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Feb 15

Alumni Guest Post: Employed ABD

Today’s guest blog post comes from Meagan Simpson. Her bio appears below the post.

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Like many academic hopefuls, I applied for and enrolled in my PhD program with only a tenure-track career path in mind. It was during orientation, however, that I resolved to have contingency plans. As I’m sure it does for many, the (now cliché) crisis of the humanities speech sobered me right up!

I was aware that one of the service appointments available to English PhDs in their third year was managing editor of Nineteenth-Century Contexts, an interdisciplinary journal co-edited by a faculty member in our English department. I advocated for and was granted the appointment for the entire academic year. I managed the submission process, peer review process, and production processes under the guidance of my faculty mentor. When my appointment was over, I helped train the incoming graduate student editor. When the journal eventually moved from the University of Notre Dame to the University of Texas two years later, I also helped hand off the journal operations. I left confident that I understood the entire publishing process and, more importantly, that I found the work rewarding.

As I finished my sixth year of graduate study, I decided to conduct a job search in publishing the following fall—even before I had defended. I had been considering this move for quite a few years, but it was a workshop offered by Graduate Career Services and run by Stephen Wrinn from the University of Notre Dame Press that gave me the confidence to send out cover letters and résumés immediately. I offered up my experience as the managing editor of Nineteenth-Century Contexts and my advanced research in literary studies as the credentials that would make me most appealing to employers. I began applying, interviewed, and was hired within 10 days—breakneck compared to the academic job market.

For anyone interested in pursuing an “alt-ac” career, particularly an editorial one, I would suggest the following action steps, which I took myself:

  • Research career paths:
    • Learn as much as possible about the potential careers you want to target. Analyze job descriptions of current employees, read job postings, and subscribe to industry digests or periodicals in order to learn about typical salaries, benefits, and career mobility.
  • Gain some experience:
    • Ideally, you’ll have at least one year of experience in whatever field you intend to target. Realistically, any experience helps! The more, the better. Search out these opportunities at Notre Dame; search them out anywhere. Journal publishing is different in volume and scope from book publishing, but it is logistically almost identical. My employer hired me knowing there would be a learning curve, but confident in my content expertise and commitment to long-term skills acquisition.
  • Tailor your résumé:
    • Ideally, you will tailor your cover letter and résumé to each position; realistically, you should at least tailor these documents for each industry. I worked with Erik Oswald at Grad Career Services to tailor my cover letter and résumé for the academic publishing industry and then I further tailored both documents to my current position by myself. It is painful to compress 4-5 pages of academic accomplishments into 1 page, but it is crucial. Human resources departments and employers read through these materials lightening fast, sometimes scanning for keywords alone. I’ve helped hire assistants and interns since joining the company, so I now have first hand experience in wading through dozens and dozens of applications over the course of a single day. Be concise!
  • Publishing-specific caveats:
    • Publishing is region-specific, primarily New York. This includes trade, academic, magazine, etc. Be prepared to fly into interviews at a moment’s notice and be prepared to relocate quickly. If you’re interested in academic publishing, but not interested in relocating to New York, target university presses.
    • Pub jobs are advertised and filled unbelievably fast in New York! Even postings 3 days old might be filled already. Use bookjobs.com, mediabistro.com, or publisherweekly.com to find job postings and apply immediately.

Almost a dozen other graduate students have reached out to me in the last year asking for advice. Typically, they’re looking for concrete tips about how to conduct an alt-ac job search. Just as often, however, they are interested in hearing how I feel about my decision looking back.

Truth be told, I miss the intellectual rigor afforded by scholarly work. I miss the creative aspect of wrestling with and producing new knowledge. There is simply nothing more rewarding than academic work in my opinion. However, for me, the future it promised was unstable and therefore potentially unhealthy. I find the security and flexibility of fulltime alt-ac work more valuable than the intellectual and creative affordances of academia. What’s more, my particular job is what I like to call “intellectually adjacent.” I still get to engage and wrestle with scholarly work; I still get to attend conferences and read the latest journals; I still get to think. It also affords me an exceptional amount of free time—time that I could easily fill up by teaching courses as an adjunct or independent research.

I also tell inquirers that it is tough work to balance a full time job while completing a dissertation. It will take much longer to finish and defend the dissertation if you’re also employed fulltime. Committees might not approve of such a plan for exactly this reason. So, be sure to talk frankly with them and come up with a concrete plan to finish. It might be in your best interest to defend the dissertation before going on an alt-ac job market. I had personal mitigating factors that made this balancing act my only option and an exceptionally understanding committee. If you are going to juggle both, then be sure to create and stick to a writing schedule in consultation with your committee members.

Technically, I could still go on the academic market after I defend, but I have no interest in doing so. While I will always miss certain features of academia, I much prefer the “alt-ac” career path I’ve taken. I have no regrets.

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Meagan Simpson is Acquisitions Editor of the Humanities List at Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. in New York, NY. She is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame, currently completing her dissertation.

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