Back when I decided to go alt-ac (for want of a better term), I was shamefully ignorant of how the “real world” works. Between the MFA (Literary Translation), the MA (French Literature), and the PhD (also French Literature), I had spent eleven straight years in academia (and had a baby along the way). I had collected lots of teaching experience, garnered both as an instructor in my own university and as an adjunct trying to piece together a living across three universities and two states; lots of freelance experience (as a journalist, a translator, and an editor); oodles of time and project management experience (as a dissertator and researcher). But my experience of the world of offices and fixed schedules and bosses and reviews was so limited as to almost be non-existent.
It makes sense, then, that I received nary a response to the ten or so job applications I sent out at the time: my résumé was a mess. It was a decent CV—for an academic—but a horrible résumé for a thirty-something trying to hack her way out of the ivory tower. Relevant work experience showed up briefly under “professional service” (somewhere on page three), the conferences were there in full, and languages and computer skills were all the way at the end.
A couple of weeks went by, and I found myself reading an Inside Higher Ed article by Brenda Bethman and C. Shaun Longstreet, the founders of the Alt Academix consultancy (they have since moved on to other things). They were talking about how to describe primarily academic successes in the alt-ac market, and one paragraph spoke particularly loudly to me:
Do not be the person who can only be read as a French literature instructor. Be someone who is adept at developing broad intercultural engagement initiatives; someone who can quickly assess student needs, provide space for transformative learning communities, and create programming that prepares students to participate in new avenues of inquiry and able to work with people of different world views.
“That is what I do?” I asked myself. And then, “That is what I do.” And so I went against my own DIY ethos (I move house by myself; I do my own taxes; I did my own make-up on my wedding day) and I contacted Brenda and Shaun and paid them $85 to “future-proof my CV” and provide a job landscape consultation. Painful though spending the money was (I was a graduate student, married to a recent graduate, and we had a three-year-old kid in New York City), there I was, deep in an ten-year bout of impostor syndrome with no self-esteem and no idea what I wanted to do.
Oh, the benefits of the editor. Of the therapist. Of what developers call the “rubber duckie” (the term comes from a book called The Pragmatic Programmer, in which a software developer solves his coding problem by explaining his process to a rubber duck). Professionally, psychologically, and personally we benefit both from distance from ourselves, from our work, and proximity to a reliably impartial other. Without the duckie, we’re overwhelmed by our own involvement, by the time and the effort we’ve put into something; we’re so blinded by our immersion in this thing that we can’t see the wood for the trees.
A good career consultant, like a good editor, or therapist, or friend, or rubber duckie, is comfortable with silence. Happy to let you splash around clumsily, willing to impassively bear witness as you talk in circles. And in their non-intervention, they will allow you to realize what you want.
As I sat on my (actual, metaphorical) couch and talked at Brenda and Shaun, I realized (quack!) that I had been ignoring entire swaths of career options because I’d been fixating on the need to work at a university (there is a certain snobbish strain within alt-ac that still posits the .edu as superior to the .com or .org, and I’d thoroughly internalized it). Once I was able to fathom that a job without ties to a given academic institution might actually fulfill me more than a university position (and that I wouldn’t go to sell-out purgatory if it did), I began to understand how my newly discovered (but not new) skills could be not only marketable but desirable outside the academy.
Alt-Academix is no longer around, but the last few years have seen a rise in the number of career consultants for PhDs. Some of the most respected offer a wealth of free materials on their websites, in addition to personal and institutional consultations. See, for example, Anne Krook, Jennifer Polk (From PhD to Life), Karen Kelsky (The Professor is In), and Maren Wood (Lilli Research Group).