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From PhD to Life

Transition update: Kelly J. Baker and Joseph Fruscione


Joseph Fruscione (PhD, English) contributed to the Transition Q & A series in December 2013 and August 2015. You can read his interviews here and here. After 15 years teaching literature and first-year writing in the Washington, DC, area, he left academia in 2014 for a career as a freelance editor and post-ac consultant. He cofounded the nonprofit PrecariCorps in 2015 to support adjunct faculty financially and professionally. His full-time job is being a stay-at-home dad to a 15 month-old toddler. Find him online as the Consulting Editor and follow him @ProfessorEx74.

Kelly J. Baker (PhD, religious studies) also contributed to the Q&A series, in October 2014. Three and almost a half years ago, she quit her job as a lecturer and moved back to Florida. She’s now the editor of Women in Higher Education and still a freelance writer with recent bylines at Chronicle Vitae, Sacred Matters, Killing the Buddha, and The New York Times. When she’s not wrangling an eight-year old and a three-year old, she’s writing and editing. Find her online at Cold Takes and follow her @kelly_j_baker.

When Jennifer asked if we would like to update our previous Q&As, Joe and I pitched a conversation about how our lives have changed in the years since we both left academia (but remain adjacent to it), especially about how we now balance freelancing, parenting, and academic work. We want to describe what our lives look like right now as well as offer up suggestions to folks who are thinking about transitioning out of academia.

What’s changed the most about your professional life since leaving?

Joe: It’s been a fun, enlightening, and eventful 2-plus years for me. After working exclusively as a freelance editor and post-ac consultant for little over a year, I became a parent in September 2015. My wife works full-time, and I’m at home with our son. As the lead parent, I juggle my father and editor roles every day, every hour. Since I work from home, I regularly switch gears from parenting to work and back…sometimes in a span of a few minutes.

I know we’ve (Kelly and I) both learned a lot about ourselves since leaving academia. I’ve impressed myself with how I’ve learned to network, negotiate pay and other working conditions, and help create an online community for “post-academics” (post-acs) and “alternative-academics” (alt-acs), as well as adjuncts. As a freelance editor, I’ve become a good educated nonspecialist reader for manuscripts outside my academic area. I was hired for a few projects expressly because I wasn’t an expert: the writer wanted an objective look at grammar, structure, and clarity. This has been one of the most welcome changes because I’m not pigeonholed into one field or subfield. Training in literary studies has helped me develop different reading and editing skills to work on novels, a memoir, and scholarly books on diverse subjects. Being an editor, in part, means being a careful reader.

I know you’ve learned a lot too Kelly, and I’ve seen you support a lot of people online. What’s changed the most about your professional life since leaving? Brag a little….

Kelly: What’s changed the most is that I used to imagine that my work life was somehow separate from my home life. I got in my car, drove to the university, dropped my things in my office, and headed to a variety of different classrooms to teach. Work happened at the university, and I tried hard to not to take it home.

Now, there’s no separation at all. My office is my home. I can see at least three toys that the three-year-old brought into my office (a front room with a desk and, currently, also a Christmas tree). I write and edit with children in close proximity (though my oldest is in second grade and the youngest is now at preschool, which makes my writing and editing life much easier). I work around their schedules, a serious benefit of the freelance life, but they also have had to get used to life when mom is on a deadline.

What I’ve learned in the past three years is that my PhD training (the ability to research, write, analyze, and critique) gave me the foundation to build a career that works with the life of my family. I started as a part-time writer, writing during naptime and the short hours my oldest was at preschool, and moved onto almost full-time writing and editing. The hardest part was convincing myself that I could imagine a career outside of academia and acting to build that new career. I wanted to be a writer, so I started writing, no matter how terrifying it was to begin with.

I finally realized that trying and failing is better than not trying at all. I’ve learned more from the failures, big and small, than I have from my successes. Failing doesn’t mean I’m a failure (contrary to academic expectations). Failing means I tried.

More so, I’ve learned not to limit myself. Being a specialist shouldn’t limit you to your area of expertise because you can take the skills (research, analysis, critical thinking from PhD work) and apply to new topics of interest.

Much of my confidence to reimagine career came from interacting and supporting other folks moving out of academia via Twitter mostly. I could see other alt-ac folks building new careers and know that if it was possible for them, it was possible for me. Being kind and decent to other people online was my way of building networks of support, without really recognizing that I was networking. What I didn’t realize was that being visible online would lead to so many opportunities.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Joe: I’ve developed the professional confidence to say “no” to work for unacceptable or unrealistic pay. When considering a job and creating a fee estimate, I always have to account for how I’ll balance the editing work with my daily parenting.

I preach NO FREE LABOR to other freelancers and new alt- or post-acs all the time. It’s tough because many of us adjuncts want(ed) to be team players, impress full-time faculty, and boost our CVs, so it was/is hard to say no. In hindsight, I should’ve said no many times and prioritized my own needs instead of holding out hope that adding service or a book review would get me in the door. Saying no to free labor should be the rule, not the exception.

I’ve walked away — enthusiastically and unregrettably — from a few opportunities in ways I never would have when I was an adjunct desperate for a full-time position. Does that make sense?

Kelly: Oh, it is so hard to say “no” to opportunities, even those that don’t pay. When I first started freelancing, I was incapable of saying no because I felt this almost-desperate need to show everyone that I was working, even though I wasn’t in academia. I took on gigs because I thought I was supposed to take any gig that an editor offered me. I ended up writing about things that didn’t necessarily interest me, which took time away from all of the writing about higher education that I cared about. Now, I’m much more selective about what articles, essays, speaking engagements, and editing projects I take on, even if they pay.

I still write for free for two publications that I love to read and write for, but I don’t give my labor away for free anymore. I don’t work on spec (writing for no pay on the hope that a publication might publish your finished piece). My time and expertise have value, so I should be paid for it. This is an especially hard lesson for current and former academics to learn. I have my own projects that I would rather spend my time on, even though I have a hard time convincing myself to do that work.

Let’s talk a bit about what are day-to-day schedules look like.

How do you do your work?

Joe: Flexibly — and around my son’s schedule. I’ve had to learn to work in short, unpredictable segments when he’s sleeping. He’s on his own sleep schedule, so work time is unpredictable. I chip away at everything: editing or writing projects, my work with PrecariCorps, networking and outreach, and then laundry, emptying the dishwasher, and other household tasks.

Like yours, my office doubles as a toddler play area: books, folders, toy trucks and puzzles, and so on. I’ve edited, emailed, and Skyped with my son in the room — or on my lap. When an idea or phrase has popped into my head, I’ve written in mobile apps so I didn’t lose it. I’ve done phone interviews with reporters about adjunct issues while holding him. Sometimes multitasking is the only way to do what I need to do. Sometimes, of course, I have to prioritize a teething or clingy toddler over new clients or connections, so the multitasking gets put on hold.

Kelly: So, most days I feel like the queen of multitasking. I have multiple running calendars in my head every day: Women in Higher Ed’s publication schedule, my writing assignments, and the Baker family calendar. At any given point, I can tell you what’s due when and who needs to go to what activity/meeting. It’s the worst superpower ever. Sometimes, the calendar runs smoothly, and then, other times, I’m doing a Skype with a class while the three-year-old feels the need to introduce himself. In some ways, my life is easier now that my kiddos are older because they let me work in fits and starts, but I still find myself on the phone answering email or responding to tweets or trying to schedule something while children yell for snacks in the background.

Joe: Yes, snacks. Cheerios, yogurt drops, animal crackers, and other finger foods have saved the day when I’ve had a little video-bomber for a Skype. Whatever works sometimes, you know?

Kelly: I do.

What kind of advice did you receive about planning your career?

Joe: I don’t know about you, but I got almost no professional advice or formal mentoring when I was in grad school. My professors were very friendly and supportive, mind you. There just wasn’t career training or guidance. The most official instruction was how to write, deliver, and respond to a conference talk. I got some hallway advice about CVs, cover letters, and job ads. It was well intentioned but effectively useless: “Your cover letter should be two pages max,” “Make sure you talk about your teaching, research, and service,” or “Echo the language of the job ad.” That kind of thing. It was…not helpful.

Kelly: I received a little advice about how to apply for academic jobs, but even that was vague and not particularly helpful. Mostly, I received some version of “You’re awesome. Don’t worry,” which was terrible advice. Of course, I should have worried because being awesome didn’t matter when the humanities job market tanked.

Joe: I got a lot of that, too. I would’ve rather heard how to get the job, not just that some department would be lucky to hire me some day.

What advice would you have for folks who are considering leaving academia now?

Joe: I have so much I want to say to current adjuncts, postdocs, and PhD students. I shared some thoughts at Beyond the Professoriate last May, and I tweet about this whenever I can. I know you do too. They need the advice their faculty mentors either can’t or won’t give them.

Start creating an exit strategy now. As in today. The longer you’re in a contingent position, the longer you’ll be in a contingent position. Academia punishes experience, as Maren Wood’s research has just shown. Don’t fall for “We expect some full-time lines to open soon and you’d be great for one….” or “We hope to give you a more stable position down the road….” These are carrots on sticks. I reached for them a few times. Then I saw those positions go to better pedigreed candidates. Back to square one.

Kelly: First, figure out what your skills and talents are. You can do a self-assessment, but also I would encourage you to get folks you trust to help with the assessment. They might notice skills that you don’t realize are skills. A friend of mine tried to get me to change my career to writing years ago because he saw a skill that I didn’t even really know was a skill. Also, academics tend to think of ourselves as specialists in particular fields and subfields, but don’t let your specialization limit your ability to take on new skills or to find new areas of expertise. Our skills from PhD training are transferable to new topics of interest.

Joe: Absolutely. We’ve drawn on our skills and knowledge as writers and teachers in unexpected ways.

Kelly: Second, create a web presence for yourself. Set up a webpage that explains who you are and what kind of work you do. It is so easy to create a simple and beautiful site now with Squarespace or WordPress, and then, people can find you. I have people reach out to me all the time because they found my webpage.

Third, join Twitter right now. I’ve made wonderful friends on Twitter and found so much support for my transition out of academia into a new career. But also, Twitter lets me showcase my skills online, so I’ve actually found my way into writing gigs and speaking engagements because of my Twitter feed.

Joe: Yes to Twitter. I can’t second this enough. Conversations, connections, collaborations — they all happen every day. Twitter is invaluable to my professional life. I’ve gotten several jobs and almost countless contacts there, as well as a writing partner for a new creative project. Always Be Connecting: use Twitter to check in with colleagues, find new ones, or refresh your network. Learn from people who are doing what you want to do. Talk with friends or family who’ve worked outside academia. Follow hashtags, engage, or listen and learn. I’ve learned a ton about editing just by listening to folks who’ve edited much longer than I have. Our online lives are richer because of this.

Kelly: Yes, connecting with people established in a career that you are considering is very helpful.

What should folks look out for?

Joe: Be wary of taking advice from someone who’s had a TT position for five to ten-plus years. They could be trying to help, but it was a different market when they were in it. Their advice could be useless at best, or harmful at worst. Talk to people trying to navigate the market we have, not what others had a decade or more ago. Twitter will help you create your exit strategy. You can get great guidance on transitioning, freelancing, identifying and marketing your skills, and finding work. See if you can get some informational interviews with people doing the work you’re interested in.

Twitter’s been great in creating an adjunct network, too. I can’t stress this enough, though: the farther you are from your PhD date, the less likely you’ll be hired for a full-time academic position. It makes no sense and is probably discriminatory, but it’s true. PhDs have expiration dates. If you’ve been stuck in the adjunct or postdoc loop for years, it’s probably time to look for a way out.

There’s a big emotional element to leaving academia. Don’t feel ashamed about leaving, especially if mentors or other colleagues guilt trip you about it. Anyone worth your time and energy will encourage your new career path — and perhaps help you make connections and find clients. I’ve heard of some post- or alt-acs being shunned by faculty. Good riddance. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your new career. I’ve been lucky in this regard, although I’ve had a few awkward conversations with faculty and a dean about my career change. What about you?

Kelly: I discovered that caring a lot less about what other people, especially faculty who gawked and mocked my choices, helps me care a lot more about the people who matter the most think. Academia is only one way to organize a career and a life. Focusing on building the life I wanted to have, no matter the career, was an important first step in re-evaluating my life beyond academia. Build a life however you need to, inside or outside of academia.

Trust us: there’s hope if you leave academia. If you haven’t already done so, find us on Twitter: @kelly_j_baker and @ProfessorEx74. If, like us, you’re juggling a career, academic life, and parenting, this piece hopefully resonated with you. And if, like us, you have a lot to learn or say about career transitioning, join the growing online community of alt-acs (#altac) and “post-academics” (#postac).

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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