Your Next Project
You can rely on the research skills you've learned as a scholar to navigate a new career path, writes Sabine Hikel.
Does the phrase "career change" terrify you? Do you think "former academic" is a special kind of slur? Does the idea of the non-academic job search make you want to hide under your bed?
If you’re at the point where you want to make a non-academic contingency plan, or you think you’re ready to admit that academia isn’t the life for you, you don’t need to plunge in to the depths of managing your career change all at once. You just need to understand the nature of what you’re taking on. As it turns out, academics are actually uniquely well-positioned to embark on the process of a career change because so much of what’s involved is about creating and executing a research plan. That’s right, smartypants career changer — you’ve just stumbled upon your next research project.
Like any other project, it’s good to get a sense of what needs to be done before you dive in. So here is a list of 10 components to check off on your project plan as you go about doing your research.
- Begin with basic research. The first thing to do is a preliminary assessment of the existing material in the field of non-academic career change. Lucky for you, the small amount of info that’s out there is slowly growing. There are the books you can buy (starting with Basalla and Debelius’ So What Are You Going to Do With That?). But the bulk of the advice and insight can be found online: Alexandra Lord’s Beyond Academe, Paula Chambers’ WRK4US listserv, Julie Clarenbach’s Escape the Ivory Tower are three great places to start. And of course, there’s the Leaving Academia column I write here, plus my blog (where you’ll find links to a social networking site).
- Expand your research to human subjects. In other words, sniff out former academics for advice, encouragement and potential contacts. You can use alumni databases to find out where graduates of your university have gone, and of course, you should be using the requisite social media platforms. But the best way of finding academic expats is word of mouth. As I’ve said many times, once you start looking for former academics, you can’t go to a single social gathering without finding five of them. Ask them about their experiences. Find out how they made their way into their next career. Ask them if they know anyone you can talk to.
- Start thinking about what you can offer the world beyond your disciplinary boundaries. This, to me, is a critical, critical step. Many academics I’ve talked to get hung up on the question, "But what kind of job can a Ph.D. in [insert your discipline here] get?" Don’t limit your imagination to jobs that seem to spring directly from your disciplinary background (oh, you’re a poli sci Ph.D.? Get a government job! You’ve got an English degree? Go into book publishing!). God forbid Rachel Maddow would have chained herself to a desk job inside the State Department, or that David Duchovny would have restricted himself to being an adjunct English lit professor for the rest of his life. Instead, do what they did: get clear on what your skills are (then see #4 on following your passion). Your path into the non-academic world will likely not be through what you know but what you can do: planning, organizing, writing, research, presenting, liaising, chairing a meeting/committee, translating complex ideas into simple ones, organizing a presentation or conference, etc. Spend lots of time -- like, lots of time -- figuring out what your skills are. Don’t know how to do that? Start with Google and go from there.
- Reflect on what your beliefs and interests are and what you’re really passionate about, then focus on your key research problem. Focus in on the area where you want to conduct your career search the way you set out the parameters of your research. One way of doing this is to zoom in on what you care about most. The former academics I've talked to who are happiest are the ones who found work that aligned most with their values, even if it had little to do (on the surface) with their area of research.
- Identify the obstacles the way you identify gaps in the literature, and then develop strategies to deal. OK, so you’ve figured out that you really want to, for example, turn your gardening hobby into your main gig. Let’s say you want to open a flower shop. You’ve got the planning skills, the knowledge about plants and you worked at Wal-Mart for a few years during your B.A. But are you lacking basic bookkeeping skills? Take a night course. Volunteer for an organization that needs office help. Ask a local florist if you can job shadow him or her for a day.
- Plunge in. After that period of reflection and rumination, the point comes when the fingers hit the keyboard and the feet hit the pavement. Attack the execution of your research with the zeal you attack your scholarly hypotheses. The tricks you used to get your dissertation written can be the same you use here — time management, balance, knowing when you feel most capable to tackle a big problem, etc.
- Crank up your networking machine. This aspect of your career research never, ever stops. Find out ways you can help others. Talk to anyone and everyone you know who has an interesting job and find out how they got into that line of work. Get a volunteer job for an organization or cause you really believe in and make yourself useful. Make a spreadsheet of your contacts and incorporate this into your research. Keep being open to meeting new people and developing new relationships.
- Know that there is going to be a lot of healing and grieving to be done. There is a lot about career change that is fun and exciting, but making the decision to leave academia is not just about switching jobs. It’s about shedding an entire identity that you built up over years or decades. You can’t move out of that situation without feeling some amount of loss. It’s like a breakup: you know that you don’t want to stay in a relationship with that person, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to go through a period of mourning.
- Consider enlisting the help of some professionals -- a life coach, career coach, psychotherapist or counselor. I’m going to plug my friend and colleague Jamie Ridler because she is amazing at helping people from all over the world open their eyes to new paths their lives can take (plus she’s a former academic, to boot, so she’s a coach who knows where you’re coming from). You could also hire a résumé coach or other professionals who can help you with identifying your skills and crafting your résumé.
- Rinse and repeat. And, like with your research, celebrate a job well done.
- Grab Your Partner: STEM Connections Outside Academia
- Non-Academic Career Prep for STEM Grad Students
- The Problem With Assumptions
- The Career Coach Is In: Where to Begin Looking Beyond?
- No Limits
- Essay challenges advice given to would-be graduate students
- The Bridge to Somewhere
- Balancing Grad School and Non-Academic Opportunities
Search for Jobs