Preparing for a Non-Faculty Career – Part 1

In this post, L. Maren Wood shares her seven tips to begin a job search outside of academia. A keynote speaker at this year’s conference, Maren is the founder of Lilli Research Group, which provides career coaching to PhD job seekers.

This article originally appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education, and will be presented in two parts here. Stay tuned for Part Two next week!

For most Ph.D.’s, the nonacademic labor markets are shrouded in mysterymarenwood: Where do I look for jobs? How do I meet people if I don’t have contacts outside academe? Did I just waste the past eight years of my life on this doctorate when I should have been earning an M.B.A.?

Ill-equipped to manage a nonfaculty job search, many new Ph.D.’s struggle to find openings relevant to their interests and skills. As a Ph.D. who came up short myself on the tenure-track market and left academe to start my own consulting company, I designed a “Boot Camp for the Postacademic Job Seeker” to help graduate students interested in positions beyond the professoriate. In the boot camp, Ph.D.’s spend four weeks exploring career options, identifying their transferable interests and skills, writing résumés, and learning how to network beyond academe. Here are seven tips I’ve learned from teaching at the boot camp to help you begin your nonfaculty job search:

1. “It’s the economy, stupid.”Ph.D.’s are often surprised at how long it takes to land a full-time job outside of higher education. As the weeks turn into months, many begin to doubt themselves, their degrees, and their training.

The reality is, finding a job takes months for everyone, regardless of education and work history. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average period of unemployment is nine months, with a median of 17 weeks. Those numbers are depressing, but they should remind Ph.D. job seekers that their experience is not unique. Do not let a difficult search or a slow economic recovery fill you with doubt. Your doctorate has value, as evidenced by the numerous blog posts written by Ph.D.’s who have successfully made the transition out of the professoriate.

That said, it will take work, creativity, and perseverance to land your first meaningful, full-time nonfaculty position. What the unemployment figures do suggest is that you may have to rely on temporary gigs while you search for it. You may have to intern, volunteer, or take low-paying jobs in the interim. For those in faculty positions (temporary or tenure-track) who are considering exiting the professoriate, the time to start your nonacademic search is now. Use the time left in your teaching contract to begin building a network of contacts and laying the groundwork for your search.

The good news, as shown in the recent placement study by the American Historical Association, is that most Ph.D.’s end up with good, middle-class jobs that use their skills and expertise. They become researchers, analysts, managers, administrators, and consultants. Many run their own businesses. You, too, can join the ranks of the gainfully employed outside of academe.

2. Employers care more about skills than credentials.In academe, credentials are key. So when Ph.D.’s read job ads for nonfaculty positions, they are easily discouraged when an ad requests a degree or credential that they don’t have.

Most employers, however, do not care about your specific degrees. They care about your skill set, experience, and body of knowledge. That doesn’t mean your Ph.D. was a waste of time. It means that organizations and companies hire people from a wide variety of educational backgrounds and work histories.

The problem for Ph.D.’s is not a lack of skills, but rather an inability to effectively convey the nature of those skills. Graduate programs don’t teach students how to communicate what we do, and so we end up talking about what we know.

Articulating what you can do for a company or an organization is the most difficult part of the job search. To get started, think about a typical day or week in your life as an academic. Write down every task you did to prepare for teaching, conducting your research, or serving on a committee. No task is too small to list.

By reading blogs, websites, and industry publications, and by conducting informational interviews, you can learn the lingo of an industry or employment sector you’re interested in pursuing. Then use that lingo to refashion your inventory of academic tasks into a list of skills that a nonacademic employer will recognize. Your experience leading class discussions becomes facilitating. Literature reviews become best-practice studies. Lectures become one-hour multimedia presentations. You will be surprised by how many of your academic activities can be translated into skills valued by the business world and described in its preferred jargon.

3. Your dissertation matters.In my consulting business, I work with professional organizations and university departments to track the career outcomes of their Ph.D.’s. What has become apparent to me as I’ve tracked placement data is that your dissertation topic matters in finding job opportunities. To people outside the ivory tower, a Ph.D. means you are an expert. In what subject are you an expert? That is what will set your application apart from others.

Sure, you have highly defined skills as a researcher, analytical thinker, and writer, but you also have a particular expertise that cannot be gained in six weeks of on-the-job training. If your dissertation focuses on gender, race, poverty, climate change, Latin America, emerging economies, immigration, or whatever, then look for jobs at organizations that focus on those issues. They will find your skill set and expertise valuable.

(End Part 1)