BOOK REVIEW: So What Are You Going to Do with That?

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Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius published the first edition of So What Are You Going to Do with That? Finding Careers Outside Academia in 2001. I think I bought a copy then; I was in the middle of my dissertation and it seemed like a prudent thing to do. If I read it, I don’t recall that now. (I was also in the middle of having children; if I don’t remember much of 2001-2004, it’s their fault). The third edition, published in 2015, contains updated stories and includes more on the post-academic career trajectories of scientists than the earlier editions of the text did; these add to its already considerable strengths as a guide for people who are thinking of leaving academia and forging a career path for themselves that is meaningful and sustainable.

If you are a graduate student, this book is written expressly for you. The authors assume that you have a university career center to consult on resumes and informational interviews and that your dissertation takes up most of your physical time and mental space. For those of you who have completed the PhD and are on the job market, working in some contingent capacity as a teacher/lecturer, or who are on the tenure track or tenured, you may have to be a bit creative about whom you approach to build your network of experts in a new field. I also advise to not be put off by the credentials of the authors or many of their examples. The lessons and advice offered in this small book are in no way restricted to graduates or students of Ivy League programs.

From my current vantage point of someone who had success on the job market and then left academia for family and geographical reasons (+ a side order of a field that is dying from a million cuts), one of the most valuable pieces of advice that Basalla and Debelius reiterate in the book is that post-academic job searchers need to do the work necessary to make the required emotional/mental “seismic shift” from being “an academic” to being someone with an academic background who is passionate about X, Y, or Z.

In the second chapter, ”How Do I Figure Out What Else to Do?,” they advise that “getting in touch with yourself,” your skills, likes, and dislikes is key to navigating a successful job search. Some of the exercises they talk about in this section sound a bit like coaching exercises: think about your peak experiences, talk about them or write them down, and see if you (or your coach) can suss out commonalities between them. Somewhere in there is information about what makes you tick, what inspires you, which work environments speak to you, etc.

In the last chapter, “Sweaty Hands, Warm Heart,” where the talk is of interviewing and negotiating, the authors remind job seekers that they need to make peace with leaving academia before they wind up in the interview room. I would suggest that you need to make this peace before writing your first post-academic cover letter; bitterness or sorrow about a fading academic dream will shine through in any encounter you have with the post-academic world until you are in a position to move TOWARD something you care about and are excited about, rather than AWAY from a field/institution/culture that has disappointed you. Sounding again like solid coaches, Basalla and Debelius write “The best decisions, we say, are made from passion, desire, and excitement. Move toward what you love, rather than shrinking from what you fear” (148). While in this specific example, they are encouraging people to take the risk of leaving the well-lit, single-lane academic highway for the rural roads, trails, and winding city streets of just about every other type of employment, their words ring true in the general sense, as well. A post-academic career search is likely to be more successful the more the seeker is at peace with, and excited about, the next step away from academia.

This slim book also offers some basic resume templates, research questions to follow as you learn about a field or a company that interests you, advice on informational interviews, the actual interview, and negotiation. If you are thinking of leaving academia, if you advise MA or PhD students, or care about the future of doctoral programs, this book deserves a place on your shelves.

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