Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide

Christopher L. Caterine’s Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (Princeton U. Press, 2020) is packed with sound career advice for people who have obtained doctorates. The book is also highly relevant to anyone who is just contemplating post-baccalaureate study, because it points out three systemic flaws in graduate education:

First, graduate programs typically emphasize the production of subject matter experts, leading to what Caterine calls the overspecialization trap:

“[N]obody outside the academy can monetize knowledge of . . . constructions of gender in eighteenth-century French novels. Even scientists aren’t safe on this count . . . many still face hiring bias because of the excessive specialization that graduate school requires. Trying to convince nonacademics to value what you study is probably a losing battle” (p. 89).

Just as doctorate holders should emphasize how they study when applying for jobs, graduate programs need to be oriented around methodological training rather than the delivery of factual knowledge. Any worthwhile graduate program needs to teach its students how to quickly distill large amounts of unfamiliar and often contradictory information down to its essentials and present “a coherent narrative in a public forum on short notice” (p. 123). This skill is in constant demand by employers, whereas being the world’s foremost authority on a post-Augustan Roman poet is not.

Second, the elements of good teaching are also immensely beneficial job skills, yet how many graduate programs train their students to become competent teachers? Good teaching requires one to be adept at project management, public speaking, running meetings, balancing divergent stakeholder interests, and emotional intelligence (p. 104). For example, running a classroom debate on a policy topic for which there are no cut and dried answers is an example of the ability to engineer “discussions that orient people toward a shared understanding or goal” (p. 108). These are the kinds of attributes that employers prize.

Finally, just like anyone else, academics need to present themselves and their expertise in an understandable, unambiguous manner. Judging by the terribly written cover letters and resumes I have seen from job applicants, this is not a skill that people commonly acquire through graduate education.

So, for anyone out there thinking about graduate school, what’s the evidence that a program in which you are interested will adequately prepare you for a non-academic career? If you are already university faculty, what aspects of your work have value outside of academia, and how can you clearly communicate this to potential employers? Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide will show you how to find answers to these questions.

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