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So, this past Friday was my first day at a new job. I'm on a trial period right now (okay, let's be precise - I'm an intern, and have been told that will be re-evaluated in a month or two). The opportunity is certainly interesting, I'm approaching it with an open mind, and it's amazing how little work it took. I literally emailed a guy and had coffee with him, then got an offer. I'm excited because it's an opportunity to learn the day to day of the business world as opposed to the academic, and show that I can hack it. Which, I think it's safe to say, I clearly can.
In many ways, this new position is not the kind of job that gets mentioned when the discussion turns to alternative careers for academics, or #altac. The buzzwords around that are generally things like research management, admin positions in academia, positions with government agencies - high-level glamour stuff. I, on the other hand, am for the moment basically a copywriter. My first assignment for the company, on a freelance basis, was actually writing SEO copy (the equivalent, in my humble opinion, of hiring Gustav Klimt to paint your house beige), and on my first day in the office I churned out some web copy.
But it might not be complete drudgery. I actually spent most of the day working on my new company's application for a local technology innovation award, and in the near future it looks like I'll be working on investor prospectuses. These are both tasks that exercise the analytic skillset I developed in my academic training. For instance, explaining the impact and potential benefits of my new company's technology efforts entails exactly the same sort of social-systematic analysis, projection, and inference that I use when writing about, say, the social impact of car audio technology (forthcoming in Technology & Culture!) The line of reasoning is reversed (what will happen vs. what did happen), but I immediately found that engaging. My new company's core offering is a business and social networking tool, and so I got to write about the knock-on efficiencies of networks. Pretty cool for my first day.
There are other big reasons I'm excited about my new path - mostly coming down to where I place my priorities. Literally the day before the end of my academic appointment at the University of South Florida, I finished and submitted a proposal for an academic book. I am excited by the possibility of having that book accepted for publication, but the process of preparing the proposal reminded me that, while there are certain kinds of enjoyment that come with academic writing, there is nothing fun about it. I want to do things that are fun.
At about the same time, I asked a friend of mine who had recently finished a popular nonfiction book for some details about numbers - and they were eye-opening, maybe even staggering. She was able to live for a year-plus on the money for writing a 200-odd page book, which I am sure I would have no problem blowing through in four months. She made more from her book than I did from my postdoctoral fellowship. I'm sure many other academics are genuinely not interested in writing for popular audiences, and I know there are a large number who are truly incapable of writing with humor, verve, and insight at the same time. But as someone who has that ability and actually thinks the work is important, some very simple math makes it absolutely foolish for me not to pursue the possibility.
And so I'll be spending my mornings before work putting together a proposal for a book on conspiracy theory and its impact on American politics - a topic I'll also be blogging about over at my new site, Space Lizards in Black Helicopters (Spacelizards.com - and yes, I know it's the greatest URL of all time. Thank you for saying so). This simply isn't something I would have been able to do as a first-year (or maybe even sixth-year) tenure-track professor. The grind of academic research, teaching, and writing is draining, most of all on your creative resources. There is no downtime - even your summers are dedicated to research and teaching prep. There is no time that you can truly call your own, or that will allow you to pursue other applications of your gifts.
For some people that's okay, because teaching and research are truly their focus in life. I'm not so sure that's true for me. And in my new office, though there's a good bit of the new-startup buzz that can suck you in if you let it, it also seems perfectly okay to put in your eight hours and then simply go home. The possibility of truly making a living by working seven hours a day, even after my time as a relatively time-rich postdoc, is pretty exciting. And it's also exciting that I will be going home to work on a book that more than 500 people might end up caring about.
But then again, I did send out those academic book proposals. I did finish a major publication, also just as I was headed out the door. I certainly am working to keep my options open as an academic. Maybe the urge to write about Lacan will catch up with me in six months. Maybe I'll discover that the professional 9-5 world is less generous with my time than I'm seeing so far. I am, unapolagetically, hedging my bets. I'm keeping multiple options open - and more than any idea of simply ditching the tenure track, I think that should be the key theme of the #altac movement. Having options is not something academics or academics-in-training generally keep in mind, but if they did, maybe it would put enough pressure on things like the adjunct pool and salaries to start having a real impact.