The Bridge to Somewhere
There are ways to phase in a move from higher ed to another kind of employment, writes Sabine Hikel.
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.
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