Thursday, January 5, 2012

On not applying for jobs: missed opportunities vs. career planning

I have been thinking lately about where my career has taken me and, more specifically, the jobs I haven't applied for. A few years ago I had just started a great postdoc position when a job EXACTLY in my field opened-up. I didn't apply. I thought - I have a great job, there will be others, I have a plan of action, and everything will be fine.

Yet now I find myself second-guessing what I thought was a reasonable decision at the time. What does that mean? Did I make a mistake in thinking that I could do something as naive as plan my academic career? Was it unrealistic to think that I didn't need to apply for everything going? After all, as has been pointed out plenty of times elsewhere in the postacademic blogosphere, you are expected to be desperate enough to move anywhere, away from your partner, your family, your friends and your life, to teach a million courses a year not in your discipline for a salary that is largely insufficient. I guess I didn't get the memo back in those heady early days of a gloriously long postdoc. I had also, at that point, already done my time in the middle of nowhereville. The postdoc was supposed to be the start of less desperation, not more.

A story told to me by a colleague focused on a similar point - someone who had been unsuccessfully applying for years and years, only to not apply for the one position everyone thought they'd be a shoe-in for. They'd apparently tired of the game and moved on to more interesting things. A wealthy (ie gainfully employed outside academia) and supportive partner helped ease the pain too I'd imagine. I don't have a wealthy partner, so that rules out that option. I do have a supportive partner though, so that does help somewhat.

I've also heard tales of the exact opposite as well - people on fantastical and glamorous research fellowships that have immediately chucked it all in for a much less glamorous position with a more secure future. I think the lure of security vs. unfettered research time must have been just too enticing. Needless to say, little research has been done since. So what I gained by staying in my postdoc is a long list of publications. And a book. Which, as we all know, is the truly essential aspect to gaining a good aca position. If there were any jobs, that is.

My current semi-obsessive reflection on these stories at the start of a new year are obviously indicating to me that the crux of my postacademic existence at the moment is to sort out what I want (a new career) from what I need (gainful employment). Actually, what I want is for the budget crises and the financial crises that ensure that positions for which I am well-qualified for go to people who should be applying at a much higher level themselves to abate. I want the over-qualified to get the jobs that they deserve and leave the suitably qualified to compete for jobs at the appropriate level. Not going to happen any time soon apparently. So. Option 2 is a new career.

It's tempting when your unemployed, I think, to just apply for anything that you think you can do (or that you think you have a chance of getting) to stave off the demons of self-doubt, judgement from others, fear of the dole queue (see https://postacademicinnyc.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/the-crushing-shame-of-applying-for-unemployment/#comment-220 ) and anxiety about cash flow.

But I am also thinking about the long-term - instead of thinking about WTF have I done with my life, I am focusing on WTF am I going to do with the rest of it? Reading around postacademic blogs, attending career transitions events, talking to as many people as I can about their careers etc - planning and a little bit of luck seems to be a central component. So I am not going to give up on the idea that I can determine the outcome of what I do next. Baby steps first though. Watch this space.

14 comments:

  1. I really liked JC's advice from over at From Grad School to Happiness--that sometimes thinking simply about the "next job" is helpful too...not saying not to think long-term, but sometimes I know I get overwhelmed thinking *too* long-term. I've been thinking maybe some time spent with a little (extra) income, a little stability, a little room to "breathe" post academe will help me put the wheels in motion for determining what I really want. For example, I've always felt counseling/therapist was My Road Not Taken, but right now the thought of more schooling makes me want to put a cigarette out in my eye ball. Maybe in a few years, I won't feel this way. But who knows? GOOD LUCK!

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  2. I was unemployed for three years after getting my PhD from SOAS. I ended up going overseas to work. I will probably remain outside the US for a very long time. Right now I plan to be in Ghana at least until 2017.

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  3. You should do a post about how having a ton of publications, including a book, doesn't mean anything these days. The grad students and would-be grad students who stumble into teh postacademical wildernesses need to see that it's not just whiny underachievers not getting jobs -- it's the people doing everything right and doing it well.

    On jobs, the reason I went with the "next job" rather than "new career" approach was that I didn't (and still don't) know WTF I want to do career-wise. I will say that this "next job" has allowed me to learn about some types of jobs/careers secondhand that I didn't know anything about before, and some of them I can say for sure I WOULDN'T want to pursue as a career, even though they might seem a good match skill-wise (some types of writing/editing jobs, for example). We'll have to see where this lack-of-planning approach gets me in another year or two ...

    It's nice to feel like you have some control over the outcome, though, for sure, because we definitely don't have that in academe.

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  4. @ Currer Bell - I know exactly how you feel about more study (although I quit smoking so will have to use sharp pencils instead). Thanks for the suggesting on future posts.

    @ J. Otto - Ghana sounds kind of cool - any jobs in Sociology?

    @ recent Ph. D. - I have the same problem too - what exactly is it that I want to do in lieu of an academic job? I am tempted by what Currer Bell has called "breathing space" to figure it all out, and also, as you say, sticking a toe in the water to see if I like something first is an excellent idea. Interesting what you say about writing/editing jobs - I have actually applied for some of those! (Thinking they were a good skill match)

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  5. Hey! Great post. About the job you didn't apply for ... you know, even if the job looked perfect for you on paper, they may very well have decided another candidate was a perfect "fit" than you for some reason or another. There are no guarantees. When I went on the market, there were 3-4 job ads that sounded like they were written for me. None of those schools called ... but a few others did that I thought were longshots when I applied. You just have no way of knowing how it would have worked out, so try not to beat yourself up too much about not applying.

    Like Currer said, at my blog I have advised people who aren't sure what career path they want to go down right after leaving academia to think about a "next job." Maybe that's a good plan for you if you don't know what to do next?

    Like recentPh.D., I had no idea what I wanted to do next after leaving. Right away, I started applying for jobs that were an obvious match with my grad school training (research jobs, mostly). I had two phone interviews, and it became instantly clear that I really didn't want to go down that path right now. I need something different, but I don't know what. Luckily, I already had a part-time job that became my full-time job, and I'll work here until I figure out what I want to do next and find a job. We'll see what happens.

    But like Currer says, it has been so nice to have some income and breathing room to think about what comes next. So perhaps if you can just find something - anything - to give you some income while you breathe and think about things for a bit, that might help. It's certainly better than just jumping headlong into another career that might not work for you in the long term.

    Good luck and welcome to the postacademic blogsophere! Looking forward to more posts!!

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    Replies
    1. You're right - they might not have given me the job anyway.

      I think part of the idea of a "next job" is that I am so conditioned to think of empire building that the "next job" is unevisionable. I still have a lot of academic hang-ups to shake. But I look forward to not worrying about money and having a life, that's for sure :)

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  6. We have a large sociology dept. here in Legon. I do not know if they are hiring or not. I am in the history dept. and we still have openings.

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  7. I can't believe I have come across so many others who are expressing the same experiences of confusion, self-doubt/self-blame, around this whole area of post-academic life decisions. I always just believed that the reasons why I couldn't secure a permanent academic post in the UK (commutable for me because I have a partner and two young children) was because I simply wasn't smart enough, couldn't hack the pressure of teaching, publishing, and everything else. But I am coming across more post-academics who are telling stories about their research and writing successes, their long and confident history of teaching, and still they express self-doubt and anger. My husband is an academic in the field of medicine and he is at the top of his game, so to speak, and he has confessed his own feelings of inadequacy and much slef-doubt. It would appear that whatever we do it is not good enough and more and more is expected all the time. At 50, he resents having to work in the night and weekends when under pressure to keep his head above water. And for the first time ever he is fanatasing about the possibilities of early retirement. Why does the academic world do this to its best people and create a culture which will just decrease creative productivity? Heavy sigh! Thank you so much for sharing your stories. Truly inspiring.

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