Book coverBerkeley students can read this book online now, for free, via Ebrary.

When it was first published in 2007, So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia was one of the very first books written for graduate students exploring careers beyond the tenure track. While many more such books have come out in the years since then (such as The Unruly Ph.D. and Next Gen Ph.D.), So What Are You Going To Do With That? – now in its third edition – remains a definitive work on the subject. What makes the book indispensable is its blend of empathetic commiseration, practical “tough-love” advice, and empowering manifesto about the value of a Ph.D. outside the ivory tower.

The book’s “You can do it!” message is supported by numerous real-world examples, which come from 100+ interviews conducted by the authors, Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Because the authors both hold Ph.D.s in English, the examples in the first edition of the book mainly came from Ph.D.s with humanities backgrounds. The third edition, by contrast, incorporates a wealth of interviews with social science and STEM Ph.D.s as well.

While this broadening of disciplines is a welcome addition, the authors point out that the “post-academic” career path often has more to do with individual interests than with academic background. This is borne out by examples such as a biology Ph.D. who becomes a life coach, and a literature Ph.D. (from UC Berkeley!) who becomes a private investigator. The authors warn readers not to fall prey to the “Plan B dilemma”:

“We’ve all been training for exactly the same job as assistant professor, so when post-academic careers come up, the first question is ‘So what do we all do next?’ – as if there can be a universal Plan B that will accommodate us all… the decision is — and must be — highly personal.”

To figure out what your own personal Plan B is, the authors offer a number of soul-searching exercises. Some of these I found productive, such as the “Seven Stories” exercise, which instructs you to write about seven satisfying accomplishments from any time in your life and to see what they have in common. (Other prompts, like the suggestion to draw “before” and “after” maps of your brain, I found less helpful.) The authors also encourage readers to take advantage of career exploration resources offered by universities’ Ph.D. career counselors.

The most helpful parts of the book, where co-author Susan Basalla’s new profession as an executive recruiter shine through, are those that re-frame traditional job-hunting advice in terms that take into account the particular challenges (both practical and emotional) that Ph.D.s face. Some examples include:

  • Networking as research: In Chapter 3 (“Asking the Big Questions: How to Figure Out if You Want Them and They Want You”), the authors helpfully describe networking as research — a process at which Ph.D.s excel. They recommend three ways to research a possible career: via online resources; via people; and via hands-on experience. Each of these methods is explored in-depth, and they provide useful templates for questions to ask and emails to send.
  • From C.V. to Résumé: In Chapter 4 (“This Might Hurt a Bit: Turning a C.V. into a Résumé”), the authors anticipate some of the common missteps a Ph.D. might make, offering practical tips such as: divide your experience into categories relevant to the job at hand, rather than the “academic trinity” of research, teaching, and service; and don’t shy away from counting part-time, volunteer, or internship positions as experience.

Perhaps the most controversial advice in the book is offered in the introduction, where the authors propose that students should explore “post-academic” jobs as an alternative to adjunct and postdoc positions, even for those whose ultimate goal is to stay in academia:

“Why not get a post-academic job while you wait for next year’s market? You can shrink the pool of willing adjunct teachers and postdoctoral fellows. You can earn twice as much money at a job that doesn’t consume your life the way academia does. You can live where you want to live… You can start knocking down your mounting credit card debt, prepare yourself for another career, and take back some power for yourself.”

This advice may not resonate with all Ph.D.s. But anyone who is starting to chart a post-academic path — whether as a graduate student, an adjunct, a postdoc, or even (as was the case for several individuals interviewed in the book) as an assistant professor — will find So What Are You Going To Do with That? to be a welcome and welcoming guide to the world beyond.