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!


Image credit: