"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What You Know Matters Less Than Who You Know

Social capital, or whatever you want to call it, counts a lot, maybe more -- maybe a lot more -- than any of us postacademics struggling to figure out what to do next with our lives would like to think.

But it's not as if social capital is really separable from economic or cultural capital. These things go together. Unfortunately, though, cultural capital -- the thing we have the most of as an un- or underemployed post-academic -- is perhaps the least important when separated from the other two.

A Post-Academic in NYC has been posting lately about the humiliating shit formidable obstacles ze has faced while trying to find work. And we've all been there, to one degree or another. We all have stories about the difficulties we've faced at finding meaningful employment. The most recent post about signing on with a temp agency illustrates what you have to do when you don't know the kinds of people you can just call up and ask for a job or a referral. On the one hand, when you're unemployed, doing the kinds of things the temp agency asks if ze would "mind" doing is fine and dandy. A paycheck is a paycheck, whether you have a PhD or just a GED.

On the other hand ... filing? Filing?!??

I'm not being a snob. I'm not putting down mindless administrative tasks. Somebody needs to do them -- and get paid to do them. But I would bet that A Post-Academic in NYC has many other talents of greater use to society than filing. It's just that a PhD doesn't mean squat when you don't know anyone and don't have the economic capital to sit back and bide your time practicing your craft until the right "opportunity" comes along. You take what you can get.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, to be able to pick up the phone, call up your friend the editor of a major national journal, propose a topic for an essay you'd like to write, and be able to write what you want to write while building upon your already well-established reputation? Yes, dear readers, for some people it is that easy! No, you can't do this sort of thing if you're just some socially talented neanderthal or a rich jackass who has opinions but can't string together three coherent sentences. You do have to be a reasonably decent writer. You have to be tolerably smart. And you have to have a track record and an audience.

But ... how do you get those last two things (or whatever the professional equivalent is in your field) when your preeminent concern, now that you've left academe, is earning enough money just to get by?

Academics aren't known for their stellar social skills. The attraction of cultural capital -- which is something you can earn by being smart and studying and acquiring a fancy degree -- draws many people to academe who both lack social capital and don't have access to economic capital. I include myself in that group. As much as I enjoyed research and teaching, I pursued the path I did because, in part, belonging to "the profession" conferred a kind of status -- even as a graduate student and adjunct -- I didn't have access to any other way. Except ... when I left, it seemed, my career options were pretty much the same as they were when I finished undergrad. Here I am doing admin work. Yay! And there's no one I can call up to offer my talents and availability to do otherwise.

And what would I have to offer anyway? I'm a decent writer and tolerably smart. Tremendously distinguishing characteristics! Except ... not really. Not unless you have the other kinds of capital, too.



  1. Too true, too true. With each new career I've researched, the first piece of advice WITHOUT FAIL, is to find someone you know in the field and get your job through that person. From editing, to grant writing, to teaching the consistent message has been "your skills don't matter nearly as much as having someone already working for X organization who is willing to vouch for you."

  2. The thing is, no one ever says how exactly it works. If it were something you could study, I think I could be OK at it, but it just seems to be something you're either born with or not. I think economics do play a role. How much you start out with and the advantages your family can provide you with have a strong influence over who you come into contact with early on and how you interact with them. That's a major big deal, but it's not the whole picture. I just don't know how this networking thing works or how to get better at it. In the past year since I've been working outside academe, most everyone I know who has changed jobs has done so through networking. Then again, it's not like I know a lot of people! But even people who've come and gone from Think Tank and band members who've "moved up" have done so through people they knew, people who called them up and recruited them or whom they called asking what was availlable. What is the trick?

  3. I too am a bit clueless when it comes to the "trick." I do know I've tried having friends and family help me network, sending my resumes on to company higher-ups, etc and so far it hasn't yielded very much.