What do I do now?

I got another “Straight Talk” fanmail today, this one asking rather diffidently if I would be willing to suggest some next steps after leaving graduate school. I’m not exactly a Horatio Alger story, but what the hell, I’ve got some disorganized thoughts, so why not?

The immediate need, of course, is for positive cash flow, which means work. Any work. Whatever work you can land; you won’t be doing it forever anyway. Temp agencies, limited-term work (colleges, universities, and government are major sources of this), waitronning, (the dreaded) retail, whatever. Just stop the financial bleeding, however you can.

You can’t afford to be disdainful of the workaday world at this point. In fact, in my experience the folks who have the worst time transitioning out of academia are the ones who never let go of it. Temping and retail are beneath them, they’re horribly underpaid for their intelligence and (perceived) social status, and every day they haul themselves home from work lamenting their former role and status as academicians. If this is you, train yourself out of it. It will blind you to opportunity where you are, waste precious brain-cycles that deserve better use, and make you so bitter and miserable that you may damage yourself permanently. Grieve if you need to, work through what happened to you if you need to (I did both), but don’t define yourself by your old academic identity. That’s gone. Time to roll up your sleeves and start building something else.

What’s more, that precise brand of disdain for the non-academic is what the rest of us hate most when we see it in academia. You won’t be doing yourself any favors in your workplace if you exhibit it; you must respect non-academic work and the people who do it. A well-honed curiosity will help you here. Do you know what a comptroller or a mid-level manager or a sysadmin actually does with her day? Well, don’t be contemptuous—watch and learn instead.

You must also respect time and experience (rather than hurdle-jumping) as determiners of one’s height on the employment totem pole. The people around you did their time as peons while you were in grad school. You need to do your time now; this is part of the opportunity cost you’re paying, and there’s no point in feeling all self-righteously indignant at it.

If you don’t see yourself in the previous few paragraphs, good for you! If you’re anything like me, you’ll get quite a charge out of becoming self-sufficient. Treasure that new confidence; it’s an asset.

If possible, the strategic thing to do is find work that will let you check off the ticky-box beside “supervisory experience” on future applications. If this means riding herd on slackjawed teenagers, so be it. This is the one thing I didn’t do during my topsy-turvy years that I wish I had. The other thing you want out of your first job(s) are good references—people future employers can call who will say nice things about you. Try to avoid working at places that “don’t give references.” Do so if you must, but you’re hurting yourself some.

I don’t usually have to tell ex-grad-students to be frugal, or how to be frugal. We already know how. Once you start having a bit of extra money, pay down your debts and build up your savings. You broke academia’s chains; why do you want the bank chaining you up? Set yourself free. Pay off your debts as fast as you can.

Once you’re solvent and indefinitely (if not necessarily ideally) employed, you can start looking around you a bit to see how the world works. See somebody doing a job you like? Ask them how they got there. Read blogs whose authors talk about their workplaces. Read the business pages in the local newspaper, especially the squibs about small local companies you won’t have heard of. Go to your public library and read the job ads in trade publications (it’s okay to start with newspapers, but you know what they say—that’s only a sliver of the available jobs).

Lots of books purport to tell you what you’ll be good at and enjoy doing. Any public-library reference librarian can help you find them. I never got much use out of them myself, but de gustibus non disputandum est—and I lucked into what I wanted to do anyway, so I didn’t spend a lot of time with these books to begin with. The one book I will recommend specifically is Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity (discussed briefly here), which advocates selecting a career path through varied experience rather than navel-gazing.

It may take years before you land the Ideal (enough) Job. You may cycle through several other jobs (I certainly did). You’ll probably make some mistakes (boy, did I ever!). You may need more education or specialized training. You almost certainly have to do some time on the bottom of the totem-pole. Back to basics: as long as you keep your financial head above water in the meantime, the occasional misstep or blind alley won’t kill you. You’re not in academia any more, so one strike doesn’t send you to the dugout forever. Stand up, dust off your knees, and get back out there.

That’s what I’ve got. For the most part, it’s what I did, and it worked out fine. There’s nothing special about me, either. When I left grad school, I was a shell-shocked zombie with damn-all by way of useful work experience. If I can get this far, most people reading this can probably surpass me.

And I hope they do.