• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Career Coach Is In: Transition, From the Inside Out

This week’s letter is from a tenured creative writing professor at a state college, who has two small children and is looking for a career change. Here’s an except from Coral:

July 7, 2008

This week’s letter is from a tenured creative writing professor at a state college, who has two small children and is looking for a career change. Here’s an except from Coral:

I like my summers off, excellent health benefits, and upper division students. I hate the increasingly inane bureaucracy of my university, my 4/4 teaching load (2 are freshman composition), my geographic restriction, especially as my parents age, and the constant pressure to publish. But I have no idea what other jobs I might be qualified for. My husband is also an English prof whose visiting professorship just ended, so my income supports our family. Any suggestions on how to ditch academia for a more family friendly (but not financially disastrous) life?

Dear Coral,

Because academia is such an all-encompassing career (lifestyle, really) and many people go through the academic ranks without ever working outside of a university, your question is a common one. It can be overwhelming to think about leaving the fold – and knowing where to possibly begin looking for options outside the familiar university – but, rest assured, many have successfully made the transition and you can, too.

As usual, I highly recommend working with a career counselor or coach at your university or in your area (or even by phone) – particularly one with experience in academia -- to help you through this process. She or he can guide you through clarifying your skills and values ( first), then researching alternative career options that fit with your goals. While there are multitudes of resources to research alternative careers for academics – careers ranging from teaching to consulting to non-profits to publishing and many more – starting at this point can be frustrating and even paralyzing for many. Looking first at what you know about yourself can launch you into career research in a much more focused and manageable way.

Tools career counselors and coaches have access to – such as the Strong Interest Inventory and SkillScan, comprehensive assessments of your skills and interests matched with career possibilities – can quickly and usually quite successfully help you narrow down alternative careers to explore. I also suggest looking back at my May 11 post and comments, which recommend excellent books that also can help guide you through this process.

For now, I’d like to suggest two basic activities you can do yourself to get started in your career transition thinking:

1. Experience-to-Skills Inventory: This activity will help you begin to clarify the skills you use in your current career, and even in non-work activities – and becomes your list of what career counselors and human resources folks call “transferable skills.” You have many transferable skills, but as an academic you likely haven’t been encouraged to think about what you do in these terms.

  • First, divide a piece of paper into four quadrants.
  • In each quadrant, write “Experience:” at the top, then leave some space.
  • Below that, write “Duties/Tasks:” followed by four bullet points.
  • Next, write and “Skills Acquired:” followed by four bullet points.
  • Start listing the experiences you’ve had, from teaching classes to office hours to writing a dissertation to volunteer or life experiences – one experience in each quadrant.
  • Then, list the duties or tasks of each experience. (For example, for teaching, think from preparing lessons to giving lectures to grading.)
  • Lastly, consider and write down what skills each task requires. You can find a partial list of skills typically acquired in PhD work here, which gives you a good start for analyzing your transferable skills gained as a professor as well.

Now you have a good amount of transferable skills to work with. Seeing what you do in terms of your skills is an important first step in finding a new career fit.

2. Future Day Fantasy: As crucial as analyzing the skills you are using and elements you enjoy in your current career is thinking about the skills you want to be using and elements you want to incorporate into your future career. The Future Day Fantasy is a written activity you can do (and should enjoy, Coral, being a creative writing professor!) to start articulating your vision of where you want to go next.

Set aside an hour of uninterrupted time. Write at the top of your paper, “Monday, July 6, 2013” (or a date of your choice five to ten years in the future – but make sure it is a “work day”). Then chronicle, from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, what your day looks like. Where do you live, and with whom? What are your meals like? What clothing do you put on? Where is your work located, and how do you get there? Do you work alone or with others? Who do you interact with all day? What do you do on breaks?

After you write, look back over your Future Day Fantasy – and your Experience-to-Skills Inventory -- and ask yourself: What are the connections between your future fantasy and your most fulfilling past experiences? What is similar? What is different? Much of what you will find will be the start of clarifying your personal values, priorities and goals – another important foundational step before you launch into exploring specific alternative careers.

Hopefully, Coral, these activities can jump-start your career transition, and give you some great information to bring to a career coach as you plan a productive search for alternative work that fits your values and uses your favorite transferable skills. There are many wonderful career options for you – and if you focus and strategize, the process need not be endless or painful. I wish you the best in your search.

Finally, I want to take a moment to let readers know that after this week I will be passing “The Career Coach Is In” over to other wise “Mama PhDs” who can adeptly tackle the pile of thought-provoking questions we have in store. Stay tuned for next Monday, as a colleague takes the reins, but for now I want to thank you all for these weeks of invigorating discussion and important questions and comments; it’s been a pleasure. There is much more to come, so please come back next week for some new perspectives on your queries and situations.

Wishing You Your Own Vision of Success,



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