What's Next?

What do you do after making the difficult decision to seek a non-academic career? Maggie Gover outlines some first steps.


November 24, 2014

As part of my job, I mentor graduate students and early career faculty through the transition to non-academic jobs. These career-changers have usually thought long and hard about their decision to seek a non-academic career. It is not something that anyone seeking my help takes lightly.  The most common thing I hear from my students and clients is, “I don’t know how to even begin looking for other types of jobs.”

One of my recent clients, a tenure-track professor seeking a career change, told me that the everything he knew about seeking non-academic jobs he had heard as an undergraduate student more than 12 years ago. The advice is probably still good, if you can remember it! Now that you are psychically ready to begin looking, where should you start? Here is a refresher that is updated for the current market and for those who have advanced degrees.

Self-Assessment: Before you begin looking for careers, you must first determine what it is you want from a career, what skills you would like to nurture, and where you might like to work. You can begin your self-assessment by simply thinking about your life and its practicalities. Do you have geographic requirements? Do you have children, a partner, or dependent adults whose needs must fit into your new career move? These types of questions may already exclude some broad industries.

Think about who you are as a person. Do you need structure in your work day? Are you longing for a career that you leave at your desk at 5 p.m. and don’t think about on the weekends? Do you enjoy working collaboratively? Do you like supervising others? Do you like interacting with the public? If you can identify what you like and, perhaps more importantly, dislike about your current career, you may be able to identify different industries or types of careers that might be particularly suitable for you.

Continue with more formal methods of assessing your aptitudes and interests. Your career center or the career center at the institution at which you are an alumnus will have access to resources like Skill Scan, Strong Interest Inventory, or Focus 2. You may also want to take advantage of free online tools, such as My IDP or Doug’s Guides. Whichever method you chose, you should be thinking about what you like about your current career that you would like to retain in your next career, what you dislike about your current career that you hope to leave behind, and the types of work environments in which you may find satisfaction. The bottom line is that you cannot find a satisfying career if you don’t first take the time to discover your own needs, ideals, and skills.

Informational Interview: After you have finished your introspection, you will need to start finding out how different careers will fit into the goals you have for your future career. My favorite way to do this is through the informational interview. Graduate students I advise to do informational interviews are often skeptical about the process. They fear that the informational interview is a waste of the interviewee’s time and that the process is an “undergrad” thing to do. However, even for professionals who are changing careers, the informational interview can be key in finding out if this new career meets your expectations.

During an informational interview, you will want to ask questions about the work environment in the industry and in that particular job. You may also want to ask questions about the specific company or institution for which your interviewee works. Ask what skills are necessary for this particular career to evaluate whether your skills match well and to find out where you might need some improvement. The important thing to find out during the informational interview is if the career would fit into your ideals and needs. Secondarily, you should be finding out what skills are necessary for success in this particular career or industry.  The informational interview can also be a powerful networking tool, so connect to your interviewee on LinkedIn. They may post opportunities on their LinkedIn page.

Research … Employers and Careers: Even if you have done several informational interviews, you will likely not have had the opportunity to interact with every company, or even every industry, in which you are interested. However, you are an all-star researcher, so put those research skills to use in a different arena. Start researching which core competencies are necessary for different careers in which you might be interested. Find out which companies offer those items that are most important to you. For example, if you are most interested in job security and steady salary and benefits, a position in which compensation is primarily determined by commission might not be the best option for you. You can discover many things about specific employers from their websites, their HR department’s websites, their employees LinkedIn profiles, and even the company’s social media pages. Salary.com has guides to skills and competencies for different industries. Many colleges and universities have access to these guides or others like them, so check your career center before you purchase anything!

Build Your Résumé: By this I don’t mean to actually write your résumé, although that is important and you can see my take on that here. Build your skills and experiences so that they can be easily observed in your application materials. The self-assessment and reflection should have given you some valuable information about yourself and your skills. If you are very interested in an industry and you have many of the preferred skills, you may be ready for the job market. Very likely, a new career means that you might have some skills that are lacking for that new career.

Rather than get discouraged, make a plan for obtaining, developing, or demonstrating those skills. Make a list of the skills needed for the job and then use a triage approach. What are the skills that you have, but that have not been demonstrated in a way that they might shine on your application materials? These will likely be the easiest to improve upon and may take the least amount of time. For example, you might be a whiz at using photo editing software because you use it for touching up all of your personal photos. If this skill is necessary for your new career options, you may want to get a contract position that will allow this to be an experience that you can put on your resume. Are there skills with which you are only moderately comfortable? Perhaps these are the ones that may take a bit more development.  Internships and volunteering will often help you strengthen skills that you have. Focus time on developing those skills that are important for several of your career options so that you have the most flexibility with your résumé.

Hopefully, as you have been completing these tasks, you have noticed that there are a myriad of options available to you. Do not discount any career without exploring its possibilities and thinking about how this career track would work within the context of your life. This may seem like a lot of work before you ever complete an application, but with the right preparation, you can develop a career in which you can be both successful and happy.


Maggie Gover is director of graduate student academic and professional development at the University of California at Riverside.


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