Myths and mismatches, part 3

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 9, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 3: Assessing Your Qualifications.

Today’s “myth” from Jo and Julie is a real classic, something that can be unconsciously inculcated from the moment you enter graduate school-! And it’s this…

“Myth #2: You’re Unqualified to Do Anything Else”

This is the illusion that even after successfully completing a PhD, there’s still no-one other than a university who’d hire you–because what “real-world” relevance is there for your academic training? (And look–there’s that “Real-World/Academia divide again.) Part of the reason for this assumption is that in graduate school, the focus is placed heavily on “content knowledge” and not on the skills and “process knowledge” that come along with grad school experiences. And (discipline-specific) content is generally less transferable to work outside the university.

This is an idea that works alongside “Myth #1”, that “success” after the PhD means becoming a tenured research professor (and that any work outside the university is somehow “lesser” than an academic job). Not only are you unqualified for a job in another field; it would also be an admission of inadequacy to abandon the quest for tenure-track employment. In some cases this line of thinking can be quite potently inhibiting.

As the authors point out, “the reality is that, outside of academia, most jobs are far more about your skills than about your content knowledge – and just by virtue of having been through graduate school, you’ve amassed a lot of relevant skills” relating to research, writing, editing, presenting, organizing, collaborating, assessing, teaching…the list goes on.

I still feel as if I’m simply not aware of most of the job options I have in front of me (but with a much better sense of possibility than I had several years ago). Though I’m in a position where my topic of research is one that can apply in more than one context, I still have so little idea of my own usefulness outside the university classroom–and how to put that to work. I’m fairly sure I still have talents I haven’t yet discovered, and I think that’s been the major lesson I’d take away from the past 8 years or so. After all, when I abandoned my BFA after two years, I never imagined I’d end up studying Communication Studies, Linguistics, and Education (and doing well at it). I know I have a lot of fears and insecurities to overcome, but I think I’d rather feel significantly uncertain than feel as if I’m staking my career on only one prospect.

Jo and Julie also write that “academic disciplines act as though they’re in competition with one another, viciously defending methodological and content boundaries between fields that one might think would have lots of things to say to one another.” I don’t know if it’s my own interdisciplinary background or perhaps a kind of inherent pragmatism, but I’ve never held much to the maintenance of boundaries between different kinds of knowledge. My reasoning is that I’m more likely to be able to address a problem critically if I can do it from multiple angles; and that is a skill highly applicable to the “real world”.

Lastly, there’s “a general denigration of intellectual work” in our culture (speaking broadly about Anglo-America), such that what is “academic” is considered to be irrelevant, disconnected from reality somehow–like academics themselves. This is reinforced by the beliefs we may hold about the “narrowness” of our education, beliefs that can prevent us from seeing our own value in contexts other than academe. They can also prevent us from learning how to communicate the relevance of intellectual work to larger publics, which is a increasingly an expected function of faculty work as well.

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