roasting marshmellows in phd hell

What Color is Your Ejection Seat?

with 12 comments

One of my main existential crises at the minute (you should always have a few)

my first series, The Existential Crisis Zone, was self-indulgent and thus poorly reviewed.

is about what I’ll do once I get the hell out of academia.

I knew a girl once who said she didn’t want to be trapped in one career for the rest of her life but wanted do a few different things.  I don’t remember all of them but I do recall that she wanted to own a cheese shop.  she was very fucking cool, btw.  and how awesome to want to do many things, and being excited about the possibilities.  She was also a laid back person, if that has anything to do with it.

But instead of being excited about options like one of those motivational posters with a sunset, I feel more like the one with a guy dangling off a rock face but instead of saying ‘motivation,’ the caption says  ” I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO FUCKING CLIMB ROCKS.”  I bought what color is your parachute before I went to grad school the first time.  and while it’s obviously been great tool for many people, I had a difficult time using it.  I couldn’t answer most of the questions.

This sounds  stupid, but its true.  Shit like, ‘write your top 5 talents in this box’ and ‘color a picture of what your ideal life would look like’ left me flummoxed and, to be honest, scared.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that to the word at large, or at least the 10 people reading this.  Scared of a book that wasn’t even this.

I do not consider myself to be nambypamby girlyman-person.  The same idiotic voice inside my head that made me start a phd is the same voice that has made me take up some weird sports and do some other equally not well thought out ‘extreme’ type stuff.

But a blank sheet of paper with limitless opportunities felt much more frightening than running 26.2 miles or getting my ass kicked by much bigger and stronger people or, now that I think of it, even doing a phd.

So I was scared and I had no freaking idea where to start or what to do.  And that book ended up in the recycling bin.  (at least I recycle?)

I’ve also tried careers counselors at the local library, my alma mater, and

The pamphlets I’ve read were made from inferior potassium.

current university.  That hasn’t worked out so well, either.  Mostly because we’d sit down and they’d have a desk of shiny pamphlets and newly sharpened pencils and I’d be feeling really hopeful about the whole thing, now I’m in the hands of a trusted professional, like a gynocologist for my careers path but not really, and they’d start off by going, “ok so what kind of career would you like?”  and inside I’m like, I HAVE NO IDEA, THAT’s WHY I AM HERE.

The last one I saw was a disaster.  It went something like this:

scene: cramped anonymous office.  no pamphlets, no pencils.

Counselor Person:  So what kind of thing would you like to do?

Me: (sweating) um I really don’t know. That’s why I’m here.  I’d like to talk about my options.

CP: (clackety clack on the computer) ok, great.  Would you be interested in working in a corporate environment?

Me:  not really… I know that rules a lot of things out but I don’t think I’d like working in that kind of environment.

CP: (following script prepared by corporate thugs) Ok well we have a corporate headhunter coming to campus next week.

Me: um, like I said, I don’t think I’m really interested in the corporate thing.

CP: The corporate world has a lot of great graduate trainee schemes.  They are specifically looking for people with degrees and you get on the job training.

(CP brings up website advertising competitive graduate trainee scheme.  For those with bachelors degrees.)

Me:  Isn’t that scheme for people with bachelors degrees?

CP: Yes but you can enter it too.

Me:  So I’d be competing for this stuff against 21 year olds with way less qualifications?  And if I got it, I’d be in the same position as other 21 year old with way less qualifications?  What would be the point of my phd then if I could have done this 10 years ago?

CP: (eyes shift to clock on wall) Well, it’d still be a great opportunity…

(cue incomprehensible corporate talk for the next 10 min until I took her not glossy printout and said thankyouverymuch I’ll think about it and walked out.)

That took me a few days to get over.  What a 2 for 1 bargain- a demonstration of how the degree I don’t even have yet is undervalued and obsolete, and no career ideas.

So yeah.  I don’t really want to do that again.  Even if I met with some great innovative person, I probably wouldn’t be much help to myself since I don’t know what I want (besides knowing that I don’t want to enter a graduate trainee scheme alongside a bunch of people a decade ish younger than me).

Whenever people ask that question designed to shortcut all this ‘career’ angst, ya know, what would you do if you won the lottery, I can’t even answer that question reasonably.   I mean, I’d travel the world and not stay in flea infested hostels, buy a house with a trampoline room, sock some of it away for a rainy day/future progeny, done a crap ton to charity…  And I’d probably get a donkey.  But I don’t have a fantastic ‘proper’ answer that translates into a job, like restoring antique motorcycles or building furniture.

It’s like writers block, but for my life.

Anyone out there in the ether been through this and manage to scale the rock face?

Written by universityoflies

July 17, 2012 at 13:16

12 Responses

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  1. Great post! Made me think…

    Chris Llano

    July 17, 2012 at 15:57

  2. Oh Christ yes. The university career services I have sampled seem very ill-equipped to deal with anyone above undergraduate level, let alone postgrads/junior academics (although I have been assured by career service friends that this is changing). I totally want one of those anti-motivational rock-climbing posters, should you ever choose to make one and maybe start off your entrepreneurial career that way…?


    July 17, 2012 at 16:31

    • haha thanks dr piglet. I’ll have to see if anyone has beat me to the nonmotivational poster business.


      July 17, 2012 at 17:41

  3. For what’s its worth, I think there is some merit to JC’s philosophy of just getting the “next job.” Leaving academe has been so difficult for me that I have an apoplectic fit when I force myself to think too that the job I just got has to be forever, my “calling.” I would recommend doing what you need now to get by (even if that might mean taking a job you’re over-qualified for by degree…heck, that will be MOST jobs when you have a PhD) and giving yourself time and space to sort out what you’d really like to do/what you want out of life. Good luck!!

    Currer Bell

    July 17, 2012 at 16:33

  4. Hey there – James from sells this awesome e-book for something like ten bucks and goes through a whole heap of steps to “Getting a career with your humanities degree…”. I don’t know if it works for everyone, but the practical exercises really help with thinking strategically about what you are going in this “in-between” stage.

    I read A LOT of career advice and I have to say, I hated What colour is my parachute?. You have a PhD. You know that you need to find a job, you know how to work, you know how to learn things, you know people with other kinds of jobs that you can talk to, and you know how to write job applications, present yourself at interview etc. That’s all the easy part.

    But getting a job requires meeting the needs of an employer. You have to demonstrate to them that you can do the job that they have advertised. All the good will in the world aside, you need hard evidence of that ability. This means actually identiftying what skills you do have, and what other industries/jobs they might apply in. And if you see something that is a close match, but not quite, you need to get some skills fast. I started volunteering to get those skills (in a legitimate community service, not some unpaid slave arrangement called an “internship”). Which is what ended up getting me the job I have, becasue in a few short weeks I was able to observe some really important points about the sector that I was moving into and sound very enthusiastic and knowledgeable at interview.

    • I read his website and have debated buying the ebook before but figured it was probably similarly parachute-ey. So it’s really interesting to know that you found it helpful and different. I had also searched for reviews of it that weren’t featured on his website and couldn’t find much, so I was skeptical.. I may take the plunge and if I do, I’ll post a review on my site.


      July 18, 2012 at 11:01

  5. A bit late, but I want to chime in on this one anyway. The bottom line is that you can’t count on the career office to do much for you. The healthy attitude to have is that it should be one point of networking in your job search. You have to figure out on your own what parts of your job you like right now, what parts you can’t stand, and what might be a realistic dream job 5-10 years out. After that the career office is much more helpful.

    During my first meeting in the career office, I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do. What they were able to come up with was a list of local bioscience professional organizations, a list of companies who hire science temps, and some decent networking advice. That was fairly depressing. However, I was still able to fill in a few gaps in my career options by running down all of those leads. I went back in with a specific career track in mind and they gave me a couple of local contacts and lots of specific advice, although they lacked any knowledge of jobs outside my city.


    July 31, 2012 at 17:32

    • Thanks for the comment.. I agree with what you say, the careers counselors aren’t magical job fairies who are going to match me up with a dream career but I still wish they were. I think it can be harder in the humanities to translate your ‘day job’ aka phd stuff into a clear cut non academic career. Like, if you were a Chaucer scholar writing about sadomasochism in The Nun’s Tale (I’m sure someone has), and you knew you liked writing but not deadlines, that still doesn’t leave you with many creative options. There isn’t much out there if you don’t know what kinds of weird/interesting/unusual jobs are out there for someone with your skill set. And I think a careers counselor should, ideally, ‘counsel’ you about your options.


      August 7, 2012 at 20:18

  6. Chiming in to say I also found the SellOutYourSoul book to be very helpful–especially his advice re: marketing yourself and being proactive about developing skills. Well worth the ten bucks.


    July 31, 2012 at 22:38

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