Editing; career

From an Editor's Desk: The Crooked Path from Academia to Publishing

Here is a presentation I recently made to my alma mater, which—nearly two decades after my graduation—finally decided to take an active step forward in engaging speakers to help graduate students actually explore paths to employment beyond academia instead of letting them shift for themselves as I had to do upon my long-ago graduation, doctorate in hand. In 1988, I enrolled in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ph.D. program in English one year after my graduation from the University of Chicago, where I had earned a BA in English.  Seven years later, in 1995, I received my doctorate.  My area of concentration was in 19th-century American literature; my goal was to land a full-time, preferably tenure-track position.  During my time at the Graduate Center, I had spent three years as an adjunct instructor of courses in composition, introduction to literature, and even world literature at Baruch College. The year after that, I did the same in Connecticut at both a community college and at the University of Hartford.  My last year and half was spent completing my dissertation while I worked at Yale University, where I served as an assistant editor on the papers of the great 18th-century Scottish biographer and diarist James Boswell.

Then, like now, the job market in academia was plagued by the presence of more qualified doctoral and post-doctoral applicants than there were job vacancies.  Then, like now, it was a buyer’s market.  Then, like now, budgetary constraints on schools and individual departments; shifts in monetary priorities at the federal, state, and institutional levels; changing trends in scholarship; and the contortions of academic politics affected the give and take of presenting papers, publishing your work, applying for jobs, landing interviews, and either getting offers or moving on.  What I saw then continues to be what I see now.  Pursuing an academic career to the exclusion of all else is not for the faint of heart.

During my undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, I worked as “reader” for its literary journal, The Chicago Review. When I started my graduate studies, in addition to the classes I took and the classes I taught, I also worked as an editor at various small publications on a part-time basis, sometimes for free, sometimes for pay.  My duties then included work as a copy editor on a few poorly funded progressive Jewish magazines, as a part-time publisher of a struggling literary journal, and as a “page trafficker” at a textbook packager.   Editing was apparently in the blood and it was emerging as a career plan B to academic career plan A.

Two questions arise at this point.  When did plan B become plan A?  And why?  The answer to both is a combination of circumstance with self-realization.  Plan B, in brief, became plan A when three things happened.

First, in my last year as a doctoral student, my wife and I had a daughter, at which point I decided that if I were to take any academic position, it would not be as “visiting” faculty, which necessitated moving—and in all likelihood moving more than once.   On my own or childless, not so great a burden.  But with a child, a line had to be drawn.  This decision dramatically reduced the number of jobs to which I applied.

Second, when I moved from New York to Connecticut, I switched my adjunct duties accordingly.  What seemed no problem at first—insurance coverage extended by my wife’s employer –suddenly became one when that job ended and I learned that the state of Connecticut provided no insurance support for its adjunct instructors.  Of necessity, I did the only thing I could do.  I became a full-time editor at Yale University while I struggled to complete my dissertation.

Third and last, there was no evading the grim reality that if and when my alternative career had reached or surpassed the salary range of a starting assistant professor, I’d have to give serious thought to cutting the cord of academia altogether.  That happened three years later when, after jumping from one job to another, I landed a position as a new media editor at a large reference publisher.

Those three factors comprise the circumstances.

Self-realization entered the picture when it became clear to me that not only did I enjoy working in publishing as an acquisitions editor, a job where I conceptualized, evaluated, reshaped, and brought into being all sorts of projects—from individual books and book series to large databases—but I was good at it, too.  In short, I had found my métier—my calling.  Moreover, while my graduate education had not directly contributed to this eventual career direction, it had not proven as grave a misstep as I had first thought.  The skills I honed as a researcher (particularly in archival work), as a critical thinker, as a teacher, and as a writer were certainly transferable. Even the knowledge base I had amassed as an Americanist, literary theorist, and expert in composition offered an unforeseen return on the investment whenever I worked on projects that asked me to draw on that background.

But did any of this give me an edge in landing a job in publishing?  Not really.  A fair amount of my formal training as a proofreader and copy editor had occurred outside of the classroom.  My education in typesetting and printing came from my part-time editing work. For example, does anyone here know the intricacies of the printing process?  Or the formal mark-up protocols for copy editing manuscripts or proofreading galleys?  Or the order of the front matter parts in a book manuscript?  How to index a book? Know anything about electronic publishing? To learn much of this, I remember during the last years of graduate school sitting down with the 14th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and actually reading large swaths of it—where much of this information was covered in gory but necessary detail as Plan B started becoming a more critical part of my life.

In the end, circumstance and self-realization caught up with one another.  Putting food on the table and enjoying my work as an editor had become one and the same and, yes, there was a point when I realized that walking away from academia was no longer to be treated as a regret, but as something I would not go back to if I could help it.  For some of you this may seem unthinkable.   I once thought that, too.  But the dictum know thyself was never more real for me than the day I looked at the education classifieds in The New York Times’ Week in Review section and realized: Now why would I apply for that?

There is life after graduate school—and it need not be lived as a professor on a campus.  The challenge during graduate school is recognizing, accepting, and—without regret—acting on that realization.


—Bennett Graff, Publisher, New Haven Review