At the Vocational Lost and Found

[Set-up] This is the Day 16 prompt for Writing 101 — the conclusion of a three part series that began with me “losing” academia, continued with the story of how I found my career path as a non-profit fund-raiser, and now…

Today, imagine you work in a place where you manage lost or forgotten items. What might you find in the pile? For those participating in our serial challenge, reflect on the theme of “lost and found,” too.

There’s been a slight re-imagining of the topic to fit my own memoirist approach to blogging. But not as much as I might initially have imagined. [/Set-up]


During my own journey from academia into non-profit management, I was aided greatly by an online community that continues to this day under the moniker Versatile Ph.D.  The community was founded by Paula Chambers, whose own biography on the site reads like its own saga of “lost and found”:

In 1991 at age 29, she left the entertainment industry and returned to school. . . . Midway through her PhD program, she realized that she would probably be happier in a nonacademic career, and founded a listserv called WRK4US (Work For Us) while dissertating, to provide a safe space where humanities PhD students could openly discuss non-academic careers. . . . After graduating in 2000, Dr. Chambers . . . became a successful grant writer and fundraiser. . . . All the while, she continued managing WRK4US in her spare time. Eventually, Paula finally realized that helping academics find non-academic careers was her true calling. She transformed WRK4US the listserv into Versatile PhD, a web-based socially positive business, in 2010. Paula runs The Versatile PhD from her home office in Los Angeles and is an in-demand speaker on the university circuit.*

And, no, I don’t work there, but I do maintain my participation, as best I can: reading the threads of discussion on the user fora, answering questions when I can and when I feel I have something worthwhile to add.

In order to maintain itself as a safe space for people to explore alt-ac careers, VPhD has a strict confidentiality policy — an entirely appropriate move, considering the unfortunate myopia too many tenured professors still have about alt-ac career paths, and the very real trouble that can be caused by such blindness and prejudice when the privileged old guard discovers someone is looking for different career options.

Out of respect for this entirely-appropriate policy, I’m not going to be dishing specifically on anyone’s life story. But even painting in broad brushstrokes, it’s amazing to consider the mixture of variability and commonality that exists within these many post-academic transitions. Everyone’s path is uniquely unique, but there are also threads of intersection, shared losses and common discoveries.

For example, there have been numerous explorations of the grieving process that occurs during the ac-to-post-ac transition. As JC articulates in hir blog From Grad School to Happiness:

You’re not just losing the concrete academic work that you either loved or hated. You’re losing an identity that you’ve had for years or decades. You’re losing a culture, and a prestigious job title, and a career path that you were convinced was going to lead to lifelong happiness. Whether you’re leaving voluntarily or because of circumstances outside of your control, it’s normal to feel some grief and sadness at such a tremendous loss of identity.

At VPhD, we’ve discussed this same loss of identity from all the moments of the journey, from voices deep in the midst of the losing, to those of us who are years-if-not-decades past the initial grieving process and can still remember the pains, the tears, and — thankfully — the coming through into a better place.

On the flip side, there’s the trajectory of self-discovery many of us traverse: finally having the space to figure out what it is we’re good at and what we actually like to do. There are places where that process is terrifying, but it can also be really exciting.

Currer Bell** writes on the site How to Leave Academia: “You do indeed have skills that workplaces value.” And it’s true.

be-more-awesomeBut perhaps more exciting to me than simply tallying up my list of transferable skills was to understand how certain things that were taken for granted at UPenn, or even devalued there, were immensely valuable once I kicked into my non-profit career. In grad school, I was no great shakes for reading and assimilating text quickly, at least not when compared to my grad school peers. Out in my non-profits? I get pretty high marks on that score. And that wacky dedication I felt to making sure student papers were graded quickly and thoroughly, even when it got me in trouble with my dissertation research? That deadline focus and those quick editing skills have been priceless when negotiating a calendar of aggressive grant deadlines.

I think there’s a certain strain of perfectionism that infects most academic settings, and so to immerse yourself in that environment can often lead one to sink deeper and deeper into the self-perception of “not good enough.” So to find out that out in the big wide world, you can indeed be good enough? And not just good enough in a “barely getting by” kind of way, but in a “fulfilled by my life and impacting the world positively” kind of way?

It’s the best thing I ever came across in the vocational lost and found.

* Apologies if my edits cut the bio to ribbons — I’m trying to use briefer quotes and write shorter things, now and again. (At least “shorter” by my own long-winded standards…)

** Love it!


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Found Money

[Set-up] It looks like I’m going to continue to need a little flexibility and creativity with Writing 101 . Today’s actual assignment is the completion of a three part series I started back on “Day 4.” Of course, I haven’t actually written part two of this three-part series — because that’s one of the pieces I skipped during last week’s work insanity. So I guess I won’t actually be jumping right into this week’s assignments. Instead, there will be a targeted reach-back to last Wednesday’s assignment, as a precursor to whenever I get around to doing today’s.

So, Day 13, written on what should actually be Day 16 of the sequence:

On day four, you wrote a post about losing something. Today, write about finding something. . . . Today’s twist: if you wrote day four’s post as the first in a series, use this one as the second installment — loosely defined.

You could pick up the action where you stopped, or jump backward or forward in time. You might write about the same topic, but use a different style, or use the same style to tackle a neighboring topic.



So, gentle reader, when I last left the abbreviated summary of my life’s career trajectory, I had drifted into both an environment (academia) and a profession (faculty) for which I was profoundly ill-suited. To some degree, the inner rumblings around that ill-suitedness began very early. And yet, I struggled to persevere. Buckled down to overcome the deficiencies of my mass-market, public school background. Shifted graduate programs to one where I had more natural gifts and talents than my first Ph.D. curriculum.

Why was I so damn stubborn? In part because I am really, truly so damn stubborn. But a lot of it was rooted in a basic survival-level fear that there wasn’t anything besides teaching/professor-ing that I could ever make a living at.


I dare say I kinda fell into my career. It’s not like I wandered around elementary school saying “I want to be a fund-raiser when I grow up!” And, really, who would go around saying that? Do the ins-and-outs of non-profit management get any airplay in the Sesame Street/Richard Scarry “People in my Neighborhood” set?

Nowadays there’s definitely more awareness at the college level of non-profit careers. But that’s a big shift from when I went to school, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

I actually wrote my first successful grant proposal as a bit of volunteer service for a community choir where I was singing. I’d somehow talked my way onto the choir’s board as a general member-at-large, and was eager to find ways to prove my worth and contribute. So when the Board president asked for someone to help write some grant proposals, I figured it’d be an easy thing to do. I’m a good writer. I even know how to teach writing, don’t I? A grant proposal should be simple!

And here’s the kicker: it kinda was.

This is not to minimize the ways that grant-writing is intensely different from the stylistic and argumentative conventions of academic prose. But where I always found myself struggling and straining against those academic conventions, the general transparency of grant guidelines, and the need to build a tight, compelling argument out of plain language was a genre of writing that made instinctive sense to me.

And then we got the money.

So suddenly, something that both came naturally to me — writing plain, strong prose — and that I had studied intensely — how to analyze genre and build written arguments* — had real, honest-to-goodness street creed and value to it. I had worked for less than a weekend, and my choir now had several thousand dollars to show for that effort.

Now, obviously, that initial grasp of what it took to be a grants professional was, in its own way, appalling naive. I had a lot to learn in the first few years of my career — though the learnings were sufficiently connected to my existing strengths and background knowledge that success was possible.

And I still have moments where I question whether fund-raising is really the “forever career” for me. The division and tension I have seen at every non-profit between those who raise the money and those actually out doing the work is one that troubles me. I know the privileges of being in the fund-raising camp. But I also have never entirely been able to let go of a nagging self-quesitoning about whether I really want to spend the rest of my life being “just a fund-raiser” — after all, the Gospel of Matthew suggests that “you cannot serve both God and mammon” (6:24).

But even with those ongoing questions about whether there is a third career yet to unfold in my life, I remain profoundly grateful that I was able to lose academia and find my way into grants and fund-raising. I have become very good at what I do, I have seen the benefits of my efforts take shape in programs and services and buildings, and I have been able to make a living for myself.

* Or “analyze funder guidelines and build a responsive case for support.”


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A Bad Beginning

The Day 4 prompt for Writing 101 is loss. Any kind of loss, from heart-wrenching to flippant. The extra twist: write so that this piece can be the first installment in a 3-part series, as opposed to the “one-off” posts that populate so many blogs. (Now that piece of advice amused me especially, considering the endless ways my posts speak in interwoven dialogue to one another. I think the comments field on JALC have more ping-backs connecting my different posts in conversation with one another than I have actual comments from people!)

During the hours between seeing the prompt and sitting down to write, I wondered whether I’d talk about my father’s death. After all, JALC was birthed during those first months of shock and grief, and we have just recently marked (or not marked, as the case may be) the fifth anniversary of his passing.* Ultimately, that didn’t sense as the way to go.

Instead, a meditation on how I parted ways with graduate school and the ivory tower.


Sometimes a good ending is prefigured by a bad beginning.

2011LinkAsTarotFoolNot that it seemed like anything bad at the time. Indeed, when I was on the verge of beginning my Ph.D. program, it looked as if — to quote a piece of adolescent dystopia — the odds were ever in my favor.

What’s not to be happy about? An Ivy League program, full graduate fellowship, and I received the offer letter so early in February that even my professors were shocked.  Even while waiting for and weighing the other offers that came, having that one letter in my hands meant that, even if the details hadn’t quite been settled yet, I had my life all wrapped up and figured out.

And there, I believe, lies the root of the problem. I had set myself on a course without enough self-knowledge to know whether it was a path that would truly suit me.


Did I set myself on this path so much as drifting there? After all, school and academics had been the only thing in my life at which I had truly excelled. During the public school years, the fruits of that natural talent were made bitter by the shames and embarrassments of not being talented at the right sorts of things — the prettiness, social, and popularity scales. Once I was at college, the environment was one that more fully valued my intellectual gifts. Why wouldn’t I think that it was the environment where I was meant to stay for the rest of my lifetime?

And so, whether by aimless drift or by self-deluded intention, I was going to become a professor.

Never mind the amazing naïveté of the choice. My complete lack of understanding about what a professor’s life and work actually are like. My false sense of limitation around how school and classes were the only environment where I could be successful. My immaturity in thinking that I would perceive the cloistered nature of academia as a safe cocoon rather than a strait jacket.

I was going to be a professor. Until I realized that no, I wasn’t. I really wasn’t.

* And there’s two more ping-backs!


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