How To Fake Your Way Through Life: Non-Academic Job


Most of you, young PhDs, will not be able to secure gainful full-time academic (i.e. teaching college or university) employment and, sooner or later, you will be forced to consider and then accept full-time non-academic employment. While others will tell you all about what “alternative career” you should pursue, I will take your time and tell you how to get through it once you are there since I have some experience. Enjoy!

1) Your students will now be your colleagues (most likely your superiors).  

Sad but true. Those hapless, absent-minded, barely there, easily distracted, texting creatures that do not read books, do not answer your simple questions, write horrible papers, are rude in their emails, and all those other amazing things you hate about contemporary college kids, these students of yours will graduate and go into the workplace where they will do the same stuff they are doing now, only for money. They will quickly adopt to the workplace, and those who are not immediately fired, will succeed in understanding what it is they are doing at the said workplace and become mid-level managers by the time your sorry person realizes that there is no job for you in academia. They will be in their late twenties, having been through several workplaces by the time you encounter them. They will have gained some experience, learned some lingo, figured out how to survive. But do not be fooled, deep down they are still your very familiar college kids. They still do not think for themselves, do not know how to compose a simple email, do not read books, do not concern themselves with life or future. Sure, there are exceptions. But those exceptions are clearly visible against the background of general mediocrity.

If during the semester you can look forward to that fateful day when you give them their Cs and Ds and never see them again, then during your work life you will not have this timeline to give you hope. But do not despair, this is only the sort of thing that everyone encounters at their jobs, i.e. other people. Here is what you do:

a) Find the smart ones – there are a few since someone has to run the place, and it’s sure not the mediocre ones (unless it’s a start up and everyone is a former frat boy – in this case, run!), so you can probably find someone who understands what is going on – learn from them. They will be younger than you, but they will know more about the job. They don’t give a shit that you have a PhD (and you should stop giving a shit too – it’s tough but you can do it).

b) Understand your job – it shouldn’t be that hard, you managed to get through graduate school. Unlike most of the “advisers” I will tell you that graduate school does not prepare you for the workplace (either in academia or outside). You are spoiled (and in some sense also ruined), you cannot adjust to anything short of “life of contemplation” – but at least understand the job you are going to hate for a very long time. You owe this to yourself.

c) Find that deeply repressed emotion called “kindness to people” and try your hand at it. Think of it this way – these people you have learned to dismiss as “idiots” are just as confused about everything around them as you are but have no hope of ever having the fog clear, be kind to them, help them, teach them – you did that while in your temporary “academic” career as a TA or adjunct, you can do it here as well.

2) Your bosses will try their hand at “theory,” fail miserably (to your ultimate enjoyment and sadness).

The most strange thing that you will discover about the general state of “theory” at your new workplace is that everyone is horrible at it but does not think that they are. They will read books about “horizontal organization” or some random nonsense like that. Don’t read those books, they will kill your brain and they are full of trivialities and anecdotes (no one explained to the authors that you cannot make a case for an abstract theoretical principle based on a story). Here is how you deal with this (mostly unwanted, trust me) appearance of theoretical discussions at your workplace:

a) Do not engage your superiors in intellectual discussions – they don’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs. You can easily learn their language but it means very little in terms of actual theoretical substance. Nod politely and learn the vocabulary – it will be useful to use some of the terms/ideas later to show you are in the “in-group” and are to be trusted. Basically do the same things you did in your first “Postmodernism 101” or your first “Derrida 101” class – pretend like you know what is going on and you’ll be just fine.

b) Don’t ignore corporate memos and updates – all the important company changes are coded in those messages. Learn to decipher them before everyone else and you’ll be on top of things. Assume they mean something because unlike vague and useless academic memos, these contain some attempt to figure out how to run the company better and make more money, i.e. these have some effect in “real life.”

c) Enjoy the intellectual shortcomings of others (and mourn the state of civilization) in the privacy of your cubicle/office. Do not bring it up – you will come across as an arrogant dick that you basically are. No matter what new corporate message you receive, learn the language, it’s not that hard. Remember, the bottom line is always efficiency (larger profit margins, lower costs) – the rest is bullshit.

3) You will be confused and disoriented for some time, but then you will “get it” and the proverbial Bob will be your uncle.

No one likes to change jobs, but most of your colleagues will never have had the experience of changing careers. Most will think you wasted 10 years of your life instead of getting ahead and making money. Don’t try to win them over, don’t explain your decision to go to graduate school. Keep your head down and learn to adopt – it’s easier with every passing week and month. Then you’ll be where everyone else is – hating your job most of the days, but also liking it more than you hate it. Yes, it’s sad that such things must be said to an entire segment of population that will only experience their first real job in their late 20s or early 30s but it must be said nonetheless – most people don’t care for their jobs, but they do it anyway.

a) I know you think this is a tragedy that you cannot spend your time reading the books you like and writing obscure texts that no one will read, but this is the reality of life for most people around you. Unless you win the lottery or you are already rich, you’ll just have to get used to this and be fine. Stop being so dramatic about it, it’s not the end of the world.

b) The higher up the work ladder you get the more freedom to organize your time you will have. Yes, you will have more responsibility but you will also do less repetitive stupid work, and your work might actually benefit from your intellectual input. Unlike academia, most of the workplaces are built around meritocracy – show yourself capable of “smarter” positions and you will get them.

c) Get a hobby – or better yet, convert your former academic interest into a hobby. And if it is impossible, then think about how stupid your former academic interest actually is – if you wouldn’t do it in your free time, why did you think anyone would want to pay you to do it?

4) You will make more money than you will know what to do with (no, you will not be rich, but you will have decent income in comparison with your current life of poverty and privation).

This is a fairly simple point – even entry-level non-academic jobs will pay better than your part-time teaching or whatever other crap jobs you had during your graduate school. Do you know why? Because most people go to work to make money, so if they don’t make enough, they leave and go somewhere else. Here’s your plan of action:

a) Pay off your credit cards (especially ones with higher rates).

b) Get on income-based repayment plan so that your student loan payments are adjusted.

c) Buy some boring outfits for work so that you can look your part in a shirt and some decent pants – no one care for your collection of t-shirts with quotes from Nietzsche on them.

5) You will still do academic work (read, write, publish) but eventually you will do it without any hope of somehow securing academic employment – you will let go of the dream.

Stop thinking of this as a temporary solution (unless, of course, everything is temporary and then you die at the end). See the part about hobby above. Read and write in your spare time. Publish if it makes you feel good about yourself.

a) Since you will not have much time left, you will tend to concentrate only on the most interesting parts of your newly rebranded “research hobby” – so you won’t have to read and write about the most recent academic fads like all the other losers.

b) Don’t dream of future academic jobs, do not keep updating letters of recommendation, do not check job postings. You are a new person now – embrace your new self or die. If you are not ready to enter the adult world of non-academic employment, do not.

c) If you feel like it, do continue to teach a class here and there. Now that you have a normal life and you don’t have to worry about your future (and your bills) you might actually enjoy it.

10 thoughts on “How To Fake Your Way Through Life: Non-Academic Job

  1. I don’t know if this post is depressing or enlightening. I guess sometimes there’s not a lot of options. I don’t know, I think I might rather choose option C and engage in substance abuse and call it a life.

  2. Excellent and relevant! Plus – don’t mention to your corpo fellows that you’ve got background in Philosophy. I’ve heard responses like: “I don’t even know what that is!” or “oh, then tell me about the origins of the universe”, or you will just get a condescending smile bursting with disrespect to your failed past. It’s painful to get one of those lines from folks who did degree in Marketing or some Media Studies and the best they ever read was Introduction to Management Consulting or some self-help book. Not to mention novels, an unknown luxury. You might get Paulo Coelho at best or some cheap criminal.

    • You can mention you have a Philosophy degree later when your self-esteem is better and when you discovered that people who are smirking at you are idiots anyway. But then again, it of course all depends on how you want to position yourself…

      • Certainly, positioning oneself as a sage is bound to lead to disaster, and barely mentioning Philosophy degree is often interpreted as an attempt to do that. Nobody of your bubbly colleagues likes a smart-ass with Philosophy degree. Play it cool, keep your head low and blend in – that’s the optimal strategy to survive in corporate environment (at least for sub director positions). Worked for me, and after some time you know people enough to tell what you can share with them. It’s like picking out your allies from the crowd.

      • Ah and one more thing, a clarification – saying “failed past” I meant perception of others of your past. By no means I consider the time spent studying Philosophy wasted.

  3. Pingback: JM Coetzee: Universities head for extinction | Urban Choreography

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