My Meandering Path out of Academia
I felt like a failure the year after I finished my PhD. Yes, I had accomplished something incredible and was immensely happy with my dissertation, the skills I learned in graduate school, and my decision to pursue a career outside the academy. At exactly the same time, I went through a divorce, worked several part-time jobs, and could not fathom how I was going to earn a living, let alone build a life after graduate school.
In the months it took me to land a full-time job, I worked as many as five part-time positions at once: guest curator at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), bookseller at an independent bookstore, freelance writer for various online outlets, freelance event planner for Atlas Obscura, and freelance archival researcher at the National Archives. Plus, I had to rebuild my personal life after divorce. Sustaining my friendships, jumping into new hobbies, maintaining family ties, and even beginning to date took on an urgency I hadn’t anticipated.
Former colleagues asked, “So what are you up to now?” and I had no idea how to answer. I sensed that the question was about work, but that felt so far removed from the heady mix of personal and professional changes I negotiated daily. Since the NLM position was certainly the most prestigious and seemed the most serious, I often responded with “I’m working as a curator.” That was true, to an extent, but it ignored that I was making rent by also working a retail job and leading events around DC. What sounded good—the title I thought my colleagues wanted to hear—didn’t fully reflect the reality of my post-PhD life.
Ultimately, I was OK. Better than OK, actually. My NLM job became a full-time contract position, I stepped back from retail work, and I accepted only the freelance gigs that served my larger career goals. Still, for the months when I was cobbling together multiple paychecks, stressing about rent and health insurance, I kept feeling like I’d failed—at the career transition, at my post-PhD “real life,” at being a historian. Even with the help of a skilled therapist, thankfully covered by my insurance, I found it hard to move past this feeling.
My guess is that this happens to many of us pursuing careers outside higher education. Career transitions are rarely linear, so we edit out the parts that are messy, exhausting, or confusing. We sometimes avoid talking about feeling like the goalposts moved, or no longer knowing whether the goalposts matter, or the rapid proliferation of goalposts. It’s much easier for me to explain that I worked as a curator, then got a postdoc, then came to the AHA.
This is all to say that I feel an immense sense of relief and comfort whenever I read essays in our Career Paths series. Emily Joan Elliott’s article “A Winding Road to Finding My Niche” in this month’s issue is no exception. She is transparent about the time between defending her dissertation and beginning her current role as managing editor of a community news site. Like me, she took on a lot of different work while she looked for the right long-term, full-time job. I didn’t imagine my year of part-time gigs as casting a wide net, but reading Elliott’s article, I realized how this did in fact help me identify what I valued in my work and what specific skills I wanted to build a career around.
That year between completing my degree and starting a full-time job wasn’t easy. In fact, it may have been among the hardest years of my life, made all the more difficult for my having no model for the struggle. It is my hope that the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative, Perspectives’ ongoing Career Paths series, and other resources mean that fewer people feel like this struggle is a sign of failure rather than tremendous personal, professional, and scholarly growth.
Ashley E. Bowen is editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @AEBowenPhD.
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