Posts Tagged ‘non-academic job’


How to leave academia: Call a cab

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

I’m not gonna lie–it’s been an exceptionally busy week here at the Leaving Academia HQ. I’ve been doing a lot of work with some really lovely clients this week, and that’s meant I haven’t had any time for blogging. The upshot, though, is that by working with such interesting people, I’m getting all kinds of ideas for blog posts (I’m formulating a Glamour magazine-like “do” and “don’t” list for non-academic job applications.

In Kaylen Tucker’s first Leaving Academia post, an ultra-awkward exchange with a well-meaning but clueless professor becomes fodder for post-academic career planning:

When I was applying for dissertation fellowships, I asked a friendly and accomplished professor in my department to help me write a winning statement of purpose. She patiently helped me to fine tune my application and when our session was complete, I felt that I had a real chance at being selected. She reminded me, however, about how very competitive these kinds of things were, and cautioned me not to get my hopes up and to come up with another plan should I not land a post. As a seasoned graduate student, I of course, had a lot of pots simmering. I wasn’t offended, thinking it good, sound advice. But the advice that she gave me next has kept me up at night and has influenced the way I think about the value of a humanities Ph.D.

She asked me if I was looking for a job. I wasn’t, but as one who was accustomed to hustling, always looking for the next thing, I wanted to hear what she had to offer. “Have you heard of Trendy and Terribly Overpriced New Shoe Store?” I told her that I’d been in that store many times. I was confused  … but  curious. “Well, I know the owner,” she continued, “and they’re looking for help. If you’re interested, I could put in a good word for you.”

I should have told her that I didn’t need her help greasing the wheels to gain a retail job. Though I’m bad at math and standing for long periods of time, I think I could have handled that on my own.

I’ve replayed that moment in my head many times, trying to work through the lingering bad taste in my mouth. I finally realized that my irritation wasn’t solely based on her offer to help me get a job that I felt was beneath me instead of helping me figure out a more academic/professional Plan B. No, my exasperation stemmed from the fact that her advice, which I admit was offered innocently enough and in the kindest of spirits, reflected the overall attitude of the department: Academia in narrowly defined terms is everything, and if it doesn’t work out for you—which it probably won’t—there is nothing. If you don’t receive an appointment at University X, you should take your Ph.D. and wait tables or sell shoes until the stars align correctly for you. Nothing against shoes, or those who sell them, but it’s not that black and white, or yellow and blue, or whatever converse combination you fancy. Education is supposed to broaden horizons, not narrow them. So I politely declined the opportunity and resolved to carve my own path.

Well, I didn’t get the fellowship. But I’m not selling shoes either. By the time I finished my Ph.D. in English literature, and after two years of no bites on the academic market, I had decided to pursue another course. I couldn’t commit to another round of the overwhelming job-market process; I was no longer willing to follow the market to whatever city it led me; and I couldn’t stomach the requisite string of adjunct and visiting positions to hold me over until I could land the perfect tenure-track position. What I needed was stability—financial and emotional. I also wanted to feel like I was contributing knowledge to the world, which is why I started the Ph.D. process in the first place. So doing communications for a national education non-profit was a logical next step. My position required me to research, analyze, write, and edit—tasks I had been well trained for.

However, preparing myself for a non-academic job didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still working on fine tuning my mission and figuring out a way to bridge my research interests with my actual job. It’s an ongoing process. But I hope to offer Leaving Academia readers what I have learned about how smart people can figure out a way to harness their power and tackle the world outside of academia.


That First, Crummy Job

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

One fear that many academics have as they near the end of their academic stint is that they will end up in jobs for which only a B.A. is required. Even worse, they imagine, is ending up back in the same job you had when you were doing your B.A.

And yet, most people who leave academia take very circuitous routes to the work they ultimately end up doing five years after leaving. Almost all of the former academics I’ve ever met, interviewed, or heard about had some type of “corkscrew” pattern to their post-academic careers, rather than a steep upward or downward trajectory.

A really fabulous example of this is a woman named Helen Toland, who you can learn all about on an incredible British career resource called iCould. (I highly recommend this Web site to any career changer; as the site’s tagline states, “It just shows what you can do.” Specifically, there are hundreds of interviews with people doing a huge variety of jobs, including people with what the Brits call postgraduate degrees).

As Helen explains, she got her Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering, in part because she just happened to be good at school, because she thought that was what her parents would want, and because she lacked the confidence to admit to herself what she really wanted to do. Any of that sound familiar? Once she finished her degree, though, she decided to pursue her dream of working in the media, and is now a producer at BBC Radio Ulster working on an entertainment program. How did she get there? Hard work and perseverance, it sounds like — but also a willingness to do the grunt work needed to get the job of her dreams.

From her brief description, it sounds like Helen was both “on the dole” and working in a coffee shop for a couple of years once she’d finished her Ph.D. before she finally got on board as a full-time staff producer. It’s quite easy to imagine that being a Ph.D. working as a barista would involve struggling with some pretty intense feelings of shame and regret. And yet, doing that first, low-skill, non-academic job was well worth it to Helen because it gave her the time to build up contacts and do enough freelance contracts to build up the experience she needed to be offered a staff position.

But all too often, the idea of taking a crummy job strikes so much fear in the hearts of academics that they would rather stick with the devil they know — even if the money is just as bad (if not worse) and the career trajectory leads to an equally dead end.

Yet it is typically that first post-academic job that gives one an opportunity to detox from the traumas of academia (you know, like feeling dumb much of the time), which itself helps create the conditions for movement into a better, more professional-level job. It also offers a chance to get some experience in a different sector. This looks good on a résumé, of course, but it’s more important than that. That first job outside of academia — no matter how crummy — is a new kind of training ground, one where you un-learn so many of the conventions that you never even realized you were absorbing along the way.

That’s where you find out that people speak differently, think differently, and move at a different pace than inside academia (typically much more quickly, depending on the sector). It’s where you learn how to really leverage and transfer some of your skills (for example, your ability to absorb new information quickly really does come in handy when you’re a barista learning the names of 30 different specialty drinks). And it gives your brain the chance to adapt to the demands of a new environment.

What this adds up to, then, is a priming of the pump. When you are ready to move on to your dream non-academic job — the one in which you are able to be more fully yourself — you’ll have more skills, more confidence and more preparedness than you would otherwise have applying for that job straight out of graduate school.

Some of the transition jobs that former academics I know have taken include note-taking in college classrooms for students with disabilities, transcribing, working retail, office work, dog-walking, house-cleaning, researching for television channels, and other research contracts. One person I interviewed worked for an arts nonprofit in which he had to fundraise his own salary. In my own case, I worked as a closed captioning editor while making cash and contacts on the side doing freelance writing, podcasting, and radio producing.

It’s wise to bite the bullet with a job that’s below your skill set if it offers you a chance to deploy a grander career development strategy while you’re doing it. That would include jobs that are strictly time delineated (unlike adjuncting, which expands to fill the time you have), offering you a chance to network and build up contacts in your desired field. It leaves you with enough energy to do information interviewing, freelancing, job shadowing or interning (whichever suits the target field best). And it offers just enough money to pay the bills, but not so much that you’re tempted to stick with it over the long haul. Finally, it gives you enough mental resting space to detox from your academic experience, which in turn provides you with an opportunity to research and daydream your next career move.


5 Networking Strategies

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

Networking is a word that can strike fear in the heart of even the mightiest wanna-be academic ex-pat. It’s something you know you’re supposed to do, but aren’t sure how to do it. You’ve heard it’s not the sleazy activity that the word connotes anymore, but you still haven’t got the faintest clue where to start. Not only that, you might feel especially behind the 8-ball if you’re one of those academics who claims not to know anyone outside of academia. How can you network your way into a non-academic position if the only people you know are other academics?

I’ve got five straightforward steps you can use to start plugging in to non-academic jobs (including that whole “hidden job market” hoo-ha) today. Think of them in a pyramid formation — steps that you take moving from the bottom of the pyramid to the top.

1. Tune in to your existing contacts. The best place to start with networking is not by signing up for an impersonal networking event or by starting a cold calling campaign. It’s by reaching out to the people you already know. These people form the base of your networking pyramid.

Here’s an exercise that will appeal to the truly Type-A among you (and will begin to appease those who insist they don’t know anyone who works outside an academic institution): take out a piece of paper, an Excel spreadsheet or a contact management tool like Plaxo. Make a list of every person you know. Yes, every person you know is a contact. I’m talking family, friends, former profs, former co-workers, your massage therapist, online friends, Facebook buddies, staff at the gym, people you play sports or Scrabble with, the concierge of your building, your department’s administrator, that cutie-pie librarian, the director of the cat shelter where you used to volunteer, the health food store clerk you chat with every Saturday morning, and so forth (there — you still think you don’t know anyone outside of academe?). And don’t forget: your academic contacts (grad students, this includes your supervisor) also have non-academic contacts, so don’t leave them out (if you’re emotionally ready for that).

Reach out to those people (in person or electronically) and let them know you’re job hunting. Yeah, that might feel really weird, depending on how deeply entrenched you are in your academic career. But people these days will understand that most scholars need to be making backup plans.

Plant the seed in the brains of folks who know you that you’re looking for a job, and ask them if they would keep you in mind if they hear of anything. Be prepared with some kind of answer when they ask, “What kind of work are you looking for?” And then, once you’ve had that conversation, look for ways you can give all of those people a helping hand.

2. Take to your online networks. Moving up your networking pyramid, you go from the people you know in person to the people you know online. Let your contacts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn know that you’re job-hunting. But heed the advice that most social media folks are espousing these days about not looking desperate. Instead of updating your status to, “Am desperate for a job in MegaDesirable Town. Any leads?” try to write updates that demonstrate your initiative in the job-search process. “Just had a great conversation with @thejobsguy about a potential consulting job in Austin,” or “I love how makes job searching so easy,” will convey the right message. While you’re at it, use those same online tools to start connecting with people who are in the line of work you want to get into.

3. Next, move from the people you know in person and online to people you haven’t met before. This means reaching out to any names you collect from your existing contacts, or responding to introductions to third parties that your existing contacts have extended to you. This usually means entering the land of the information interview. There is lots of material online (and, of course, in books like So What Are You Going to Do With That?) about how to set up and what to say in an information interview. Don’t forget: an information interview should be brief (20 – 30 minutes) and it should be a chance for you to shut up and listen, not talk about yourself (unless you’re invited to). Ask for names of other contacts you can reach out to, but don’t expect anyone to be doling out job offers. And for the love of Eagleton, don’t forget to send a thank you note afterward (both to the person who referred you and to your new contact).

4. Next up: make yourself useful. This means reaching out to strangers in a capacity where you can actually do good and show off your skills at the same time. In the online world, this means contributing to listservs, showing your expertise on a blog and providing good links on Twitter. In the real world, this means volunteering, getting on a board of a worthy organization, offering to take notes at a convention where people in your desired sector will be, and look for opportunities to solve problems.

5. At the top of the networking pyramid is good old cold calling/e-mailing. Have an organization in mind where you’d love to work? Know of a sector or role where you’d jump at the chance to use your skills? Get on the horn and explain your situation. Like with the info interview, be brief, be gracious and don’t expect anything other than a chance to chat and learn. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how frequently people are generously willing to talk to you about their own career paths into the job they’re doing. If there’s a good connection there, keep in touch. Ask for more contact names. Return the favor.

Networking often doesn’t yield immediate results. It can take a long time of you moving your way up and down the networking pyramid for you to land in front of the person who’s going to hire you. You are going to want to develop your elevator pitch, and come up with a friendly, brief answer to, “You mean you don’t want to be a university professor anymore?” (and its variants). It’s true that including fellow academics in your non-academic job search can mean suffering through some potentially awkward moments. But don’t be a Hector Projector (“He thinks I’m a failure that I’m quitting teaching!”) and keep your purpose (viz. switching careers) foremost in mind. And remember, networking is just one more component in your new research project — the one that will land you in your next career.


Alternate Angles

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

I sometimes get mail from readers who are at the very beginning of their academic careers. They’re looking for advice about how they can situate their research to make themselves as employable as possible when they’re finished. This is, of course, a very smart and practical question — but makes the liberal arts lovers among us sigh a little bit. The thing is, these days, it’s the students with the greatest passion for the liberal arts who find themselves having to ask the question.

I recently heard from someone who is currently in a master’s program and is being groomed for a spot in the Ph.D. program. “I enjoy my classes,” he wrote, “and I’m thrilled by thinking about what I might do for a thesis project, but at the same time I feel a bit torn between pursuing my intellectual interests, and focusing on developing the skills I need for the ideal job I want.”

Testify! Now, this person did recognize that a thesis project and developing job skills don’t have to be mutually exclusive. However, the problem is that once you are immersed in a doctoral program of research, your focus has absolutely nothing to do with your transferable skills; in fact, the higher up you climb on the academic ladder, the more you feel you don’t have any skills at all. The work, then, of convincing yourself that you’re not totally useless once you exit a Ph.D. program is exhausting and emotional. And re-packaging yourself and putting yourself onto the non-academic job market is just plain hard.

Young Academics

I see two solutions for the young academics who think they might want to pursue a Ph.D. program but also want to be realistic about their academic job prospects.

The first has to do with making the process of skills-building during graduate school a transparent one. This involves the kind of regular maintenance and upkeep that most scholars do with their academic CVs. As you move through the different steps of your graduate program — coursework, writing the dissertation proposal, serving on committees, teaching, and so on — keep track of the skills you used to get each of those things done. These are skills that may be invisible to you before doing this exercise, but are quite essential on the non-academic job market. Won a $5,000 scholarship? Mark that down under fund-raising and grant writing skills. Served for a year on the tenure and promotions committee? Tick the make-believe box next to administrative and teamwork skills. Taught an introductory course? Check, check and check for project planning skills, doing oral presentations/public speaking and conducting evaluations.

By keeping track not just of the outcomes of your academic success but the actual skills you used to produce those outcomes, you’re well on your way to combating the all-too-common feelings of simultaneous overqualification and underqualification that plague newly minted Ph.D.’s. Moreover, when you go to write your two-page employment résumé, your skills won’t be invisible to you. You’ll be just that much more prepared to speak fluently about what you did in school and what you can offer to prospective employers.

Anyone who wants to pursue a life of the mind and yet also feel confident about their employability at the end of the Ph.D. experience should make the job of tracking their skills a crucial and vital component of their time in graduate school. Any time you update your CV, update your skills inventory. Update it, too, whenever you jump over a fresh academic hurdle.

The second way to broach the quandary of wanting to conduct academic research and not be stuck jobless at the end of the academic road is by taking a more mercenary approach with your work. So far, I have not met a single former academic who was able to apply their research directly into a non-academic job. However, I have met lots of former academics who realized in retrospect how their research happened to intersect with their post-academic work.

But if I were going to go back and be really strategic about my research, this is what I would do. I would take time to think about an organization that I’d really love to work for. It could be an organization that uses research (like a non-profit or health care agency, for example), conducts research (like a corporation or think tank) or commissions research (like the federal government). I would try to develop contacts inside of that organization and do some information interviews. I would let them know what I loved about the organization and how I could see myself working there in a research capacity. And then I would ask them about what their needs were. I would find out about their problems, their stumbling blocks, the issues that they face. And then I would dedicate my research to solving their problem.

I would keep in touch with them over the years, through staff turnovers, office politics and, perhaps, through their own internal solving of their problems. I would accept the risk that my research itself may be outdated by the time I finish, or that the solution I had developed was not workable or consistent with their organizational culture.

But the point of the exercise — other than getting a Ph.D. — would be to demonstrate my deep knowledge of the organization, my commitment to the organization’s cause/mission, my strategic thinking skills, and my savvy at attempting to keep one foot in the academic camp and the other foot in the “real world.” At the end, even if the organization didn’t hire me, I’d still be able to display those attributes (knowledge, commitment, strategic thinking, savvy) to another employer who would value that kind of worker.

Those are two totally different approaches that young researchers could take if they’re concerned about life after the Ph.D. Are you a young researcher working some kind of post-academic angle? Do you know anyone who chose their research with a job in mind? Or someone who turned their research project into a career? I’d love to hear about it.