By L. Maren Wood, PhD.

Jen and I have spent hundreds of hours talking with graduate students, faculty, and recent PhDs, about how to successfully find non-faculty careers.  Here’s some key pieces of advice I gave to people during my free consultations:

You don’t have to know what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.  You just need to know what you’d like to try next.

So many of the people I coach feel that they can’t leave academia until they know with 100% certitude what their new career will be.  This can be paralyzing.  The truth is, few people stay in the same job for more than a few years.  A study by LinkedIn found that on average, those graduating college since 2000 had 4 jobs the first 10 years after graduation. This means, of course, that your decision to leave academia for a new career isn’t all that strange.

 And people aren’t just changing jobs – they’re changing industries.  A communications or public relations position at a non-profit might lead a person to a related job in a tech start-up company, or perhaps in health care.  The transferability of what s/he does is the skills and core competencies the s/he gains at one position that can then benefit an employer in the next.

You don’t have to know what you’ll do for the rest of your life because that will change as you meet new people, gain new experiences, and explore career options outside of academia.  What you need to do is find something that uses your skills and gets you moving in the right direction – and you are the best person to determine what that direction might be.

 2. Focus on organizations, not specific job titles.

With that in mind, thinking about your main interests and values – where do you see yourself working? And what from your academic background have you enjoyed?  In answering the latter question, think more about tasks and skills than your specific subject matter expertise.  Do you enjoy problem solving? Mentoring others? Are you interested in helping others learn?  Are you interested in communicating complex information to the general public? 

 Next, research organizations – either where you’re living or where you’d like to live – where you’d be actively engaged in a mission/goal you believe in, and where you could put your skills to good use.

Think very carefully about how your skills would benefit the employer. Carefully research the needs of the employers – look at current employees on LinkedIn to identify the key skills and core competencies people have at this organization and company.  Which ones do you have that you could highlight in your resume and LinkedIn profile?  Read the company website – what services do they provide? What products do they create? What is their mission? What do they help clients achieve? 

3. Few people land jobs by submitting a resume to an online job board.

I hear from so many academics who have spent months if not years submitting resumes to online job boards and become discouraged and disillusioned.  This may be how the academic job market works, but the non-faculty job market functions very differently.  Most people find their job through their community or network. 

Once you’ve identified employers of interest and can clearly articulate your skill set and how you can benefit the employer, it’s time to set up face-to-face meetings (informational interviews) with people who work at organizations you’d like to be a part of.   There are rules for the informational interview that you want to be aware of, but know that this is common practice outside of academia.  Nobody will be put-off by your request (even if they don’t write back, it probably just means the person is too busy).

 You do, of course, need smart professional documents.  When someone is interested in hiring you, they’ll ask you for your resume, or ask you to apply for a job.  You want to be able to submit a polished resume that is specifically curated to the position and the needs of the employer.  

 4. Get started now.

Depending on the study the number can vary, but in Canada and the United States, it takes an average of 4 to 6 months to find a job. It may take you longer since you’re changing careers.  So don’t wait until you’ve defended your dissertation or wrapped up your semester of teaching to start looking.  Most companies take around 3 months to fill a position, from the time it’s posted through to the moment they offer it to a candidate.  The chances that someone would offer you a job that you’d have to start in 3 weeks is a remote possibility.  

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