Just Tell Them You Can Do It.
Saturday night, BB and I went out to dinner with a person I work with and his wife. We went to a cozy little French restaurant and really enjoyed it. I had the venison. It was a good decision. The four of us enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation over three hours.
BB and I both have lots of friends who are academics, and we enjoy them. But it was enlightening to talk to friends who have other ambitions. Both of them trained as artists. He’s a photographer, she’s in textiles. They met at some ultra-fancy art school in Michigan. She is still doing artistic work, but commercially, designing prints. He works as a business manager at MECMC.
We asked how he got into healthcare. He was young and becoming very successful as an artist when the recession hit back in 2008. He decided that the state of the economy was going to require that he had professional training, not just artistic training. So he went back and got an MBA while teaching photography.
Once he had the degree, he talked an administrator at a local hospital into letting him have a short-term internship helping that hospital out of a financial jam. From there, he was able to apply for mid-level administration positions at MECMC and landed one. In his (paraphrased) words, “I had no idea what I was doing. I just said I could do it and figured it out along the way.”
That deeply echoes my own experience and strategy. My doctoral training, the coursework, was totally unrelated to my research, or to what I am doing now. When I have applied to positions, I’ve simply decided that I can learn what I need to know as I go along. Of course, I’m generally bringing some skill set that they want, I’m not making things up from whole cloth, but it’s always stretching.
Right now, BB is writing a series on searching out different paths after academic training (Start here). I find it fascinating how disciplined and systematic her approach was. Our friend and I seem to have taken a far looser path to finding things. But common to both approaches is the reliance on networks, and the willingness to embrace frightening change and take on unknown tasks.
I’ve had a number of conversations with academics who are finishing a postdoc or approaching a tenure decision and who are terrified about the next step. People who’ve told me that there’s no way they could leave academia because they don’t know how to do anything else. Or that they’re not trained for anything else. Or that they have no experience at anything else. And then that the academic job market is so nebulous and depressing that the only appropriate response is despair.
I don’t believe any of that. I mean, obviously, I accept how people feel, and people always have the right to their own experiences. But I believe that academic training provides us with far more that many academics realize. It provides us with a resourcefulness, a means of investigating the world. And resilience in the face of adversity. Academic training, in any discipline, is hard. Succeeding at it should show us – all of us – that we can take on unknown challenges and risks and prevail.
Academic training in the sciences provides us with specific skills relevant to many different careers. Maybe not jigsaw-piece suited to every different path we could take, but useful and appropriate. We can be more than only professors. Hell: even becoming a professor requires us to take on tasks we’re not trained for. No one teaches us to teach classes or budget grants or manage employees. But professors usually do all those things.
We are more adaptable, more agile, than we think we are. Honestly, I think some of the reason that academics think they can’t do industry is that they’re just hung up on their objections to a commute and a set schedule. Or I hear people talk about how deadening “industry” is because there’s “no intellectual freedom”. These statements are invariably made by people who have never held industry jobs.
So, if you’re an academic who is fearful of finding your place as a professor, know this: there are many places you can land. Your situation is not remarkable in this world. All of us have to make frightening changes, and we do it, and succeed at it, all the time. Your options are not limited to “professor” and “fry cook”.
I really believe that for the great majority of us, if we fail, it is because we decided to fail. Because the difference between failure and success is often simply attitude. I could look at my job and call myself a failure because I have to be at work at 8am and stay until 4pm and work on projects that are not exclusively of my own choosing. Or I can look at my career and see that I’m a success because I’m gainfully employed at something I’m good at, and I contribute.
And you know what? I’d have the same choice of outlooks if I were a fry cook.