Friday, June 18, 2010

Let's talk Plan B

The last post was yet another reiteration of that old song, "How bad things are on the academic job market." It's a catchy tune, and I sing along, but: Am I the only one who's getting a little tired of it?

One of the oft-repeated verses is: "Have a Plan B." At the beginning of my last year in grad school, I rather belatedly started thinking about this. But unlike friends who studied, say, modern China, my skill set as a medievalist was a bit more limited. How many jobs ask for a working knowledge of Latin? The only things I could come up with that wouldn't require yet another degree were other options in the field of teaching. As I put together application packets for tenure-track jobs, I also researched a few high-end private high schools and kept an eye on the hiring cycle at community colleges. I also began to think about ways I could use my research or writing skills in some area outside of higher education -- technical writing, perhaps? In a pinch, I reminded myself that anyone who had experience operating an industrial dishwasher (I do) would never starve.** But as a plan B, it wasn't such of a much, and my main method for keeping the panic down was to block out what I knew about my debt and say to myself, "For eight years, you have had the privilege of doing what you love. Most people never get that. So whatever you do from here, you're okay."

Fortunately I landed a tenure-track job, so I never had to find out. But luck played a huge role in that, and I know that I didn't think seriously enough about Plan B. And who would I have talked to about it? The sometimes cultish culture of academia discourages grad students from talking with their professors about possibilities beyond the tenure track, for fear that those professors will stop taking them seriously. Market-bound students may hesitate to bring up with each other the possibility of not getting a tenure-track job for fear that speaking it aloud might jinx them, or at least bring down the already shaky morale among their cohort. But it's hard to seriously think about it if we don't talk about it. So why not let's us talk about it right now? Especially if you're in the Humanities, where it's not always easy to imagine our skills as transferable, except in the abstract. What were/are your plans B?


**Maybe not as true today as it was in 2002.

15 comments:

Seamyst said...

I'm living my Plan B, actually. During my master's I had a graduate assistantship with my university's research corporation (aka sponsored programs - basically we handle all the non-donation money coming in from outside sources). I became disillusioned about history as a field and was enjoying my assistantship, so... I'm now working as the grants assistant and starting to get some experience.

I still might go for my PhD at some point, but I'm happy where I am.

Anonymous said...

I have a master's in a professional field (public history/museum studies/archives) and several years of experience in the field (working in a college-based museum/archives). During the time I worked in the field, I worked on my PhD in history. For the past two years, I've taught this professional subject in a major university (non-tenure track). Now that I've finished the PhD, the position will most likely become TT. (The paperwork is working its way through the system.) At this point, I don’t plan to seek a teaching position in history even if my current position does not become TT. I’m happy with my university and my department, my salary, and my location so why change. (And for personal reasons, I really do not want to move out of this general area.)

I'm lucky. I never really thought about a Plan B. However, I did not set out to teach either. I really wanted the PhD for my own personal reasons and really had planned to continue to work in the professional field. During the time I worked in the field and worked on my PhD, I published a book (an edited collection of documents) and taught in the college's history department. I had some things happen along the way -- good and bad -- that made me realize that I wanted to teach and that I did not want to be an administrator. In another lucky move, a nearby university with a program in my professional field was recruiting for a full-time lecturer. I applied and I was offered the position.

It may have been pure luck, but I think networking helped a lot, especially networking among the historians and professionals in my area. That helped me land the teaching position I have. Also, looking for and being open to opportunities. The book project ended up creating a number of additional opportunities that I had not expected.

I feel very fortunate. I may have a smaller house and I will probably work until I die since I started doctoral studies in my forties, but I’m happy with my choice.

Dr. Crazy said...

It's funny - I *never* considered teaching outside of higher ed as my plan b, but I did have a range of plan b options in mind throughout graduate school.

1. During my PhD program I spent a year (or two? It all runs together) working ~20 hrs/week coordinating a continuing ed program. In that job, I wrote and designed the catalog and promotional materials, advised students, and did general administrative work. I did this because I figured that it would give me experience that would allow me to sell myself for staff jobs in academic advising centers and/or other sorts of program offices (first year programs, continuing education, etc.). So that was Plan B #1.

2. Plan B #2 (which would have gone into effect after three unsuccessful years on the market) was (although the plan was kind of hazy) to go to law school. During the final year of dissertating, I worked at the county courthouse in an admin. asst. role, and if I'd continued to work there they would have brought me on full time with great benefits (I started as a long-term temp). I didn't love the job, but part of the benefits package was a tuition benefit, and I knew that with my writing and administrative skills that I could move around within the county court system to build a career for myself, whether that meant practicing law or not ultimately.

Anyway, here's what I think about Plan Bs. I think it's a lot easier to have realistic ones if during graduate school one takes the opportunity to do jobs that are in some way related to potential plan Bs. In other words: temp in office settings rather than putting 4 adjuncting gigs together; if it's a choice between working 20 hrs. week in a restaurant or bar vs. working 20 hrs a week in some office on campus, choose the office on campus. I think the problem a lot of times with the Plan B advice is that people talk about it as just a rhetorical change from cv to resume. I don't think that's true - I think you have to have work experience that backs up the rhetorical shift. In other words, sure an English PhD can write and edit, but that doesn't mean that she has work experience that shows she can do what needs to be done in the workplace. It's that experience that gets you the job - not saying "Oh, I have strong writing and editing skills" - if that makes sense.

That said, what do I know? I went on the market ABD and got lucky and got a job that first time out.

clio's disciple said...

I wasn't quite able to settle on a plan B during the 6 years I worked as a contingent lecturer, or I probably would have executed it. I most often considered library school. Now I might explore going into horticulture--but that, as with all my considered plan Bs, would likely require a lot of retraining.

Chris said...

The PhD I'm feverishly working to complete now IS my Plan B after 14 years working in IT. However, in the two years between finishing my MA and starting my PhD, I earned a Master's degree in Library Science. The goal there, of course, is that if I can't find a tenure-track gig, I can fall back on work at an academic library. That's Plan C. Plan D is working for the Federal government...

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Obviously I'm another of those who didn't need to put a plan B into effect, but I had a few. One was becoming a professional baker (this was my favorite fantasy, anyway). More realistic ones required another degree/more training, like translator school or an accounting degree. I might have been able to work for one of my brothers, if I'd been able to stomach the close contact with family. I had a couple of useful modern languages and good math skills, so I figured I could probably find somewhere to use those. I knew I couldn't face law school, though. I'd rather clean houses for a living. Actually, that was another plan B: become a live-in housekeeper for one of my Bay Area techie friends (at least for a year or so) while I figured things out and/or kept trying the academic market.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

You guys are so creative. Seriously, I never even thought about most of this stuff. I *love* the idea of being a baker. God, wouldn't it be nice to see the fruits of your labors that very same day?

But this is a good point that several of you have brought up: a lot of Plan Bs require retraining, several more years of school -- and after 6-8 years of grad school, most of us just don't have the stomach for it.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

If I didn't secure a tenure-track position, I was gonna go back to supermodeling.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@CPP: Well, duh.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

The immediate results, indeed, formed much of the appeal of both baking and housekeeping. And who knows? maybe I would have made a good butler. All my nitpicky organizational skills could have been put to a different good use.

Marie said...

I'm also one of the lucky ones that didn't have to go to Plan B. But when I was on the market I started looking into how to transfer skills, and stumbled on to a new and very good website VersatilePhD.com which is a job resource (listings and chat) for recent PhDs looking to go outside academia.

My fantasy Plan B was to go back to school at Sotheby's and retrain in historic furniture appraisal.

My realistic Plan B was to continue to work as a nanny (which is how I paid my way through most of graduate school), and go into elementary education.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Don't hate me cause I'm beautiful.

Tigs said...

As a current grad student about to go onto the market (in a slightly more hospitable field than medieval history, I think, but not a ton), I have a hard time finding space in my mind/heart/soul to consider a Plan B seriously.

If I were to mention the possibility that I might just not spend several years on the market trying to eke out a decent job, I would indeed be shunned by my advisor, my peers, and my department. It is not a conversation that goes over well, even though, frankly, my university is not one with the sort of name that is in any way a sure thing into another academic job.

Seriously considering a Plan B would take away time from my dissertation, articles, the billion components of a job application (every time I turn around, there's another component-- a teaching philosophy and a teaching portfolio? for a research postdoc? really?), and the minutes left over for having a conversation with my husband before I pass out.

Figuring out a Plan B is my real Plan B.


**That being said, my fantasy Plan B is to sail rich people's boats from port to port, and my slightly more realistic but verrryyy sketchy Plan B would be work in the state or federal gov't.

Susan said...

My plan B -- which my adviser asked me about the first day I met him -- was to work in a bookstore/cafe. Somewhat fantasy-ish. There was also stuff in things like shelters for abused women that intrigued me too.

And I knew I could always work as a secretary/ admin assistant. I did temp work in grad school at times.

tenthmedieval said...

I have been living my Plan B for some years now, working in a museum doing collections documentation. I got in there because of my academic experience, because they needed someone to do some contract editing who knew about Spain, but it was them realising I could do databases a bit (because of working for online booksellers and generally being a geek) that found me a subsequent post in that department, which I've had for five years. In that time I've probably amassed enough database chops that I now have a Plan C. Actually, and paradoxically, the old Plan A is now coming to meet me, but it really is worth earning money not as an adjunct, I would say, but in an area that will bring outside skills to you that can serve you if Plan A doesn't work, or even just takes longer than you'd hoped. Seriously, it's kept me alive.