The Bridge to Somewhere
Let’s say you’re one of those people who has decided to start looking for work outside of academia. You’re either trying to develop a Plan B in case a tenure-track job doesn’t open up, or you’re really just tired of the academic game and want a life change. Maybe you’re kind of a Type A personality who wants to set some plans in place before you make the leap, or maybe you’ve got hefty loans or a family to support and you need to move cautiously. The good news is that making the decision to find a nonacademic career does not necessarily mean living through a period of unemployment. There are some ways that you can move gingerly towards a nonacademic career, steps you can take that will bridge your academic and post-academic life. Here are a few ideas:
- Start your post-academic career exploration while you’re still in grad school. Commit a certain number of hours each week to job hunting/career development stuff like information interviewing, going to your campus career center for a transferable skills analysis, or reading books on résumé writing. In my own case, there was a five-month period between the submission of the final draft of my dissertation and the actual dissertation defense. During much of that time, I was finishing up my teaching and doing some thesis revisions for my committee members, but I was also cranking up my employment-seeking machine: I applied for a handful of summer teaching contracts, registered with a temping agency, started reading job ads, and did some networking that led to my first post-academic job.
- Another way of bridging the post-academic gap is by using the skill that you already know you have — research — in a nonacademic setting. Think tanks, market research firms, policy institutes, consultancies, social service agencies, professional associations, unions, broadcasters, documentary filmmakers, public administration (aka government bureaucracy) — all of these organizations require researchers. Sure, some need people who know how to run stats or have a particular area of expertise, but a lot of them need qualitative researchers or generalists. Some of these positions pay well, well enough to be a long-term position rather than just a bridge to your next gig. For others that aren’t as lucrative, being a paid researcher at a nonacademic organization can give you a taste of what the nonacademic work environment is like.
- Take another skill set you know you have, like teaching. There are more ways to teach than in a university classroom. And no, I’m not even necessarily talking about teaching ESL classes or high school or elementary school. The skills you have as a teacher are transferable to jobs that require a lot of working with the public. You know when you go on a museum/state park/art gallery/Graceland tour and a guide tells you all about the artifacts, and they’re really good at captivating your attention? Or you know when you buy something in a store and someone effectively tells you all about their products? Or you know when you go to an information kiosk for help? Or you know when you go to a public lecture? Or you know when someone shares information at a meeting or conference? They’re using the same skills you use teaching in a classroom. Think laterally about those skills, and you could hit on your bridge to somewhere.
- I’ve had people ask me if I think doing a postdoc can also be a good bridge to post-academic labor. I do think it can be, because postdocs typically have enough flexibility for you to make the time to dedicate to researching nonacademic jobs/careers. If the postdoc pays you enough to be able to buy time for a year or two, it can be leveraged as part of your career transition.
- Finally, adjuncting is something you can commit to for a year or two as a way to pay the bills while you build up your nonacademic contacts. And if you do find a job halfway through the semester, don’t hesitate to quit. After all, there are plenty of other adjunct teachers in line behind you who’d be happy to pick up your contract.
- Depending on your interests, freelancing is something you may be able to do during grad school, adjuncting or while doing a postdoc. If you’re interested in moving into a field like journalism, web design, or broadcasting, doing some freelance work won’t take up a huge amount of time while also allowing you to build up your contacts, get some experience and make a bit of cash on the side. I did my first freelance radio piece for Canada’s public broadcaster right around the time I defended my dissertation, and it was a fun, eye-opening experience that helped show me the world of post-academic possibilities.
There are ways of moving slowly and gradually to post-academic work that might appeal to those who don’t have much appetite for a radical change. They provide enough security to help you build confidence, while still moving you toward a satisfying postacademic career.