07 August 2017

Goodbye Academia: The Need for De-Specialization

When I decided to leave academia (or alternatively, when academia decided to kick me out), I quickly realised that I needed to change my profile massively. As an academic, one becomes very specialised, and there is this mindset where you basically think that you know a lot about a very small part of the world. I suppose that is what years in graduate school will do to you. You enter a department as a young graduate student, and as the years go by, you eventually choose a sub-field to pursue, and within that sub-field, you pick a topic to do research on, and within that topic, you write a dissertation about a very particular phenomenon in that topic. And you do this process over and over again for your other research projects. At least that is what I did. This is all good, in academia. Once you find yourself outside of academia, then a completely different set of rules are in play.

See, I remember the very first meeting I had with the German Job Services Agent (when I became unemployed I was eligible for social services, but this is the topic for a later post), where he told me that given my (then current) profile, it would be a little hard to find a new position. It was too specialised. I already knew that, and told him that frankly speaking, I have no desire to be academic anymore, and so I would be open to working in a position that would make use of the skills I have, in any industry. That was in January, when I was freshly unemployed. In the months after that, I had to (re/un)learn many things so that I would be able to cast a wider net than what I was doing in academia. And in July, I found a job. So what did I do?

Well, first was the mindset, which has to change. Academics tend to frame themselves in their narrow pigeonhole of a specialisation. If you're a linguist, are you a phonetician, a phonologist, a syntactician, or a semanticist? Are you a formalist or a functionalist? If you are a psycholinguist, do you do sentence processing or discourse processing? If you are a functionalist syntactician, do you work in Construction Grammar or Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar? Questions like these go on and on, and the pigeonholes seem to be never-ending. All of this has to go.

One very concrete evidence that this method of thinking has to go was the fact that I had to reduce my 8-page CV into something more manageable, condensing it into a single (one-sided) page. Instead of listing every article I have published, every talk I gave, instead of listing what I have exactly done in terms of topic in the past, I have listed the skills that I could do, which could prove useful in a non-academic setting. I had to demonstrate that I have transferable skills, skills that could be used beyond the small pigeonhole that I had inhabited for the past several years.

Speaking of skills, I picked up new skills in the meantime, again in an effort to de-specialise. I needed to learn new methods of doing the things I have been doing before. For example, when it comes to statistical computing, R (a software) is my main tool of choice. I used a bunch of packages on a daily basis in order to accomplish the computations I needed to do in my academic work. However, I quickly realised that I needed to familiarise myself with other packages too, which are more useful to other industries. So I went ahead and did that. Additionally, I learned programming languages and other tools like Python and SQL. With every tool that I acquired, it added another skill in my toolbox which raised my competitiveness in the non-academic job market.

So yeah, de-specialisation is important, and this is something they don't teach you in graduate school. I was job-hunting in the academic job market for two years, trying to find the correct tiny pigeonhole to inhabit, yet there didn't seem to be any. So I job-hunted outside of academia, and six months later, I am working again.

A few weeks ago, I got a message from an ex-colleague notifying me of an academic opportunity (which, as usual, is term-limited, low-pay, and most probably looking for someone whose research profile is sort of like me, but not exactly like me) that I could potentially apply for, in case I was interested. I was like, "Meh, no thanks."

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