Prosper with a Peruvian

January 12, 2001

Fancy putting your specialist knowledge to more profitable use? Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius's study of US academics who have established new careers shows that the leap from campus to commerce is worth taking.

Professors often say that the best teachers learn from their pupils. But how many faculty members are launched into lucrative new careers by their students?

Jorge Pedraza, a professor of European literary studies, got just such a surprise when he left his job as a professor at Williams College, Massachusetts. He had sublet part of his house to some recent Williams graduates who were trying to start a web company. "I watched in disbelief as these kids hired employees, got venture capital funding and literally started a business in my living room." Working for "lunch money", Pedraza joined his students in starting Tripod, an internet company that allows members to build their own home pages. Lycos bought Tripod for $60 million in 1997. Pedraza has since moved on to become a vice-president of web design firm Concrete Media.

Pedraza is one of many remarkable people we met in the course of researching our book, a guide for academics looking to change careers. Over two years, we interviewed hundreds of former graduate students and professors in the United States. We asked them how and why they decided to leave academia, what career choices they had made, what differences they saw between their old and new careers, and whether they ever wished they had stayed in academia.

Their stories provide surprising anecdotal evidence about the little studied, little discussed fate of the "former academic". And we are pleased to say that the news is good. Our most unexpected discovery was that few scholars completely abandon their academic interests when they choose a new career. Rather, they find creative ways to continue a trajectory that started long before graduate school. Instead of making a U-turn in the middle of their lives, many former academics follow up a lifelong interest or a half-forgotten talent by travelling a parallel path towards an equally fulfilling destination. We coined the phrase "post-academic" to describe former graduate students and professors.

Sometimes the thematic link between a person's academic and post-academic careers is clear, as in the case of John Rumm, who earned a PhD in history before joining History Associates, a firm that conducts archival research. Similarly, Lynn Davey continued her interest in early childhood development when she left a tenured position as a psychology professor to conduct an annual children's health survey for the Maine Children's Alliance.

Other interviewees told us about career paths full of surprising twists and turns. For example, Stacey Rees went from writing a dissertation about maternal images in medieval French literature to midwifery. The skills she learnt in graduate school have proven invaluable in her new career.

"Midwifery demands that you continually update your skills. You must be able to comfortably consult, weigh and evaluate research. Graduate school made me comfortable with taking on the experts, so to speak."

Another remarkable post-academic detour resulted in the transformation of a Renaissance poetry scholar into a private eye. Michelle Squiteri found that being an investigator required the same research and writing skills she had used as a graduate student, but her new career allowed her to set her own hours and earn enough to spend summers teaching literature in France, just for the pleasure of it.

According to a 1981 study of humanities PhDs conducted by Ernest R. May and Dorothy G. Blaney, these stories of post-academic success are the norm rather than the exception. Their research shows that humanities PhDs employed outside academia report higher job satisfaction than PhDs working inside it. Our anecdotal evidence confirms that finding. No one we interviewed regretted leaving academia. While some acknowledged missing certain aspects of academic life, they found compensatory virtues in their post-academic careers. A few who loved teaching told us that they would consider returning to some kind of college-level teaching again in the future, but only on their own terms - as one option among many others.

Graduate students and professors who are struggling with the often painful decision of whether to leave academia, either because of the state of the job market or because of the need to try something new, can learn much from those who have boldly gone before them. Here is some of the wisdom that our interviewees shared with us:

  • Experiment: whether you are a graduate student with a summer off or a tenured professor considering a change, try another job for a while. Taking a summer position at your favourite non-profit organisation or writing some freelance magazine articles does not mean you have to turn your back on academia. It will help you know yourself better.n Value what you have: do not discount anything that you enjoy; that is the field in which you will be most successful. If you are passionate about a subject, figure out how to make it your full-time job. But, you say, you are most passionate about your academic field. There is more than one way to devote yourself to a subject. For example, Annie Hurlbut loved doing fieldwork in Peru for her PhD in anthropology. When friends and family admired the textiles she brought home, she realised that she could improve the lives of Peruvian knitters by paying them above-market wages and selling their goods in the US. She left her graduate programme to launch Peruvian Connections, now a thriving catalogue and online sales business. "Follow what interests and what fascinates you," Hurlbut advises. "The energy from doing that is the fuel that you will need to succeed at whatever you've chosen."
  • Develop a network: most graduate students are used to doing their research in a lab or library, but job-hunting requires that you actually pick up the phone and talk to people. Come up with a few fields that sound interesting and look for people who work in those areas. Ask career services if they can give you the names and contact details of people in your fields of interest. Ask your friends, roommates, cousins or neighbours if they know anyone in these fields. Believe it or not, one of our interviewees found her dentist to be invaluable in helping her land the job of her choice.
  • Do not be afraid to start at the bottom: Tony Russo, a psychology PhD who founded a biotech public relations firm, warns applicants that "if they want to switch careers, they have to pay their dues". This is exactly what he did when he took his first job on Wall Street. Do not be afraid to take an entry level job because you feel overqualified. The good news is that you can move up quickly with a string of successes. Russo adds: "We've promoted people within six weeks."
  • Keep looking until you find your eclectic mix: your first job outside academia may not be - in fact, probably will not be - ideal. Do not give up; there is a world of possibilities out there. If you find there are things you really miss about academic life, try to recapture them. For many of our interviewees, this meant adjusting their schedules to take part-time teaching jobs so they could stay in touch with the classroom. For others it meant carving out time to write and research.
  • Finally, as you try to determine the right path for yourself, remember that all of the career changes we have described happened gradually and involved an element of serendipity. Do not feel that you must reinvent yourself overnight; we do not advocate radical changes. We advise dipping a toe in the post-academic waters to start, perhaps with a summer job. In the words of a former English professor, who described her decision to become a computer company executive, the process of changing careers is "more of an evolution than a revolution".

Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius hold PhDs in English literature from Princeton University. Their book, So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide to Career-Changing for MAs and PhDs , is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, £8.68.

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