You Have More Transferrable Skills Than You Think: How Three PhDs Found Success in Nonacademic Jobs

Written by
Jaime Cleland, Anne Donlon, Joe Wallace, and Emily Tobey

Aug 17, 2021

Aug 17, 2021 • by Jaime Cleland, Anne Donlon, Joe Wallace, and Emily Tobey

If you are in the process of getting a PhD in English (or just thinking about it), you might be wondering where it will lead you. Obviously, teaching is one option. But you might also be considering other paths, given the competitive academic job market and the possibility that you have decided teaching is not for you.

Three English PhDs working at the Modern Language Association (MLA) share their stories about their paths from graduate school to nonacademic jobs, the wisdom they’ve gained in the process, and advice on what to do to increase your chances of success!

Nothing You Learn Is Wasted - Jaime Cleland

When I started graduate school in 2000, the academic job market was already challenging, and a trusted professor advised me to “be ready to make a lateral move” if things didn’t work out on the market, so I always had the idea of an alternative career in the back of my mind. When I graduated with my PhD in English in 2007, I wanted to try my luck on the academic path, and I worked for four years in visiting assistant professor jobs at different institutions. At the end of a VAP contract, with no tenure-track offer after five years on the market, I was ready to change course.

At that time, I didn’t have a specific goal to move into publishing, but rather to move out of permanently-temporary academic work and into an area with more opportunities that would allow me to return to New York. One thing I did during this process was reach out to the career center at my undergraduate alma mater. They worked with me on my résumé and put me in touch with other alumni. Doing informational interviews with schoolmates helped me to learn more about different careers and to practice talking with people about jobs despite my anxiety. Ultimately, I got my first job in publishing through my network (a grad school classmate in publishing had a coworker who needed someone for a temporary project; the temporary project eventually turned into something full-time). In between leaving my academic job and getting started in publishing, I did a variety of short-term and part-time gigs, which helped me pay the bills, gain more experience in areas outside teaching and research, and learn more about what full-time job might be a good fit for me.

I’m now an acquisitions editor at the MLA, which means that I work with book projects from their initial stages through the time when the final manuscripts move along to copyediting. In acquisitions, we discuss topics that would make good MLA books, reach out to potential volume editors and authors, and evaluate proposals that are sent to us. We guide projects through peer review and after they’re approved, and we coordinate with copyediting, production, and marketing to help them get finished books ready for readers. (Note that acquisitions at a scholarly publisher like the MLA is different from acquisitions at a trade publisher; if you’re interested in applying to acquisitions jobs, this is something to keep in mind.)

Another teacher once told me that “nothing you learn is wasted.” In grad school, I didn’t plan or expect to have the career I do now. But my work still draws on my skills and experiences from grad school, from before grad school, and from other areas of my life, and it still gives me opportunities to learn new things and to make a meaningful contribution. It can be challenging and emotional to move from a CV to a résumé—in a sense, you’re reevaluating your sense of yourself. While there can be real grief in letting go of some aspects of your academic experiences, you also have a lifetime of knowledge, interests, skills, and relationships with which to build a different type of future.

The Value of Service and Side Hustles - Anne Donlon

When I started a PhD in English, I didn’t have a very clear vision for my career path in mind but basically adopted the assumed career path toward a tenure-track faculty job. I loved doing research and found teaching and pedagogy interesting, so it seemed reasonable. I set my goals accordingly, learning about conference presentations, scholarly publications, and the academic job search. However, I was not counting on a tenure-track job being available. From the beginning of graduate school, I was aware of contingent labor and precarity in academia, being at a public institution where (at the time) many students did not have funding and almost all of us were doing a lot of adjuncting and other work.

So I kept an open mind about the future, and by the time I finished the PhD, because I pulled together a variety of fellowships and supplemental income during graduate school, I had a pretty wide range of experiences that gave me insights and confidence to explore other career options.

During my PhD program, in addition to teaching a number of writing and literature courses, I designed and led workshops for faculty members; served as a managing editor for an online, open-access journal; and had a part-time editorial role on a journal published by a university press. I also was involved in my graduate institution’s shared governance, which provided invaluable experience running and participating in meetings, working collaboratively, and navigating institutional structure and bureaucracy to advocate for student issues.

From these experiences in graduate school, I moved to a postdoctoral fellowship in an academic library. That position drew on my previous experiences of designing workshops, collaborating on digital publications, and undertaking research in archives. Working in the library, I gained knowledge of more digital humanities methods, project management, and the work of librarians and archivists. Those insights, in turn, proved valuable for my next full-time role, working at the MLA. In my current role as project manager for digital initiatives in the scholarly communication department at the MLA, I work on digital publications (like the recent Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities) and other scholarly communication infrastructure (like MLA Commons and its open access repository, CORE), which draws on my knowledge of the humanities, publishing, digital scholarship, and library technologies.

My career trajectory has not been a straight line but pretty circuitous, in a fulfilling way. I’ve been surprised by the way elements of previous experience in roles, skills, and fields become relevant to subsequent positions. I wouldn’t have been able to predict which aspects of these experiences would lead to the next one. At every stage, I’ve welcomed new chances to learn, whether from new job responsibilities or educational opportunities like workshops and conferences, which I think has been helpful in getting a sense of various kinds of jobs and skills to learn. I also have drawn on career services from my undergraduate and graduate institutions during my post-PhD career. Those conversations, webinars, and events have provided a broader sense of possible career paths.

So You Want to Be an Editor: Advice on Getting There - Joe Wallace

I am an associate editor at the MLA. I also have a PhD in early modern literature. At the MLA I copyedit articles for our scholarly journal, PMLA, and other association materials and contribute advice about editing to our website, the MLA Style Center. When I was in graduate school, I was fortunate to get an opportunity to copyedit the academic journal published by my department. I edited for the journal most of the time I was in graduate school, and by the time I graduated I had six years of experience working with The Chicago Manual of Style and the journal’s house style. I also knew how to proofread and how to format articles for publication.

After graduate school I taught for several years at a university in the United Kingdom. When I decided to move back to the United States to be closer to friends and family, university teaching jobs were hard to come by. I had enjoyed my editorial work in graduate school, so I decided to try editing full time. I was very lucky to find a great position editing academic articles at the MLA, where both my PhD and my editorial experience are valued.

For anyone interested in a career in editing, I can offer a few pieces of advice. If you’re starting out in graduate school, editing part-time can be a good way to learn a new skill and earn some extra money. If your university publishes academic journals, you could inquire about editing for them. Given the state of the academic job market, it’s a good idea to learn as many skills as you can in graduate school, because you might end up pivoting to the nonacademic job market.

If you’ve finished graduate school and don’t have editing experience, I wouldn’t recommend applying for in-house copyediting positions right away. You probably won’t be a competitive candidate for those positions, because most want you to have several years of editing experience. But you can always get experience by freelancing. If you want to freelance, your academic writing and research skills will be good selling points. I’d also recommend becoming familiar with commonly used style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Handbook and reading usage guides like Wilson Follet’s Modern American Usage (see a post I wrote about usage guides). The American Copy Editors Society has resources for new editors and a directory where potential clients can find freelance editors. You might also consider earning a professional certification. Your local university’s school of professional or continuing studies may offer certification in copyediting and proofreading.

Say Goodbye to “Shoulds”: The Art of the Career Pivot

A PhD in English equips you with a breadth and depth of knowledge invaluable to navigating post-graduate-school life. And it can also unleash a set of expectations about what is or is not considered a successful transition to the job market. Choosing to explore anything other than the traditional path to a faculty position is often perceived as a disappointment by both graduates and their communities.

As the stories of these three career trajectories attest, however, post-PhD paths are not usually clear cut or straight lines. And, increasingly, many employers affirm that the top skills they are looking for in new hires are just the ones cultivated in your English PhD program. The more open you are to jobs other than ones based on the assumptions or conventions in our society—the more you are willing to step outside the box—the more likely you will be to fulfill your potential and be fulfilled by your career. Every learning experience you have during and after school will likely enrich you both personally and professionally. So seek experience wherever you can and advice from everyone available to you. Instead of shoehorning yourself or following the herd down the beaten path, test new waters and find a career aligned with your unique skills and talents!