Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she blogs for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.
In Part I of this essay, I described the impact that becoming a sex educator has had on my academic career. The flip side — how I am being received as a sex educator in light of my academic background — is a slightly more complicated topic. Here I will discuss that, along with suggestions for those with scholarly training for breaking into a new field outside of traditional academe.
I have started regularly attending conferences and conventions devoted to sexuality, sex education and sex research. Some highlights include attending a Sexuality Attitude Reassessment (SAR), Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, and an AASECT Winter Institute on Trauma. I have been interviewed on a podcast, landed some paid blogging work on sites such as Kinkly.com, and have befriended dozens of people doing awesome work in sex ed and related fields. So on the networking and learning fronts, I have accomplished tons — especially as this is something I am pursuing part-time while also doing academe part-time as an adjunct.
Some of my attempts to make it as a sex educator have been less straightforwardly successful, though. I am not the only one to struggle with the transition into alt-ac life; I have read several blog posts that resonated with me, such as ones by Elizabeth Keenan and Katie Rose Guest Pryal and by Lee Skallerup. My sense is that other alt-ac folks encounter similar difficulties with adjusting to different types of workdays, dealing with expectations for what productivity looks like and what “counts” as labor, and so on. I’ll give some examples.
In my decade-plus of presenting regularly at academic conferences (two to five per year, on average), I have only had a few paper proposals rejected. And yet, in the sex ed world, I have not been able to land a single presentation. I am not sure whether I have yet to learn how to navigate the field’s social norms and language properly or if the combined approach to folklore and sexuality, which everyone seems to love when it comes up in informal conversations, just isn’t that exciting to conference organizers. At any rate, I will get that figured out eventually; it is probably just part of the normal learning curve that we all experience in entering a new field.
I suspect that some of my slowness to skyrocket to success in my new career is a result of academic hang-ups. Impostor syndrome does not do anyone any favors, but when transitioning to a new field, it can be a major factor in holding one back (e.g., “I just need to do a little more research before I’m ready to publish/present/teach”).
I realized, too, that thanks to academe, I am used to playing the long game: if I am not making a profit or an impact now, well, that’s OK, I will have years in which to change that. Sure, I could pursue more profitable gigs right now or I could continue to build my skill set and knowledge base and become incredibly bad ass at what I am doing. This approach might work fine in academe, but outside the ivory tower, it means moving at a glacial pace, which can be frustrating and, well, not very lucrative (at first).
Academics also seem to do things at not only a different pace but also according to a different mode of judging worthiness. In my experiences of grad school and beyond, I would research something, present snippets at conference, get feedback and go on to publish my research in peer-reviewed journals. In the sex ed world, it seems as though you need to have made a name for yourself by publishing or teaching on your subject matter before you are accepted to present at conferences. And if that is the way it works, that’s fine, and I will adapt to it. But I am used to demonstrating that I have done the research and am qualified to speak on a topic. It seems like a different kind of engagement to have to rely on one’s reputation to get accepted to a speaking gig.
Finally, I have struggled to move beyond what I call the “show up and be brilliant” model of academe. When you are affiliated with a university, they schedule the classes, reserve the room and handle payment (however measly it might be when you are a grad student or adjunct). You just get to do the work on your end and then show up to teach. I have gotten quite good at navigating this model.
However, outside the ivory tower, everything is a hustle. I have major introvert anxiety issues, too, so that has been hampering me when I think of a great workshop idea. Because after the idea and the planning comes having to book a venue, advertising, selling tickets, having a contingency plan if I have to cancel and so on. Perhaps that is why I have had the most success as a freelance writer. Pitching articles and blog posts to paying venues is much closer to submitting my research to journals than any of the other tasks I have pursued.
Based on these experiences, my suggestions for academics branching out into other fields are as follows:
- Figure out what counts as legitimacy in that field: certain degrees, certification programs, publishing books and articles, work experience? Calibrate your training to those standards as much as is feasible.
- Work to identify your hang-ups or comfortable behavior patterns based on academic enculturation. For example, if you struggle with impostor syndrome, work on that.
- If you are used to your academic network inviting you to speak and publish and suddenly you find yourself outside that network, learn to expand your opportunities in other ways.
Decide what kind of impact you would like to make in your new field. Are you interested in using your academic credentials to transition to expert status and become a go-to for knowledge seekers in the general public, or are you more interested in helping build the field from the inside out? Are you hoping to mentor others in your position? Are you going to contribute to your new field’s knowledge base through research, publishing, presenting, teaching, marketing, brand building or some other keyword I have not thought of because I’m new to all this, too?