APs hard to abolish altogether.
  2. How do you feel about standard independent school activities? These include leading clubs, coaching sports, attending school assemblies and games, and chaperoning field trips and dances. Most faculty attend at least two dances a year, and chaperone at least two field trips (sometimes out of state).
  3. How do you feel about working with children in a full-time, concerted way? This answer shouldn't determine your decision—it is possible to love working with students and to find the factors listed above enough to make the job not the right fit. However, you probably shouldn't consider this path if the thought of working closely with teenagers 5+ days a week doesn't appeal to you.

Steps to take:

  1. Get some experience working with high school students. Independent school recruiters have been inundated with resumes from PhDs in the past several years, and some of them (Carney Sandoe, for example) are refusing to work with PhDs who do not have experience with this age group. This will also shed some light on whether or not this is the right path for you.
  2. Register with a recruiting firm. Carney Sandoe is considered the industry leader, but there are smaller firms that work in a more local capacity.
  3. Do a national search. Unfortunately, the independent school market is not as robust as the non-academic market. If, however, you do a national search (and particularly if you are willing to consider boarding schools), it is likely that you will find something by the end of the recruiting season.

How the PhD gives you an edge:

  1. You can use the critical methodologies you know and love in the classroom, and they will be very exciting to students.
  2. You will have valuable experience working in two spaces that do not typically communicate with one another, and can potentially impact how your department thinks about the teaching of writing and preparing students for college.

Non-Academic Jobs

Factors to consider:

  1. How can you identify and describe your skills outside of an academic context? It can be helpful to use career guides for this work. Look at materials for both non-academic audiences and trained academics looking to make a switch.
  2. How will you feel about joining a non-academic workplace? Things that may differ, depending on your situation: vacation and sick time, team dynamics, seniority and performance review policies.

Steps to take:

  1. Once you have identified your interests, invest in a serious bout of networking and research. The process of talking to other professionals is crucial in identifying the types of opportunities that will be of interest to you. Take advantage of the many courses that outline this process. Ideally, it's best to start talking to people before you need a job.
  2. Draw on alumni networks, databases, and LinkedIn to find relevant people for your search. Professional career and resume-building courses will give you guidance in cold emailing practices and how to find the right people to contact (along with their emails). You can also maximize Facebook discussion boards and groups, college alumni databases, and LinkedIn groups (PhD Careers Outside of Academia, for example). Do some LinkedIn searches of companies of interest, and see if they have any PhDs on staff. These are great people to talk to, and their employment indicates that the company is open to hiring PhDs.
  3. Think about how to maximize the breadth of your expertise. This could mean a cross-registered semester in another department while still a graduate student, or a summer internship. It could also mean independently exploring technologies that may enhance your project. Several people I know garnered their first non-academic jobs by virtue of the technologies they were able to integrate into their dissertation research.
  4. Think about at least one other area you can explore in addition to your academic research. For professionals in industries that are sympathetic toward or interested in graduate students, it is easier to imagine a transition for a candidate if they have produced tangible non-academic work. This could be as simple as publishing articles on non-academic platforms (LARB, Slate, Medium, Buzzfeed, what have you), or promoting your brand through social media. The earlier you can think about a strategy for doing this the better. There are great resources out there for thinking about crafting a digital identity, in both academic and non-academic contexts.
  5. Do informational interviews with people in industries that are research-focused or conversant with post-secondary education. In my experience, these industries include:
    1. Ed Tech
    2. Market Research
    3. Consulting
    4. Tech
    5. Academic Publishing

For each of these, the strategy for expanding your resume and set of marketable capabilities will differ. Your expansion efforts will also be specific to the type of role you would like to pursue within the field. The benefit of networking can't be overstated here: talking to people in your field of choice will help you determine the best ways to fill the gaps in your experience. Ideally, you can then take steps to fill these gaps while still a student or otherwise employed.

How the PhD gives you an edge:

  1. People outside of the academy often have a deep level of respect for academic study and the rigor of the degree. Their questions about "fit" most often center on practical experience. With the right amount of said experience, you will come across as both a relevant candidate and powerful thinker.
  2. The personal qualities that the PhD cultivates are generally understood outside of the academy to a greater extent than you might think. You will not have to explain that you have a strong work ethic, and this will be a mark in your favor.
  3. As a close reader and critical thinker, you will have an advantage in reading job requirements and asking significant and meaningful questions.You also have experience in public speaking. The importance of these qualities for interviewing can't be overstated.

Hopefully these tips are helpful to you in your journey. Please feel free to connect with me if you have thoughts or questions.

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