On Transitioning from Academia to Something Completely Different

My last post explained why I was planning to leave the academy after finishing my PhD. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after graduation, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a history professor. Although some aspects of grad school had been great, I was ultimately a lot more excited about leaving academia than I was about sticking with it.

That was a year ago. I’ve since defended my dissertation, walked across a stage while sporting a sweaty orange robe and poofy velvet hat, and moved on from the career I’d worked toward for eight years, but no longer wanted. Less than two weeks after graduation, I started a brand new gig as a grant writer for a nonprofit–a job which, in terms of content, had pretty much nothing to do with my academic training.

So. Now that it’s been a whole year, maybe it’s finally time to follow up? (Prolific blogging is clearly not my strong suit.)

It’s been an exhausting and fascinating and thoroughly life-changing year. Here’s a scattered assortment of thoughts about what it’s been like to switch from the ivory tower to the so-called “real” world outside of it:

Changing careers was entirely overwhelming at first. I’d done an internship before that had focused mostly on grant writing, so I had some understanding of how to conduct my basic responsibilities. But there was one problem: in order to write a grant proposal or just about anything else effectively, you have to have some idea what you’re writing about.

I started my job with zero knowledge of the industry my organization is trying to change, only the faintest idea of the methods it uses to do so, and no familiarity whatsoever with the terminology my coworkers use to describe all of that work. During my first few weeks, anytime my coworkers very kindly asked if I had any questions about the discussion I’d just (rather silently) participated in, I had no idea how to respond. I understood so little that I didn’t even know what to ask. At first I was entirely helpless, and not terribly useful.

I knew being a grant writer would be different, but I had no idea how much mental energy it would take to switch gears from something I knew to something I really, really didn’t know. The combination of being thrown into something completely new while still reeling from dissertation burnout was intense, to say the least.

Having no idea what I was doing was a lot harder than I’d expected. By the time I finished my PhD, I was an expert in my field, especially in the very specific and obscure subject matter of my dissertation. I probably know more than almost anyone in the world about that one itty-bitty topic. I TAed some classes on unfamiliar subject matter, and for my dissertation I often had to sort out bits of scholarship that I was totally unfamiliar with. Even so, I knew enough about my field and about history as a discipline that I could get by. This is something I hadn’t fully realized or appreciated while I was a grad student: I’d grown so accustomed to doing history that I had no idea I’d become an expert.

Quite suddenly, I went from being an inadvertent expert to having absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was humbling, to say the least. Sometimes it still is. Now that I’m ten months into the job I know a lot more, but I still don’t have anywhere near the level of expertise in this field that I did in the academic world. This is part of what makes my new career so wonderful and exciting, but I completely underestimated how tough it would be.

By the way, that ever-pervasive idea that choosing a non-academic job is the easy route? Pure bullshit.

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No, switching to a completely different career isn’t the “easy route.”

Switching careers meant starting over from “the bottom.” Not just in terms of knowledge and experience, but also in terms of hierarchy and pay grade. I think the skills I honed in grad school have enabled me to grasp and put into practice the key elements of grant writing a bit more quickly than I might have otherwise. In other ways, however, my PhD doesn’t mean much at my new job. Which makes perfect sense, of course: my in-depth understanding of the historiography of the Bourbon Reforms doesn’t contribute a hell of a lot to my current work, so there’s no reason it should qualify me to be a top dog in the nonprofit world. I am good with this, and it would be a bit ridiculous if I wasn’t.

Even so, every so often, being at the bottom of the grant writing totem pole makes some tiny voice inside me wonder why I bothered getting a doctorate. Granted, that’s not why I pursued a PhD: I did it because I wanted to, not for esteem or recognition or a fat paycheque. But as ashamed as I am to admit it, that ivory tower “I’m-a-doctor-so-I’m-too-good-for-this” elitism runs pretty deep. The experience has been humbling, but that’s probably a good thing. I’m proud that I finished my PhD, but elitism isn’t something I want to encourage in myself.

The challenge of learning a new field was exactly what I wanted. It’s been difficult and sometimes exhausting, but it’s also part of what makes my new job exciting. By the time I graduated, studying history felt old and tired. I knew there was plenty more to learn about my own field, but it just wasn’t exciting anymore. I craved something completely and utterly new and different, which is exactly what I got with my new grant writing job. I feel like I’ve learned more in the past ten months than I did in my last three years of my PhD.

My new job fulfills my need to accomplish something tangible. As I explained in my last post, I never felt terribly accomplished in academia: I felt like I was working for me and me alone, and that wasn’t enough. To make matters worse, the glacial pace of academic writing combined with its often-intangible progress made me feel like I wasn’t doing much of anything. As I wrote a year ago, “I need to finish something every so often–to have proof that I made something, and that it does something good.”

What I was looking for then, I’ve got in spades now. I normally finish and submit grant applications and reports once or twice a week, and as a result my organization receives funding to support a cause I believe in. It’s not uncommon for me to suddenly receive an assignment with a deadline only a few days away. I’m constantly finishing something, and it (often) does something good. I no longer wonder why I should bother.

My job strikes a satisfying balance between working alone and working with others. I’m an introvert at heart, and I need to be alone with my thoughts sometimes. But as an academic, working alone–both in the sense of working while physically alone and in the sense of conducting work that was solely my own–made me pretty unhappy.  In my new job I do a lot of the grant work alone, but it’s part of a strategy built by a team, it gets edited by a team, and it contributes to a team effort to make this organization work. I also spend a lot more of my day around (great) people than I used to.

I get to do challenging, interesting work with terribly smart people. My organization does fascinating, innovative and (I believe) important work, and the people who make our programming happen are intelligent, driven, and passionate about what they do. That makes work pretty fun. One of the best parts of my job is getting to learn about the creative methods my coworkers are using to effect change in spite of enormous obstacles. (Dear coworkers: I make weird, grumpy-looking faces while we’re meeting because I’m focusing on gleaning as much information from you as possible. Sorry about that. Once that part is over and I’ve thoroughly processed it all, I bask in the glory of how fascinating your work is!)

I get to spend my days learning about very interesting and important things, and using my PhD-honed writing skills to make sure those things gets funded. I think that’s pretty cool.

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Me, to my coworkers.

Having a structured 40-hour work week is awesome. It has its downsides: I’m not a morning person, and for some reason fitting things like laundry and grocery shopping into evenings and weekends is more difficult than I’d expected. (Yes, I’m aware of how silly that sounds, but I’d gotten used to being able to do these things at 3pm on a Tuesday.) But being able to leave work at work is wonderful. I no longer spend all my “free” time feeling guilty for not working. I only get paid to work 40 hours a week, so that’s all I work. It’s a much healthier relationship with labour than what I’d grown accustomed to in grad school, and I’m much better off for it.

So is getting to choose where I live. To be a professor, I’d have had to move to wherever I was lucky enough to get a job. (If I was lucky enough to get a job.) Although it’s important to me to have an enjoyable and intellectually-stimulating job, I don’t want to have to uproot and move to some place not of my choosing in order to do it. As it turns out, that isn’t necessary. I get to continue living in a place that both I and my partner like and have a great job at the same time. I am good with this.

I like who I am when I’m doing this work. Much better than when I was an academic, anyway. Working with others and during a set time prevents me from getting too obsessive, self-absorbed and absorbed in my work. There’s no time to be an insufferable perfectionist, or to be so self-deprecating and anxious that I can’t get anything done. Nor is there space, since I’m often surrounded by people. The version of myself that only came out occasionally while I was writing my dissertation–the one who, as I wrote last year, is “fascinated, confident, rigorous, helpful, caring and creative”–is gradually appearing more often. I’m still not 100% there–I think this is due largely to residual burnout, which I may write about in later post. But so far I like my grant-writing self a lot better than my dissertation-writing self. Of all the changes I’ve experienced as a result of switching careers, this one feels the most significant.

In short: I made a big change because it felt right, and I don’t regret a damn thing.

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Blog vs. Perfectionism

I’m a PhD student writing a dissertation. I more or less write for a living. I like (love?) writing, but I already do far too much of it–enough that I’m sometimes convinced that I hate it.

So… why a blog, then? Why write even more?

In short: I think I need it.

I discovered last year while interning part-time as a grant writer that non-academic writing is good for me, and good for my dissertation. The internship gave me the opportunity to practice writing regularly, and to practice writing in a very different way than I was used to. I was writing to a new (to me) kind of audience about a subject in which I had no expertise.

Maybe most importantly, people–coworkers, foundation boards, people with the power to decide where a whole lot of money went–were reading my work regularly. Mere weeks or even days after starting a proposal, I would send it off for its intended audience to read, judge, and accept or decline. After a brief period of editing and collaborating, my work was done. I could move on.

It turned out this was exactly what my writing needed–in part because it forced me to write so much so often, but also because it left no room for my perfectionist tendencies. I couldn’t spend hours looking for the perfect citation to fill in the gap in my knowledge. I couldn’t spend weeks wondering if I should address the indigenous clergy in a more in-depth way. I couldn’t rewrite the same topic sentence 20 times, only to delete the whole paragraph a few weeks later. I couldn’t spend months wondering what my argument was, worrying about what others might think about it, or fretting that maybe I wasn’t putting enough work into it.

In other words, there just wasn’t time for all the problems that had been plaguing my dissertation process. There wasn’t time to be perfect and, as it turned out, there wasn’t even a need. Proposals I wrote in a just few days generally received some form of approval from my team. Sometimes, these proposals won tens of thousands of dollars. Why be perfect when good enough gets you what you need?

The solid deadlines played a role, but what helped me the most was the frequent proof that others didn’t hate what I wrote. When writings I hadn’t agonized over for months on end reached the eyes of others, the world didn’t explode. Mostly, good things happened: I got helpful feedback from team members and, sometimes, good news from funders. My writing was just ok, and that was entirely fine.

Now my internship is over, and I’m back to full-time academia. So, I’m turning to blogging as my non-dissertation writing outlet. The stakes are a lot lower than for grant proposals, and there won’t be any deadlines. But I’m hoping that blogging will serve as a frequent reminder that I actually like writing, and that sharing my work isn’t so bad. Maybe it will prove to me that that first draft of a dissertation chapter doesn’t need to be amazing–it just needs to be done.

I’m not sure yet what exactly I’ll write about. I expect there will be some dissertation tidbits, some stuff about the writing process, some rants about terrible articles found online, and some tangents about knitting. Whatever I feel like, probably.

I hope I can start some productive conversations with whatever I write, but if not, that’s ok. All I really need is a place to practice.