Natalie Berkman *18 interviewed by Max Horder (GS, ANT).
In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
I’m currently the Academic Manager at the SAE Institute in Paris. I graduated from Princeton in 2018, after completing a PhD in French Literature. My focus was on a group called OuLiPo, a group of French (and some foreign) writers who combine write constrained literature, often with recourse to mathematics.
From there to here is quite a funny story. The title on the LinkedIn job specification was ‘Academic Coordinator’. But when I arrived, I was told that I was the Number 2 and I had to fix a lot of problems! I was very overwhelmed – I had just gotten out of Graduate School. I told myself: I’ll give it a year (unless I fail my trial period!). In less than a year, I managed to fix the major issues at the school. And since then, I’ve had two more job offers – both of which I turned down because I love my current role so much.
In addition, I have two amazing side gigs. One is as a consultant for Crimson Education (the largest application consulting company for American and British universities). I help prospective students to craft and hone their essays – a natural extension of the work I did as a Fellow at the Princeton Writing Center. For my second gig, I’m an instructor and a member of the consulting board for the Chinese EdTech ViaX. I started working with them while I was finishing my PhD. They found me because I already had a web presence: in addition to my website, I was also active on LinkedIn and Twitter. They were looking for people to teach technical classes, but they wanted a whole range of disciplines, so I got to design my own course in the Digital Humanities.
Laying the groundwork
I never really decided that the Tenure-Track wasn’t for me. I feel that I would have been happy in academia. But in my third year, I realised that an academic career wasn’t a given even coming from a school like Princeton. I remember speaking with one of my colleagues who was a bit older and on the job market. He was somewhat negative about the whole thing (although he did get a Tenure-Track job at a good school in the end). I really appreciated that realistic and pragmatic point of view. I remember asking him what should I do starting in my third year to prepare myself, and he gave me a whole list of things - mostly academic - like presenting at national conferences and submitting articles for publication.
However, one of the things he said was to see Amy Pszczolkowski at Career Services. I set up a meeting with her and found it extremely useful. She really gave me a lot of ideas and, more importantly, the hope that even if I didn’t get a tenure-track job, I could still have a perfectly fulfilling career doing anything I wanted. So, in my fourth year I went to Paris for research and met my husband. When I went back to Princeton for my fifth year, he and I did long distance and I realised that I wanted to spend my life with him. So, I started taking the non-academic route more seriously - I didn’t want to force my husband to move around until I found stable employment.
The moment that changed everything
In my fifth year, I was part of the first UAF cohort through which I organized the first graduate student career meet up, and I believe it has continued ever since. I became a resident graduate student (RGS) and applied to become a Writing Center Fellow. Additionally, I began learning text encoding and Python for two different digital humanities projects I was working on (one in France and the other at the Princeton Center for Digital Humanities).
By my sixth year, I was still applying for academic jobs, and got a PIIRS Fellowship that freed up some of my time for different options. For instance, I participated in the MLA pro-seminar that year and was able to learn about a number of potential career paths outside of the academy. I went on the academic job market for the first time, got an interview and even a campus visit for my dream job – a small liberal arts college. It was just the perfect job, I desperately wanted it and I didn’t get it.
Yet, that experience was very important because it showed me that although I would be happy in academic jobs, there were certain conditions. It was upsetting at the time but important to see the type of academic job that I really wanted: a small liberal arts college that also focused on research. I also loved the town that the college was in. Overall, it really showed me that if I got a job like that then I’d be happy but if not, I would need to forge my own path.
I decided to stay at Princeton for a seventh year, during which I started applying to everything – academic and non-academic jobs. I was lucky enough to get a number of interviews plus two post-docs: one was in Buffalo, the other in Florida. I was also a finalist for an amazing job at Princeton University Press, heading their math division. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it because they needed someone to begin immediately (around January), whereas my dissertation defense was only scheduled for that May. I was a finalist for an EdTech company here in Paris, though I sensed that what stopped me was the visa issue. Eventually, I was offered my current position, received the postdoc offers, and had a campus visit scheduled for a tenure-track in Alabama.
It was at that moment, when I had both academic and non-academic choices available to me that I realized just how important location was in my choice. I chose the non-academic job in Paris and have been living here happily with my husband for almost three years now!
Life beyond academia
The biggest difference is that when I come home, my job is over (before the pandemic at least!). I really appreciate that I have time to pursue side gigs. Plus, I’m just living and enjoying myself. When I leave the office, nobody expects me to keep working. My boss legally cannot ask me to work on a Saturday or after hours. Even if I’m sent an email it’s a liability. Though, that is specific to France.
Another big change is in mindset. In the beginning, going from graduate student to academic manager felt empowering. I hate the term ‘graduate student’ because it is so infantilizing. We’re not students – we’re professionals! Especially at Princeton where all graduate students have to start with coursework – it reinforces the idea that we are still at school.
It was empowering to step outside of this infantilized version of someone who is actually doing teaching and research yet is still called a student. I consider myself very lucky with this job – even if it was a trial by fire! People look to me for solutions and it really makes me feel like a professional. I needed that after so many years in graduate school.
Now I have a whole new vision of the types of things I can do. When I look five to ten years into the future, I see myself running a school, starting an EdTech company, being a Dean. If I had started a TT job my only goal would be to get tenure. It’s kind of hard to think about looking five years down the line when it takes six just to get tenure! It’s great to have big and exciting plans!
Plus, I’ve also continued to do things I wanted in academia like attend conferences (and being invited to do so), attend dissertation defenses, and publish. Last year, I even won a dissertation prize and my book will be published in a few months! And I’m also starting to lay the groundwork for a second book that I never would have been able to publish if I was on the TT. Plus, I can get an audience wider than 6 people!
Best advice for graduate students
The biggest advice I’d give is try not to put all your eggs in that one academic basket. I bear no ill will towards the academy, nor do I have any regrets about doing the PhD. It gave me the time and space to learn languages and travel all over the world. I very much enjoyed my twenties and don’t regret that.
But I see that many people who leave the academy seem devastated and hold grudges. I don’t know that it’s worth it. The idea of the tenure track is very different from most people’s career paths — why do we think we’re the exception that deserves this career path that follows one single track?
I never thought much about it at the beginning and started out like everyone by wanting to be a professor. It seemed like a job that I would have loved. But I don’t particularly like the idea of being exploited. Rather than chase the tenure dream and being exploited in the process, I think it’s much better to say to people: No - be empowered! We all deserve jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits. It’s such an awful Ponzi scheme, all these adjuncts working on the promise of a TT job. We allow ourselves to be exploited for our love of something.
I’m now in a position to create better employment situations for our teachers at SAE. I truly believe that PhDs should have a seat at the table and be able to change the system from positions of power. For that to happen, more of us need to break away from the typical tenure-track and aim for management positions. Remember: PhDs are smart and capable and competent people, and if they say enough is enough and leave and get into power they can fix this problem.
This interview has been edited for clarity.