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Exploring Career Paths Beyond the Academy

Resources for jobs and for self-care.

May 3, 2022
 
 

This article is the second in a multipart series on career paths beyond the academy. The first piece provided advice on when and why to consider careers outside higher ed.

Once you’ve decided to explore careers beyond the academy, the process can seem overwhelming: virtually unending career possibilities, potential industries and employers.

Fortunately, in the last decade, the resources available to help academics explore career paths outside higher ed have grown exponentially:

  • Career exploration tools such as ImaginePhD (a free career tool for humanities and social science Ph.D.s developed by the Graduate Career Consortium) and myIDP (a free career tool for STEM Ph.D.s) that provide assessments that match your skills and interests with career paths
  • Sections and committees of professional and academic associations focused on applied and industry careers that offer workshops, networking, etc.
  • Career panels hosted by your current academic institution as well as those open to alumni at the institution(s) where you completed your degrees
  • Informational interviews with former colleagues who have transitioned out of the academy, Ph.D.s in your discipline working outside the academy, alumni from institutions where you completed your degrees, etc.

If you’re not sure where to start or are considering a variety of possible career paths or industries, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Work Life is a fantastic resource that helps you identify, explore and compare a variety of possibilities for work and life. Rather than providing a list of career options, Designing Your Work Life is a framework and set of tools that can guide you through the process of gaining clarity on what matters most to you and deciding what’s next.

Once you’ve generated one—or a handful—of potential career paths, start reading job ads in those areas. Reading job ads helps you do two critical next steps in your career exploration process. First, it helps you understand what—if any—skill, experience or credential gaps you may need to fill to be successful in transitioning to that career path. Second, reading job ads helps familiarize you with the language corporate, start-up, nonprofit, etc. sectors use to describe experiences and skill sets, which you should be sure to use in both your application materials and interviews—translating your academic experience for a nonacademic employer.

Taking Care of Yourself While Exploring a Career Transition

The process of exploring a major career transition can be by turns exhilarating, isolating, anxiety-inducing, frustrating, disheartening, exciting, confusing and overwhelming. Spending time developing a clear plan for how you will navigate your career exploration and potential transition will help sustain you through the process—what I often explain to career coaching clients as making the intellectual and emotional time, space and energy to do the work of leaving.

Worry and anxiety about a variety of issues related to potentially moving into a new career path are common: Will I be starting over? Does this make my Ph.D. a waste? Is leaving failing? Will I be employable in a career outside higher ed? Will I be able to find meaningful, intellectually engaging work outside the academy?

Transitioning to a new career field or path is both possible and not a sign of failure. Reading the narratives of academics who have gone on to careers beyond higher ed provides clear evidence that meaningful, intellectually engaging work does indeed exist outside the academy. While you will certainly not be starting over—you’re bringing a wealth of knowledge, experience and skills with you—you will need to learn how to translate that knowledge, experience and skills for other industries. More on that in the next piece.

When and if you decide to explore career paths outside the academy—whether or not you have already committed to leaving—it’s important to carefully assess your current bandwidth and commitments. Be intentional, strategic and practical in taking things off your plate and/or pushing back deadlines to generate time and bandwidth for the job transition–related work you’re adding.

As you are exploring navigating a career transition outside the academy, it’s important to be intentional about taking care of yourself. In a previous piece for Inside Higher Ed, I shared practical strategies for flourishing during job searches. Importantly, flourishing isn’t something that should happen only after your complete your career transition but should happen throughout your career exploration, job search and transition.

In the next piece, I’ll share strategies for articulating your transferable skills, researching potential employers, preparing your application materials and setting yourself up for successful interviews.


Brandy L. Simula (she/her/hers) is a consultant, coach and professional speaker working at the intersections of leadership and organizational development, DEIB, and well-being. After a decade working as a scholar, teacher and administrator in higher ed, she transitioned to a leadership development role at a Fortune 50 in 2021. Read more about her work at brandysimula.com.

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