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“So what are you going to do with that” – personal review of an alt-career book

April 19, 2012

There is so much I want to write about but time has run away from me, as usual. So, what I want to do here immediately is to post a mini review (it’s more of my personal take) on this book on alt-careers that I was led to serendipitously. However, many of the materials discussed in there are common-sensical to me, having come from less than traditional paths to graduate school.

So What are you Going to Do with that (rev edition, pub 2007), written by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, both PhD graduates in English from Princeton from the end of last century, is about managing your expectations and perceptions about what academics mean for you and the possibility of taking on alternative tracks when the one straight route seems to entail overly many sacrifices. Interestingly, this book was first written at the height of the Job market was apparently not that great then either (it probably hasn’t been great post-1960s). If options were not too much then, it seems to have gone on a continuous decline for decades (maybe there is something wrong with the current academic model but nobody seems moved to change it mainly because it has maintained the status quo well for those who managed to ‘make it’). And third world countries tend to ape what first world countries do (also known as the ‘white man syndrome”).

Of course, most of the audience of the book are American graduate students, and not their international counterparts. This could stem from them being more heavily burdened with debts than than most of us could ever imagined having to pay for our education. Moreover, the rest of us have various visa restrictions and Homeland Security stipulations (especially, once again, if you’re from certain parts of the world) that would make it hard for us to attempt to work summer jobs or take on additional positions that is not related to our academic work (even internships have to be justified to our visa sponsors). So, I have to scratch that part of the book advocating that I try taking time off from academic work (this is not going to happen) and try something else (I already did that, that’s why I came back to do a PhD late rather than 3–10 3-7 years younger as some of my fellow peers, depending on whether they entered with or without a masters, came straight, or not, from college).

Even while realizing that the traditional academic route is not my only way forward, I am as much invested as those entirely focused on academic careers to find the best fit for myself, especially after having spent some years (though not sufficiently long to generate independent wealth, unfortunately) working on more ‘lucrative’ (by relative standards) but not always personally fulfilling positions. Ironically, I actually ‘earn more’ as a graduate student only because I came from a country with a much weaker currency. Even back in the day when I was a freelance agent for an international market research firm with main offices in the First world, working hard to fulfill my contractual obligations, they were paying me in amounts that would have made even the lowest-paid students in the US balk but global conglomerates know how to take advantage and leverage on that comparative difference. So, how do I hedge on my current position (which is precarious, as a foreigner) while trying to find fulfilling positions that will allow me to have intellectual freedom and an intellectually demanding life ? My homeland, including its universities, is not an option if I want both. At least not now. The book has no answer for that, unfortunately (maybe I need to write that other book one day).

So, what is then the end-game of this book. Well, there are many things that are really useful to remind myself about when it is so easy to forget, especially in living the life within a graduate school/academic bubble. Firstly, how the world at large operates at a much faster pace than academia (that’s true, regardless of which universities I’ve been at, and I’d been to a few), how can you be more efficient when you actually have more than one responsibility going on simultaneously (I agree with that, and I think some of my colleagues in my program and other departments who have gone through that will attest to the veracity of that statement), understanding why and what makes you want to stay in academia (is it your vocation, is it the narrowness of your view, you perceived lack of options and skills, the lack of friends who do anything outside that world, poor networking skills, or just being plain scared of the world outside), or does the very fact of your personality make you think that you will be ill-fitted for any other jobs?

In many ways, I am a natural academic (as many of my former colleagues, bosses, and friends back home would attest to) only because I enjoy the challenge of solving a research question (or at least to attempt ways of finding that solution), reading very dense materials, learning new ideas and concepts all the time and figuring out how everything connects. I like well-reasoned and intelligently parlayed arguments and deep thinking. I like creating, innovating and planning at high levels.

In talking to and listening to many people in academia around me, I realized that such an ego-centric life of intellectual activity is probably more in the province of poor graduate students than of most senior professors. One will find oneself unable to sustain that intellectual environment in the new positions one occupies the way one could in the research institutions where one attends graduate school. After all, as general wisdom goes, most US PhD who graduate from élite institutions will spend years earning their dues, if they are ‘lucky’ to get a tenure-track position, out in the boondocks somewhere. As much as I love my university, it took me a long time to become minimally enamored with the suburban town I am living in, and even then, it’s the existence of that university (and nearby large institutions) that make living here bearable and not-too-bad. In a less than intellectually riveting place, you’re bound to feel miserable unless there are other saving graces outside of being on a tenure-track. But then, I never was a suburban type and I like to be in small towns for short spurts.

These are among the many issues tackled in this actually quite interesting book (though it’s more of an anthropology into US academic culture and perception). Being considered ‘delinquent’ in my progress through graduate school by the new assessment system of my university, and being assaulted with questions about what jobs I would want (the assumption seems to be always academic positions) were among the reasons that goaded me into reading this book (though I will not be reading it cover-to-cover). Beyond this book, I also discovered that, in some programs, one is considered to be a ‘failure’ if one’s main interest is to become a professor (and not merely becoming one as a safety belt as one pursues other goals) rather than to go out into the world to make something of oneself. As for myself, I will have to test the limits of my ability to shape a satisfactory career path for myself.

I’ll recommend this book to anyone who would like to look at a world beyond traditional academia or the academic job market. It seems to me that colleagues and professors who have been extremely lucky in the academic job market (many abound in my institution) will not be of much help in charting of the aspiring but less fortunate souls (and many more abound here).

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