Staying Engaged Outside Academia

One of the most difficult parts of leaving academia is the idea of breaking up with the life of the mind. When you’ve devoted years of time and thousands of dollars into training for thinking up new ideas for a living, sometimes life outside of academia seems beige and uninteresting.

Fortunately, academia isn’t the only place you can chase your personal intellectual passions. Plenty of problems to solve and interesting things to think about exist outside academia. You can stay engaged with ideas and thinking up new stuff, but it may be on your own time.   

Like so many things in life, your access to resources (or lack of them) may determine how engaged you stay with your research and new ideas.

I’ve been thinking lately about our underlying assumptions about being an alt-ac person and how external resources shape life outside of academia. For instance, if your spouse happens to have a well-paying job, maybe you can still afford to go to all of your favorite academic conferences without travel funding from an academic department. If you have some cash laying around, maybe you can afford to make your research into a hobby. Maybe you’ve got enough resources so that you can start a freelance business from scratch without having to do it in your spare time.

On the other hand, because of the neoliberal debt-servitude model of the modern PhD, a lot of people are graduating under crushing debt loads, with shitty academic job prospects, and even scarcer resources. Getting out of academia gets us out of the adjunct rut (maybe), but the alt-ac life still hinges on the racial, classed, and gendered structures that shape our paths forward.    

People with few resources at their disposal are probably going to have to get day jobs while they’re trying to figure out what to do next. A day job often isn’t particularly satisfying, but pays the (student loan) bills. A lot of day jobs, though necessary and life-saving, are boring and soul-crushing. They require considerably less creativity than we’re used to exercising as PhD people engaged in the search for truth and the creation of knowledge.  It’s hard to leap from discussing Foucault and the idea of governmentality (particularly these days) to a job that requires little to no critical thought. Before I got my current job, I worked a whole slew of weird temp jobs; some were okay, others were awful. Some of them involved things like spreadsheets and bored me to tears. On the bright side, day jobs usually pay more than adjuncting.

Working 40-hours a week at a day job makes it hard to stay engaged intellectually. Exhaustion isn’t conducive to intellectual production. Working a day job may leave you intellectually understimulated and bored, especially if you’re only using a fraction of your PhD skills. You may start feeling like you’re slowly losing your critical thinking skills.    

Here are some ideas about staying engaged intellectually and practicing critical thinking skills while working your day job:

  • Read new books. Even better, start a reading group. Maybe you have a reading group where you talk about new ideas every month. If you live in the boonies, maybe you start an online reading group. Read some hard stuff. Read some new stuff. Keep reading and thinking.  
  • Evaluate your current job. Is there somewhere in your day job where you can practice greater critical thinking? Critical thinking skills are, after all, a search for the truth and a means to solve-problems. What problems could you be solving? Some day jobs have zero leeway for critical thinking, but some might.
  • Teach a class. There are literally zillions of platforms in which you could be teaching from. You may not be able to teach your traditional university courses from them (or maybe you could?), but maybe you’re teaching something new that you’ve always wanted to teach.
  • Take a class. PhD people are, by definition, learners. Why not learn something new at your community college? Maybe you finally learn HTML, Python, or Italian.
  • Pick a topic and start doing some public speaking. Why are you not doing a TED talk about some fascinating part of your research? Maybe you’re taking your research on the road and talking about it at your local rotary club. Join Toastmasters and learn how to give a great speech. (Bonus points for the networking aspect of public speaking to new groups.)
  • Start a website. Blog about your personal intellectual passions. Try some new kinds of writing. Talk about some new ideas.
  • Freelance writing. Find some intellectual blogs that you might guest post for and pitch some ideas. Someone might say yes.
  • Publish existing research. We wrote a lot as graduate students. Maybe we’re still writing? Write and revise in those little moments that you have when not working the day job. I get up early in the morning specifically for this reason.
  • Start a writing group. If you need to get some writing done, a writing group is the way to go. I wrote about mine here. You get to give and receive critical feedback.
  • Do some new research and make a new project. My PhD research was all about transnational relationships between Guatemala and the U.S. I thought about what I might do locally that would satisfy my research itch. I recently visited the Western History archive that’s a part of my city’s public library. While there, I found a bunch of really cool news articles that would make good history blog posts. Currently working on these.   
  • Volunteer with non-academic organizations that do things you’re interested in: libraries, historical associations, museums, art galleries.  
  • Be a reviewer. Being a reviewer is great fun. Not only do you get to read new and interesting stuff, but you get to comment on it. Be a peer reviewer for a journal. Review some books. Get some book reviews published.

In the ideal world, we’d be employed in jobs that gave us free rein to pursue our intellectual lives. In today’s world, with higher-ed and the humanities under attack generally, I predict that more PhDs are going to have transitional day jobs as they figure out what to do next. Staying engaged with ideas while working a day job isn’t easy. But better than boredom.   

Academic Research in the Wild

I don’t write much about my regular day job on my blog or talk about it on social media. For readers who don’t know, I currently work in victim services, providing information, support, and resources to crime victims. I can’t say very much about it for reasons of confidentiality etc etc etc, but that’s what I do in my life when I’m not writing, editing, tweeting, or taking photos of something.

Sometimes people ask me why a historian would be working as a victim advocate or how my PhD skills translate into working at a non-profit. Last year, I found myself at a work-related training with a bunch of people that I didn’t know. The woman seated next to me and I started talking. She asked me how I got into the field of victim advocacy. I hesitated, because I never really know how to talk about my PhD in my current job. I often feel awkward mentioning it and usually crack the old joke about being a recovering academic and move on.

One of the things that’s the most difficult about leaving academia is the very real sense of leaving behind a vital part of oneself. In academia, the boundaries between the personal and professional often vanish completely. Your research becomes much more than just a thing you’re kind of interested in and study; it is a deeply personal part of you. In academia, you talk about your research all the time. In my work in victim advocacy, I don’t have much opportunity to talk about the thing to which I devoted many years of my life to and still care about deeply. I’m still not quite sure how or when to talk about it to people.

That day, I decided to take a chance and tell her about not only about my personal story, but also about my research. I talked about my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2004 to 2006. I told her about the many people I met who had family members disappeared or loved ones who were victims of political violence. Their stories weren’t mine, but they grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. I shared how I couldn’t stop thinking about their stories, even long after the end of my service. I went to graduate school because I wanted to understand what had happened to people and why.

 Generally I stop talking at this point, assuming that my short answer has satisfied my listener’s curiosity.

But my new colleague seemed interested, so I kept talking. I talked about the Guatemalan banana fields of the 1920s and how the United Fruit Company had a stranglehold on the national economy and politics. About how the 1944 revolution overthrew the military dictatorship and opened up an unprecedented ten years of democracy, known as the Ten Years of Spring. About the CIA-backed military coup of 1954 and the counterrevolution that followed. I talked about the how the violence escalated and the bodies piled up.I talked about the bloody years of the Rios Montt dictatorship and the support it received from the Reagan administration, even as human rights abuses grew. I talked about recent forensic anthropology efforts to reunite the remains of the dead with their families and communities. I talked about recent genocide trials and the testimonies of survivors of massacres. I talked about the legacies of the conflict, the continued impunity and how it fostered vigilante justice and lynching. I linked the violence of the conflict to the waves of Central American kids who had arrived to U.S. borders in 2014.

“I never knew any of this!” she said when I’d finished. “You should present this at next year’s state conference [for victim services]!”

So now I’m writing this non-academic abstract that touches on some of my work on Guatemala at large conference of victim service providers. I’m pitching it as an opportunity to think about how individual victimization always takes place within larger political, economic, social, and cultural structures, even if we can’t see them. To make it relevant for my audience, I’m planning to talk about some strategies for working with refugee and immigrant communities. As war, immigration, and refugee resettlement continue to be huge issues that appear in the news daily, I’m hoping that I can give people a new way to see the people with whom they work.  
I confess that I’d never pictured using my research in this way, but the chance to present at this conference resonated with my big goals. As I wrote last week, when you find yourself thrilled by doing something, think YES and write that down. I’ve presented research at a lot of academic research at different conferences. Conferences used to freak me out. The idea of reading a paper in front of a bunch of people ready to rip it to shreds used to terrify me. However, the more I presented, the more I liked it. As a sworn introvert, I was shocked to discover that I actually really enjoy public speaking. In fact, I’d like to be doing more of it in my life. I genuinely like taking those moments to connect with the audience to help them see the world in new ways.
Presenting my academic research to a non-academic audience will require some different strategies than the standard academic conference presentation. If accepted, the presentation will necessarily be more narrative than an academic paper. It also needs to focus on helping people see the world differently and solving a problem for people. It needs to be, in sum, something to the effect of a TED talk. As historian Megan Kate Nelson argues, there’s really no reason that historians have to present in the boring ways that we find ourselves doing at academic conferences.The magic of the TED talk is listening to someone present complex ideas (even obscure academic ones) in accessible language to general audiences in a compelling way. You walk away feeling like you have a new lens through which to see the world. Translating academic research for non-academic audiences seems like a skill I could learn. Maybe I could be doing something similar.

This morning, I read a thoughtful piece in The Guardian by Daniel Jose Camacho. I loved reading it because the author used history (bonus points for it being the Latin American kind) to talk about how loudly talking about diversity doesn’t actually erase racism. He points to the indigenistas of Latin American in the early 1920s and how they attempted to talk about non-white people in a new way. Nevertheless, their rhetoric failed to alter structural racism and kept traditional white elites in power. I admired how the article linked our current discourse about diversity to a decisive anti-blackness. He analyzed a current problem we’re having using the past to provide people with a new way of looking at something.

It occurs to me that the opportunity to present my academic and personal knowledge about Guatemala to a non-academic audience is exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing in the world. I want to be answering current questions using my research on race, indigeneity, gender, fake science, mass media, and representation to help people understand the world better and solve real world problems. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like yet, but presenting my knowledge about violence in Guatemala to victim service providers seems like a good start.

Repurposing My PhD

I've been reading all of these non-fiction books about FINDING YOUR ULTIMATE PURPOSE IN LIFE lately. I've been binging on library books: Grit, by Angela Duckworth, Pivot by Jenny Blake, Presence by Amy Cuddy, and Originals by Adam Grant. I'm thankful and grateful for all of the reading apps on my phone.

I started reading these books because I've felt purposeless since finishing my PhD in 2015.  I've lost a lot of direction and momentum. Graduate school and the traditional professor track had provided a ready-made blueprint for where I thought I wanted to go in life. I had prefabricated five year plans that included a publishing schedule and future research projects. When I stepped off that track, I felt like the floor had fallen out from under me and I was left running on thin air like Wily Coyote before free falling into nihilistic nothingness. (As I've said before, leaving academia feels like the worst breakup in the history of everything.) Without clear next steps, I charged in random directions without any real ideas of what I wanted to do in life. I couldn't see the future without my academic research or a university job. I was desperate to figure out a new direction, but didn't know how to get started. I had a serious life problem that I needed to solve.

I put my PhD problem solving skills to work to figure out what to do about my current doldrums.  I read a lot of books, thought about them, and wrote some stuff. My living room this week is covered with sheets of paper with endless lists: personal values, things I liked to do as a kid, what I like to do now, what I want to be when I grow up, accomplishments I'm proud of, how I want to make an impact in the world, strengths, marketable skills, visions, knows, unknowns, can't knows, want to knows, preferences, likes, dislikes, my Myers-Briggs type indicator (INFP), and assorted self-assessments. If knowledge really is power, then surely self-knowledge is self-power.

I started reading Angela Duckworth's Grit this week and thinking about how it pertains to the post-PhD life. Duckworth argues that grit, the combination of passion and perseverance, predict success to a much greater degree than talent. There's quite a bit of public and academic debate over the merit of the central premise of Grit, some of which you can read here, here, and here. (But seriously, it's kind of cool that some social science research has entered into public debate and conscious.) Regardless of whether talent or grit predicts success (or maybe it's like so much humanities research and more complicated than we previously thought?), I found some of Duckworth's ideas useful for thinking about my current situation.

Even as I found myself nodding in agreement over certain parts of the book, I felt a creeping sense of shame. Although Duckworth identifies PhD people as pretty gritty (you kind of have to be to do a PhD), I wondered how grit applied to the people who decided to leave academia. After all, hadn't I given up on the academic job market and dreams of a tenure-track job? I gave up and gave in when things got tough. I quit. If anything, my experiences on the academic job market showed how little grit I had. I felt like the least gritty person ever. I should have tried harder, I thought and blamed myself accordingly.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that reading my personal PhD story as one of failure and as evidence of a lack of grit was only one possible interpretation.

I went back to the zillions of lists that I'd made, searching for a common theme and purpose. After re-reading all of the lists, I asked myself what the biggest purpose for my life was that I could imagine. The answer came without any thought. It dawned on me so naturally that it felt like breathing.

My life purpose is helping other people understand the world better.

When I think back on everything I've done in my life or wanted to do, everything always hinges on helping other people understand the world better. My academic research. My writing. My teaching. My Peace Corps service. My blog. Even my photography aims to help people see the world in a slightly different way, often using unusual angles to challenge perspective.

Another way to think about my post-PhD story is this: much as I said last week, that graduate school is only a means to an end, so too is the professoriate. Academia is really just ONE possible way to help other people understand the world better. Other ways of reaching my overarching goal of helping other people understand the world better. I know this because I made lists about it. To paraphrase Angela Duckworth, sometimes we have to give up on lower level goals because they are untenable, but this doesn't mean that we have to give up on the bigger, overriding life-level goals.

I may have left the professoriate, but truthfully, its just a means to an end, not an end unto itself. For me, the tenure-track was only one way that I could have achieved my big life goal.  Academia was a mid-level goal in the pursuit of something bigger. It's okay to give up on the idea of the tenure-track academic job, as long as I'm focused on my bigger life compass goal.

And I have to say that in terms of helping other people understand the world better, I'm actually pretty good at it. History is the main vehicle that helps me to do this, but even history isn't the only way to get to where I want to go. So now I get to figure out some new lower level goals that are going to help me get to my bigger life goal.

In other words, I need to make another set of lists. Possibility abounds. :)