Questioning Your Future in Academia? Do This Now!

by Sarita Jackson

Sarita Jackson was a tenured professor of Political Science before leaving academia in 2013 to found her own think tank and consulting firm, Global Research Institute of International Trade. GRIIT is a think-tank/consulting firm dedicated to analyzing the opportunities and costs of free trade agreements and simplifying the rules within these agreements so that businesses can take advantage of global market opportunities to increase their profits.  In this, her first post-ac post, Dr. Jackson shares specific steps you can take right now to build the “marketing capital” that you can spend later when seeking to translate your Ph.D. training into a non-academic job.

Sarita Jackson

Sarita Jackson

You may be in graduate school or just finished, or a veteran of the job search.  No matter where you are in the process, current debates on the profession have you questioning an academic career. Increasing debt of Ph.D. students. A declining number of tenure track positions. What are you to do?

Start building your marketing capital right now so that you can enjoy a variety of options to spend it on when you need to.

Marketing capital refers to the accumulation of skills and networks that will allow you to demonstrate the value that you add to any organization beyond the Ivory Tower (or Ebony Tower for those at Historically Black Colleges and Universities).

To start building marketing capital, it is important to think in terms of having career options rather than just a career. This helped me prepare for both an academic and a related non-academic career path while pursuing my doctorate. So then the next logical question is: How?

There are five things that you can do today to help you thrive as the academic profession continues to change. These tips have been beneficial in both my academic and post-academic positions in consulting and business.  I made it all the way to tenure before deciding to leave the academy to run my own think tank and consulting firm.

  1. Nurture relationships with non-academic mentors in your field

    Mentors outside of academia were instrumental as I created a path of career options. These mentors helped with my transition by sharing advice on creating a resume or CV that speaks to the needs of the non-academic position, the interview process, and negotiating my salary. I met these mentors at events organized for policymakers, business representatives, researchers and consultants; through interviews that I conducted in Washington, D.C. for my dissertation; and from internships (see point #2). Ten plus years later, I still collaborate with many of these mentors.

  1. Complete at least one internship

    Internships can be used to gain professional development training in addition to their teaching assistant duties. Internships provided me with the necessary practical training, networking opportunities, and first-hand insight into an alternative career path as well as access to resources for my dissertation.

    I took advantage of paid internships where I would gain a substantial experience. I interned in the Deputy Secretary’s office at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., National Public Radio, and the U.S. Embassy in Panama. I had the skills to market myself should I decide to pursue a career in the Foreign Service or fall back on my undergraduate degree in Broadcast Journalism.

  1. Conduct informational interviews

    Informational interviews are also a good way to introduce yourself to the decision-makers in a related non-academic position and determine if a particular alternative career path is right for you ahead of time. During my last year in graduate school, I held informational interviews over the phone and face-to-face with government officials, consultants, researchers at think-tanks and business owners.

    As a matter of fact, my first job upon completion of graduate school resulted from a request for an informational interview. The consultant whom I interviewed because of her similar background similar responded with an invitation to a job interview. I enjoyed working as a trade policy consultant for the next year and a half before finally going on the academic job market.

  1. Set aside time for additional training

    Even in graduate school I had an interest in running my own company in the future. So I took advantage of entrepreneurship training. A number of opportunities exist that are not too time consuming to participate in free local entrepreneurship workshops funded by the Small Business Association. The training from my days in graduate school, as well as thereafter, has been beneficial in my current role as founder of a think-tank/consulting firm.

  2. Make your work relevant

    Scholars are trained to build upon knowledge by examining theories and methodological approaches. However, when a non-academic asks the So what? question, that person wants to know how the information will benefit him/her. In fields such as political science and economics, at least one chapter of the dissertation should also have practical applicability. The last chapter of my dissertation included a policy proposal that I was able to use when discussing my work with those outside of academia, especially with those who had the authority to hire.

Thinking in terms of career options and building marketing capital requires time. With proper time management and engaging in professional activities that serve you academically and post-academically can help you to lay the foundation for a post-academic career without prolonging or delaying the completion of your graduate degree.

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Questioning Your Future in Academia? Do This Now! — 10 Comments

  1. Make your work relevant. So important. As an anthropologist I don’t think my work was relevant to anything except the development of more anthropology of very specific kinds. And being an anthropology professor means training more people for work that has no function outside college and teaching more people about this fascinating subject in which there are no jobs. So moving on with my life, I needed to find an area in which my interests and strengths had a necessary function, and when the suggestion of librarianship came up, it seemed like a good match for me. I had to go back to school, butit was a lifeboat off the sinking ship of academic anthropology.

    • Another former anthropologist checking in to agree with you, Jay! I too was extremely frustrated that my research more often than not led to me talking with fewer and fewer people about less and less relevant things, rather than the other way around.

      I did not pursue an additional degree myself, but breaking into the private sector allowed me to apply the same skills, and all of the things I loved about my discipline to actually helping others get “real” things done. It also let me share my fairly unusual background and ideas with people who had no frame of reference for anthropology outside Indiana Jones! Somehow, my degree is so much more meaningful to be now (in the context of my professional experience) than it ever was when I was isolated in my own research.

  2. This is an informative and timely piece. Thank you. Yes, it does no harm to explore work options beyond the academic (especially tutoring) world. Indeed, one’s abilities, energy, and interests can be realized in numerous employment sectors (for example, research, self-employment, etc). And there are more jobs to be had in the non-academic sector, many require postgraduate communication skills–so why not investigate some of them? I wonder if the actual process of researching and writing-up the PhD itself hinders the doctoral student from building-up their ‘marketing capital’? This article says it should not. I guess it might depend upon the culture at each academic institution, the attitude of one’s colleagues, and one’s past employment strategies. But there is hope!

  3. Really excellent advice! These actions weren’t part of my academic program, but I really wish they had been, and I hope to see more programs build them into their curriculum. Thankfully, I’m playing catch-up on a lot of these tasks while completing a post-doc. My program was applied enough to demand actionable recommendations in the dissertation, which has been a tremendous help in explaining the practical applications of anthropology to folks outside the field. But these are great suggestions for students whose departments don’t support/don’t know how to support an applied & practicing educational track!

  4. I have just started thinking about doing informational interviews. Do you have any recommendations for sites about how to prepare for them or good questions to ask? Thanks.

    • Hi KC,

      Here is a list of 200 questions for you to cull through:

      The best advice I can give you is to be confident in having the discussion and clear about what you want as an outcome. Are you looking to understand a day in the life? Do you want to get advice on what makes a competitive candidate in the person’s field? Do you want to learn about the culture of the company they work for? Being crisp in your own mind about the outcome will make the conversation easier for you and the person you are chatting with.

    • My one piece of advice is to be careful about how your informational interviews are perceived! It’s easy for them to come across as simply trying to sneak your way into an actual interview, or make a connection you hope will lead to a job. This can be off-putting more often than not, so make sure you approach informational interviews for what they are – INFORMATION!

      This means being prepared to ask plenty of truly compelling questions and really actively seek advice. It’s a great opportunity to gain a mentor or two, but make sure the conversation focuses around THEM and THEIR work, not on selling yourself.

    • Hi KC. I am glad that you are thinking about doing informational interviews. The tip sheets that I collected from the career center at my graduate institution, Brown University, were very helpful for me. Below are some of the questions that I used, which came from one of these tip sheets. Best of luck! Let us know if you have any additional questions/concerns.

      ? How did you select this career? What was your first job? ? Are there alternate routes to the same career/job? ? What are the levels or steps in this career? ? What do you like most about your work? What do you find most challenging?
      ? What is your work environment like? Casual or formal? Fast-paced or relaxed? Team-oriented or independent?
      Education/training/experience necessary ? What background, skills, or experiences are necessary? ? Are there particular courses I should take? Does a particular concentration / major make a difference? ? What professional organizations are active and helpful to students? ? Are there journals, magazines, or websites that you recommend I read? ? What question haven’t I asked you that I should be thinking about?

  5. Pingback: Preparing for the Non-Academic Job Market: Part I | The Hidden Curriculum

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