Book Review: "So what Are You Going to Do with That?" Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius
"[T]oo many undergraduates head straight to grad school without a clear understanding of how few tenure-track jobs lie on the other side or of the debt they'll accrue along the way."
"So what Are You Going to Do with That?" Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius is an amazingly helpful little book full of wisdom for anyone in academia—graduate student or faculty—who wants to get out. I highly recommend it.
Basalla and Debelius interviewed over a hundred former academics who have found careers in a hundred different sectors—non-profits, arts administration, higher ed administration, publishing and media, teaching, government and industry research, technology companies, and even midwifery. Basalla and Debelius asked how these former academics got where they are now, and whether they're happy with their choices (spoiler: most are).
The profiles and interview excerpts are definitely a highlight of this book. Not only to get a sense of what post-academic careers are possible, but also for the details of how different people have approached their job searches and the specific advice about how to break into particular industries. I loved the stories about the creative ways these people went about building careers they loved.
Rethinking life after graduate school
Basalla and Debelius explain how to rethink life after graduate school. They debunk myths about post academic careers and share thought-provoking questions to ask about your preconceptions about different careers. They break down how to figure out your own career path into manageable steps, starting with "soul searching before job searching." They write,
"As every graduate student knows, your dissertation topic is a mini-Rorschach test of your personality. It's a great cocktail party conversation to psychoanalyze people based on their choice to study, say, Marilyn Monroe rather than Emily Dickinson. But in order to imagine life outside academia, you'll need to open up that process … and figure out what your dissertation, and your graduate school experience as a whole, has taught you about yourself."
Some of the ideas and exercises that Basalla and Debelius suggest for figuring out what you want to do with your career reminded me of the exercises in Burnett and Evans' incredibly helpful book Designing Your Life (read my review!. Both books explain the whole job search process from beginning to end. Burnett and Evans' favor informational interviews and informal networking; Basalla and Debelius take an approach that's more research-heavy.
"The same skills you need to succeed in academia—researching, writing, analyzing, and teaching—will give you the edge in your job hunt."
Their approach is to do research about organizations, industries, etc; then apply to the places that might be a good fit. So they don't argue for sending hundreds of resumes into the void, but they still think you should rely on applying for posted jobs.
But Burnett and Evans insist that most jobs are found word of mouth, through networks, and the most interesting ones are created for you, and may never be posted.
That said, Basalla and Debelius do have good advice about the big questions you want to ask to find the right job for you, at the right organization, using the interview process to find out both whether you're a good fit for them, and whether they are good for you.
Another highlight of the book is the detail on the mechanics of the job search. For example, the authors explain how a CV focuses on you and your credentials, while a resume focuses on how you are a good fit for an employer. They shared some common questions that graduate students or academics will get during interviews, with examples of weak answers versus stronger answers that will put your experience in the best light. They also talk about negotiation—salaries, benefits, start dates. Everything is negotiable. For more on negotiation, I'm a huge fan of Chris Voss's book Never Split the Difference.
An optimistic outlook
The book is positive and optimistic. You'll find a great career you love! As Basalla and Debelius write about the former academics they interviewed,
"Their post academic lives have been shaped by the same intelligence, the same creativity, and the same desire to learn that brought them to graduate school in the first place. Intellectuals don't lose their abilities the moment they step off campus. The talents that made you successful in academia can propel you into the post academic world. Strong, independent thinkers can't help carving out interesting careers. Success is the almost inevitable side effect of pursuing what you love."
If you're in academia and want out, this book is not one to pass up!