Writer discusses his e-book on leaving academia
Christopher L. Caterine seemed to be on the right track to tenure track success. He has a Ph.D. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Classical Music in 2014. He was a visiting assistant at Tulane University for several years and had more time to go. Even so, he made a decision and left the academy. He tells the story – and gives advice – in Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (Princeton University Press). In the book he gives advice on looking for a good job as well as on the specifics of a job search (cover letters, CVs – for non-academics).
He answered questions about the book via email.
Q: You had a PhD. in classics and a good (guest) assistant professor gig. What made you switch to a non-academic career?
ONE: The immediate cause was a change of perspective triggered by my wife’s decision to turn down a tenure track job. The short version of this story – I tell it at length in my book – is that we stopped asking how bad an academic position would have to be for us to reject it, and started asking how good it would have to be for us from New Uproot Orleans. That bar was higher than any of us had thought – especially since we had only moved here 18 months earlier. Since their position was renewable and mine wasn’t, I decided to explore other careers.
Of course, there was a confluence of other factors lurking in the background. I have already pointed out that my wife and I faced the “two-body problem”. After spending five years of our long-distance relationship in graduate school, there was no question that our careers parted us again. I had also grown tired of teaching the same classes over and over and wasn’t sure I wanted every semester to feel like Groundhog Day until I retired. Finally, my work as chair of the contingent faculty committee of the Society for Classical Studies had drawn my attention to the poor quality of work and working conditions for the majority of faculties in the United States. One benefit of this work, however, was that I learned that I have a knack for project management – and I was excited about the idea of spending more time on strategy implementation than research. These insights made it easier to embark on a new career path in spring 2015.
Q: Networking is a topic in your book. How is networking for non-academic careers different from academic careers?
ONE: I believed in meritocracy so strongly that it never occurred to me to network while studying! At best, I saw it as the imposition of other people’s time; at worst, I saw it as some kind of scam – trying to convince someone to hire you because of a relationship rather than the quality of your scholarship. I think part of that block was that I assumed that networking is all about helping yourself get a job. Of course, that’s one of the reasons you do it, but if it’s your only goal, you won’t get very far. To network well, you need to learn from others and position yourself to help them. Attend each meeting to learn as much as you can about your contact’s career, goals, and current challenges. With this knowledge, you can connect them to people who can help them solve their problems faster than in a vacuum. At this point, you give them back the value they invested in your meeting. You will benefit from information about your area of work, the skills required for it and an improved perception of what it would be like to do this job every day.
In my opinion, scientists could do their work much more effectively and efficiently if they applied these skills within the academy. But the graduate school culture seems to make most people not to act like that. When I started networking, I was afraid that I would annoy people if I asked about their time. Most – maybe 80 percent – quickly volunteered an hour to tell me about their career path when I emailed my request. That’s probably the most different thing about networking between academia and the rest of the professional world: Non-academics prioritize networking and relationship building, even though their calendars are far more constrained and far less flexible.
When I was just starting to write my dissertation, my director of studies got me to drive a senior scholar who had just given a lecture 75 minutes outside the airport. We had a nice chat, but nothing came of it at the time. Four years later, I asked the person to read a chapter that I was revising for publication. He had some good feedback and we started corresponding. Months later, one of his contacts invited me to write a chapter for an edited volume. That invitation came weeks after I made a commitment to leave the academy – while walking up the steps to a night class, I took the path for that transition. I decided to write the chapter as a hedge because I thought there might be a chance for academic success after all. I finished my chapter in early 2017, but the other writers were late. Ironically, the band is set to come out next year now – four years since I left the academy and since I’ve written and published an entire book in the meantime!
Q: What are the most important things academics need to learn in order to communicate with non-academics?
ONE: First, it’s your job to convey the value of your experience by explaining it in terms that make sense to your audience. Typically, explain why something should be important to them, then explain what it is and how it works. Don’t assume that others will appreciate your work and don’t offend yourself if they can’t connect the dots unassisted.
Second, non-academics are people. Treat them as such. Be curious about what they are doing, how they got there, and what their frustrations or aspirations are. It’s difficult to build a relationship with just talking about yourself or instrumentalizing a new contact.
Third, be personable. People tend to help those they enjoy spending time with. If you are only talking about the negatives of science and the challenges of changing careers, it is unlikely that someone will refer you to their contacts or recommend you for a job.
Most of all, be brief. You risk alienating your audience by providing lengthy preambles and irrelevant details. If you want more information, they’ll ask.
Q: How should academics deal with academics who believe that there is only good work in academia?
ONE: I would question both the idea that the work is good and the idea that it exists! Nowadays, the academic career is the alternative career for most U.S. PhD students. Only about 7 percent of graduates entering the social sciences and humanities ultimately secure a temporary job. COVID-19 has almost certainly reduced that number. Of the rest, less than 20 percent end up in conditional roles. Some of these positions work for some people, but the majority are abusive – low-paying jobs with no benefits and limited institutional support.
The academics who believe that there is only good work in academia are not responsible for this situation, but they have an ethical obligation to take this into account in their teaching and advice. Your students, colleagues, deans and examiners should promote this issue as much as possible. That could mean asking the faculty to ask alumni outside the academic world to speak about their careers since leaving or defending. This could mean forming a LinkedIn group to encourage sustained discussion among alumni, faculties, and students. It could even mean asking an outside advisor (!) To moderate a workshop exploring how graduate seminar projects can be modified to allow research into different careers without compromising the accuracy of the doctorate. To get back to the numbers with which we started, around 75 percent of the incoming students are already working outside the professorship. That said, it should be pretty easy to respond to these ideas.
If you’re with a contrary advisor, PI, or referrer, you may prefer to calmly seek out other mentors and explore career opportunities without disclosing your intentions. I did that for the first six months and only “burned my ship” with a public statement when I got on one final foray into the academic job market.
Q: Can you describe your job outside of the academy and how did you get into it?
ONE: I’m a communications strategist and proposition writer for a global consulting firm. On a fun day, I work with senior members of the company to create a compelling sales message or work with the rest of our creative team to get that message across as memorably as possible. On a boring day, I might apply a style guide to a large technical document or check that the name and title of everyone on an org chart are correct. Essentially, I apply a variety of skills that I learned during my PhD: synthesizing information, weighing ambiguous evidence, writing clearly, and summing up the usually rather boring information in exciting ways that can grab the audience’s attention. I used to travel almost weekly to work with on-site teams – and I’ll be the first to queue for a COVID-19 vaccine if that means I can do it again!
I found the job through networking. Someone whom I had coldly contacted about an informational interview put me in touch with someone they knew at the company, and a good conversation with that person resulted in a call to a manager of his who was also an academic. The focus of this call – and this is important general advice – was that people with advanced degrees look overqualified when applying for entry-level jobs: he thought it was far better for people like me to seek mid-career positions . At the end of our discussion, he hesitated a little before asking me for a sample. He was apparently pleased with what he saw: shortly after receiving it, he referred me to a position that would soon be available. I didn’t even know I was being considered for a job until I was asked to schedule the first interview! That seemed insane at the time, but I now know that most mid-career positions are filled by referral rather than application. This fact makes it imperative for academics to step out of their comfort zone and learn how to network. This is how you create your own happiness – especially in a job market as competitive as it is today.