This guest post comes from Marcia Yudkin, who is coming up on 35 years since she left the academic life. After earning her philosophy Ph.D. from Cornell and teaching at Smith College, she left it all behind in 1981. Over the decades she has learned all sorts of ways to transfer her academic skills to earning a good living on her own.
These include everything from corporations paying her over $10K/day to run in-house technical writing sessions to becoming one of the first editors at the Chinese government’s English language publishing house in the 1980s. She has also been a project manager, conference speaker, and group coach.
Here is her story.
You can learn more about Marcia at www.yudkin.com
Ask an anxious parent to name the most practically useless kind of degree they can think of, and they’d probably cite one of the humanities, such as art history, literature or philosophy. My experience says otherwise, however. I received a B.A. in philosophy from Brown in 1974 and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell in 1978.
After teaching 2 1/2 years at Smith College, I quit the academic world. My liberal arts education, advanced training in philosophy and teaching experience prepared me surprisingly well for 35 years of successful self-employment. Here are the skills that I developed or reinforced while taking and teaching classes in philosophy and that transferred nicely to non-academic earning opportunities.
- Curiosity. Wanting to know, questioning and wondering drove me to philosophy in the first place, and once I left the subject behind, I continued to make good use of my urge to ask “why” and “what.” The very week I left my college teaching job, I had my first freelance article published, and for several years after that, writing articles for national and regional magazines was my biggest source of income.
Although my first several articles were “think pieces,” derived mainly from my thoughts, ideas or experiences, I learned to gather information for articles from experts and those affected by issues that interested me, which ranged from childhood sexual abuse and getting married abroad to cross-cultural relationships and a possible return of the death penalty in my state of Massachusetts. To better understand the concerns and constraints of the editors I worked for, I took a fabulous college-level course on editing that paid off for me many times over in the decades that followed.
Through a contact at the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities, I heard about a year-long exchange program between UMass and the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing. With my article publications and knowledge of editing, I was a strong candidate to be sent to China to work as a writer and editor, while the government-owned Chinese publishing company would send one of their staffers to UMass to study. In the fall of 1983, when China was opening up cautiously to the West, I flew off to Asia for the adventure of a lifetime. There my curiosity about a different culture and political system got a tremendous workout, giving me plenty of fresh topics to write about when I returned to the U.S.
- Writing and publishing. Before leaving academic life, I had published several pieces on philosophy and women’s studies in peer-reviewed journals, and that helped me land the gig of teaching a six-week workshop at Radcliffe College for women professors called “Completing Your Writing Projects.” When the course ended, most of the participants wanted to continue meeting with me, and for close to a dozen years I continued, on my own, leading this critique group for women working on academic articles and books in sociology, classics, philosophy, urban studies and entrepreneurship. Group members paid me every couple of months. During our meetings, everyone would get a turn passing around two or three pages for feedback from me and the others. I would mark up the manuscripts with comments as I read, lead the discussion and give pointers on concepts like topic sentences, sentence variety, transitional phrases and the taming of jargon. So enthusiastic were participants about our sessions that they went into a tailspin every time I mentioned that I would be going on vacation.
My experience in writing and publishing led to paid co-authoring contracts for two editions of an American Philosophical Association guidebook for professors on how to get journal articles and books published. I also met someone who owned a small press and who for years hired me on a project basis to evaluate manuscripts that had caught her eye and to thoroughly edit books she had selected to be published.
I taught popular classes on getting published at adult education centers in Cambridge and Boston, which led to class members paying me afterwards for one-on-one advice. I sponsored my own classes as well and developed a coaching program in which aspiring writers paid me a set fee for three months of unlimited advice on their current writing projects. Companies paid me $8,000 – $12,000 a day to train a small group of employees on the specialized kind of writing they needed to master.
- Critical thinking. When my professional focus evolved from writing to marketing, I rarely discussed the specifics of my educational background. However, it was extremely clear to me that years of practice in analyzing and constructing arguments was paying off. Clients valued my fine-tuned ability to identify communication weaknesses, pull out persuasion strategies from anecdotes and examples, criticize fallacies and classify types of persuasive approaches.
Below-the-surface analysis was a key strength of several how-to books I wrote and various self-sponsored marketing classes I taught. For eight years, the Webby Awards hired me to rate and comment on websites that had entered their annual best-of-the-Web competitions.
- Drawing out knowledge. Given my background in philosophy, it’s ironic that my familiarity with the Socratic method became the basis of other earning arrangements. I created a mentoring program for people who wanted to learn to write marketing copy, using a teaching method of intensive questioning about the differences between the mentoree’s version of a writing assignment with mine. That way, the learner came to his or her own conclusions about the more powerful way to explain and persuade.
My experience in drawing out someone else’s ideas also came up in a few collaborations on book projects or consulting reports where the other person was the one with the content or knowledge.
- Project management. Orchestrating the research, writing and approval of my 240-page dissertation in a year and a half gave me the confidence to tackle complex assignments involving the coordination and editing of reports for a group of 7-10 engineers. Although I knew nothing of the technicalities of bridge, dam or highway construction, I was able to query the contributors when I spotted missing information or inconsistencies and help the company complete their consulting reports coherently and on time. It was surprisingly pleasurable to work with these technicians because they had no ego investment in their writing. They knew they were experts in their subject matter and welcomed my expertise on getting their assessments clearly down in words.
- Stimulating discussion. As a philosophy graduate student and then as a professor, I had had to learn how to ask questions that motivated students to share ideas and debate, as well as how to keep discussions on track. You might assume such experience has no relevance outside educational institutions – but that would be wrong. During the height of the dot-com era, a company called ClickZ hired me for a few years on a half-time basis to manage an email discussion group that had about 10,000-15,000 subscribers. My responsibilities included selecting topics for discussion, inviting guest experts to write short kickoff posts for the topics and moderating contributions from subscribers. Every Monday through Friday, I would compile and lightly edit a set of posts to go out to everyone on the list.
- Lecturing. As a well-entrenched introvert, I would probably not have ventured into public speaking had I not previously met and enjoyed the challenge of introducing a class of 80 to Plato, Descartes and Hume. After I published a book on writing, I spoke at writers’ conferences around the country in exchange for a small stipend and travel expenses, and I later had a few speakers’ bureaus booking me to speak to professional associations. Once I mentioned during a large workshop at a Borders bookstore that it was my dream to write three-minute essays for National Public Radio, and a member of the audience introduced himself as a news anchor for the Boston public radio station. With his help, my first commentary soon aired on that station, followed by more than a dozen others.
Although from the start I did fine recording those commentaries, I invested in consultations with a speaking coach to improve my vocal clarity and expressiveness. That attention, refinement and practice helped a lot when I recorded a series of my own audiobooks, which have provided a small but steady stream of passive income during the last few years.
- Independence. During my undergraduate and graduate school years, I fulfilled course requirements in a rebellious, do-it-my-way spirit that almost got me tossed out of the philosophy program at Cornell. My fierce preference for independence helped sustain me through inevitable ups and downs of freelancing and my entrepreneurial projects. During the dot-com boom, I could have abandoned self-employment by taking a very well-paying job offer, but I followed my heart by saying no. Freelancers I knew who’d said yes to similar offers found themselves sitting out in the cold after the tech bubble burst in 2000-2001, having to start over again from scratch. I weathered that crisis fine.
My willingness to brave the foreign customs and expectations of the non-academic world was fascinating to the professors in my academic writing group, who often asked to hear about my entrepreneurial projects. They found the idea of earning extra income in the business world very enticing. However, when we got down to the nitty-gritty of what would be required to navigate in that world, they had a hard time switching their point of view out of the academic framework of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Outside of universities, you need to understand and respect the pragmatic goals of clients. Perhaps my independent streak helps me adjust my perspective from project to project without any impact on my own values, beliefs and commitments.
After I left academic life, I never made a big deal of having a Ph.D., unlike some marketing colleagues with the same degree who created an identity as “Dr. ____.” To avoid invoking the image of philosophers as arcane beings who have their heads in the clouds and couldn’t possibly talk comprehensibly with mere mortals, I said that my advanced degree was in the humanities, when I mentioned it at all.
Despite downplaying my academic background to others, I have no doubt whatsoever that my philosophical training and teaching experience contributed to my non-academic successes. If you find yourself locked out of the academy, either by choice or because of a lack of job prospects there, I suggest you begin by taking inventory, as I did above, of the personal characteristics that got you through the challenges of your education and employment. Catalog what you liked most in that world and what you didn’t think you’d be able to do there but did. Be open to opportunities that utilize a somewhat hidden, yet real, portion of your capacities. Like me, you may find yourself then able to build a varied, exciting, well-paid and highly fulfilling alternate career.
Author and marketing coach Marcia Yudkin (www.yudkin.com) followed her hero Ludwig Wittgenstein in quitting philosophy for real life. Currently she focuses on helping experts capitalize on their knowledge via information products and in coaching introverts to highlight their distinctive talents when they market their skills.