Do you need clown shoes? Finding a research job during Covid lockdowns


The other day I had an actual 3D, face to face lunch with a colleague, let’s call him Simon. After months of 2D Zoom catch ups, it was lovely to be in an actual cafe on campus, eating steaming hot noodles. Simon and I were meant to be discussing business, but of course the conversation quickly took a turn into complaint territory.

Let’s face it, 2020 is a burning dumpster fire of a year. There’s a lot to complain about.

Simon went first. He has a PhD, but now works in an ‘alt ac’ policy role, helping academics with their research administration. He complained about the jaw dropping rudeness of some of our colleagues during the Covid shut down. Apparently some academics, righteously pissed at being shut out of their labs and offices, took to yelling at support staff on the phone. We agreed that some people really need to get a life outside the lab.

My complaint was some supervisors telling their students that Covid lockdown is ‘the ideal time to get some papers written’. Really?!

As our @ANUresearcher Twitter bio puts it: a pandemic is not a writing retreat. It’s hard to concentrate and be creative if you are in the deep valley of Covid shit. But what’s even worse, in my opinion, is how some supervisors pushing the idea that publishing a metric shit-ton of journal papers will keep the academic dream alive in a Covid affected job market. I pointed out to Simon that this attitude is not unconnected with people who freak out when they can’t access their lab: they see more work as the answer to everything.

The reality is, for the next 18 months at least, academic jobs will be scarce – at least in English speaking countries where universities are exposed to the international student market. Around 50% of people leave academia at the end of their degree anyway – this crisis means more will be joining them. By encouraging people to stay in the academic race, these paper-pushing supervisors are potentially robbing people of valuable time to prepare their escape plans.

Simon agreed and said something both wise and funny:

“I think most supervisors are useless at career advice. When a student says I’d like a job outside academia, what your average supervisor hears is I think I would like to join the circus

I laughed soup out my nose while Simon continued:

“Your average supervisor has no idea about circuses or how to join them, so they scratch their head and say I dunno, maybe you need some clown shoes?”

“Or an elephant!”, I said, getting the hang of this analogy. “Then they say Hmm, I don’t have an elephant to give you, but, I know an expert in elephant genomes? Which is frustrating because you only want to know about circuses, not the genetic composition of elephants”.

“That’s right”, said Simon “What you actually need to do is find someone who has already run away to the circus and ask them how to do it.”

If you’re really lucky, you have a supervisor who has strong industry ties, or who has come from an industry and has kept their connections, but most academics have not been ‘outside’ for years, even decades. Most people who leave academia never come back. Therefore, our collective knowledge of how to ‘make it’ as a researcher outside academia is very poor.

If you want to join the circus, you’ll need to find someone who has walked that path before – luckily there are plenty of people out there and some of them even write books about the transition.

Up until now, the best book I’ve read about making the transition from a PhD to a non-academic job is Navigating the pathway to industry by MR Nelson (which is a bargain at $2.99 or so on Kindle). While Navigating the Path is great, it is a little short on detail about how to follow the advice that it offers. So I was pleased to find out about a new book called Leaving Academia: a practical guide by Dr Chris Caterine through Princeton University Press this month.

I immediately contacted Princeton, who sent me a review copy to read and what a joy this book is. Leaving Academia is both a first person account of ‘joining the circus’ and a guidebook on how to follow in his footsteps.

Dr Chris Caterine has a PhD in ancient Roman poetry, so he’s a good person to write this book. Graduates in the sciences often have a range of quite ‘marketable’ technical skills, and can restyle themselves as data scientists. Sadly, humanities grads can have a harder time convincing non-academic employers that their skills are relevant. In Leaving Academia, Caterine talks you through the whole process of landing a role that will use your research skills, whatever your background.

Caterine starts out with comparing the non-academic job path to looking at a black hole:

‘You know the object is there, but it’s impossible to see past the event horizon that shrouds its true workings in mystery. Its gravitational pull actually makes that limit a point of no return: anything that moves beyond the event horizon is unable to cross back over again, at least not without being irrevocably and utterly transformed. These attributes make leaving academia awesome in the word’s original sense: enormous and terrifying.’

The twin elements or fear and the unknown, he says, means many people ‘keep even the event horizon in the distance’. In my experience this is very true: during a PhD, academia can become an all encompassing world with rituals that you understand and know. The work is challenging and interesting, so many people stay, despite the poor pay and uncertainty. And hey – no judgment here! I did this myself for over 9 years and I understand the stuck feeling only too well. Contemplating leaving means reimaginging your professional identity and building a whole new professional network. It’s so hard to know where to start.

This book has some great suggestions. In the first chapter, ‘Dread’ Caterine talks about the feelings of ‘approaching the event horizon’, sympathetically and senstitively. Here is a man who understands the boulevard of broken academic dreams and the series of unpalatable choices pursuing an academic career entails. Do you move to a town where you know no one for a job that might get your foot on the first rung of the ladder? What are the trade offs for you and your spouse? This part spoke to me as someone who is ‘living the academic dream’. I’ve written about my own struggles with anxiety and adventures with medication – would I have to be medicated in another career? Reading this made me wonder: is the sacrifice really worth it?

We are encouraged to think of academia as a vocation that offers a comfortable ‘life of the mind’, but in reality, it’s been at least 20 years since this was true. What academia really offers is a lot of work with precious little job security to back it up. From an early age, my son told me he didn’t want to be an academic because ‘you work so much harder than Dad and get less money’ (burn!). What my son noticed was the number of hours I must work to meet the continual pressure to ‘perform’. My workload doesn’t leave a lot of time for other hobbies… in fact, you could argue that all my hobbies (writing blog posts and books, podcasting) are really more work in disguise.

I can understand why Dr Marie-Alix Thouaille has labelled the academic dream a form ‘cruel optimism’ where the ‘good life’ fantasy is motivating, but also damaging. The hope of getting – and keeping – a permanent academic job can lead you to make life choices that are ultimately not in your best interest. At the same time, the nature of academic work means you are probably passionate about what you do. Academic work offers a sense of purpose and the promise of making a difference.

In short, if you will excuse the expression: academia is a total mind fuck.

Giving up the academic dream and finding other ways to give your life meaning and purpose can be disheartening. That’s one of the reasons I am glad this book has been written. Caterine steps you through the ‘admitting you have a problem’ stage and how to move from ‘living to Learn to Learning to live’, where you put your happiness and wellbeing first.

The meaty part of the book and where, I think, Caterine adds significant value is the step by step guide to networking your way into a job. Many – perhaps most – job opportunities never get as far as a job advertisement. I’ve got most of my jobs this way, so I know this method will work – but it takes work. Caterine can save you a lot of time by guiding you in the set up and execution of a networking strategy.

It would take too long to outline the networking method here – and you really should read the book if you are interested – but I interviewed Chris Caterine recently and asked him for some tips. You can listen to our conversation on my SoundCloud page or click the link below:

Caterine’s is, so far, the only book I’ve read that deals with the post job search stage and how to become a different kind of worker. I’ve written before about how non-academics can experience the academic criticism culture as rude. The academic tendency to find fault in everything, be obsessively detail focussed and keen to make an individual ‘novel’ contribution can be unhelpful in other business settings. You don’t want to go to all the effort of landing a job and get the sack by acting like an academic asshole in a business workplace!

Caterine carefully talks you through the ‘culture shock’ you can expect and how to play your academic background as a strength, not a potential source of trouble. He uses his own experience and the experience of others to show you how to leverage your deep expertise and avoid pitfalls – he even has a section on the value of small talk. I really enjoyed the level of detail in this chapter and I would find it a comforting read before starting a new job anywhere.

In short, I recommend this book unreservedly to any PhD graduate contemplating the move out of academia but not sure where to begin. I’d also recommend it to supervisors – when you are asked about joining the circus, don’t email your connect in elephant genetics! Take this book off the shelf and give it to your student. They will thank you.