“5 Key Tips of Landing a Job Outside of Academia” from Dr. Susan Basalla May

by Vael Gates

On the last day of the Beyond Academia 2018 Conference, I attended the wonderful Friday keynote! Dr. Susan Basalla May, a Partner at Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates with a PhD in English, set out to tell us about the “Secrets of a PhD Headhunter: 5 Key Tips for Landing a Job Outside of Academia”.

While I write the following as if it were a transcript in order to portray Dr. Basalla May’s voice, it should be read as a paraphrase, as I was not nearly a fast enough typist to keep up with her excellent talk, and recalled some of this from memory.

“Everything I say, I say to all of you. Graduate students, postdocs, humanists, scientists… the fundamental questions of ‘What you can do with a ___ PhD?’ are all the same, no matter what your PhD. We all share the need to find a job outside academia, where the rules are very different.

“I looked around me in graduate school, and said: there are so many talented teachers and scholars around me. And I looked at myself, and said: this is okay, but this is not where my heart is. I  saw so many people heartbroken because they couldn’t get [academic] jobs they didn’t want, in places they didn’t want to live, and where their partners and spouses couldn’t live. I thought: if it’s that hard, even if I were offered an academic position on a silver platter, would I take it? And my heart still didn’t skip a beat.

“I had no connections, didn’t know where I was going to go. I started calling all of the people I knew who had previously been academics, asking questions like: ‘How is your job? Are you happy? Are you intellectually challenged in your work?’ And I learned that often people didn’t just have one job, they had a series of interesting jobs! People can have 10-12 careers in today’s world, and I hadn’t heard of so many of them.

“Today, I’m hoping to share some tips and advice with you that will help you be your own search consultant– five of them.

“1. Get your head ready, and get your heart ready. The most important step you can take in finding a job is just stopping for a second, and checking where you are. If you go into a search that is driven by frustration or desperation, you don’t present yourself as a good candidate: you end up selling yourself short. Here’s my recommendation: find a friend, find a buddy. Go and get a glass of wine with them. If your peers are not supportive, if your advisor is not supportive– then find someone else to bounce your ideas off of. And go to counseling services– try to separate your ideas about how you’re feeling now and where you want to go. I did both of these, and advocate for both!

“2. To get more interviews, send out fewer résumés. If you send out 100 résumés a week, you’re probably not qualified for 99% of those jobs, and it sets you up for feeling the failure of not hearing anything back. You’re not a failure, you’re just investing your energy at the wrong end of the process. Do your research before you apply… be stingy with your résumé. Only apply to jobs which you know well (you’ve researched well) and are excited about, and that you’re qualified for. There’s nothing more powerful than a really well-tailored résumé. A final tip: it takes a job recruiter 4-5 seconds to see if a résumé is in the ballpark or not. We see so many résumés that we know exactly what we’re looking for, or you may even be evaluated by software looking for key phrases.

“3. The short version of getting in the door is talking to people: networking. Networking is hard for people though, so I wanted to tell you about two really specific techniques to make it easy for you and the person you want to connect with. First, the painless networking technique. Let’s say you have an idea of the kind of person you’re trying to reach– you want to work for Tesla, NPR, Blue Apron, etc. You find the person you want to talk through by rigorous Googling… and instead of calling them and asking for an informational interview, you write them. You say: this is who I am, I’m changing fields, could you answer these two questions by email about moving into this field; I would be very grateful for your advice! This [kind of email] is perfect for you, and perfect for the recruiter, who knows how much time you’re going to take and is sure of the boundary– they know you’re not going to be clingy, that this is not going to go on for hours, and exactly what you’re asking of them. Two questions by email– anyone can do that, most people want to help you do that! Then depending on the tone of the conversation you may connect further, a few months, a year down the line. This introductory email helps set the stage for an interaction that will be comfortable for you and will be comfortable for them.

“What about the flip side– what if you don’t know what you individually enjoy, your priorities, where to start? You may not be used to thinking about what you individually enjoy; you may be an expert in thinking about what your PhD advisor individually enjoys. Here’s a technique: the gracious thank you. You simply decide that every time something excites you, pleases you, makes you smile, you send a thank you to whoever created that thing. That could be an artist, or a journalist, anything you’ve come across in your life; it could be a person. You simply send the gracious note which says: this is who I am, I really appreciate x about what you do, and I’m really excited for what you do next. You’re not expecting to get anything back, but you’re placing yourself in a different context, and you’re engaging with the world, and you’re leaving a paper trail for yourself. You’re asking: what was I engaged with without the ‘shoulds’, when I wasn’t being judged: what was I drawn to? It’s a way to get yourself unstuck if you feel stuck.

“Finally, know that this process is not linear. You really just have to throw yourself out there, make the small efforts, and hope that it’s all going to come back someday.

“4. How to get your résumé ready. In the world of recruiting and human resources, we don’t care about cover letters. This is different than from academia. We don’t care, and this is why: if I don’t see the skills that are necessary for the position on your résumé, you’re out– you live or die by your résumé. One of the key ways to tell the difference between the CV and the résumé is that if you’ve tried to convert your CV into a résumé and haven’t cried when you did so, then you still have a CV. It’s a radical shift, and it’s really important to make that shift, so that your calling card is an appealing one. CVs are about you. Résumés are about your employers, about what you can do for them and their organization. Go to your university’s career center, and have them help them transform your CV into something that will make the employers sit up and take notice.

“Customization. Often people will customize their résumés for industry, but not anything more specific than that. Industry, consulting, these are far too big of categories… if you want to get noticed, you have to make sure your résumé reflects what specific companies are looking for.

“Finally, sometimes you’ve made your résumé, and you know your dream job, but you simply don’t have the skills they want: you won’t have the experience. You can’t turn wine into water: what do you do? Here’s my advice: go and get that experience. In academia, we’re taught that we have to be certified, made official, for everything, and that’s really not true. Take an online course, read a textbook, volunteer. You can DIY this stuff… then present yourself as someone with the required skills. From someone on the outside, looking at an applicant who has done the work of reading a machine learning textbook and presents themselves as an expert– that reads as someone who has invested him or herself, who must be really interested in this skill. And as graduate students, you’re very good at learning. You can pick up anything and deliver it back!

“5. Finally, don’t underestimate your non-academic pursuits. Anything you feel guilty about, that you do on your free time… often people call these ‘things that you enjoy’, though we don’t, of course! We [academics] have this theory that if we keep ourselves ‘pure’, and have no other hobbies, then when the rapture comes we will ascend to the mythical tenure-track job. But that’s simply not true, so why bother? Keeping those side interests has a lot of benefits. You never know when those things that you enjoy and are good at will be a seed for something else… [PhDs I was interviewing for my book] ended up getting jobs related to hobbies they were never planning to do as a full-time job. These skills can add up to things later on. Even if it’s not practical, what I hear over and over is that when people spent time doing things outside of their academic realm, they ended up finishing up their dissertation more quickly. That’s because they kept their PhDs in perspective. And for those of you who are saying: no, you don’t understand my PI (principal investigator, the PhD’s student main advisor)… yes, but the fact is, it’s your life. Your PIs don’t own your life 24 hours a day, and you need to go out and take control of your destiny, and not be afraid of giving 99.9% instead of 100% in a system that is stacked against you.

“You are all in a good place, having come here [to the Beyond Academia Conference, to this keynote]. For those starting early, small things really stack up– dabble as you go along, and have a foot in both worlds [non-academic and academic] as you go along. For those at the end, feeling more pressure… take a step back, and apply for jobs that you have a deep understanding of and know where you fit.”

Many thanks to Dr. Susan Basalla May’s for her talk, which was truth-hitting and humorous for many. “If you haven’t cried when you’re making your résumé, you still have a CV,” I heard people quoting, as they walked out. They winced at each other, laughing. “So, so true!”

To hear more from Dr. Basalla May, check out her book “‘So What Are You Going to Do with That?’: Finding Careers Outside Academia”.