Workshop Summary: Preparing for a Non-Academic Career

This post and a companion post on the Academic Job Market were the summaries of two talks I gave at the University of Durham in the UK, offered by Katie Harling-Lee. For anyone curious about my in-person talks, this is how I spend the one hour (followed by 30 minutes of Q and A.) Thank you, Katie, for taking the time to provide these.

Katie Harling-Lee is a PhD student in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, UK, funded by The Wolfson Foundation. Her primary research is in musico-literary studies, exploring the thematic use of music in the contemporary novel with a particular focus on the use of Western classical music in conflict situations. In the early stages of her PhD studies, she is preparing herself for the academic career market, but also co-runs the blog Object [https://medium.com/objects], endeavors to find time for ‘fun reading’ alongside her research, and tweets on the academic and nonacademic world as @KatieOsha. Find her at her personal website: k.harlinglee.com, and also here: academia.edu and here: https://durham.academia.edu/KatieHarlingLee.

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In just an hour and a half, Dr Karen Kelsky presented a room full of budding PhD students with enough advice to warrant over 2,500 words worth of notes. This post is the boiled down version, highlighting the points that I wish all PhD students were taught during their studies. 

To Begin

Turn your PhD into a job. Yes, academic study can be a passion, but it is also job preparation, packed full with training opportunities. This idea can sometimes be frowned upon in the ivory tower of academia, but like it or not, universities are in crisis — and there is no time like the present for starting your job preparations, both for academic and nonacademic routes. You must prioritise your employability with each decision you make, and your PhD will provide incredibly useful job training once you realise how to articulate the skills you have on a job application. This post focusses on Karen’s tips for preparing for a non-academic career, but you can see this post [link] for a summary of her tips on ‘hacking’ the academic job market. 

What is post-ac?

Post-ac is the wide-reaching term used to refer to working in the non-academic world after completing PhD study. There are other terms in use, including alt-ac, non-ac, out-ac… But as Karen pointed out, if only 5-35% PhDs (depending on the field) get a tenure track job, then the tenure track career is the ‘alt-career’, and the normative is taking the PhD and doing something outside of the professorship. This post will help you do that. To start, think of the ‘post-ac’ stage of your career not as the final resting point, but as a temporary stage, on the way to the place where you will eventually land: a world of employed PhDs not in academia. 

The Transition

How long should you try in academia before transitioning out? There is no hard and fast rule, and it all relies on personal circumstances; one year is not long enough, but after three years, you should consider asking yourself some serious career questions. Because this is such a precarious time, consider making plans now, rather than waiting three to five years before you figure it out. The non-academic transition can be brutally hard, as academia often becomes a life and identity for us, rather than just a job, and it can be hard to see a route out. But believe me (and Karen), there are many. Start by thinking like an entrepreneur. In fact, you may not know it, but you are already entrepreneurial: you came up with a field and a research question(s), you found a university, you got funding, you found insights into your research question(s), you defended them verbally, and then you published your results. All of these PhD accomplishments are the mark of an entrepreneur, and you will bring these skills with you to whatever is next in your career.

The Job Search: What To Do When You Leave Academia

    Just get a job! Academia has a clear structure and plan, while the wider job market does not. The non-academic world is much more improvisational, so just try something, gain new skills, new insights, and be flexible in your choices. You don’t have to know how this will all turn out, and that is okay. Just take a step, then evaluate your situation. Take another step, and evaluate again. Each small move opens different paths, and you cannot anticipate where they might all lead. Along the way, cultivate mentors in your field who aren’t academic. Job mentors can be anyone, and they can mentor you through just one conversation, or a handful. The important thing is to talk to people and become aware of the non-academic network around you. 

The Job Search: Networking

Networking is absolutely key, because 70-80% jobs are not advertised, and there are three main ways to do this. One option is to arrange a 30-minute informational interview with someone who works in the field you want to work in. Ask them questions to inform yourself about that field of work, such as: When do you hire? What qualifications do you look for? How do you think of PhDs? How would you recommend I build up my record? A second option is through digital networking on Twitter and LinkedIn. To do this successfully, keep your skills up-to-date and make sure that you have endorsements. The third option is to meet people in person by going to events. When choosing this option, identify your networking goal beforehand, and research and plan your interaction. When executing the plan, remember people’s names, acquire contact details, and establish and maintain communication after the event. 

What jobs can I do? 

So many! Karen listed some of the main areas: higher education administration, consulting, non-profits, financial services, secondary school teaching, academic or trade publishing, cultural and historical organisations, entrepreneurship, freelancing. The thing to remember is that in the non-academic job world, you need to shift your academic identity into skills. Employers aren’t looking for a philosopher or a physicist, they’re looking for skilled workers. To get you thinking about the many skills you already have, here’s a list of just a few (read Karen’s book [link] for a list of 100+ skills):

  • Project management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Writing
  • Public speaking
  • Thought leadership (your PhD)
  • Innovation (your research contribution)
  • Networking
  • Research
  • Teaching and training
  • ICT

Cover letter and Resume (CV in the UK)

A resume (CV) is a marketing document, and you will change it for every job that you apply for. You need to identity the needs of the employer and the position and, just like in academia, the job search is about them, not you. So, describe how your background makes you uniquely suited to fulfill those needs, and do so in a way that is reader friendly. 

    All that invisible volunteer work that is part of your academic life will be the bread and butter of your CV. Think about all the things you have done and re-evaluate them from a non-academic point of view: for example, if you organised a conference, then that’s event planning. Quantify the skills you have, tallying them into knowledge and achievements; think about how many pages you can read or write in a week, and tally that up! Think about how much money you raised in funding. Think about how many sources you consulted and handled. Put numbers to the skills, use action words, and be specific, making them concrete achievements which the non-academic world can understand and appreciate. For example, don’t write ‘was responsible for filing documents’ but do write ‘filed and maintained confidential student records’. Wherever possible, describe your accomplishments: not ‘raised funds for annual service project’, but ‘raised $11,050 for the annual Kids Read benefit, a 15% increase from the previous year’. Also, when describing your responsibilities, you need to be aware of the language of academia and the language of business. For example, a presentation is a pitch, teaching is leadership, writing is communications, grading is valuation and management, and writing a dissertation is the execution of a large-scale strategy. Be aware of the language you use, and also consider using the same key words that are used in the job advert. You can even use a word cloud (my favourite tip) to pick out the key words and make them easier to pinpoint [image example?]. 

The Non-Ac Cover Letter

The cover letter is where you address certain challenges, because PhDs don’t always have the best reputation. You will have to manage other people’s reactions to your PhD, so make sure the language you use is accessible and fits the job, making the distance between you and them as small as possible. Downplay your academic credential, and up-play the skills you have gained from the experience. You also need to show that you can work in a team: show that you can communicate, have an ability to work with others, and that you’re collaborative and likable. Demonstrate your intellectual ability, but along the lines of problem solving and data analysis rather than your specific academic research. And communicate your adaptability and perseverance — you are able to overcome adversity, troubleshoot problems, and take different points of view, all because of your PhD study.

    When formatting your cover letter, you should follow the principles of business letter writing: 12-point font, 1 page, date, name and address in the top left, beginning ‘Dear…’. Here’s an example of how to structure your paragraphs:

  • Paragraph 1: Introduce who you are, the position for which you’re applying, and note where you saw it advertised
  • Paragraph 2 (and 3): Make connections between yourself and the job in these body paragraphs. Write about what is interesting about this job, explain weaknesses and gaps, if you have them, and treat your PhD as a problem you have to explain. You can also be more emotional to show your enthusiasm, unlike in the academic job world, because you’re making a pitch of yourself. Remember to explain why you’re changing careers, because not everyone knows about the difficulties of the academic world. Create a narrative (you’re allowed to use ‘passion’ here), for example: ‘I discovered that my passion is not for abstract academia, but for hands-on action into…’. Don’t let it be a long narrative, but do address it. Also, do not use the term ‘overqualified’, because there is too much judgement in that word. 
  • Final Paragraph: Conclude and invite further communication, followed by a salutation and your contact info. For example, ‘I look forward to an opportunity to discuss my qualifications with you further. I can be reached at the phone number below. Sincerely, …’

The DIY Career

The idea of ‘good jobs’ is going extinct, and many people are considering the DIY or entrepreneurial route. You could consider starting your own business (like Karen!), or freelancing. To do so, you need to think about your identity, and how these can become skills which could be used for creating that DIY career. Karen used her own situation as an example: she had her academic skills, a hobby of Japanese paper crafting, and ‘weird obsessions’ with the job market and professionalization. She took these and set up an Etsy site selling paper-crafting jewellery. Later, after realizing that she wasn’t making enough money from her Etsy shop, she developed the Professor Is In. It’s all about innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, so embrace that, and be aware of the improvisational element: you will have to create a website, cultivate a social media presence, and learn how to market and advertise. You may also have to take on a number of temporary jobs to keep afloat, but use these to learn what your skills are. And consider how your acquired skills can come together to create a new job outcome. You have so many skills from before and during the PhD programme, so use them.  

Final Thoughts

If there’s one thing to take from Karen’s talks, book, and blog, it’s this: don’t delay in thinking about your career. Think about it now, not in a panicked ‘oh my gosh what am I going to do in this terrible job market’ kind of way, but in a ‘look at all these skills I’m gaining during my PhD’ kind of way. Be aware of what you enjoy, and what you don’t, when it comes to academic work. Be aware of what your priorities are, and not other people’s; think about you and what you really want from a career, and then start to plan your options. A PhD is all about critical thinking, so don’t hesitate to critically evaluate your job situation, and consider alternatives. Think about your skills and your priorities, and then learn to translate those into the language required for the job market – whether that be academic, or the vast world of non-academic careers. 

Additional Resources

If you want help, you can get in touch with Karen and her team at gettenure@gmail.com.The non-ac career has also become so common that ‘quit-lit’ is now a thing, and Karen listed numerous online resources, alongside The Professor Is In website, a few of which are below:

  • So What Are You Going to Do with That? Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius
  • ImaginePhD.com: a planning tool for anyone with a PhD, providing questions to help imagine new career routes and identify career values
  • Beyond the Professoriate: Conference at beyondprof.com with online recordings
  • The post-ac blogosphere which includes advice columns on Chronicle Higher Ed (chronicle.com) and Inside Higher Ed (insidehighered.com
  • Your university’s career website 
  • Clifton Strengthsfinder: an old-school corporate tool which might be off putting but remains useful

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Workshop Summary: Preparing for a Non-Academic Career — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Workshop Summary: Hacking the Academic Job Market | The Professor Is In

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