I listened to an episode of Nerdette, one of my favorite podcasts, on a walk today. I thought this episode would be about climbing Mount Everest. (And it was). But part of the conversation was also about how Melissa Arnot Reid explains her career as a high-altitude climbing guide. Here’s a couple paraphrased excerpts:
Tricia Bobeda: At what point did you realize that you’re so good at an activity that you turned into a career?
Melissa Arnot Reid:
But here’s the part I loved the most, as it REALLY resonated with me:
Tricia Bobeda: And how do you explain at a dinner party what you do as a career?
Melissa Arnot Reid: I struggle with the dinner party question, to this day. I usually say I work at Starbucks. It’s something that is really hard to explain to people and for me, it became a career, I guess, once it was what I was doing to support myself financially. So I used to talk around it.
How do you answer “So what do you do?”
I find this “what you do” question so difficult, and I know so many of you do, too.
First, maybe, like me, you don’t work in your academic area. So you might not feel exactly like a “real” geologist, museum professional, or lawyer. And yet, you don’t feel like all that grad school was for naught. So you hear academics introduce themselves as “I’m a neurobiologist” or “I do cybersecurity” and you’re like “oh boy. Okay, I guess I’m an ‘Admissions Officer Sr.’ ”
Then there’s those of us who work a day job, something that may not be all that interesting or noteworthy or tied to your identity. But before you respond to the question with pure honesty (“I just work at Safeway” or whatever), you’re weighing how to explain your true aspirations & potential. After all, your fellow dinner party guests might know someone who knows someone in your field…or
Then there’s many of us who are so-called “slash” workers, someone working multiple simultaneous jobs or careers. Maybe you have a side hustle on top of your “real world job.” Maybe you work at Starbucks because the only gigs available in your field are part-time, grant-funded and could end at any time. Or maybe you’re an adjunct, but because it pays diddly, you’re also working at the grocery store on nights & weekends. So do you respond that you’re a consultant when hardly any money is coming in yet, a lab biologist, a faculty instructor?
And finally, there’s the academia problem. If you have your Ph.D. and work in higher ed, you instantly garner the respect that a terminal degree commands. So you can toss that comma Ph.D. into your signature line even when you’re in a staff role. People notice. And faculty are more likely to respect your suggestions when you’re a Ph.D. but working as an instructional designer because you’re someone who “gets” them. In fact, in my department, our email signature allows you to put credentials after your name ONLY when they are terminal degrees. It’s as if nobody gives a bleep if you’re a CPA, PMP, have a Master’s degree, or are all-but-dissertation.
Maybe, someday I’ll just introduce myself as a career coach. But right now, I’m still in the talking around it phase. I’m ABD. Working in a staff job that requires only a Bachelor’s. Working in a field that is (mostly) unrelated to my major and grad work. With this side gig of career coaching. That I started after doing it for free as part of my service to my university. So I am, at times, a training manager (my day job), a career coach, a passionate advocate for lifelong learning, but almost never an anthropologist.
ETA: Turns out I’m not the only one thinking through these issues. I found this Inside Higher Ed article, “Negotiating Our Alt-Ac Professional Identities” by Joshua Kim. Go read it, it’s good!