A bit of tough love for aspiring academics

As a number of you know, I maintain a poorly updated website where I occasionally write about online teaching strategies and just what I’m up to.  I do get hits and I do get read, and that’s nice, and I will be posting this essay there.  I started it because I am frequently asked how to get into the online teaching game, and I really do want to help people.  Problem is, it isn’t as easy as it was and it takes a lot of time to develop a portfolio. Recently I have been asked by quite a few suffering colleagues for advice and to throw them a bone if I have extra courses. While I can talk someone through what I did and how I developed my career over the course of a few years, I can’t replicate that for them. But I can share some tips about how I have maintained employment as an academic…
Any rudimentary study of economies will show you that those that are highly specialized in only one industry are doomed, and that works on the individual level as well. Going into grad school to get a silly degree I decided immediately that I wanted to be employable so I took every opportunity I got to develop marketable skills. Mostly, I organized conferences from day one. I did several of them ranging from standard academic conferences to film festivals and have done many of these through the course of my career.  I also took courses in and developed specializations in areas like festival and food on both a theoretical and organizational level and I read up on issues like display and representation, also cultural policy. So, when I was hired at a University, I was hired to develop programs that would help bridge academia with policy makers and those driving development because I had already developed a CV with those skills in them in addition to my research interests.  While I was there, I took many other opportunities to develop skills: I provided content for cultural festivals, curated exhibitions, sat on race relations committees, organized more conferences, used my position to do consulting for tourism and heritage agencies and, when the opportunity arose, I helped to develop an online MA.  Not only did I get useful pedagogical training, I learned how to teach specifically online and how to navigate all sorts of Learning Management Systems which I can now do like a ninja. Turns out I’m also good at it, so when I saw the opportunity to create a life for myself that fit all the other things I wanted from life, I worked it.  I set goals and targets and met them. *But* I spent my 20s and early 30s working my ass off developing an extremely varied CV in addition to maintaining an active publishing profile.
I’m not lucky to be employed, I really wanted to be.  If I weren’t doing this, I might try to reengineer myself along the lines much more strictly in policy or economic development.  I might need to retrain or add a policy degree to my belt if I wanted to go that route more seriously, but I’d do it. Honestly, though, if all 4 of my schools fired me at once, I would still have a job because I also have a background in market research and ethnographic methodology AND I can clean houses. I would not hesitate to go back to that in a heartbeat if I had to.  Besides, it’s kinda fun.
So here’s my real advice on making it in academia: don’t even try.  Sure, apply for “real” jobs and go for them with gusto, but know that they are like unicorns. Seriously! If you feel that your ego is suffering because you don’t have a “real” academic job, I suggest that you do some serious work to look at your attachment to what that means to you and how you might be holding yourself back. If you do want a “real” job, understand that the world is now full of completely awesome, hard working neurotic PhDs.  Your brilliance and publications are basically worth shit.  Your ability to pull in grants, develop service learning projects, network with community organizations and businesses however, much more important, even in the Humanities.  You need to show that you have other skills to stand out in *any* job these days.
I would suggest two other things: One, do a serious study of your life.  What do you want it to look like down to the last detail.  Where do you want to live? HOW do you want to live?  How much money do you want and how do you want to spend it?  How do you enjoy spending your time?  What are your values? What are your hang ups?  Second, I’d suggest that you make a list of ALL the transferable skills you have. If you want a job of any sort, you need to sell yourself.  Why should anyone hire you at all?  Also, the more skills you have, the more you can chase things so that you can earn a buck.  Can you edit?  Can you write copy? What software packages do you know? Do you maybe need a bit of extra training somewhere to round out a skill set?  I do lots of extra training on educational software and pedagogy to keep up to date, and doing this sort of thing will really serve you well.  Sometimes volunteering on things to pump up the CV is really useful.  I have done a lot of that and so I can now be paid for that sort of work or pass it on if I wish, but seriously consider getting involved with projects that can get you skills and get you noticed. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, ever, especially when the basket is shoddy construction to begin with.
Folks, we as academics are not special little snowflakes with fabulous gifts of intellect and insight to bestow upon the world.  We are cogs in a machine, workers who are part of a big, nasty labor market just like everyone else. We just get treated worse because…we think we are special little snowflakes and so don’t behave like labor as we should be doing to secure better treatment as workers.  Once you get a handle on this and realize that it has nothing to do with you or your abilities, it is pretty damned liberating. As much as I would love to do nothing more than spend my days in an archive or be writing about esoteric matters and Cornish economics, the fact is, I ALSO love to be able to travel to those archives, pay my bills and eat well, so I just don’t get to do these things as much as I would like, but I get to write enough to make me happy. I made employability a priority and it has served me well.

I started this blog because I am frequently asked how to get into the online teaching game, and I really do want to help people. Problem is, it isn’t as easy as it was and it takes a lot of time to develop a portfolio. I went into this pretty early with a bit of course design and teaching under my belt, so I was able to build a career based on that. Recently I have been asked by quite a few suffering colleagues for advice and to throw them a bone if I have extra courses, and I can do this if they are available, but times are tough.  While I can talk someone through what I did and how I developed my career over the course of a few years, I can’t replicate that for them. But I can share some tips about how I have maintained employment as an academic…

Any rudimentary study of economies will show you that those that are highly specialized in only one industry are doomed, and that works on the individual level as well. Going into grad school to get a silly degree I decided immediately that I wanted to be employable so I took every opportunity I got to develop marketable skills. Mostly, I organized conferences from day one. I did several of them ranging from standard academic conferences to film festivals and have done many of these through the course of my career. I also took courses in and developed specializations in areas like festival and food on both a theoretical and organizational level and I read up on issues like display and representation, also cultural policy. So, when I was hired at a University, I was hired to develop programs that would help bridge academia with policy makers and those driving development because I had already developed a CV with those skills in them in addition to my research interests. While I was there, I took many other opportunities to develop skills: I provided content for cultural festivals, curated exhibitions, sat on race relations committees, organized more conferences, used my position to do consulting for tourism and heritage agencies and, when the opportunity arose, I helped to develop an online MA. Not only did I get useful pedagogical training, I learned how to teach specifically online and how to navigate all sorts of Learning Management Systems which I can now do like a ninja. Turns out I’m also good at it, so when I saw the opportunity to create a life for myself that fit all the other things I wanted from life, I worked it. I set goals and targets and met them. *But* I spent my 20s and early 30s working my ass off developing an extremely varied CV in addition to maintaining an active publishing profile.

I’m not lucky to be employed, I really wanted to be. If I weren’t doing this, I might try to reengineer myself along the lines much more strictly in policy or economic development. I might need to retrain or add a policy degree to my belt if I wanted to go that route more seriously, but I’d do it. Honestly, though, if all 4 of my schools fired me at once, I would still have a job because I also have a background in market research and ethnographic methodology AND I can clean houses. I would not hesitate to go back to that in a heartbeat if I had to. Besides, it’s kinda fun.

So here’s my real advice on making it in academia: don’t even try. Sure, apply for “real” jobs and go for them with gusto, but know that they are like unicorns. Seriously! If you feel that your ego is suffering because you don’t have a “real” academic job, I suggest that you do some serious work to look at your attachment to what that means to you and how you might be holding yourself back. If you do want a “real” job, understand that the world is now full of completely awesome, hard working, neurotic PhDs. Your brilliance and publications are really not worth what you think they are. Your ability to pull in grants, develop service learning projects, network with community organizations and businesses however, much more important, even in the Humanities. You need to show that you have other skills to stand out in *any* job these days.

I would suggest two other things: One, do a serious study of your life. What do you want it to look like down to the last detail. Where do you want to live? HOW do you want to live? How much money do you want and how do you want to spend it? How do you enjoy spending your time? What are your values? What are your hang ups? Second, I’d suggest that you make a list of ALL the transferable skills you have. If you want a job of any sort, you need to sell yourself. Why should anyone hire you at all? Also, the more skills you have, the more you can chase jobs that can help you earn a buck or two. Can you edit? Can you write copy? What software packages do you know? Do you maybe need a bit of extra training somewhere to round out a skill set? I do lots of extra training on educational software and pedagogy to keep up to date, and doing this sort of thing will really serve you well. Sometimes volunteering on things to pump up the CV is really useful. I have volunteered a lot on projects in my career, and so I can now be paid for that sort of work or pass it on if I wish, but seriously consider getting involved with projects that can get you skills and get you noticed. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, ever, especially when the basket is shoddy construction to begin with.

Folks, we as academics are not special little snowflakes with fabulous gifts of intellect and insight to bestow upon the world. We are cogs in a machine, workers who are part of a big, nasty labor market just like everyone else. We just get treated worse because…we think we are special little snowflakes and so don’t behave like labor as we should be doing to secure better treatment as workers. Once you get a handle on this and realize that it has nothing to do with you or your abilities, it is pretty damned liberating. As much as I would love to do nothing more than spend my days in an archive or be writing about esoteric matters and Cornish economics, the fact is, I ALSO love to be able to travel to those archives, pay my bills and eat well, so I just don’t get to do these things as much as I would like, but I get to write enough to make me happy. I made employability a priority and it has served me well.

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Online Educational Specialist