Updated August 3, 2021
This may seem like either an over-simple or too-difficult instruction depending on whether you’re extroverted or introverted. But I want you to think for a few minutes about your friendships.
I believe that we become the people we hang out with.
A lot of academics only hang out with other academics, and because of this they get really stupid advice.
“Sure, take the post-doc. It only pays 40K and you have to teach 18 classes, but it’s a stepping stone for your career.”
“PhDs can’t do anything outside of academia… You’re going to end up as a barista at Starbucks.”
“Are you sure you want to GIVE UP on your academic career?”
Your academic friends mean well, but they repeat the same old clichés that were repeated to them—these are up there with “Good academics find work.”
The time has come to face the music. The normies might know something we don’t.
Here are a few friends every academic should look for and treasure:
1. The ex-academic
This is so important. I have several ex-academic friends, including two who were ABD and left academia when they got job offers and never looked back. (That’s the beauty of living in the national capital, where ABD-PHDs frequently get scooped into election campaigns or government work and never return.)
This friend will be vital. She’ll understand academia as well as you do. She’ll speak the language of academia. But she also understands the “real world,” and has built a career in it. When you talk about getting out, she’ll give you ideas and help you plot out some possibilities. On days when you’re frustrated with your post-academic career path (and you do get lots of those moments), she’ll be a safe person for you to express your frustration to. This friend is vital if you can find her.
2. The knowledge-economy friend
One humbling thing for a PhD is that, when you find people working in knowledge-based jobs, they shine brighter than a lot of academics. I ran a project on the economy with two political strategists as I was waiting to defend my PhD. They were both far more intelligent than me, and neither had more than a masters’ degree. Both did, however spend time as key advisors to prime ministers and read voraciously.
One of the myths floating around academia is that leaving means giving up the life of the mind.
Au contraire. I spend most of my time with people who are far smarter than me. I recently attended an immigration conference as a representative of the Government of Canada, and was shocked to realize that the government policy people know just as much about immigration as most academics I know.
Find a friend working in a “smart” industry. Find a friend who uses, nay, who challenges his brain everyday. This friend will be great for intelligent conversation, but they’ll never once tell you that it’s a good idea to apply for a sessional position in Alaska for a year to get experience.
You’ll learn from her that there’s a rich life of the mind outside of the academy too and, bonus, you can get paid big bucks for it.
3. The creative economy friend
Your PhD is about ideas, but one of my favourite things about academia was the creative process. I loved coming up with new ways to present ideas, and writing—as you might have guessed—is still something I love to do. Find a friend who is creative: a graphic designer, web designer, writer, copywriter, photographer, or user experience expert.
This friend will show you how to make good money by providing a creative service to someone, and they’ll value your writing abilities if nothing else. And they’ll give you potential information about another amazing career direction for former academics-communications and media. They’ll also give you ideas about how to “brand” yourself. They’ll tell you if your LinkedIn profile pic looks like it’s from a bad dating site. And maybe they’ll throw you a free business card.
Creative economy people show you a different way to see the world. Many of them freelance or run their own businesses which is, believe it or not, a possible avenue for you in the future. They’re awesome.
4. The butcher, the baker, or the candlestick maker
A nod to the old nursery rhyme, you should have one friend who roasts coffee beans, bakes artisanal breads, creates green roofs for buildings, or makes craft beer for a living. You should meet plumbers and carpenters who love what they do. Because some PhDs need to forge a completely different path than being right next to academia. Some need to go and fix bikes, to cut the strings to the intellectual overlords, and to write a totally different “happily ever after.”
By the way, if you’ve never heard this CBC report on PhDs leaving academia, you need to check it out!
5. The “hates-their-job” friend
Last but not least, the “hates their job” friend teaches you some realities about the world. They may do a job they hate for pretty good money, or a job they just tolerate for decent money, but this friend is driven by the needs of a paycheque.
Now let me tell you something the hates their job friend gets that you don’t. While you’ve been off chasing that tenure-track bullshit dream, they’ve been paying for a house and building for retirement. That poor schmuck is on her way to puttering around a golf course in Florida in her 70s, while you’re on your way to being a nice, elderly Walmart greeter. Show some respect.
The working-class gets something that most PhDs haven’t yet. That life isn’t all about following your dreams (not that I want to discourage this). Some of the people I know in Assistant Professor positions are miserable, make no money, and work like dogs. While I do believe you can do work you love, there are still times and places where you need to let other things besides following your dreams make some decisions for you. I have three kids. If my spouse and I don’t earn–they don’t eat. That’s life.
How do you make friends?
It can be hard to make friends as an adult. Honestly, a lot of the people I meet is because of my kids—kids can give you permission to talk to strangers at parks in a way that you just can’t do if you don’t have them. Dog parks are another possibility. Join meet-ups. Attend speaking events. Even if you’re an introvert, get yourself around totally different groups of people once in a while. It could change your life.