I Just Finished My PhD and Don’t Have a Job Lined Up

By Scott Rank, The Scholarpreneur

Here are 4 things I’ll do this fall if I don’t get one

I successfully defended my dissertation a month ago. For two hours the committee members and I performed the ritual. They drilled into my methodological flaws, wrongful interpretations of the literature, and translation/transcription errors. (With 470 pages of dissertation text to look at, they had plenty of mistakes to choose from). I absorbed their blows, did my best to answer, but ultimately sat in confidence that the outcome of the defense was pre-ordained. Sure enough, they sent me out of the room to deliberate and welcomed me back with words of “Congratulations, Dr.”

All of which was well and good. Having a PhD in hand is a tremendous relief. But it does not change my big problem for the fall. I do not yet have a postdoc lined up. I am still waiting to hear back from one university, which does not even announce its results until July or August. This is barely a month to prepare before my duties would begin in September.

Without an academic gig lined up for the fall, I am in danger of losing institutional affiliation. If so, I will take on the dreaded title of “independent scholar.” I will have no affiliation privileges, be unable to scale university firewalls, and be incapable of defining myself in the hierarchy of grad student, postdoc, or assistant professor.

So what do I do? I think most people in my situation would be furiously applying for adjunct positions for the fall, hoping that such a job will serve as a hold-over until something more long-term opens up. Plus it would provide an affiliation fig leaf. But I am not terribly interested in earning $20,000/year for teaching six classes a semester.

Here’s my plan. First of all, I am going to remind myself that my fundamental worth is not tied up in my academic title. I talked about going through this mental process elsewhere. Second, I am going to put together a hodgepodge of different jobs. I will take on enough small gigs (whether academic or not) to equal a full-time income.

OK, you might ask, how is that different from the many adjuncts who teach while also working as a hotel night clerk? Or a janitor? Or even a stripper?

Leaving aside the question of whether I could find employment as a stripper, the difference is that of mindset. I want to consider my academic career as a business and each of my jobs as a client. Dani Babb has dubbed this the Adjunctpreneur model: considering each of your teaching gigs as a client, with the goal of diversifying your workload in order to offset risk. I expand her meaning with a term I have dubbed the Scholarpreneur model. This means taking academic knowledge and providing it wherever you can earn an income, whether inside or outside a university setting. This can be anything from teaching online, freelance academic translation, and copy editing to dissertation consulting or working in the digital humanities.

So here are four things I will do this fall if I don’t get a postdoc.

First, I will self-publish ebooks on Amazon. This is actually something I have been doing since December 2012, when I discovered self publishing on Amazon. Prior to this point, I resisted such an idea. Self-publishing was long stigmatized for being the realm of failed authors and conspiracy theorists. But then I heard that it was slowly gaining mainstream acceptance. I also learned that the royalty rate is 70% – approximately seven times higher than what a traditional author could ever hope to earn. I wrote a popular history of the Middle East called From Muhammed to Burj Khalifa: A Crash Course in 2,000 Years of Middle East History.

In the first month I earned $900. It required no work beyond the initial upload. It earned even more the next month. Sales plummeted in the following months, but I began working on two new book projects. They launched successfully in the spring. Since then I have published 12 ebooks. They have provided a majority of my income throughout my doctoral studies.

Second, I will launch an online course. This second option is probably the easiest for most academics, because they likely already have course notes and Powerpoint presentations on file. All they have to do is record their lectures into a video format. The first place I would put up a course is on Udemy, a platform where anyone can upload and sell video courses. I talked with John Purcell, who teaches nearly half a million students on this platform, and opened my eyes to the possibilities.

The second place I would put up a course is on Oplerno. This is a new learning platform, which stands for Open Learning Organization. Here faculty members can create and own their courses outright. They set the class size and course price. Oplerno is approved to offer courses for transfer credit by the State of Vermont. Professors create a course like they would at a university, but they keep about 80% of the profits. Not bad.

Third, I will look into digital humanities. Digital Humanities is a term tossed around like five-year-olds playing catch – clumsily and with no purpose in mind. But after talking to digital humanities specialists like Jason Roe from the Kansas City Public Library, I found that it is possible to find a job in this field without any special training – provided you are willing to learn how to use certain tools. Once you acquire basic proficiency in web site development and database technology, it’s surprisingly easy to search for grants and even get a position at a museum or an academic institute.

Fourth, I will seek out alt-ac positions. Alt-ac is shorthand for alternative academic careers. It refers to non-teaching and non-research positions within higher education.

What are some examples? Here is a whole slew of jobs that fall under the umbrella term of alt-ac: Advising, honors/academic resources, admissions, recruitment, first-year experience, program centers, libraries, digital humanities, educational technology, research offices, grant writing, fund-raising, development.

So those are the four things I will do if I don’t get a postdoc.

I may be a newly minted PhD with an uncertain future. But when plenty of backup work is available and my finances aren’t at the mercy of underpaid adjunct positions, the future doesn’t seem so scary.

Scott Rank earned his PhD in Middle East history from Central European University. He created The Scholarpreneur, which helps academics build their own careers by taking their knowledge to the open market.


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