Why I needed a backup plan

When you got your degree, did you get it knowing what kind of work you would do?

This is how a lot of people end up with a graduate or professional degree. To be a teacher, you’ll need your ed degree; if you want to be a doctor, you’ll need med school; and to be a college professor, you’ll need a terminal degree in your field.

Lots of people get an advanced degree for other reasons. Maybe you needed to learn all that you could about a particular subject. Or maybe you were getting nowhere with your job hunt because you had only a Bachelor’s – and so you decided to tack on another degree, deciding to figure out the career stuff later. (That would be me, if you’re wondering).

No matter how you ended up with an advanced degree, or what you envisioned doing with it, you need a backup plan.

picture-of-crumpled-drafts
Your backup plan may take a couple of tries, too.

I know, because I found that out the hard way.

Why I Went to Grad School

When I did my undergrad, I knew I wanted to work in museums, and in researching that career path, I learned enough to know I would need at least a Master’s degree.

I did my Master’s and cobbled together museum jobs (internships, co-ops, and short-term grant-funded project work) while competing for “real” museum jobs (full-time, permanent staff jobs with benefits). However, much like academia, museum jobs are few and far between and competition is fierce.

I decided to go for a Ph.D. so I could at least advance my training, knowledge and skills, while biding my time until real full-time museum work came along. While my grad program was very supportive of my chosen alt-ac path (and believe me, that’s not always the case), I still had to do all the legwork of figuring out career stuff on my own because not many people know how to “museum.”

My only backup plan to working in museums was…oh wait, there was none.

But then here’s what happened.

Plan A – My Museum Career – Didn’t Quite Work Out

About a year after I finally landed my museum “dream job,” I was laid off.

During the great recession.

Which also happened to be when I was 3 months pregnant with my first child.

What I Did: I Acted Based on My Immediate Needs

I didn’t have the luxury of looking for work in my field, as there was none (see: recession). But even if there had been, museum work often requires that you go to where the openings happen to be. With a partner in grad school and a baby on the way, I couldn’t move. I just needed work, and fast.

So I indiscriminately started looking for a job. Any job would do, so long as it had benefits.

I Prioritized

To find something fast and reduce the stress of looking for work, I decided to target higher ed employers because:

  • I needed good benefits since I would be starting a new job well along into a pregnancy.
  • Higher ed was an industry that was familiar to me after having spent so much time there. Starting any new job would be stressful, but at least academia was familiar to me and would make the new job learning curve less steep.

And Accidentally Found Two New Careers!

Two interesting things happened.

  1. I found a job. And that job turned into a rewarding career (designing & delivering professional development training modules and workshops).
  2. Between my job and my personal journey to working in academia, colleagues and friends started seeking me out for help with finding or starting their higher ed and/or alt-ac careers.

You MUST have a Plan B

I have realized since then that you will always need a career backup plan. Your dream job may fall through your grasp. 

What happens if you do land a job in your field. . .only to find that you aren’t well-suited for your field of work?

Or what should you do when there are no jobs available in your field?

What will you do if – or when – your area of expertise falls out of favor?

Or if the academic credentials you worked so hard to achieve are no longer enough, due to competition and job scarcity?

Even when you know what work you want, now more than ever, you need strategies, skills, and approaches to take control of your career for when things change.


Because they inevitably will.

Having to navigate through all that myself when I was in grad school and beyond (and still), I started this blog to help people like me: smart, hard-working, scrappy individuals looking to establish and maintain a rewarding long-term career, but with little clue on how to make that happen.

Here in this blog, I’ll share guidance that has worked for me, where to find more resources, and how others have gone about this tricky thing of making a career for themselves. Please subscribe and stick with me on this journey.

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