You’ve Got Skills—They’re Multiplying!

By Margy Thomas Horton, ScholarShape

Some academics never doubt that they possess a great array of skills, never waver in their faith that the competencies they’ve honed in academia can readily transfer to new and unfamiliar domains. These academics, if they do in fact exist, should be—to paraphrase Carrie Bradshaw—put in a test tube and studied. For the rest of us, there’s Beyond the Professoriate.

In my session on Professional Development Day (May 9), I’ll share what I’ve learned about the nature of skills, and about why academics think they don’t have any. Then I’ll give you practical guidance on four steps in the process of discovering your skills and putting them to work for you.

  1. Create a robust skills inventory, a raw list of the many skills you already possess. Go beyond just asking people around you what you’re good at. Consult job postings, course descriptions, and even governments’ skills databases to get ideas and language for skills to add to your list. And don’t forget my list of 100+ Skills That Translate Out of Academia. (I’ll give access details in my presentation.)
  1. Process the information on your skills inventory into meaningful categories, using language that crosses domains. As you make sense of the items on your skills inventory, you can draw on modes of thinking that have been at the heart of your academic work: analysis, synthesis, re-framing, and translation. Each of those four techniques is a skill in itself!
  1. Create a “skill story” that can lend purpose and hope to your “alternative-“/”post-academic” journey. By now, we have all (hopefully) heard quite a few inspirational stories of academics who have revised their academic selves into joyously authentic alt/post-ac selves. I’ll share some of those stories at Beyond the Professoriate, and I’ll also offer four models for how you can write your own compelling skill story.
  1. Identify the alchemical skills that can turn you into gold—and then acquire those skills for free. As someone who spent only $97 to launch her now-thriving business, I pride myself on providing tips that are tailored to the lowest of graduate student budgets.

Allow me, as an English PhD, to encapsulate my point in metaphor form. Think of all the loose coins you have rattling around in your backpack, your car, the cushions of the couch on which you are sitting right now. How much do you think those coins are worth? If you were to gather them all together, how many milkshakes could you buy? Well, in just the same way, we all have unaccounted-for skills—intellectual loose change, if you will—lying around in the dusty corners of our lives. And I’ll bet all the coins in my couch that if you search, you can find enough skills in your life to purchase one heck of a career milkshake.

I wouldn’t be an academic if I didn’t say this process is recursive, complex, and highly individualized. Sure, there’s no one-size-fits all alt/post-ac toolkit. But lucky for you, there are common principles that build on what you already know. And if I don’t give away enough secrets in the presentation itself, you can ask me anything you want, anonymously, in the Q and A.

I look forward to meeting with you on May 9!

Join Margy Thomas Horton for “Identity Your Transferable Skills,” Saturday, 9 May, 12:15 – 1:15pm EDT during Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.

On Transitioning after a Tenure Denial

By Katharine Bullard, Service Employees’ International Union

There are lots of reasons to leave the professoriate. Some people figure it out in graduate school despite the intense pressure to stay in the pipeline. For others, it’s a sense that the work and pay of an adjunct is not worth it. For me, it was a tenure denial that pushed me over the edge and out.

I think there are a few seldom-acknowledged truths about tenure denials. First, there are many complicated reasons for not being granted tenure and in my experience it has little do to with how good of a teacher or scholar you are.  Second, it doesn’t mean you have to leave academia but it is intensely difficult to stay, whether due to the taint of denial or because of the logistics of moving away from where you’ve likely made a life for yourself. Third, tenure denial is traumatic. There is a kind of grief to it that has to be acknowledged.

I landed pretty smoothly in a new career but looking back there were a few things that I learned in the process that might help others in a similar position:

  • Take time to process your grief and think about what you want. I saw a therapist and recommend it to anyone.
  • Think carefully about what’s next. Generally tenure denial comes with a terminal year. Take it and use it. Making a decision about what you want to do next needs to take into account the rejection you feel. Leaving academia is a big decision to make in reaction.
  • In that year, work your contacts. Get in touch with your former graduate school colleagues. Many of them will be have left academia or know people who have. Talk to them.  In my case, a high school friend even turned out to be a helpful contact.
  • Use the year to try things out.  You want to continue to be a good teacher, but you will find you are generally released from service. Use that time to try something you’re interested in. It could be a doing a mini-internship or volunteering. Even working a weekend job.
  • If you worked before you received your PhD in a different field, go back to those contacts as well.

In my case, I realized I was done. I was tried of the system by which teaching is the lowest priority and students, especially first generation and low-income students, take out enormous loans and receive little to no support.

When I thought back to when I felt the most empowered to make a difference in higher education, I realized it was as an activist in a T.A. union in graduate school. While it had been 10 years since I was a labor activist, I found that former colleagues who were working in the field where happy to help me reconnect. During my terminal year, I began working part time on an SEIU campaign and accepted a full time probationary position soon after.

Networking is the key to transitioning and alternative-academics are very open to talking about their job and their career path. Reach out and then reach back.

Join Katharine and other PhDs who switched to careers in non-profits and government for a panel discussion, Saturday, 2 May, 3:30 – 4:50pm EDT during Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.

Looking Back to Look Forward

By Anna Marie Trester, FrameWorks Institute / Career Linguist

This weekend at Beyond the Professoriate we will come together to look back, to reflect on aspects of our training that show up in the work that we do today. We reflect on the journey, on the process. But why do we do this?

I think the answer begins with trying to identify what we share as PhDs, which I suggest has to do with a cultivated and honed shared set of practices, including having been trained to think in quite abstract ways. And thinking abstractly may at first seem to be a bad thing when we are working to discover the connections between this things that we know we are good at doing, and know that we really enjoy doing (so much so, in fact that we decided to devote YEARS of our life to studying those), and the professional expression of these knowledge, skills, and abilities. But as it turns out, the process of navigating a career takes every bit of our training as researchers, analysts, and pattern-finders. Additionally, thinking in abstraction may be particularly useful in finding meaning in our work.

This morning I was reading Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage. He is a big fan of the research of Amy Wrzesniewski, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management. Her work is focused on how people construct meaning of their work, and she looks especially at contexts where this work is challenging to describe, or difficult to see (i. e., virtual work). I think this is apt for those of us who have careers that involve professional expression of thinking in abstraction. In one creative application of her work taxonomy on job, career, calling, he challenges his clients to write “calling descriptions” instead of “job descriptions.” What would it look like to think about every task that you do as part of your job as contributing to something that you find meaning in? And as he described, this might take a few steps, or what we improvisational theater performers might call “and because of that’s.”

So let’s take for example, something that might seem like drudgery like data entry for tracking expenditures.

  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This process helps us to better understand how much money we spend.
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This process helps us to see how much money we have left
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This helps us to think about how we want to spend the money we have left
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This helps us to more intentionally do the work of

As he describes, this is not about false affirmation, or papering over real problems or trying to Stuart Smalley your way through your job. This is about consciously deciding to remember why we do what we do, why we care about what we care about.

And so that is what I think is one of the prime opportunities that coming together on Saturday affords us: a chance to look back in order to look forward and think a bit together about why we do what we do in the ways that we do them.

I am a linguist, and for me, linguistics is ultimately about recognizing patterns, understanding how patterns express themselves. Beyond the Professoriate is a place to chase down patterns like how training in something like ethnography can show up in very different ways in very different kinds of work down the road. This is why I always ask of my interviewees for the “professional paths in Linguistics” section of my blog Career Linguist things like “how do your skills and training in linguistics show up in your work?” I try to get at least three answers.

But for all of us who have been trained as PhDs, such deliberate tracing back and reflecting on the links between our training and our work helps us to connect with meaning. Asking ourselves, “What makes me be good at this?” helps us to better understand our strengths, which helps us to better use them. When we make the conscious effort to remind ourselves why we care about the things that we care about, it can help us find the energy to do the aspects of the work that might be less than thrilling, or to work to recreate our jobs so that these tasks change, or work to create a career that involves a job change!

Getting to where you are going next begins with knowing where you are. Such navigation is essential for job-seekers and job-havers alike as we are all ALWAYS traveling on a path and moving forward. What comes next?

Join Anna and other PhDs who made the switch to a career in writing, teaching, or editing for a panel discussion dedicated to the topic, Saturday, 2 May, 2:00 – 3:20pm EDT during Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.

Are You Joining Us? Registration Closes in 1 Week

There’s one week left to register for the conference! We hope you’ll join us. The full program is available on our website.

We’re excited to share with you transition tales, PhD-specific advice, and useful information to help you succeed beyond the professoriate. If you haven’t yet registered, consider doing so. We’ve priced the conference intentionally low: US $39 for nearly 12 hours of live programming over two days. Each session will have plenty of time for your questions and discussion. Take advantage of this unique chance to engage with more than two dozen PhDs all working in non-faculty positions (Tweet this!) — think of it like speed informational interviewing!

To get even more out of the conference, participants and speakers are encouraged to tweet all about it! Our hashtag is #beyondprof. Last year there were great conversations online, and lots of new connections were forged between conference attendees. New this year, we’re launching a secret Facebook group for registered participants and speakers. You’ll be able to discuss topics of interest, and no one will know that you don’t want to know, including your advisor.

How does a virtual conference work? Good question! We’re using a platform called GoToWebinar, which is a paid web-based conference service. It allows us to bring together multiple panelists from anywhere in the world. On the days of the conference, attendees will see and hear panelists or presenters, as well as any slides or other material they wish to share. Audience members — registered participants — will be muted (and invisible). The service is fancy: you can join via a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and if your internet gets wonky, you can even use your telephone! To make a comment or pose a question, just type it in the built-in chat feature. The session host (either Maren or myself) will then read out what you’ve written. Your name won’t be shared. Anonymity is important to us: We know what academic culture can be like!

From the Beyond the Professoriate blog:

Amanda Sewell, “On the PhD Path.”
I have a PhD, for crying out loud—surely being a professor isn’t the only thing I’m capable of doing well.

Melanie Nelson, “Defining Success.”
We can’t hope to build a career and life that truly fulfills us if we are operating under values that aren’t really our own.

Catherine Maybrey, “Reverse Engineer Your Job Search.”
When jobseekers approach the job search, even PhDs, they approach it from their perspective instead of that of the hiring organization. STOP!

Jennifer Polk, “Are You Excited Yet?
Doctoral degree holders are a unique group of job seekers, so specific-to-us stories and tailored advice are important.

Want to register for the conference? You can do so right here. Hope to have you with us on 2 and 9 May.

On the PhD Path

By Amanda Sewell, In the Write

During the course of a PhD program, it’s easy to get locked into the idea that there’s a single career path for our individual skill sets. In reality, it’s important to think about our talents as broadly as possible. I once thought that I would be a complete failure if I was unable to secure a tenure-track teaching position, but then I realized that the same characteristics that made me such a good academic would also benefit me in a number of other career options. Academics are experts at multitasking, time management, problem solving, and critical thinking, and these skills have so many more possibilities than just a tenure-track position at an R1. The same flexibility and open-mindedness we apply to our research can also benefit us in the quest for a career.

Whenever I approach a research project, I have an idea in mind of where I hope the research will take me. There is usually an ideal conclusion in mind. Sometimes, this works fantastically: using a typology I developed, I demonstrated how sample-based hip-hop changed after artists became increasingly afraid of violating copyright laws. Going into the analysis, I hoped I was going to find the evidence to support my point. I found it, and everything fell into place nicely. Sometimes, though, the data doesn’t take me anywhere close to my anticipated destination. In a graduate school seminar, I started out writing a paper about Florentine patronage of 16th-century Italian madrigals. When none of my findings fit the point I was trying to make, I changed my point and followed the path that the findings were actually showing me. I ended up writing a paper about madrigals in the context of 16th-century mythological pornography.

This type of process also occurred as I was looking for a post-PhD career. I really wanted a tenure-track position (or even a one-year VAP, really), but no matter how many applications I submitted, writing samples I supplied, or Skype interviews I participated in, I just couldn’t secure the kind of job I thought I wanted. I realized that maybe the findings of my career research path were telling me that I needed a new thesis. I stopped pushing so hard to find a tenure-track position and instead began thinking about my other skills and talents that could be marketable somewhere outside of the university setting. I have a PhD, for crying out loud—surely being a professor isn’t the only thing I’m capable of doing well. (Tweet this!) I realized that my assertive personality, ability to write and edit, multitasking and time management skills, and desire for a flexible schedule were all key ingredients for a career as a freelance academic editor.

Tenure-track teaching jobs are fantastic. They are also rare. We do ourselves a disservice to believe that a tenure-track position is the only successful outcome of a PhD program. Instead, let’s think about the skills required to earn a PhD and then use those skills to identify and pursue careers that are well suited to our talents. In a PhD program, we’re trained to think critically, develop new ideas, discredit old ideas, frame old ideas in new ways, and come up with questions that we can then answer. This multidimensional approach can be applied to more than just our objects of study—it can be applied to our careers as well as to our perceptions of ourselves.

Join Amanda and other PhDs who made the switch to a career in writing, teaching, or editing for a panel discussion dedicated to the topic, Saturday, 2 May, 2:00 – 3:20pm EDT during the Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.

Defining Success

By Melanie Nelson, Beyond Managing

I left academia 15 years ago. I’ve never regretted that decision, and I thought I had fully left the academic world behind. I recently learned that perhaps I have a little more work to do in that regard. Last year, I quit my full time job as a group leader at a mid-size biotechnology company, and set out on my own as a contractor and independent consultant. Around the same time, I received an invitation to attend and speak at a symposium in honor of my thesis advisor’s 60th birthday. He is a wonderful man and was a great thesis advisor, and there was never any question in my mind that I should accept the invitation, but doing so evoked a surprising amount of angst.

I wasn’t worried about speaking in front of the group — I don’t generally mind that. It took a little bit of soul-searching for me to realize what I was worried about was measuring up in the eyes of my former labmates. Without my corporate affiliation and title, would I look like a failure?

That was when I realized that I hadn’t really left academia behind. I still have work to do on perhaps the hardest part of the the post-academic transition: separating from the academic culture and truly embracing my own definition of success.

Academia is a culture, and like all cultures, it has norms and a value system. It also has a definition of success. People who get a PhD spend a large number of years, often during the formative early adult period, submersed in this culture. It is not surprising that we absorb its values and come to define success in the same way as our advisors and peers.

NavigatingThePath_medium-224x300When I talk to people who are considering leaving academia, I tell them that there is a lot of work to do before they even write a resume, let alone apply for any jobs. In fact, when I decided to take what I’d learned from more than 10 years’ experience as a hiring manager in industry and write a book of advice for people looking for jobs in industry, I ended up making the section about preparing for the job search roughly equal in length to the section about actually conducting a search.

There really is a lot of preparatory work to do: as long as it is, that section doesn’t even include a thorough discussion of how to shake off the cultural assumptions from academia. At the time I wrote the book, I hadn’t fully recognized just how difficult this step is. Even if I had, it is a big topic to address in a short book of advice. The academic culture interacts with each of our personal backgrounds and foibles, and as a result, the assumptions we have formed about success and what matters in life are tailored to each of us. Handling that diversity is beyond what I could hope to do in a book that I wanted to keep short and focused on practical advice.

Still, you might recognize some of these assumptions I had absorbed from my time in academia:

  • Success is measured in impact, and the number of people who are aware of your work.
  • Making money from your knowledge debases it. Sure, you need to eat, but you shouldn’t focus on making money.
  • Your work should be all consuming, and the most important thing in your life. If it isn’t, you aren’t really serious about what you do.

There is nothing wrong with these values, if they are your authentic values. For too many of us, though, they are just the unspoken assumptions we absorbed from years in academia.

We can’t hope to build a career and life that truly fulfills us if we are operating under values that aren’t really our own. (Tweet this!) Unlearning these assumptions is not easy, and I have not done it alone. I started the work during a crisis of career angst triggered by my transition from hands on work to managerial work. I ended up working with a career coach to sort out what sort of work I actually wanted to do, and she helped me identify my “work values,” i.e., the things that make a job enjoyable and fulfilling for me.

After taking those first steps, I’ve continued to work to define what success means to me. I traveled extensively, and that changed how I view the world. I had children, and that changed how I view my place in the world. I’ve grown older and if not wiser, at least a little more self- aware. I eventually realized that the career path I was on wasn’t the one I truly wanted, and worked with another career coach to figure out what career path I should try next.  Then I spent some time gathering the courage and the money to step off my old path and onto a new one.

But, as my bout of angst about the 60th birthday symposium showed me, I have more work to do. So I’m revisiting some of the tools the career coaches taught me, and asking “why do I believe that?” about all of my opinions about success. I’m making progress, but I’m not there yet.

In the meantime, I have adopted a new mantra: “All I really need to do with my career is support myself and my family. The rest of ‘success’ is up to me to define.”

And that symposium? It was fine. Great, even. My talk was well-received and I wasn’t the only person changing careers. As is so often the case, the judgment that I feared turned out to be primarily my own.

Join Melanie and other PhDs who made the switch to industry or small business (or both!) for a panel discussion dedicated to the topic, Saturday, 2 May, 12:30 – 1:50pm EDT during the Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.

Behind the Scenes Update

We’re gearing up for Beyond the Professoriate!

Maren and I are busy getting everything organized so we’re ready for you. I’m concentrating on reaching out to our speakers for bios and blog posts — more on the latter below; she’s scheduling tech run-throughs, so everyone gets a chance to test out our online platform before their big day! I’ve been battling a nasty flu so Maren’s also been picking up my slack and doing all the getting in touch with people who’ve registered, just to let them know what’s up. (If you’ve paid and heard nothing, wait a few days. If it’s already been a few days, do let us know.)

One of the things I loved about the lead up to last year’s conference was reading all the bios of the speakers. I remember putting together the bio package in advance of sharing it with all our attendees, and being thrilled and excited about the group we’d gathered. Well, that time has come again and I’m just as pleased and pumped! The bios are coming in and we’ll share them with you soon.

(If you’re curious, you can check out 2014’s bios on our website. So inspiring!)

Did you know we launched this blog a few weeks ago? Yes! It was a project we’d been planning for a few months. Go read Catherine Maybrey’s preview of her 9 May session on reverse engineering your job search. Important information in there for us all!

More coming up. We’re excited about bringing you useful content from PhDs who are working in lots of different fields, all beyond the professoriate.

It’s mid-April and the conference is coming up fast! If you’re thinking about joining us on 2 and/or 9 May, please register soon. The deadline for registering is 29 April at 5pm EDT.

Reverse Engineer Your Job Search

By Catherine Maybrey, CM Coaching Services

I love working with my clients, but sometimes I get frustrated. When jobseekers approach the job search, even PhDs, they approach it from their perspective instead of that of the hiring organization. I have just one word to say on this strategy: STOP! (Tweet this!) If you want to get attention and move forward in a hiring competition, you need to turn your thinking upside down. Reverse engineering is a very cool process that figures out how things work by taking them apart, and, quite often, figuring out how to make them better for your own purposes. If I have one goal with this year’s Beyond the Professoriate conference, it is to encourage everyone at my session to reverse engineer their job search. Here are some of the things we’ll talk about:

Candidate Sourcing: where do organizations find their candidates? When? How? Knowing the strategies that employers use will help you to make sure that you are an attractive candidate in passive searches (the beloved, triumphant and somewhat mythical moment when an unknown hiring manager reaches out to you and asks you if you would consider interviewing for a job) but it will also provide you with tools for ramping up your active search strategies.

The Truth About Skills: wake up all you Humanities and Social Science people! While it might be true that most employers don’t care about the little-known Elizabethan author you’ve written your 300-page dissertation on, they do care about the skills you developed through the process. Whether you’re a STEM, SocSci or Humanities PhD, employers want what you have to offer, though they may want just a bit more. We’ll cover the top skills in demand in the market plus some easy and low-cost (even free!) ways that you can shore up your transferable skills to make yourself more attractive. Employers are hiring people to accomplish their goals; make sure that you have the right tools in your toolbox to get the job done.

The Experience Conundrum: yeah, yeah, I know. You can’t get a job because you don’t have experience, and you can’t get experience because you don’t have a job, right? Wrong! You can get experience. I’ll profile a number of initiatives that are available to you, on your own time, that will help you to demonstrate your awesomeness to any employer, and won’t interfere with your teaching or research duties. Your supervisor will never have to know.

Why do these things fall under reverse engineering? If you’re applying through recruiters, they use tools to find a likely candidate pool, and employers use Applicant Tracking Systems to search by keyword criteria (skills and experience) to decide on who they should interview. To get past these gatekeepers, you have to understand what they’re looking for, and play by their rules.

Want more? Attend the conference, and I promise to give you all of my secrets. Well, almost all. I have a lot of secrets, so you’ll have to be the judge.

Join Catherine for “Reverse Engineer Your Job Search,” Saturday, 9 May 2015, 11:00am-12:00pm EDT during the Beyond the Professoriate online conference! Register to attend.

Want to Attend the Conference for Free?

Conference registration is now open, and we’ve had a few dozen register already for the May conference! If you’ve yet to do so, you’ve got until Wednesday, 29 April, 5pm ET.

If cost is an issue — or even if it’s not — you may be able to attend the full conference for free. There are two ways to do this:

1) Northwestern University School of Law’s Master of Science in Law program is sponsoring 5 STEM PhDs (including postdocs). If your PhD is in a STEM discipline, you’re eligible to apply for a sponsored registration. Email us at for a chance to win a free registration. Please include your name, email address, and the field of your PhD. Get in touch with us by Friday, 24 April, 5pm ET.

2) Hortensii, a website managed by Dr. Eleanor Dickey, a Classics professor at the University of Reading, UK, is sponsoring 3 PhDs from any discipline to attend the conference. Hortensii is a website aimed at “tackling the problems facing PhDs without permanent jobs.” Full details about the giveaway are here.

Many thanks to Northwestern Law and Dr. Dickey for these initiatives!