My professional career path thus far has been a series of mistakes that somehow landed me to my vocation.
When I decided to enter graduate school (decided might be too strong of a word), it was after a year of searching for a job where I felt I was making a difference and improving the lives of women living in the South. It took me a year of working side, often low or non-paying jobs to figure out 1) the job I was looking for was either non-existent or 2) I was wildly unqualified or under-experienced to earn this type of rare and precious social justice career in South Carolina.
All of this is to say, my turn toward the academic life initially was a mistake, a bit of me admitting that didn’t know how to get a non-academic job. Academia on the other hand seems like a well-defined path: you studied an area of specialization for years, you learned to teach, you publish, you earn your Ph.D., you go on the job market and BLAM! Your entire professional career unfolds in front of you.
I think today’s graduate students are savvy enough to know that’s not at all how it works.
It’s not enough to immerse yourself into an area of specialization. The specialization needs to connect to trends in the field (trends = where the jobs are). It’s not enough to publish. You need to publish in the “right” journals and those “right” journals depend on the field, your career focus, and your audience. It’s not enough to have a Ph.D. You have to be the total package and the “right fit” for the variety of institutions with open positions on the job market.
Finding that “right fit” can be maddeningly frustrating because here’s where the mistakes should come. How do you know the “right fit” in a genuine way until you bump into the wrong fits?
In graduate school this could mean trying different interdisciplinary courses; it could mean trying to publish in certain journals and finding out you care about fundamentally different questions than the niche you thought you wanted to firmly ensconce yourself in; it could mean trying out non-academic internships or volunteer opportunities; and (here’s the potentially be the painful one) it could mean discovering after 6 years of devoting your life to a particular professional path, you find out you made a mistake. The right fit for you is outside of academia.
Which is what happened to me and how I mistakenly stumbled into my dream career in nonprofit, social justice work.
Of course the art is making our mistakes count, of smoothing out the things that we thought were supposed to work one way and work a different way, of making it seemed like we planned it all along.
Eme Crawford earned her Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of South Carolina. She is currently the Director of Communications and Learning at the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN). Learn more about WREN at https://www.scwren.org/.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Contact Dr. Heather Brandt at firstname.lastname@example.org.