On the PhD Path

By Amanda Sewell, In the Write

During the course of a PhD program, it’s easy to get locked into the idea that there’s a single career path for our individual skill sets. In reality, it’s important to think about our talents as broadly as possible. I once thought that I would be a complete failure if I was unable to secure a tenure-track teaching position, but then I realized that the same characteristics that made me such a good academic would also benefit me in a number of other career options. Academics are experts at multitasking, time management, problem solving, and critical thinking, and these skills have so many more possibilities than just a tenure-track position at an R1. The same flexibility and open-mindedness we apply to our research can also benefit us in the quest for a career.

Whenever I approach a research project, I have an idea in mind of where I hope the research will take me. There is usually an ideal conclusion in mind. Sometimes, this works fantastically: using a typology I developed, I demonstrated how sample-based hip-hop changed after artists became increasingly afraid of violating copyright laws. Going into the analysis, I hoped I was going to find the evidence to support my point. I found it, and everything fell into place nicely. Sometimes, though, the data doesn’t take me anywhere close to my anticipated destination. In a graduate school seminar, I started out writing a paper about Florentine patronage of 16th-century Italian madrigals. When none of my findings fit the point I was trying to make, I changed my point and followed the path that the findings were actually showing me. I ended up writing a paper about madrigals in the context of 16th-century mythological pornography.

This type of process also occurred as I was looking for a post-PhD career. I really wanted a tenure-track position (or even a one-year VAP, really), but no matter how many applications I submitted, writing samples I supplied, or Skype interviews I participated in, I just couldn’t secure the kind of job I thought I wanted. I realized that maybe the findings of my career research path were telling me that I needed a new thesis. I stopped pushing so hard to find a tenure-track position and instead began thinking about my other skills and talents that could be marketable somewhere outside of the university setting. I have a PhD, for crying out loud—surely being a professor isn’t the only thing I’m capable of doing well. (Tweet this!) I realized that my assertive personality, ability to write and edit, multitasking and time management skills, and desire for a flexible schedule were all key ingredients for a career as a freelance academic editor.

Tenure-track teaching jobs are fantastic. They are also rare. We do ourselves a disservice to believe that a tenure-track position is the only successful outcome of a PhD program. Instead, let’s think about the skills required to earn a PhD and then use those skills to identify and pursue careers that are well suited to our talents. In a PhD program, we’re trained to think critically, develop new ideas, discredit old ideas, frame old ideas in new ways, and come up with questions that we can then answer. This multidimensional approach can be applied to more than just our objects of study—it can be applied to our careers as well as to our perceptions of ourselves.

Join Amanda and other PhDs who made the switch to a career in writing, teaching, or editing for a panel discussion dedicated to the topic, Saturday, 2 May, 2:00 – 3:20pm EDT during the Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.

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