- Infinite Hope—and for Us; or, Come on in, the Real World is Fine
I have never been particularly iconoclastic, as unfashionable as it may be to admit it. While in graduate school during the 1990s, however, I found myself more than once speaking in hushed tones with certain professors on a topic in which I found myself increasingly interested: working outside the academy with a doctorate. Doing so is, of course, not that unusual in itself. What was, and is, unusual is choosing to do so—or at least discovering that a road ending outside the academy is not just a consolation prize. I was, as a graduate student, as focused as any of my colleagues on a tenured teaching position. I did conferences, I lined up a publication, and I worked for and was fortunate enough to get scholarships. I had the world’s most supportive thesis advisor, who was appropriately exacting, and I loved every minute of it. I tried to do everything right. After a particular teaching experience, however—with, I should emphasize, a number of enthusiastic students and wonderful material—I began to realize that the professor’s life was, for various reasons, probably not for me. It had been emphasized to me from the beginning that I had entered a program designed to train scholars for the academy. That, of course, was proper and laudable. But as my own situation changed, I made a number of [End Page 7] discoveries about the abilities and skills nurtured by graduate school and, I would find, valued by the so-called real world—and they were all good.
I wanted to explore other options, but I genuinely wasn’t sure what they might be. I had been used to thinking of the skills I was acquiring solely in terms of their application within an academic setting. Then a friend asked me to take on the job of administrator for a small non-profit organization on whose board he sat. He himself held a phd in political economy and had worked both in and out of the academy for two decades; he told me later that he saw clear abilities and inclinations in me for which I didn’t seem to have a context and felt that I just needed a shove to start the process of thinking differently about my training and its application. At the time, however, I was still in graduate school, and while I did take on the job I was slow to think differently—the nature of work meant that I was still dealing largely with people with scholarly backgrounds, and it seemed they just needed someone to sort out certain aspects of communication and organization; it never occurred to me that the ability to do those very things was a skill set in itself and one to which an academic background might have contributed.
After having worked at this non-profit for a while, I applied to a placement agency specializing in administrative positions. It was then that I truly began to realize surprising things about my graduate education. A manager at the placement agency, who had contacted me after having seen my (slightly modified academic) cv, made it clear that I possessed tremendously valuable skills—I was “marketable,” in that language of the commercial at which we’re all supposed to wince. As I worked with her and considered my cv, I realized that the graduate programs made demands on us that developed tremendously applicable capacities. As most of us not only took seminar courses but taught or assisted with undergraduate courses, we all had experience in organizing teaching material, developing it and presenting it as lectures, managing people, and managing time. Added to this experience were the skills developed by all graduate students as they learn to conduct research—the gathering and analyzing of information and the transformation of that raw data into coherent pieces of writing. On top of all of this is the fact that those of us trained in literature can, as a rule, write well—something not always a given—and tend to understand the basics of good communication. In a world...