Transitioning out of academia is messy. I’ve spent a lot of time (and words here) grappling with some of the transitions: figuring out what kind of job you want, wrestling with how to get it, coping with the emotional fallout of quitting. These are food-on-the-plate issues. There are less immediate challenges, too. I was reminded of one of them when talking to middle school students about the jobs I’ve had. The students’ questions led me to tell them a bit about the summer I worked in a canned food distribution plant, where even my partial college education put up barriers between me and my coworkers. That challenge—being the “smartest one in the room”—is one that comes up again when you leave academia.
“Smart” is relative as all get-out, mind. It comes in many flavors. Not all of them present as the ability to articulate difficult concepts and wrestle with abstract problems. School smarts are just one kind of intelligence. Still, it’s the kind of intelligence academics spend years cultivating…and displaying As you progress from high school to undergraduate to graduate study, you’re surrounded by an ever-increasing proportion of high achievers, of “schmott guys:”
Sometimes I wonder how things would have played out if I hadn’t gone across the pond to United World College of the Atlantic. The place opened up my world in more ways than I could possibly discuss in one post. On today’s, point, though, I was suddenly and obviously not the smartest person in the room. Almost everybody at the school was the product of national application processes in their home countries. (At the time, the U.S. sent around 120 students into the UWC program—half of them to the domestic branch in New Mexico.) It wasn’t as though the process was based purely on academics, either; the program prizes community service and independent projects. They’re looking not just for good students, but for the right people to promote the program’s mission of international understanding.
It was a comeuppance for me, one I probably would have gotten when starting my postsecondary education. Getting it early, though, and in the kind of environment where nobody was a jerk about it, meant a lot. Occasional language barriers aside, I was suddenly in an environment where I could talk to anybody about nearly anything. Unless the conversation got especially esoteric everybody could keep up with me. That was novel. I grew up in rural Idaho and went to a tiny high school. I took it for granted that I was the smartest person in the room—often including teachers in the mix. (I was right only to the extent that 16-year-olds are always right.) At UWC-AC, learning I was not always the smartest person in the room was as exciting as it was frightening.
The excitement and the fright had largely worn off by the time I was working on my PhD. I’d gotten used to rarified air: UWC, SLAC, graduate school… If you stay in academia, you linger in that rarified air. Leaving academia means sliding out of it, back to where things are murkier in pretty much every way. Staying in often means continuing to grapple with impostor syndrome , especially those first few classes you get to run completely on your own.
If you get out? You might sidestep impostor syndrome, but you’ve still got to find ways to deal with the problem of being the smartest one in the room (or not). How do you balance your abilities and accomplishments with situational needs? What exactly does it mean to be “with a PhD” rather than “a PhD”? That shift means more than the way you market your degree. It also involves the way you identify to yourself and to others. If you’ve spent a decade or so of your life cultivating academic intelligence, how do you take that back into the world?
I’m a failed academic. Sort of. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons I am out of the professoriate. Some of them are systemic (precarious employment for minimal compensation sucks no matter how much you love your job). Some have to do with realizing that my priorities don’t match the ones the job requires (my non-academic life is pretty important to me). Some of the things the job requires, though, are just things I’m not that good at. When you become a postac, it’s easy to focus on all the things you couldn’t or didn’t do better.
None of that makes you less smart.
You might not go as far as sitting down to catalog your skills and accomplishments, but take a step back to remind yourself that you are smart enough. You’re probably also good enough, and it’s likely some people like you. (Reminding yourself of these things in front of a mirror in Stuart Smalley’s voice voice is optional.) It’s okay to be the smartest one in the room as long as you avoid being a jerk about it. That situation is going to be a lot more common in the “real world” than it is inside the Academy.
Own your strengths but remember to ask questions. Focus on solving problems rather than winning arguments. (That might be the biggest shift from the graduate seminar to the real world: trouncing people in arguments doesn’t count for much.) As in writing, show, don’t tell. Focus on using your skills—and yes, your smarts—to act rather than to act out your identity. That’s the practical difference between “a PhD” and “with a PhD:” doing smart things is much more important than being the smartest one in the room.