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Review: Out of academia

"So What Are You Going to Do With That?" -- A Guide to Career-Changing for MAs and Ph.D.s
By Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 165 pages, January

Review: Out of academia

In this story:

Three points

Taking a lesson

No regrets


RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow


(CNN) -- Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius say underpaid, unappreciated adjunct professors have two choices if they want to improve their predicament: Persevere until reforms, if any, are enacted -- or embark on a new career.

Princeton Ph.D.s Basalla and Debelius chose the latter course, and now they've written a book advising others on how to find their way to post-graduate happiness outside academia.

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It's a timely publication, considering the recent efforts by groups of adjunct professors in the United States to organize and demand better pay, working conditions and status. According to the 44,000-member American Association of University Professors, adjuncts teach roughly half the courses taught on U.S. campuses.

"If you decide that you want or need to leave academia for economic, geographical, family or other reasons, we can help you figure out another path to happiness, security and intellectual fulfillment," they promise.

The authors aren't asking you to just rely on their experiences. They also interviewed others who took this career path. "Not a single person we interviewed regretted leaving academia," they write.

Three points

Both authors received their doctoral degrees in English. Basalla is now an online editor for the personal finance Web site The Motley Fool. And Debelius is editor-in-chief at LifeMinders, an Internet site that e-mails weekly reminders and tips to members.

They note that people spend anywhere from a few years to perhaps a decade in graduate school. No wonder some may wonder if they should even finish a dissertation. The authors, as advertised, have some advice.

One famous career-changing Ph.D. interviewed for the book is Tom Magliozzi, brotherly co-host of National Public Radio's popular "Car Talk" program. Magliozzi was a chemical engineering professor for several years before experiencing this epiphany: "Teaching sucks."

•  Have a candid talk with your adviser about job market and other concerns, and weigh this against other considerations, including your finances -- and maybe your significant other's impatience with your schooling.

•  Do something else for six months or a year. You'll get a new experience or skill and perhaps a better handle on what you want to do with your life. The authors tell of an English Ph.D., who took a year off from her program, worked as a professional astrologer and now continues doing this part-time while writing novels.

•  Pursue other interests while you're in graduate school. Get a part-time job unrelated to your academic interests, use your skills in a different context or work as a volunteer. Doing so will make you a more interesting person and more marketable to both academic administrations and other employers, Basalla and Debelius say.

The authors caution against turning up your nose at menial office work seemingly beneath one with so much education. Bona fide work experience gives you an edge in the job market over somebody with a similar degree who hasn't worked, they argue. Why? Because it may signal that you aren't just a dreamer but have practical skills.

Taking a lesson

This book is filled with examples of real people with advanced degrees who opted for unconventional careers. The authors cite Barbara Fisher, who received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1976 and taught part-time at several New York colleges over the ensuing 25 years while raising two children.

Then she shifted gears. She got a job writing marketing proposals at Christie's, the famous auction house. "It's absolutely inspirational to get your first full-time job at the age of 50," Fisher is quoted as saying.

graphic
Susan Basalla, Maggie Debelius  

A more famous career-changing Ph.D. interviewed for the book is Tom Magliozzi, brotherly co-host of National Public Radio's popular "Car Talk" program. Magliozzi was a chemical engineering professor for several years before experiencing this epiphany: "Teaching sucks."

How does he know so much about car repairs? While earning his doctoral degree, he worked as a mechanic in the garage he owned with his brother.

There are many other examples cited too. A Ph.D. in education who founded a literary agency. A Ph.D. in biochemistry who's a grant administrator. A Ph.D. in psychology who helped start a public-relations firm. A Ph.D. in English who went to work for an environmental group.

Much of the authors' guidance is relevant for all job-seekers, but to somebody who's just emerging from years of graduate course work and/or toil in the fields of academia, it may be useful.

•  Convert your curriculum vitae into a resumé. The difference? A resumé emphasizes the employer's needs rather than minute details of your credentials. "This change may not sound that large to you right now, but, done correctly, the process requires a seismic shift," Basalla and Debelius write.

•  Don't pursue a new career passively. Bypass the human resources office and get the name of a specific person to whom you should send your resume and make follow-up calls checking on its status. Then ask when you may call again.

•  Network. Knowing somebody at the company to which you're applying for work can give you the edge in being hired.

Convert your curriculum vitae into a resumé. The difference? A resumé emphasizes the employer's needs rather than minute details of your credentials. "This change may not sound that large to you right now, but, done correctly, the process requires a seismic shift," Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius write.

•  Be prepared to refute stereotypes the person interviewing you may have about academics. If he thinks academics don't work well in teams, give him examples in which you've done so, including volunteering or hobbies.

•  Also be prepared to respond to questions regarding your degree. Examples: Why do you need all that education? Why did it take you so long to finish, or why didn't you finish? Why would you want to work here?

No regrets

While the focus of this book is how to successfully escape academia, Basalla and Debelius stress they aren't bashing the academic life. Both say if they had a chance to pursue a a Ph.D. again, they'd do it. Debelius even teaches part-time. But both women say they have no regrets about not chasing a tenure-track full-time position at a university.

"I've learned that I'm too fidgety intellectually to pursue a single subject for as long as academia requires," Basalla writes.

"The biggest drawback to my choice," Debelius adds, "is that teaching, editing and writing a book while finishing a dissertation doesn't leave me a lot of time to relax -- but I also have the satisfaction of never facing a dull day."

Both women also say they enjoy the variety of challenges and people they've met outside a college campus. Readers who have been timid about trying to make a similar switch in careers, may find this book as valuable for its can-do spirit as its specific advice.

[watercooler]



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So What are You Going to Do With That?

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