I filed my doctoral dissertation in December of 2012 and the next day went to work as a consultant for a small software company called Delicious Monster.
In theory that’s true, but in fact it wasn’t quite that simple. I’m often asked about my transition from academia to industry as though it were a finite, contained thing, and perhaps this clean narrative developed out of such questions. Similarly, as a PhD candidate, I often wrote and talked about antebellum American literature as though 1861 represented a definitive break that defined a discipline. In both cases, the real story is blurrier around the edges and difficult to encapsulate. Like the antebellum period, my transition out of academia is messy, spilling out of its boundaries. If graduate school gives you anything—and I argue that it does—it’s the sense that expansiveness only makes something a more fascinating topic for discussion. I hope that will be the case here, as I give a rawer account of the real story.
My greatest phobia about leaving academia was, in the words of an acquaintance who did the same, “fear of getting dumber.” This concern continues to haunt me—I’m perpetually testing my mental agility the way one worries a hangnail—but, as I’ve written elsewhere, my experience in industry thus far has been that the world is smarter than academics are trained to believe.
I work as a consultant, primarily for Bay Area startups, though I’m also currently working with a startup in Washington, D.C. Much of what I do falls under the rubric of “storytelling,” which I’ll describe in greater detail throughout the week. As the term implies, I’ve landed, partly by luck and partly by design, in a sector full of creative, engaged people who think in unconventional ways.
The startup world shares many qualities with academia: work is never about punching a clock; work happens in a variety of capacities; “work” itself is difficult to define. As in academia, everyone has side projects, which are really just another way of delving further into one’s specialization. My work—previously as a graduate student and now as a writer and content strategist—flows over into many facets of my life, and I’m not sure I would be happy any other way.
My PhD was the most fulfilling and stimulating experience of my life. It’s a great privilege to have the time to read, write, and devote oneself to a discipline that most people examine only in passing. I adore my PhD advisor, respect and admire my dissertation committee members, and miss my network of academic colleagues. About two years ago, however, when I was deep in the dissertation, I realized that I might not want a traditional academic career. I didn’t self-identify as a teacher, the long, slow timelines for writing and publishing didn’t resonate with me, and I wasn’t inclined, as one must be at the outset of such a career, to tread carefully. I found that I like, as we say, to move fast and break things.
Quietly, I embarked upon a plan B, positioning myself carefully while at the same time having absolutely no idea what I was doing. I created a Twitter account and started using it. I developed a LinkedIn profile. I started a blog. I began taking on small writing and editing jobs in addition to my academic work, if only to be able to say, at the crucial moment that someone asked, “Why, yes, I do freelance work. Let’s chat.”
It is therefore both poignant and triumphant to be writing these posts a year after finishing my PhD. This week I’ll describe some of what I do as a writer and content strategist based in San Francisco, but I’ll also reflect on topics such as learning the language of the tech industry, the art of transferable skills, and the tasks of negotiation and billing. I hope that I’ll have the courage to be brutally honest, and I hope that you’ll enjoy.