“A Tale of Graduate School Burnout” first hit the web in the spring of 1999. I’ve gotten a lot of email about it since then, predominantly (though not entirely) from graduate students on the point of or just after leaving. Nearly all these correspondents offer some variant on “Thank you for speaking up! I thought I was the only one!” About half ask for advice, which is a sad commentary on the state of academic and career advising in graduate schools.
And a certain number—a third, maybe—want to know what’s happened to me. Do I have a job? Do I like what I do? How did I start over, after I left? Do I regret not having the Ph.D? In short—is there life after graduate school?
So I thought I’d answer some of those questions. Don’t expect a rags-to-riches tale from me; it hasn’t been that simple. I haven’t gone back to my old department to sneer a lordly “Ha-ha!” at those who mistreated or ignored me. In fact, probably the nicest thing about the last six years is that I’ve lost any particular desire to do that. When I get angry at academia these days, I get angry on behalf of the people who write to me, people who have been abused (sometimes flagrantly), ignored, misinformed, left untaught. For myself, living well has truly been the best revenge.
During the semester that turned out to be my last, my husband and I, being typical newlyweds, decided to buy a house. In hindsight, I’m not exactly sure what my reasoning was, vis-à-vis my graduate school situation; I’m not sure whether I decided to buy because I was about to start the long haul of dissertating and didn’t need the rising rents, or because I was bloody well through with school but wanted to stay in Madison anyway. Be that as it may, we closed on a comfortable ranch house in December 1998, just as that last semester was ending. We needed to make those mortgage payments.
I did clerical temporary work while looking for permanent work, also clerical. I was considering paraprofessional training of various sorts (e.g. paralegal or medical-office training), but with a new house and a husband considering re-entry to graduate school himself, I simply couldn’t afford it.
I applied to a local publishing-services company for a newspaper-advertised position as an editor, and was politely turned down. A few weeks later, I saw the same company advertising an entry-level typesetting job, and since I’m stubborn, I applied. At about the same time, the temp agency I was working for lined up another couple of interviews for me, for permanent clerical positions. (I wrote about one with benefit of hindsight later.)
The publishing-services company decided to interview me this time. They hired me, too, but not as a typesetter—as what they called an Electronic Publishing Assistant, at the not-exactly-princely wage of $9.53 an hour (about $19,000 a year; for those of you who don’t know already, multiplying an hourly wage by 2,000 is a fair approximation of yearly salary).
I loved it. Oh, my goodness, yes. Sheer unadulterated luck, to have fallen into intellectually and personally satisfying work knowing nothing about it beforehand. I learned to do text markup. I taught myself to program computers, a little. I learned how publishing works, the crafts of editing and typesetting and printing. It was terrific. Eventually, I became a minuscule part of the ill-fated late-’90s electronic-book boomlet, my work earning respect from software engineers, publishing houses, and (yes) academics.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to matters closer to home. A coworker had become seriously jealous of me, and I didn’t have the perception to notice it or the political savvy to realize how much damage it could do. When this coworker became my boss, mine was the loudest applause. Needless to say, two months later I switched departments to get away from him—and less than six months later, I was gone. Not actually fired, but next-door-to. I was stupid enough to burn bridges, too, in a manner that still makes me cringe.
I meant to start my own business (and I did, after a fashion, and the business still exists and has actually been profitable for about three years), but when one of the first companies I announced my services to offered to hire me, I gladly accepted. Truth be told, I was cold afraid of self-employment, and not unreasonably so. As with many decisions made from fear, this one did not turn out well. A woman in management made my life astoundingly difficult; within six months, I was again looking for work.
My wants were simple, this time—something that would pay the bills while I took careful thought about what to do next. Serendipity is nice and all, but one hates to depend on it. When I saw a two-year university project announcement, I was hooked. I tried for the supervisor’s position. I didn’t get it. It went to a woman considerably younger than I and with less education, largely because she had supervisory experience and I didn’t.
I did, however, swallow my pride and accept a not-very-highly-paid position as data-entry operator on the same project. Serendipity struck again. My new boss was everything a boss should be, teaching me by example a great deal I obviously needed to know about managing projects and managing people (both up and down the job ladder). A while after starting the job, the project discovered that I had tolerable programming skills, and so I was assigned database maintenance, with a concomitant raise in pay.
In the meantime, after a fair bit of research, I decided that my best chance for finding a job I could really get behind involved getting a library-school degree. (I was blogging by this time, so you can read my reasoning. You can also, incidentally, check a fair few of the details of this story.) Fortunately, Madison has just the kind of library school that a once-burned-twice-shy dropout can get into and get along in. That became clear to me when I walked through the department and noticed immediately that the best real estate in the building had been devoted to a student commons.
I applied, was duly accepted, and went to my boss to arrange for an amicable departure from my job. “Er, hold on. Let me talk to some people,” she answered… and she came back with a golden offer to turn my full-time job into a half-time project assistantship that carried paid tuition. Of course I accepted, gleefully, and the project paid for all but my final semester of library school—and they would have kept me on, save that I pleaded the need to hunt for work.
Reasonably or un-, I was flat-out terrified about going back. In a congenial department, however, I did just fine. Better than fine. I mopped up quite a few awards (including a research-writing award), made significant social and professional contributions to the school and to the university, got excellent grades and feedback on my work, and lost most of the monkey-on-my-back that my first trip through grad school left.
And now? After a nervous and rather frantic five months of searching coinciding with my last semester of school (thus the frenzy), I have landed a dream job with an academic library. (It’s always a good sign when you email a soon-to-be colleague to introduce yourself, and the first thing she emails back is “Welcome! This is a great place to work!”) I start in six weeks, and (aside from the renewed frenzy of moving) I couldn’t be happier.
Well, so what are you to gather from this topsy-turvy tale? Up to you, of course (I’ve read my reader-response theory). I hope you realize that I survived, both graduate school and the usual bumps and bruises of an early career. I hope you realize that the major contribution I made to my own survival and (eventual) prosperity was opening up my life to let serendipity help me, rather than ceaselessly bemoaning my fate. I hope you realize that it’s a great big wildly varied world out there, a world with as much room for ex-grad-students as anyone else.
One vital lesson I may not have made clear is that failures, even bad failures, contain the seeds of future successes. I landed the electronic-publishing job because of the manuscript-transcription work I did in graduate school. The job after that was with an ebook outfit, obviously attracted by my strong record in that field. Ebooks were dying on the vine at the time, but that turned out not to hurt me at all; the experience I gained working with them meant immensely more. A freelance tech-writing job I’m working on now, in fact, also stems from old ebook circles. The poorly-paid data-entry job I took ended up paying for most of my library-school degree, and the younger woman who got the supervisor’s job I had wanted became a brilliant example, a recommender when I hit the job market again, and a real friend. And some part of the reason I landed my new dream job has to do with my old publishing experience—some of my soon-to-be colleagues want to start a new journal. Look to the future, by all means, but don’t shut the past away. It helps in the strangest ways.
Finally, I hope you realize that you need not to shoot yourself in the foot during your first job or two. That’s the one lesson I wish I’d absorbed a bit faster.