The Alt/Post-Ac Makeover: From Field to Function and New Forms – Cardozo

by Out-Ac Coach Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

To run a successful Alt/Post-Ac job search, you first need to grasp some key differences between hiring in academic versus alternative sectors.  Here’s is a partial synopsis:

  1. Many academic listings are advertised nationally and up to a year in advance.  Jobs in other sectors may be posted only regionally/locally, or not at all.
  2. Academic searches are often conducted by committee and unfold over months.  In contrast, Alt/Post-Ac hiring may be resolved autocratically by a single hiring manager and, in some cases, move along very quickly.  Busy organizations want a vacancy filled as soon as possible.
  3. Academic “lines” are hard-won and go through a bureaucratic approval process.  In the private sector or in fast-growing nonprofits, jobs may materialize quickly when staffing needs emerge.

As a result of the above points, networking in academe (while still valuable to gain context) doesn’t impact a search outcome nearly as much as networking can make (or lack of it break) an Alt/Post search.  Networking allows you to be on the radar when jobs open up unexpectedly; managers are more likely to turn to their own professional or personal network for leads on how to fill a position quickly. Networking might even allow you to propose your own job to organizations that may not have realized someone with your particular skill set exists to meet their needs.

The big kahuna of an academic career transition, however, is a shift in focus from field to function.

  1. In academe, faculty members inhabit similar roles; thus field specialization is emphasized and hair-splitting practically fetishized! (eg, Is it the long 18th century to which you refer?)  In other organizational contexts (including Alt-Ac work on a campus), content expertise may certainly matter, but ROLE differentiation is key.  Your function is the main story, and the real question for any applicant is: can you DO what we need you to do?

Learning to look at job possibilities through this functional lens, rather than that of a field specialist, allows you to consider many different roles across sectors.  It enables you to embrace the both/and principle I discussed in a prior post:  that is, you don’t have to prematurely choose between “Ac” or “non-Ac.”  Rather, apply to jobs based on whether these are ROLES you are able and willing to play, regardless of the sector in which they are located.  For example, I have a client with an internationally-themed humanities PhD with additional experience working in instructional technology.  This person has applied convincingly for administrative jobs in international education programs, a federal research analyst position, editor for an online humanities magazine, and as staff in a center for teaching.

A focus on FUNCTION is ultimately what allows you to play freely with the FORM of your documents, crafting new letters and resumes for alternative roles.  Because academic roles are similar across campuses, application documents follow a similar template emphasizing research, teaching and service. But as mentioned in my post on the Art of Translation, those categories are actually a bundle of many discrete skills and functions.  Alternative jobs range in their key components, thus you have to carefully “unpack” your background to identify pieces relevant to the new role, so you can explain to employers that you’re ready and capable of doing the work. Chapter 60 in The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD into a Job, TPII’s Margy Horton offers a handy list of 100 transferable skills that can help you make your case (and boost your self-confidence astronomically in the process!).

One of the most common strategies I deploy with clients is to design a functional (rather than purely chronological) resume, using whatever category headers are relevant to the new job at hand. Chronology is not typically a friend to the ABD/PhD who has spent most of their life as a student.  But convert all of that time into a thematic accounting of your different projects and lo and behold, a significantly experienced person emerges, one with an impressive array of proven skills, from research to grant/project management to writing/editing and public speaking or team facilitation.

But here’s the rub.  You cannot simply “recycle” your Alt/Post-Ac letters or resumes the way you may have reused their academic counterparts. To stand out in the Alt/Post-Ac pack, you need highly customized letters and resumes. Why?  BECAUSE EVERY NONACADEMIC JOB IS DIFFERENT in its unique configuration of responsibilities, in the organizational context, and in organizational culture.  Take the latter point.  Even if the roles are similar (say, Communications Manager), an informal, dynamic and friendly nonprofit won’t respond as well to the coolly professional letter that may have worked well for your prior application to a stuffy private foundation.  So even if your content doesn’t change much (but most often, it HAS to for each unique job description), a new tone may be in order to convey your fit.

It is a rare individual who opts out of academe to only replicate an equally narrow job search elsewhere, e.g. “seeking positions curating medieval art in urban museums.”  Statistics just aren’t on your side.  Most people diversify their alternative job search and consider multiple roles and organizational contexts.  However, there’s no need to throw spaghetti at the wall indiscriminately.  The current landscape is not a numbers game where more is better.  Selectivity of FIT is still most likely to catapult you to the interview short list or job offer.

So again, focus on FUNCTION and imagine yourself playing a given role, no matter the sector in which it’s located.  If you feel a “click” of recognition (hey, I can do most of these things!) go ahead and apply—ideally after having done some networking to prime the pump.  In such cases, new letters and resume designs flow much more easily.  And of course, should these functions take place in a context where your PhD field expertise is relevant, so much the better!

In my work for TPII these past few years, by far the most financially efficient and popular service has been the 2-application package ($450, or $600 with additional SKYPE consult to strategize and support you while the search in process).  I have never yet worked with a client who “only” needed resume help, or vice versa.  The cover letter always indexes the resume, pointing to the evidence to support the writer’s claims.  In turn, the resume details what the cover letter cannot; they must dovetail. Extracting from academe is a paradigm shift; all documents must be looked at anew.  As one of my clients put it:

“Rather than general, one-size-fits-all recommendations, you taught me how to understand my background as a set of discrete skills and knowledges [and showed me] how these skills can be configured, linked and packaged to make me an attractive candidate in different employment sectors…providing the kind of encouragement that has opened my eyes to all the doors I failed to see.”

I used to tell my clients that this package was best deployed when active deadlines were in view. And that’s true enough (nothing generates motivation more than an actual application deadline!).  However, I’ve had a few clients choose to get their feet wet prior to actually applying for jobs, and they wax just as exuberant:  not only about their document makeover, but about their own self-transformation. They literally see themselves, and the future, more positively as a result of having engaged in this process. That frame of mind makes you a very different contender on the job market: a believer, not a doubter.  I now realize that it may be just as valuable to invest in such a package as a “boot camp” to get you in shape to perform effectively when there is a real deadline at stake.

If you are one of those folks who is waiting “one more year” to see how the academic search pans out, or are on the fence about whether to change paths, or are eager to leave academe but not ready to commit to actual applications, it would be a good investment to develop letters/resumes for a few different Alt/Post-Ac jobs. You will learn from generating these new formats that you are well-qualified to play any number of diverse roles on a campus or beyond.  In so doing, you will have overcome a significant logistical hurdle by taking full inventory of your background to convert your materials for some very different purposes.  When the real deal comes along, you’ll be able to apply effectively and—just as important for your sanity—with a minimum of angst.

For the same reason that that therapists have therapists, writers have editors, and athletes have trainers, we all need fresh eyes on our situation—someone who both understands where we’ve been, and where we want to go.  That’s all of us at TPII.  So whether or not your alternative job search is really “on” yet, consider taking part of your summer to position yourself in the starting gate with an Alt/Post-Ac 2 or 3-application package (you don’t have to complete all the components at once, but can pace yourself as needed).  When the starting gun goes off, you will be leading the pack with the winds of change at your back, running toward your future with confidence.

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