Transform, Grow, Progress: Why it took me Fifteen Years to Figure Out The Purpose of My Life

For a very long time, I was very sure of exactly what I wanted to do: Be a college professor. I graduated from a prestigious social science Phd program, got a couple of very nice postdoctoral positions, was publishing regularly, and was working steadily on turning my dissertation into an academic book. As recently as March of 2012, I was publishing self-satisfied posts about how grad school had been a great decision.

But by September of that year, I started to have serious misgivings about my academic career. I was 33 then, at what you could argue is about the worst point to consider a career change – not yet stable and successful enough in one thing to make a cushioned transition into something else, and maybe not quite young enough to make the sacrifices that starting all over again required.

As it turns out, I’ve done pretty okay over the past year, picking up copywriting and corporate communications jobs that helped me learn a ton about the world outside academia while keeping body and soul together. I’ve learned, first and foremost, that there are a lot of needs and opportunities out there in the business world for people with solid writing skills, and I’ve also learned a good bit about how to get myself out there as someone providing those services.

I was also able, through a mix of luck and what I sometimes fear was the last burst of youthful vigor I’ve got left in me, to build a significant freelance writing stream. I landed my first major feature just about two months ago (it’ll be out at Aeon, hopefully fairly soon). And while gaining an understanding of the more business-y side of writing has been great, it’s the freelancing world where I’ve finally figured out the practical reality of what I really need to be doing, and become genuinely confident that I can pull it off. I’ve now made the leap into full-time freelancing, and I’m starting the search for a more permanent, sustainable role in writing, editing, and publishing (I still have a lot of interest in the world of high-level consulting, private research firms, and thinktanks, but I know almost nothing about them).

It’s still hard for me to know what to make of the long, strange trip that got me here. And of course, I know my new confidence and direction could be just as likely to last ten years before I find something else. But I don’t think that’ll happen – I always knew I wanted to be ‘a writer,’ but I never really understood what that meant or how to do it. I grapple daily with the feeling that my academic career was wasted time, though I’m realizing that what I learned helps give my freelance work interesting, meaningful angles.

So why did I go to grad school at all? Well, first and foremost, because I was and still am fascinated by the absolute depths of philosophy and inquiry. In the long run, it prepares me to tackle big subjects that 95% of writers – even successful, professional ones – can’t. And on a day to day level, I think I would have been much less happy spending those years on a more conventional writer’s route through, say, a newspaper, because I’ve seen enough to know that there’s a lot of low-level drudgery there.

But I also now realize that I went to grad school, like many people, because it felt like a safe path, at least in the short term. I tried freelancing for a very brief period after I left my first steady writing gig (I left to take a cross-country trip, about which I have exactly zero regrets), and had very little success. I had no sense, back then, that most writers struggle for years at dead-end jobs while they build their writing careers.

My image of the career that awaited me in academia was also at least somewhat illusory. I imagined being able to both produce deep-thinking academic work, and regularly devote the time to pursuing my own creative work. That ground has shifted rather violently over the decade-plus since I started grad school, with many tenure-track jobs disappearing and those remaining becoming much more demanding. Part of the reason that I left academia was that I began to suspect that it would be another decade, if even then, before I would be in a position to balance the demands of the tenure track with creative freedom.

But maybe most of all, and most misguidedly, I went to grad school because I desperately needed to belong to something, to have a sense of identity and purpose. If you’ve got a certain kind of talent, grad school is full of regular rewards and reassurances, set goals, structures, guidance. I needed all of those, and as a deeply socially alienated young adult, I didn’t know how to get them for myself – how to seek out other writers, learn from the experienced ones and build a community with other beginners. I wasn’t even that great at connecting with real friends. I was, I now recognize, simply too socially and personally fragile for the uncertainty of a young writer’s life.

Academia slowed my progress in overcoming those failings – it rewards the self-importance, radical individualism, and combativeness that were at the root of my alienation. The past two or three years, during which I finally got really involved in non-academic activities, and then worked professionally outside of academia for the first time in more than a decade, have opened me up in ways that I don’t yet fully understand. Most importantly, I’ve actually become emotionally available after being really shut down for a long, long time.

At the same time, I’ve become much stronger on a practical level. I now know with certainty that I can do many different things, and do them well, and get paid for it. That doesn’t mean that I’m not scared about this new thing I’m trying to do – the honest truth is that I’m absolutely terrified. But I’m trying to focus on the other thing that goes along with that – a growing sense of elation, of excitement, of the limitless possibility of actually focusing on the thing I want to be doing.

50 Ways to Leave Your Academic Career (All At Once): How I Built My New #altac Life

Exactly eight months ago, in August of 2013, I ended an appointment as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. I’m now doing corporate communications and PR for SmartDeck (not the real name), a tech startup across the bay in St. Petersburg, and freelancing for Fortune’s technology division, with a focus on financial technology. I’ve switched careers, and I’m at least as happy and satisfied as I ever was as an early-career academic.

This is the sort of transition that people in the so-called “Alt-Ac,” or alternative academic careers, movement talk about all the time. And I made the switch for some common reasons. After three years on the academic job market with moderate success but no strong sense that I was heading towards a tenure track position, and after getting a little exposure to the realities of post-grad school academia, I decided that a) the risk/reward formula of continuing to chase the tenure track was completely out of whack, and b) even if I did land a tenure track job, I wasn’t sure it was something I really wanted.

I’ve been very, very lucky in my transition – I landed two great opportunities almost as soon as I expressed my intention to look for them, opportunities where I now get to flex my brain as part of exciting projects, in which I have a high level of autonomy, and where I’m getting compensated as well or better than a beginning assistant professor. Most of all, I’m able to exercise writing skills that would have continued to atrophy as a professor, and I’ve been able to stay close to my significant other, which seeking a tenure track position would have made difficult if not impossible. Not everything is wine and roses, but it’s pretty close.

I want to tell the story of how I got where I am, both because there is a large community of people who want to trace a similar path and, to be completely honest, because I am a braggart. I like talking about my accomplishments, and this is a pretty big one.

I will name some names, and others are pseudonyms. I WILL give numbers, as in money, and plenty of them, because I think they’re important for people making career decisions post-doctorate, and they’re not widely enough available (though that situation is improving).

Before you jump into this whole thing, here’s the TLDR version for questioning/transitioning/struggling academics: If you are passionate about teaching, it’s clear you made the right choice and you should keep doing what you’re doing. But if you’re primarily motivated by learning, and by creating, and by living in the world in all its changing complexity, you probably have what it takes to find something more challenging, interesting, creative, and rewarding than slogging it out in the academic serfdom of postdoc, adjunct, and visiting positions for another ten, five, even three years, hoping to someday catch the brass ring. It’s not worth it anymore, if it ever was, and the world is wide and beautiful.

Where I Am Now

Right now, I work about 24 hours a week for SmartDeck. I’m currently negotiating a substantial raise, but I’ll say I’m about to be making the hourly equivalent of between $53,000 and $55,000 a year doing PR and corporate communication work. I write TED-talk style speeches, investor pitches, and proposals for my bosses to speak at conferences about mobile technology usage. I also write press releases and, increasingly, work to form relationships with reporters to encourage them to write about what we’re doing.

In these roles, I get to use my brain consistently, both as a strategist and a writer. I get to use my specific training in media studies as I think hard about the impact that a new media technology is likely to have on the lives of users. And I’m part of a team that is, bit by bit, creating something new and potentially interesting. Also, I have health insurance.

I’m also learning a lot about this thing called ‘business,’ in a much more subtle way than, to be frank, I ever heard anyone talk about it during my time at a top-tier social science graduate program. If I ever do go back to pursuing the kind of systematic critique that I was trained in, it’ll be with a huge increase in real-world insight.

In the hours I’m not working for Smartdeck, I also now regularly write for Fortune.com, in the Technology section. My writing has been predominantly about Bitcoin, the emerging payments protocol/virtual currency. I’m also moving into more writing about financial technology in general.

My work for Fortune puts all of my intellectual, social, and writing skills to work, and builds directly on my academic interests – before I even decided to leave academia, I was becoming fascinated with the gold standard, and with the basic idea of money as a medium of communication. (I’m also enthralled by the technology and consequences of High Frequency Trading, and I have Michael Lewis’ new book in the mail.) My first article for Fortune grew directly out of work I’d done in grad school, and my writing on Bitcoin and fintech more generally has followed my intellectual interests. This work also pays extremely well – usually working out to between $50 and $75 an hour – and has in the last three months put me in touch with a nationwide community of influential people working on important problems.

More than half of my income is freelance, which means it’s changeable from week to week. However, on average, I’m making about $65,000 a year on an annualized basis. This is pretty good considering the most I’ve ever made before is $50,000, which was as a postdoc with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in my first year out of grad school (Of course, that was $50,000 living in Tokyo, so it didn’t feel like much).

And this is just my first year in two entirely new professions. I know that if I work hard and learn, what I earn can go up steadily, not just every five years, as it would as a professor. More important still, I know that I can keep looking for opportunities that suit me creatively, geographically, personally, and intellectually. To use the parlance, I’m far more anti-fragile than I was eight months ago, because I’ve shown that I can be effective in a lot more roles.

Also, I have health insurance.

How I Got Here

However, this solid income comes after an eight month transition period in which I was stable, but just barely scraping by.

[And yes, before you protest, money is an important part of this for me.  If it isn’t for you, you fall into one of three categories. Either you are a real saint, giving of yourself to education and knowledge; you are even more privileged than I am; or you are not paying attention.]

Both of my current gigs came through paths that, as an academic used to filling out long, complicated application packages, seem nearly random. But one of the many things I’ve learned during this transition is that they’re actually kind of typical for the private sector.

In the months leading up to the end of my postdoc position, I did quite a few things.

  1.      I saved money.  This is pretty obvious, and it was easier than I expected once I had a metaphorical gun to my head. I think I put away an extra $2500 in the six months leading up to the end of my postdoc. Not much, but enough to give me a tiny slice of comfort.
  2.      I finished an academic book proposal, which would eventually be offered a book contract (more on the complicated calculus of how I’ve dealt with that in a later post).
  3.       I finalized a journal article, now to be released in April or May 2014 from Technology and Culture. Even as I was certain I was leaving academia, I was hard at work at what I was supposed to be doing with my time at USF.
  4.       I sent out job applications/resumes. I WAS REALLY BAD AT THIS. I was undisciplined, didn’t send out very many, and probably sent out stuff to a lot of the wrong people. I don’t know whether years of undergrad/grad/fellowship/postdoc/job applying has simply burnt out these wires in my head, but the whole thing now just seems futile and demotivating to me.
  5.      I networked. Not a lot, but as it turns out, enough. This was far more interesting, educational, and ultimately rewarding than the resumes I sent out.  I talked to people – maybe 20 people over the course of four months – about things I might do with my post-academic self. People in marketing and consulting and PR, which were my first little stabs at thinking through my options. One of my emails was to a local consulting/digital/marketing concern called FishTank (again, not the company’s real name).

My genuine intention in reaching out to Fishtank was to learn more about just what they did, but that’s not how it turned out. I got a sitdown with the head of the company, and though I went in wanting information, I left with some freelance writing work. A couple of weeks later, I had an offer for a paid internship doing web copywriting. What I ended up actually doing my first week there was collaborating on, producing, and directing a promotional video for SmartDeck, a tech company that FishTank by pure chance happened to have just started collaborating with.

I immediately got the rush of a new kind of life – here I was doing things I hadn’t done before, having fun on a creative (though commercial) project, being challenged. My first few months at FishTank were a blast, learning new things and meeting a lot of professional, serious people. That’s not a big part of an early-career academic’s life (students just don’t provide the same kind of stimulation for me).

A month after I started my internship, I was on with FishTank and SmartDeck full-time, but for not much money – about $30,000 a year. I was pretty disappointed when this was all they were able to offer me, but in retrospect, my expectations were a bit out of whack. I was brand new at this, FishTank didn’t have a lot of high-value work for me, and though the work I was doing for SmartDeck was high-value, they simply didn’t have much money. Especially in Florida, for a talented but inexperienced guy, $30k was actually semi-fair. But more importantly, the culture was a good fit, the SmartDeck project really captured my imagination, and I was reassured that the financial situation was going to change.

So I stuck with it and worked hard. Plus, I had health insurance.

Writing, not ‘Research’

I also had time to focus on writing when I wasn’t at work. This was actually part of my plan in going to grad school in the first place – while I love philosophy and social science, I also love literature, reportage, etc, and I know how to turn a phrase. So I had always imagined myself spending about nine months a year teaching, then getting to focus on my other work.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the world that exists anymore post-2008.  Or maybe, I sometimes think, I would have been better off going directly for what I really wanted to do in the first place (yes, month by month, I’m struggling to not be overtaken by regret at going to grad school at all. Another post soon to come).

At first, my writing efforts went into a commercial book proposal.  I’d recently helped a good friend of mine edit her book for Amazon Books, and in the course of that learned that she’d gotten a very respectable advance. Part of the reason that I was interested in leaving academia was to pursue this kind of opportunity. So I took a first whack at a proposal about conspiracy theory in contemporary politics. I also started looking actively for freelance writing work, sending regular pitches to websites and magazines.

But, just as all my resumes had gotten me nowhere and one email led to a full-time job, all my pitches made little headway and I got a great gig through the most random of connections. I had been on Twitter quite a bit talking about the idea that I might be leaving academia, and of my goal of switching to freelance writing. I got a Twitter message from a woman I had met once, at least seven years prior, during my first National Communication Association conference. At the time, she’d been a young grad student like me, and a shameless fanboy of Mark Andrejevic, one of the professors in my program at the time.  (Mark was way ahead of the curve, writing books critiquing the growing American surveillance culture).

Anyway, fast forward seven years, and this passing acquaintance turned out to have dropped out of grad school and ended up (within the time it took me to graduate and do my postdocs) an editor at Fortune. She told me she was always looking for smart freelancers. I pitched her a story here and there, then some more. These occasional well-paying pieces helped keep me from total destitution as my girlfriend left her job to focus on school.

They also brought some big-time excitement into my life. The second piece I wrote for Fortune, about so-called preparedness culture, went fairly viral, getting mentioned on Glenn Beck, Drudge, etc. I was contacted by a literary agent, and I was able, because of a previously planned and luckily timed trip, to meet with him in New York.

It was an insanely exhilerating day – I had sent him my existing conspiracy proposal, and had hopes and dreams of an exultant meeting, being offered representation on the spot, ‘discovered.’ Unfortunately that didn’t happen – I had a great meeting, and the guy showed a genuine interest in me, but he said that the proposal was still too academic. He gave me some great advice about looking for a story rather than a topic, and sent me on my way, both disappointed and encouraged. (I’m still looking for that story, but I know I’m getting closer).

But, back to money. I was at this point still making far less than I had even at $40k as a USF postdoc, but I did try to keep it in perspective – it was still more than I’d lived on as a grad student just three years before. I had probably cleared 15k in my graduating year, after my assistantship was unceremoniously wiped out in the budget cuts of 2009-2010 that followed the economic collapse of 2008-2009.  I spent my last year in grad school, 30 years old, as a parking attendant, community college instructor, and burger-flipper, a dumb survival strategy in retrospect, but one I had no time or energy to improve on as I focused on job applications and my dissertation.

In December of last year, using some of my free time, I took an online freelance writing workshop. It was through Ann Trubek, a.k.a. The Thinking Writer, cost about $150, and was focused on helping academics interested in freelancing. I can’t recommend it enough, and it found me in exactly the right moment to really change my life. It was during this class that I started being more proactive with the Fortune pieces, and pitched my editor my first Bitcoin coverage.

Starting with that one piece, I really got enthralled with Bitcoin and cryptocurrency as a topic, technology, society, and world. I found that there was a major Bitcoin conference coming up in Miami, and pitched my editor to let me go write about it. They covered my (substantial) hotel cost, and I got a million story ideas out of it. I turned around and pitched ALL of those ideas to my editor, who happily agreed to give me a more steady stream of assignments. At that point, in late January, I actually asked to have my hours cut at FishTank/SmartDeck, because Fortune was paying me considerably more and I wanted time to pursue similar opportunities. I went down to 2 days a week. I kept my health insurance.

It was interesting to see the reactions to my self-downsizing at FishTank – I had been afraid there would be some kind of resentment, but everyone at the company was happy for my success.  The only slight trepidation was from one of the SmartDeck execs who I had worked closely with. He told me how much he valued my work, and said he was sure I would find more writing work quickly, and that he didn’t want to lose me entirely. Essentially, he insisted that I think about what it would take for me to stay on with the company.

This level and kind of interest is totally different from anything I can imagine any but the most elite professors and researchers experiencing as part of their professional lives, simply because there is so little sense of teamwork or interdependency in academia – a situation I’ll be writing more about. It felt great to be wanted, even needed. The problem was that at that point, it was rather moot – they just didn’t have any more money to offer me.

In March, that changed. SmartDeck started racking up successes, signing new clients and, crucially, getting new investors onboard. And after doing some research on what I was worth in my role as a corporate communications officer, I knew roughly what to ask for.

Getting paid what I’m worth will allow me to make some significant financial progress over the next year – paying down student loans and saving up cash. In a year, of course, things will be quite different – for one thing, the company will either be substantially larger than it is now, or it will be completely gone. My writing career will have also grown and changed, with my primary goal being that I will have a commercial book deal of some sort. That uncertainty and possibility is, I’m finding out, a pretty great fit for my temperament.

Take-Home for the AltAc World

So, take from that what you will. But I think the lesson is this – pay attention to the reality of your professional situation, and not the abstract ideal of it. As an academic, you’re supposed to spend your time thinking Big Thoughts and doing critical research that changes public dialogues. As a postdoc, I spent three years with the chance to do exactly that, for which I’m eternally grateful.

But my postdoc time also gave me a chance to take a step back from the idealism of grad school and put me in touch with broader post-graduate academic life. What I saw and heard, in the lives of tenure-track professors at all stages of their careers, was not what I wanted for myself. I heard from senior professors and respected scholars how much time they spent advising graduate students, reviewing dissertations, sitting on administrative committees. I saw junior faculty losing their hair, and their hopes of research careers, over high teaching standards at small liberal arts colleges.

Taking all this in, I imagined my life at four or five times the teaching and administrative commitments I had as a postdoc, and I simply couldn’t imagine that I’d be able to have any kind of work-life balance and still pursue research AND my nonacademic writing goals. (On top of which, I was beginning to feel that the entire ecosystem of ‘academic research’ was more hollow and self-serving than most would comfortably admit. On which, you guessed it, another post coming soon).

My goal in life is to be a writer – to do creative work that makes the most of my talents and has an impact on the world around me. Eight months after turning my back on the academy, I’m closer to that goal than ten years of grad school and postdoctoral work got me. I don’t want to totally discount that those years helped me get ready for what I’m doing now, but I doubt it was the most efficient possible path.

But this isn’t about regret – it’s not about where I’ve been, but where I’m going. And where you could go, soon. The opportunities are out there, whether you’re in Boston or Manhattan or Tampa, Florida, to do meaningful work that connects with your interests and pays you well, outside of the academy. I know I’m not the first to say this, and I know I won’t be the last, but I hope this story has helped fill in some of the details of just how it can work.

In closing, I want to point out that none of this would likely have happened if it weren’t for my girlfriend Georgia.  She’s lovely and funny and talented and weird, and when I was ending my fellowship, she still had two more years committed to art school in Tampa.  I could have done what I’ve seen some academics do, and chase a job, either leaving Georgia behind or violently dragging her along with the caveman-like tug of the hair that I can’t help projecting onto this sort of one-sided academic life arrangement.

Instead, I decided to take a whirl at finding a new way of applying my talents, so that I could stay with the person I cared about. The chance to stay with her, respect her autonomy, and try something crazy and new, made for a powerful trifecta of motivation. In the end, the people in your life are more important than any job.