Friday, April 13, 2012

Alternate Career Session Part 1

Welcome to part 1 of our Alternate Career Series. We encourage you to keep an open mind and read these posts even if you are sure that you will stay in academia. What we offer you here is valuable advice to expand your marketability, enable you to support yourself in the meantime, and open up all of your options for your future. In our Alternate Career Session, we had the privilege of meeting three extraordinary people to talk about why they left academia in pursuit of other careers, and how they transfer their experience with academia into their current careers. The following is a summary of each panelist’s career history and tips for current graduate students. Stay tuned, our second post will contain a summary of advice and suggestions from our panelists as well as a list of resources for professional development and alternate careers.

Andrea Wiltse
Andrea has an M.A. in English Literature, and kindly agreed to address our session with her career trajectory and her current interests. Andrea’s initial interest in undergrad was in pre-Roman civilizations. Then she traveled to China to teach, and when she returned she began taking literature classes at the local community college. This interest developed into obtaining a Masters degree in English Literature from American University. At one point, Andrea pursued a freelance career in teaching business writing workshops. She got to travel to different places teaching 1-2 day workshops and expand her client base through networking. I met Andrea at Northern Virginia Community College where she was teaching composition and literature courses. I was impressed with her dedication to her students and passion for her classes. After teaching for a few years, she applied and took a part-time position at her current employer, The Center for Naval Analysis. Eventually she shifted into a full-time position where she edits the center’s reports, teaches writing workshops to other employees, and pursues her own professional development goals. I asked her why she decided to leave the world of academia and teaching, but she pointed out that she has not really “left teaching.” Part of the appeal, she said, of her current job is that she gets to teach on a regular basis (something she feels it would be hard not to do in some capacity). She also has time now to pursue her own writing projects including a fiction writing project and travel writing pieces. On a more practical note, she pointed out that it was refreshing being able to leave your work at work and have work-free nights and weekends (hard to do if you are familiar with teaching/academia life). Additionally, she noted that she brings something valuable to the table for her current employer: a unique perspective. She makes sure that the reports and documents are well-written, but also readable for larger audiences. She also finds that her background in academia and teaching offers the company a boon of transferable skills, including critical thinking, analysis, communication skills, independence, and reliability. One tip that Andrea shared with us about preparing for career options while in academia is to seek the opportunity to get involved in other projects (writing projects specifically). She also noted the importance of pursuing professional development in any career path – attend project management seminars/training, volunteer for new projects, develop technology and language skills, and network, network, network!

Patrick Cooper
While pursuing his PhD. in English Literature, Patrick, like many of us, taught classes on campus. Patrick quickly realized that while he was working on his dissertation he should probably broaden his market appeal, and teaching offered an opportunity to do this. He began by adding a technology component to his writing classes, encouraging them to develop a web page and cultivate their online presence. He saw it as one way to show students that they would leave the classroom with a concrete benefit in addition to improved writing skills. Soon he was branching out into the field of technology and academia, showing other teachers how to creatively use technology in their curriculums. I asked Patrick why he decided to abandon academia after finishing his degree. He said that although he had an interest in teaching, he did not have an interest in teaching writing. That combined with a tight market and no major publications would make it very difficult for him to find a long-term career in academia. He decided then to turn this “problem” into an opportunity. With his interests in teaching and expertise with technology, he applied “everywhere.” He said it was a tough experience, and he had to “anticipate rejection.” However, he was able to develop a rewarding career in technology without leaving teaching behind. He told us that he initially faced skepticism from potential employers because he was “overqualified” and, at the same time, “lacking experience.” He said that he was able to emphasize the transferable skills that his background in academia afforded: finishing the dissertation demonstrates he can handle large, self-directed projects, he can work with or without deadlines, he can teach large groups of people, and he has the skills to be a good project manager. One of his tips for preparing for career options while in academia is to learn other skills, and make yourself more marketable.

Donna Scarboro
Donna received a PhD. in English Literature and immediately started teaching at a private school. Eventually she felt that in spite of her love of teaching, she could not keep up with the hectic pace and lack of compensation of teaching there, so she taught as an adjunct professor at George Washington University. Eventually she began working part-time on administrative projects, building relationships with the administration and continuing to teach. Donna credits her success with developing an administrative career to networking (“realize the power of a nice, well-written letter”). She found that working in administration offered her the chance to work with teams, and to go abroad. This experience took her to her current post as the Associate Provost for International Programs at GWU. She noted that being a part of the international programs field allows her to still get the thrill of teaching students because “what better learning experience is there any studying abroad?” In other words, Donna has found a career path that satisfies her interests and offers exciting challenges every day. Donna told us not to underestimate the number of book lovers out there when you are on the job hunt – own your background as a graduate student and lover of literature. She also urged us to consider how much we love teaching now – if we love it now, it will be hard to have a career which does not involve some form of teaching. Finally she encouraged us to realize if we decide to leave academia that it is an active choice, not a lack of choices. 

A big thanks to our panelists for sharing their experience and advice with our graduate students. Stay tuned for the next post in our series with links to valuable resources and a summary of advice from the panel. 

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