On finding a job

Well, this is a grossly overdue post. The short version of what has happened during the almost year-long (!) break I took from this thing is that the temp assignment described in my last post finally turned into a real job a few months ago. It took months and months and was a very frustrating process, but it did work out in the end.

I feel kind of bad for not keeping up writing here through the long, crappy months of uncertainty. I find it very reassuring to read about other people who also struggle to figure things out right away. Waiting in limbo for months and months while your company hems and haws about whether they want to pay you a real salary and benefits for your services is not fun – though even when I was at my most frustrated and impatient I was completely certain that it was still better than how I felt in grad school.

In any case, it worked out in the end, and now I have a job that I genuinely like with coworkers I enjoy spending time around, a real adult salary, and a good sense of the kinds of careers I could see myself moving on to from this starting point. It almost seems too good to be true! There’s definitely plenty of drama and frustrations in my workplace, but after the level of dysfunction I experienced in my grad department and in higher ed in general, I feel like any place I end up working would have to be pretty f&!*ing terrible before I’d start getting too upset about it. I guess that’s one benefit of starting out in higher ed and then leaving because you don’t like it – you’re used to a) shitty pay b) long working hours (with no overtime pay) c) shitty benefits (if you have any at all) d) shitty future career prospects e) awful departmental politics that are exacerbated by all of the above f) and more! There are bad aspects to any industry you could go into, but most other knowledge work is going to be better than all of that.

There are definitely plenty of bad aspects to temping (no benefits, low pay, unreliable work), but adjuncting has all of these bad aspects and then some. I didn’t do any adjuncting as a grad student, but based on all of the horror stories I’ve read, I’d say that for a post-ac trying to make the transition from academia to some other job, temping is a much better bet than adjuncting. The pay is low, but at least in my experience, it’s better than what one makes as a teaching assistant, and thus definitely better than what one makes as an adjunct. Depending on what kind of assignments you get, you can get useful experience and references that can make you a stronger candidate for non-academic jobs. And if you’ve never had an office job, it’s a good low stakes way to adjust to office norms.

In my experience so far, I also think that young tech companies (of which there are many in certain parts of the country) can be good places for post-acs. There’s definitely a need for smart people who work hard, conduct themselves professionally, can learn new things quickly, and are detail-oriented. In a young company, everything moves at a very fast pace, and there’s a lot of opportunity to take on new projects and really shape the way things work. I’m finding it all very exciting! I would never have thought I’d enjoy or be any good at something like this, and I certainly wouldn’t have known to apply for jobs like the one I ended up with. In my case, one benefit of coming in as a temp is that the company basically created a position for me based on what I was doing well – they weren’t hiring for this kind of position, but once I became good at it, they eventually realized (after a whole lot of prodding) that they couldn’t do without me.

This is getting long, so I’ll stop for now – I’m hoping to write a bit more consistently about temping and transitioning from an academic mindset to office culture. For now, I just wanted to check back in to say that while the post-academic transition is definitely, definitely hard, life does go on, and you eventually find yourself doing all kinds of new and interesting things you would never have imagined doing before. A year ago I had just left my program, hadn’t yet started temping, and had absolutely no idea what I was going to do next. I am in a much better position today, and I am so much happier about where my life is going.


A new temp assignment

Well, I produced a big burst of posts the last few weeks, and then neglected the blog for a week. I’m still here, though; I’ve just been preoccupied settling into a new temp assignment that is rather more promising than the others I’ve done thus far.

But first, a little rant I need to let out. A grad student I know won a fellowship for this academic year, a fellowship that hir advisor strongly encouraged hir to apply for, because it was a “great opportunity for your career,” would look great on the CV, etc etc. So grad friend applied and won. This may all sound great up to this point – no teaching duties for a year! Except that the fellowship pays significantly less than a TAship, and is thus a substantial pay cut – we’re talking thousands of dollars here. The fellowship also involves participating in some sort of recurring seminar with a combination of other fellowship recipients, postdocs, and full professors.

Grad acquaintance recently got the reading assignment for the first seminar, which was, like the pay cut, quite substantial. So this “great career opportunity” turns out to involve a huge pay cut and a major time commitment that will take up time that grad acquaintance could be working on hir dissertation. So much for all that time saved by not having to teach! Instead zie has to participate in this seminar where those in precarious financial situations (financial situations that, in the case of the grad fellows, have been made even more precarious by the award of this fellowship) will all be vying to impress those with secure employment in the hopes that it will lead to secure employment for themselves some day. Although I am not sure how, since these professors are not grad acquaintance’s committee members, and thus won’t be writing hir letters of recommendation for the job market or giving hir a job, since one doesn’t get a tenure-track position at one’s own university. It sounds to me like this whole set-up is a much better deal for the tenured professors, who get a bunch of smart, young people desperate to impress them to participate in their seminar – smart, young people who were encouraged to apply by professors who are friends with the professors leading the seminar, even though it means being even more impoverished than usual for a year.

Ok, that turned into a long rant, but the whole thing seems like a total nightmare/yet another example of crazy crap one puts up with in grad school to me. But now I shall move on to Promising New Temp Assignment.

This week I started a long term assignment at a young start-up company. I won’t get too specific about what they do, but basically they provide a service to small, local businesses. It’s pretty straightforward, unlike financial start-up I worked at a few weeks ago, which did all kinds of mysterious things. What I am doing is a combination of glorified data-entry (it’s a few steps up from entering things into Excel, and it’s at least not the same thing over and over) and something like copy-editing/proofreading. The good thing about this position is that a) it’s long term – there’s no end date set b) the company recently had a huge influx of cash. Consequently, they are now trying to expand their operations quickly and have been adding new people right and left. So it’s a good time to have a long term temp assignment with them, because it may well turn into a long term non-temp assignment. My agent has placed at least one, possibly more temps into real, full time positions here.

The bad thing is that it starts off part time. I was told that it will become full time, but not when. However, since they have plenty of money and need more people to run things, the odds seem very good that it should become full time before long. It is just a bit stressful not knowing. Anyway, I can see how it goes for awhile, and if it doesn’t convert to more hours within a reasonable time frame, I can always try to negotiate more hours, and walk away if I can’t get them. Unlike grad person with the fellowship, I’m not committing to being paid less than I need to survive for a whole year. And, also unlike that whole fellowship situation, the people I am working for and trying to impress are the people who have the power to hire me.

So I get to take my time and decide if this is a place I’d actually like to work, which is nice. Thus far, I have good feelings about it. For the most part, I’ve temped at start up companies, and they seem like a good option for someone leaving grad school who might like to go into something business-y but is terrified of being a cog in some soulless corporation. Start ups seem to be more ok with “diverse” employment backgrounds, and they want people who are smart and willing to work hard. The employees tend to be on the young side, and the environment/dress code can be more laid back than at a more established company. The dress at this place is even more casual than in my grad program. They really do not seem to care what people wear, as long as they do not show up naked or in a bathing suit. Not having to acquire a special business wardrobe saves money for me, so I am happy with this.

I had to interview for this position, which was both odd (really, an interview for a part time temp position?) and promising (presumably they would care more about who they’re hiring if they plan for them to be around for awhile). It was weird to show up in my fancy-pants suit and be interviewed by people wearing jeans. The people I talked to all asked why I was leaving academia. I had my answers all planned out (much thanks to all the advice out there from others who have left), and I guess they worked. It was a little off-putting during the interview, mostly because at one point one of the interviewers misspoke or stuttered (I can’t even remember now) and then said, “Oh sorry, I’m not an academic!” Giant cringe. I don’t know who all of these English teachers are who are going around giving people neuroses about their grammar skills, but they are giving the rest of us a bad rap. I wanted to assure hir that I wouldn’t be traipsing around the office giving impassioned disquisitions on the Oxford comma or split infinitives, because I just do.not.care.that.much and think people who are snotty about other people’s grammar are jerks. I didn’t say this, because that would be a weird thing to say in an interview, but it was an awkward moment. In any case, I’m sure they were just concerned about whether I would be bored by/think I was too good for the job they needed me to do.

Ok, sometimes grammar snobbery is fun.

So I am cautiously hopeful about this assignment, though I don’t want to get too excited about it until I have full time hours. Even if it doesn’t ultimately turn into a real job, having full hours would at least let me relax a bit and stop worrying about financial doom. It could be that “next” job that will give me some breathing room to decide what I want to do with my life. And, sadly enough, 40 hours a week on temp wages would bring in bigger paychecks than I got in grad school for labor that required far more skills. C’est la vie.

Deciding when to leave

From reading around the post-ac blogosphere, it seems like a lot of other bloggers left after finishing their PhDs, when it became evident that academia had no viable job options for them, or after getting through a decent portion of the dissertation and then deciding they’d had enough. Since I’ve left at a somewhat earlier stage (post-exam, pre-proposal and dissertation), I thought I’d share how I decided to quit when I did, and maybe offer some advice for others who may be early on in their program and starting to question whether academia is right for them.

As I wrote in my last post, after months and months of exam hell, I figured out that I wasn’t just burned out from the exam stress, but that I was growing to hate the work I was doing. This realization forced me, for the first time, to take a long, hard look at the job market numbers. During my time in grad school, whenever I thought about the job market, it conjured feelings of indescribable terror, so I would naturally put it out of my mind right away – “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it! The job market will get better! That’s what everyone says! No point worrying about something that’s x number of years down the road!” And I would continue on my merry way.

Not a way to plan your career.

But, thanks to my sad sack state during exams, I finally pulled my head out of the sand and looked at what was looming in my academic future. And the specter of adjuncting/VAPing/postdoc-ing in various parts of the country (or world!) for years, coupled with my newfound distaste for the work, was enough to send me running in the other direction.

Get me outta hereee!

I reached this point when I had about a month left till the exams. I knew that I was probably not in the best state to make the decision to leave once and for all at that point, so I told myself I would finish the exams and then figure out what to do – I was already signed up to teach a summer class that started right after the exams, so I had a good way to pad my bank account a bit more before voluntarily becoming unemployed.

While I was teaching, I really struggled with deciding when would be the best time to quit. I kind of knew deep down that I was ready to leave right away, but part of me kept freaking out about never being able to find a job and about how totally insane it would be to walk away from a paycheck (however small) and health insurance. I thought it would be more sensible to keep going for another year, and to use that time to do some networking and figure out what I wanted to do next. And maybe it would have been more sensible to have gone that route, but, as I wrote in my last post, grad school had been horrible for my mental health, and the prospect of pretending to my future dissertation committee and everyone else that I was as gung-ho about proceeding in my academic career as the rest of them finally seemed too awful for words. I didn’t think I would have the energy to make my dissertation idea marketable while knowing the whole time that I wouldn’t be finishing it. I was also scheduled to teach a new lit course in the fall, and having to do the prep for that on top of faking a dissertation sounded so time-consuming that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do much networking or job searching anyway. So a week or so before my summer class wrapped up, I went to the DGS and asked for a leave of absence.

Now I will go ahead and say that I have no intention of going back. When I was panicking about making what felt like a life-altering decision (and I guess it is), it seemed easier to go on leave than to leave outright. I knew the whole time that I was really leaving, but it felt less scary to have that back-up option just in case the real world was as horrible as everyone in academia seems to think it is. Since I’ve left, I no longer feel remotely conflicted about my decision. I have to inform the department of what I am doing one way or the other at a certain point, but if I find a full time job before then I will go ahead and let them know I am gone for good. Going on leave was useful in another way, because everyone I talked to was very understanding about why I might want to explore other options at this particular point. Since the possibility for coming back would still exist, no one tried to talk me out of leaving. The closest anyone came was suggesting that maybe I was just having exam burnout (no shit, sherlock!) – but that it was still reasonable to take time off to see if I would like other jobs better.

So, here is my advice from the experience, for whatever it is worth. If you’re toiling along in your grad program, feeling miserable but not sure what to do about it, and you haven’t even started your dissertation yet? At the very least, take the time to make some kind of exit plan. Think about other jobs you might like to have, and what you would need to do to get them. Since none of the non-academic jobs I could imagine myself doing require a Ph.D., I decided it didn’t make any sense to spend more years doing something that was making me unhappy when I could be getting experience in a different career that would actually have a chance of going somewhere. I know that some people want to finish the Ph.D. as a personal accomplishment. At one point I must have felt that way, but once I started looking at other job options and getting excited about all the fun things I could do with some free time, I realized that being Dr. AnotherPostAcademic no longer mattered to me.

The decision of whether or not to finish is obviously a very personal one, and will depend on a lot of different factors for each person. Again, if you are still pre-dissertation, miserable, and unsure of what to do, there are some things you can do to at least make academia feel less inescapable – and that in turn may help you to feel less stressed. I had a modest amount of “emergency money” put away in savings, and desperately needing to change careers for the sake of my sanity qualified as an emergency to me. If I hadn’t had some money put away, I might’ve stuck around another year, because having bills to pay and no money to pay them seems worse than even another year of grad school. So building up some savings (as much as you can, given the crappy TA/adjunct paychecks) can definitely make leaving seem less scary, especially if you don’t have parents/family who can help you out (I don’t).

If you’re planning to leave, temping is a good way to keep some kind of money coming in as you look for jobs, especially if you are in/near a big city. Even though the work is often very basic stuff, it keeps me from panicking about not having a real job because I am still bringing in money.

Finally, I wish that I had done things to develop other skills while I was in grad school – taken a class on web design, done some freelance writing or editing on the side, etc. Instead, I focused single-mindedly on my academic pursuits. Trying out other things would’ve given me experience and maybe some ideas of jobs I liked better than being a professor. Any professors who tell you to give up all your other hobbies/interests to pursue academia do not have your best interests in mind – so feel free to tell them to stuff it (in an awesome imaginary scenario, that is) and diversify your skills anyway.

And because I got sucked into an internet vortex of ostrich pictures when I googled the first two, I’ll leave you with this one, because, hey, grad school is tough and we all need some pictures of animals looking silly to get us through. I don’t even want to talk about how many cat videos I watched during exam prep.

On mental health and exhaustion in grad school

One final thought on my last post about the crazy sacrifices academia demands from you: I think what was actually most upsetting about the whole scenario wasn’t that these two professors were going around giving crazy advice, or that some students reacted to it with bitter humor rather than outrage, but that, even worse, other students thought that these professors were really “telling it like it is,” “being honest about the state of the job market.” “The job market is really tough right now, they’re just giving us straight talk on what you have to be willing to do if you want a chance – if people aren’t willing to make sacrifices then they shouldn’t be in this profession.” Ok, thank you – I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my relationships or my interest in things other than my narrow field of research, and I decided that I indeed should not be in the profession.

But the thing is that these professors’ advice is not in fact “straight talk” about the realities of the academic job market. The reality of the academic job market is that there are simply not enough jobs for the many talented, qualified people who make all kinds of sacrifices to finish their PhDs every year. Making enormous sacrifices in your personal life will not guarantee that you find a job. It’s not like the people that write your letters of recommendation will say, “AnotherPostAcademic cares so much about the profession that zie was willing to give up everything else that mattered to hir to succeed!” Or, god, maybe they will. There are a few things you can do that will probably make your chances of getting a job better (and “better”, considering how bad the market is in the humanities, is still almost meaningless here) – having a “marketable” dissertation topic (whatever that means), having published articles, and having a decent amount of teaching experience – beyond that, the job market lottery is pretty random. You can’t control your odds of success by being really really really super dedicated to your work, and it is not “honest” or “telling it like it is” to advise students to make incredible sacrifices when the real odds are that regardless of what they do or how smart or dedicated they are, they will not find a tenure-track job. End of story.

Ok, I spent longer on that than I meant to – what I really came here to talk about today is what prompted my exit from grad school. Other post-ac bloggers have written about the issue of mental health in grad school, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the serious toll academia can take on one’s mental well-being. I’m sure, for those who have done the dissertation, especially with unresponsive or excessively difficult committees, that it can be its own new circle of hell (even more so if you’ve started to hate the work). For me, preparing for Ph.D. exams was bad enough that I had no interest in sticking around for more fun after that particular horror show.

In my program (and I imagine this is the case elsewhere), there are recommendations for how many items should be on your exam lists, but they are only recommendations. I once heard that when the topic of creating real limits to the number of texts students could be asked to read came up in faculty meetings, some faculty refused to even discuss the issue because they were so fixated on their particular way of doing things. The result was that the length of lists varied quite widely. Some people worked with sane committees who stuck with the recommended amount of reading; others (yours truly) had one or more committee members with very different ideas of what was a reasonable amount of reading. In any case, I ended up with about 3-4 times the recommended number of items on my list, and I didn’t have any recourse for dealing with this kind of insanity.

The first semester when I was supposed to be reading, I was also still taking a full load of classes and teaching. This didn’t go well, and about a month into the semester, the stress got pretty ugly. There was one day a week when I had a very long day on campus, and I would come home so tired and stressed out that some trivial thing that happened once I was in the privacy of my apartment would cause me to burst into tears from exhaustion. This happened once a week, like clockwork, for four weeks before I emailed my exam committee members to tell them that I would need to wait till the next semester to schedule any more meetings to discuss exam reading. I wasn’t totally sure why I was turning into a regular waterworks – there were some other crappy and upsetting things going on in my department at the time, and I also thought maybe I was just really sick of going to classes and ready to move on to my own research. Probably all of these factors were contributing to my crazy stress level.

But things didn’t get better the following semester when I had finished coursework and was just preparing for exams. Because of my insane reading list, I worked all day every day and only took one weekend off during five months (to go to a wedding). It was totally miserable – I was exhausted but often had a hard time sleeping and still had a lot of mini-emotional breakdowns. Then, about a month before the exam date, I finally decided that I wanted to quit grad school. I had stumbled across some post-academic blogs at some point during exam prep. I spent one weekend unable to read for an upcoming exam meeting because I found the material horribly boring and every time I sat down with it I was plagued by the sense that the work I was doing was totally meaningless. And so I read through the archives of a bunch of post-ac blogs instead. Reading other people’s rants about all the crappy aspects of academia helped me to admit that academia was not, after all, the best job in the world, and was in fact making me really unhappy. And reading people’s stories of success and new-found free time after they had left enabled me to see leaving as a possibility instead of something scary and unimaginable (thanks for sharing, all of you!). So I decided to finish the exams, partly to prove to myself and everyone else that I wasn’t leaving because I “couldn’t cut it”, and then to leave.

I know I wasn’t the only one who found the exam prep to be insanely stressful. Another person who was taking the exam around the same time vomited before going into hir exam (I guess it’s worth mentioning that we had both written and oral components to the exam). My exam ended up going ok – my committee said afterwards that they had no criticism to make. But by then, no amount of nice words could have made up for the stress I had endured to get to that point. While I did become much more knowledgeable about my field than I was prior to the exams, it was also hard not to feel that the whole thing was some kind of cruel and elaborate hazing ritual.

Other people had much nastier committees who had no qualms about being very critical, often over rather petty issues. Although some of my committee members had seriously unreasonable expectations of what I should be able to accomplish, they were not very critical in meetings – my stress didn’t come from mean feedback, just from the sheer amount of work that I was expected to get done. Working the hours I was working in any line of work for an extended period of time would probably cause most people to have a breakdown of some sort – it just isn’t healthy to work that much. And once I started talking to people in the department about leaving, one staff member acknowledged that most people went through something like post-partum depression after finishing their exams. Note to self: avoid any more careers where a regular step in your career development will cause you to experience depression similar to someone who has just birthed a baby. Jeez-us.

I mentioned in a reply to a comment on my last post a particular professor in my department who would tell first year students that if they were working hard enough in grad school, they should be sleep-deprived, with bloodshot eyes and acne. Another example of horrible advice to give to grad students, because it is absolutely not healthy to be that stressed for 6 years or longer. I was that stressed during exams, and it was bad news. The kind of work you are doing in academia is in no way so important that you should be working yourself into the ground – and even if you are doing something really important (something that might, like, save lives) you will not be doing your best work if you are completely exhausted and never have any time off.

To end this long post, I should say that since I have left grad school I feel something like 100% better than I did during exam prep.

Some academic work/life balance anecdotes

I’m still working on that job application, and the meeting with the career counselor was, unlike the last meeting where I had no idea what I was trying to accomplish, actually very helpful.

But I thought I’d share a few anecdotes from my time in grad school. A lot of great stuff has been written in the post-ac blogosphere on the subject of the work/life balance problems in academia. For me, this issue was probably as big as the job market doom in pushing me out of the academic door.

So, a few stories. I recently heard from a friend in my department about someone we’ll call Professor X. Professor X has taken it upon hirself numerous times to advise students, some of whom are hir advisees and some of whom are not, about their relationships (romantic, not professional). On one occasion, there was a grad student, we’ll call hir Grad Student Z, who got into the program. The next year, Grad Student Z’s longtime partner, Grad Student A, got into the program (meh, these pseudonyms are getting confusing). Professor X, not Grad Student Z’s advisor, took Grad Student Z aside to suggest that hir partner attend another program. Professor X described hir own grad school experience, in which zie and hir partner purposefully went to different programs in different cities so that they would not be a distraction to each other during their time in grad school (as though anyone trying to get into grad school can have hir pick of programs). And then they both got academic jobs and lived happily ever after!! So zie highly recommended that Grad Student Z and Grad Student A follow this brilliant plan so that they too could get jobs.

No. Let’s go back to Freshman Logic 101 here – the stuff that we try to teach students in comp classes. Correlation does not equal causality. The fact that one couple chose to live in different cities while in grad school so that they could be extra focused and serious does not necessarily have anything to do with the fact that they found jobs. They found jobs years ago, and there are other life circumstances (cough: privilege) that may have helped them to get academic jobs. In any case, it is not like this is the one surefire thing that will get you a job if everything else fails. Aside from the obvious overreach in telling someone that zie shouldn’t live with hir partner, the fact that there’s a sort of concealed threat there that living with one’s partner will lead to job market failure is especially crappy.

The recent story I heard about Professor X was that zie had told several of hir advisees upon their entrance into the program that if they were in relationships, they should end them, because they wouldn’t have time for relationships in grad school. I’m sticking with these gender-neutral pronouns for the sake of anonymity, but let’s just say that the gender dynamics in these cases were very problematic. So living apart from your significant other isn’t even enough – you just shouldn’t have one at all! Having human relationships proves that you are not really serious about finding a job!

Fortunately, as far as I know, none of these people followed this advice. But perhaps as disturbing as the fact that the advice was given at all, when I brought up these stories to some other students in the program, fully expecting them to feel as outraged as I was, their response was something like, “Ahaha, that Professor X! Isn’t zie so crazy and funny!” Er, no. It is not funny to tell vulnerable people freaked out by impending unemployment that drastically isolating themselves will increase their odds of success on the job market. There is nothing cute about such behavior – it is downright crazy and inappropriate.

There is another professor in the department, Professor Q. Professor Q has, on several occasions, heard about the outside pursuits/hobbies of students in the program. When Professor Q has had meetings with these students in which these hobbies have come up, zie has told them that they must give up these outside pursuits as they proceed through the program if they want to have a good chance on the job market. In one of these cases, this advice was enough to push a student to leave the program after hir first year – which, given what I’ve heard from this student since zie left, was probably a good thing, as zie seems to be happy with what zie is doing now. In another case, a student had recently had some non-academic writing published, which is what prompted the advice.

Universityoflies’ post on that Graduate Study for the 21st Century book offers some pretty good responses to this kind of thinking- the idea that taking off any time to do anything other than academic work will be the one and only reason why you didn’t get an academic job. Not the abysmal job “market”. What makes me crazy is the suggestion that you must give up anything else you might love, anything that might be important to your identity, in order to have a chance on the job market. And what if you don’t get a job, or decide several years in that you don’t want an academic career as much as you thought you did? By this point you have lost touch with all of the other things you once found interesting because you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into that academic career. It is going to be a lot harder to move in a different direction, to learn to understand your identity as something other than an academic, if you’ve literally given up everything else that you ever cared about. Again, as with the relationship advice, it’s not ok to give freaked out grad students this kind of advice. If these professors would face up to the realities of the academic job “market” their students are facing, they might be able to offer them some advice that would actually be helpful – like to diversify their skills and have some kind of back-up plan if the academic career doesn’t work out.

Fortunately for me, I never worked with any of these professors, but the fact that they were going about doling out this advice still scared me. I’m pretty sure my advisor forgot about my existence when I wasn’t sitting directly in front of hir, and we never had conversations about my personal life, which was just fine by me. But hearing that other people were having to deal with this still made me very angry – and even though I am out now, going over all of it has me seething with rage all over again! I realize that work/life balance is not always a field of daisies in the “real” work world either, but I don’t know of any of my non-academic friends who have been told to give up their relationships and hobbies by their bosses if they want to advance in their career. Not cool, academia.

Bonus insights from temping

Just adding a short epilogue to my last post, or extra evidence for the point I was making there that your hard work will be appreciated outside of academia.

I got an email today from my temp agent with a letter attached from my supervisor at the company I had worked for last week. Basically, my supervisor had taken it upon hirself to write me a reference letter, and made it clear in the letter that zie was volunteering hirself as a professional reference for me in the future. Zie also said other various nice things. All because I was a speedy data-enterer.

My agent was quite pleased. There were problems with one of the other temps on the assignment, who provided a lesson in Things Not to Do while on Your Temp Assignment (i.e. watching YouTube videos, abruptly leaving the assignment after finishing hir work without checking in with anyone to see if zie could do something else, and, bizarrely enough, without even getting hir timesheet signed so zie could get paid), so I probably benefitted from the contrast there. My agent wrote that zie was giving me the temp of the month award. At first I thought that this was supposed to be some kind of amusing/cruel joke, but I learned when I called hir up to discuss my availability for next week that not only is this a real thing, but it comes with a bonus in cold hard cash. Ok, I’ll take that!

So clearly I am going places with my mad data-entry skills and prestigious temp agency awards. Lolz. I am sure I got lucky with this first assignment, in that I had nice people supervising me – I’ve read enough horror stories on the interwebs to know that all is not rosy in the NYC temp world (or probably any part of the temp world). But still, it was some much needed affirmation for me as I am trying to convince myself that I am not going to end up living in a box somewhere due to my chronic unemployability.

I’ll be back with a longer post about academic stuff in the next few days – I’ve finally found a job I am going to apply for, and so I’ve been trying to write a cover letter all day. Unfortunately, I seem to be approaching this resume-revising and cover letter-writing thing in the same way I did seminar papers – with fear and loathing – and with the same kind of avoidance tactics – surfing the web. Eventually I worked out a paper-writing system that made the process go more smoothly, so hopefully I will figure out something similar for job applications. In any case, I scheduled myself a meeting with a career counselor at my university tomorrow morning to help me revise my resume and cover letter for this job so – I should probably have a cover letter draft to bring along with me!

Some insights from temping

I finished up my first temp assignment today – two weeks of data entry for a start-up firm in the financial district. When I first got the assignment, I spent a lot of time googling the company trying to figure out just how evil they were. I’m not sure, since I’m still learning all kinds of business terms that I knew very little about before (venture capitalists! angel investors!) but they didn’t seem too bad and most of the people there were quite friendly.

What I see when I hear “angel investor”.

Even though it was only two weeks of doing some very (very) basic work, it proved enlightening in all kinds of ways. First, evidence that academics are not the only ones who know classic literature enough to make jokes about it. I was working with a group of temps to get this particular data entry project done, all of whom were artsy types who temp during the day to supplement their not-so-great/non-existent artist income. We started out working in a room by ourselves, and the conversation ranged from opera and musical theatre to Dickens. At one point, one temp read out an especially crazy Russian name from hir file, and another temp responded, “That name is straight from a Dostoevsky novel!” My heart was warmed.

I liked these other temps. They were nice, fun people. But then, on day 4 of our assignment, the smackdown came. As it turns out, they were moving very slowly through the data, and our supervisors, who up to this point had not really been checking on our progress, were seriously displeased and concerned we wouldn’t meet the deadline. We were moved to a different part of the office with a better computer set-up and given quotas (something they really ought to have done in the first place – the teacher in me was a bit frustrated with the lack of clarity on what they expected of us. Lesson learned: next time I will ask).

With the new set-up, I found it quite easy to get through twice the quota every day. I find the best way for me to get through this kind of mind-numbing work is to turn it into a game where I push myself to work as efficiently as possible. So I finished my assigned work well ahead of time. I was given some of the other temps’ work, since they were still moving pretty slowly and our supervisors were still worried the project wouldn’t be done on time. We ended up finishing it a day early, and on our last day they gave us some new stuff to do, since we were already there anyway.

The revelation that came from this part of the assignment is that in jobs outside of academia, people recognize and appreciate hard work. My supervisors emphasized repeatedly how grateful they were for my effort and that I had saved the project, which wouldn’t have been done on time if I hadn’t worked so quickly. As I mentioned earlier, they weren’t very on top of checking up on our progress at first, and I got the impression that they might have been chewed out by someone else for not keeping us on track. So even though this was very menial work, work that a computer will probably be able to do in a few years, it wasn’t hard to make a good impression doing it. I wasn’t even making a conscious effort to make a good impression, but academia socializes people to work very hard because we are always convinced that we are not working hard enough.

I was surprised by how shocking it felt to be praised for my work. In academia, it always feels like your best is never good enough, and you get used to slaving away on a project till your brain feels beaten to a bloody pulp, only to be given more criticism, more recommendations for revision, and maybe a vague acknowledgment that you seem to have shown some effort somewhere along the way. I’d say most people who get into academia are extremely competent people who are motivated, quick to learn, and can be counted on to get things done when they need to. In general, you couldn’t survive long in academia by being a slacker. Academia demands that you work your very hardest for very little in the way of payment or recognition. This isn’t the case in every job out there. In some places, people do actually notice that you are working hard and are eager to let you know it.

My supervisors assured me that they would let the temp agency know how much I had helped them with their project, so hopefully I can start getting assignments more challenging than data entry in the future. Though I must say that data entry was still better than preparing for those wretched, godawful qualifying exams. I’d rather do data entry for a year than have another year of exam prep!

On a more frivolous note, my favorite example of business-speak that I picked up from the past two weeks was the expression to “reach out,” used every time one is planning to make a phone call to someone (and I was sitting by a group of people who were making a lot of phone calls). “Why don’t you reach out to Jim Bob?” “I haven’t heard from that client in awhile, I’m gonna reach out to him.” “I heard so-and-so is interested in our product. Can you reach out to him today?” “Have you reached out to blahblah again?” For some reason it made me giggle, and I’ll leave you with the song that is stuck in my head as a result of all the “reaching out” happening next to me all week:

Or this, which kind of brings us back around to those angel investors:

And I’ll stop there!

Hello, post-academic world!

Well, after months of obsessively reading my way through the post-academic blogosphere, I’ve finally decided to throw my own blog into the mix. I’m hoping it will give me a place to exorcise some of my angst towards academia, think through what I want to do next with my life, and maybe even be helpful to others going through a similar experience.

I guess since this is my first post I should say a little bit about myself! I completed my M.A. a few months ago at a top 20 English PhD program (I’m including rankings not to brag, but to emphasize that the problems with academia exist regardless of where one’s program happens to sit on that U.S. News list). I decided I’d had enough while I was preparing to take my PhD qualifying exams. The year that I was preparing for the exams was one of the darkest and unhappiest of my life, and feeling miserable while working crazy hours to get through my reading lists forced me to take a step back and evaluate what I was doing. I stumbled across some postacademic blogs at this point (a facebook friend in a different department at my university posted a link to this post at Post-Academic in NYC, which led me into a vortex of other post-ac blogs) and I would procrastinate on exam reading by going back through the archives of every blog I found. Seriously, I read all of them! And they helped me so much. Everything I read resonated with what I was feeling and helped me to recognize what the source of my unhappiness was.

So, a month before the exams, I decided I would quit once I had passed them. After another truly hellacious month, I passed them, and then taught a summer course I was already signed up to teach that ran shortly after the exams. A few weeks before the class was finished, I made the official announcement that I would be leaving when the summer session was over. I’ll write about the reactions I got some other time. Since the class finished, I’ve done some networking and looking into different kinds of jobs. I still don’t know what I want to do yet, but I’ve recently started temping to have a paycheck and get some exposure to different kinds of workplaces (like PAINYC, I am also temping in NYC – which I will post about some other time as well!). And even though I am doing pretty menial work and have no idea where my life is going, I feel so, so much better than I did at any point during grad school.

I guess that, using JC’s useful schema, I would describe myself as a Type 1 leaver. For much of my life, all I wanted to be was a professor – I went straight through from undergrad (something I am regretting now!) and never seriously considered other options. Then somehow, during exam prep, something snapped, and I just stopped caring about or enjoying the work. It suddenly seemed insane to be working so hard for crappy pay and crappier career prospects. It was like waking from an intense, scary dream and realizing that nothing in the dream actually matched up to reality. It was an incredible relief to realize that nothing was preventing me from quitting if I didn’t want to be a professor anymore.

My blog title, for those of you who don’t recognize it, refers to a song from Avenue Q –  where it is really about a B.A. in English, and the lyrics go like this:

What do you do with a B.A. in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree!
I can’t pay the bills yet
Cause I have no skills yet
The world is a big scary place…
But somehow I can’t shake
The feeling I might make
A difference to the human race

And I’m going to link to the video so you too can have it stuck in your head…

I thought this was hilarious when I first heard it in undergrad. Now the humor is more painful (oof, especially that heady idealism at the end). But I guess I am still trying to figure out the answer to this question. Maybe this blog will help me. In the meantime, I am excited to join the wonderful community of other post-academic bloggers!