Does this sound familiar?: After several years, the end is finally in sight. The Ph.D. is practically in your hand!
But you want to quit. Why? Because you’re sick of academia. You don’t want a career in teaching, you’re burnt out doing research, or you feel like you’re making absolutely no difference that matters to anyone.
Unfortunately, you realize you have spent the past several years in graduate school honing the skills and building an expertise base that are preparing you for your first real job out of graduate school…(drum roll)…back into academia! Your Ph.D. is basically transitioning you from a cubicle in an office space you share with half a dozen other graduate students, to a tiny office across the hall – the one with no windows. What do you do?!?!
I’m a bit of the oddball here in this blogging forum: I’m a social scientist. And my extremely specialized skills and expertise, what I spent years honing, were completely unsuited for doing anything other than making that U-turn after getting my Ph.D. and heading right back into academia. I believed I was nothing but a bungee jumper: taking that dive into the real world, only to be yanked right back to where I already was. I’m an anthropologist, a Wari expert, an excavator of ancient tombs, and analyzer of ancient mortuary rituals. Want proof?
One of several child burials I excavated from the Wari civilization, ~A.D. 700, Ayacucho, Peru.
One of several child burials I excavated from the Wari civilization, ~A.D. 700, Ayacucho, Peru.If I were a character in an action-packed movie, you’d know me as Ms. Indiana Jones. Or rather, I would insist that you call me “Dr. Indiana Jones,” because, quite frustratingly, the only person I can get to call me Dr. Char is my nephew…and he usually forgets. If it were a horror movie, I’d be a zombie.
Wait. I misspoke when I said, “my extremely specialized skills and expertise, what I spent years honing, were completely unsuited for doing anything other than making that U-turn after getting my Ph.D.”
As I was finishing up my dissertation (and by “finishing up” I mean starting chapter 2 with at least six to eight months of more writing ahead of me), I was job searching and sending out resumes – with absolutely no luck! However, I admit, I did find one job in the real world where my tomb excavation skills were needed: excavating mass graves in post-war Iraq to help identify war victims and investigate war crimes. I couldn’t bring myself to apply.
Anyways, how did I make the leap from being a Wari scholar/tomb excavator/mortuary ritual expert, to my first real job after graduate school?
The starting point? Informational interviews. As I mentioned, I sent out dozens of resumes with no luck. So, I decided to do the informational interview thing. I scoured the members of my university’s alumni association, and sent out emails to anyone who was working in the real world doing something that sounded even remotely interesting.
Did I get a job using this method? No. But two memorable things resulted from these interviews (at least, two that I remember). First, I did an info interview with a guy who brought me into a social networking site that was quite new at the time, one where you had to be invited to join, that only members had access to. And once I was in, he assured me that I’d have access to a bunch of professionals out there who I could reach out to and network with.
You may have heard of this social networking site: LinkedIn! I became a LinkedIn member when it was exclusive and not open to just anyone! Of course, once I was a member and explored the site for about 10 minutes, I promptly forgot about it and my profile lay dormant until about a year ago. Okay, I admit, it’s still a work in progress.
Second, I learned about a fellowship for scientists (including social scientists!) who want to step out of academia for a year and explore the field of policy: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, which places fellows into federal agencies to work on science and technology policy issues. One of the alumni I info interviewed was an anthropologist working at the Department of Defense. She referred me to another anthropologist to talk to. This second anthropologist had been an AAAS fellow, and suggested I apply. So I did. And I got it.
Competing against a bunch of hard-core scientists – biologists, physicists, neuroscientists – I was sure I wouldn’t be chosen. I truly believe the only reason I did well is because I walked into that interview with nothing to lose and was therefore feeling pretty relaxed, a bit nonchalant, and was able to inject a bit of my sarcastic humor into the discussion.
Oh, and by “interview,” I mean a panel of 10-12 hardcore, high achieving scientists who were former AAAS fellows who drill you with questions about why you want to do the fellowship, blah blah blah. There was no way I was going to be chosen for such a prestigious fellowship so I went in there with a carefree attitude and a mission to chitchat. And I am not a chit chatter!
I also downplayed the tomb excavation expertise (i.e., didn’t mention it) and played up the “culture matters” concept. I have to admit that the stars were aligned because at the time, many in the federal government were coming to the realization that culture matters, that problems weren’t being solved by technology or bigger guns, that anthropologists were needed!!
So, I got the fellowship and ended up being placed in the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security where I was “charged” to learn all I could about improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and the threat of these types of weapons potentially being used by terrorists here in the United States. That led to working on projects related to terrorism more broadly, risk communication, technology transition, social media use during disasters, and community resilience.
But more about that next time!