Maren's Top Eight Tips for a Successful Non-Faculty Job Search

1. Create a metric to measure opportunities by identifying your motivators, interests, and values.

We often skip this step and move right into resume writing, but it is important to reflect on your interests because you have the skills to do many things, but you might not like doing them. You may have the skills to be a grant writer; you may also hate every minute of it.

Usually, when I ask PhDs what they like to do, they say “I like teaching” or “I like research.” OK, but why? What motivates you in your work:

  • Analyzing, inquiring and researching?
  • Helping and empowering others?
  • Do you value social justice?
  • Creative insights?
  • Originality?

I have clients complete a Strong Interest Inventory, which you might be able to take through your university career center. There are also many free inventories you can find online to help you articulate your interests outside of your narrow academic specialization. As an historian, I like studying people and cultures; I enjoy investigating and applying my findings to solve problems. These broad interests brought me to the field of history; these are not confined to it. By identifying the interests that brought you to your field of study, you can begin to imagine other places where you might find similar (or more!) satisfaction.

If inventories are not of interest, try an exercise called “Seven Stories,” which many career coaches use. Think of seven moments in your life – from your earliest memory to the present – when you felt energized, inspired, and successful. What were you doing? Write these down and then review them. What patterns emerge?

Some clients prefer creating a vision board. This is a pictorial representation of your ideal life. When you imagine yourself at work, what are you doing? Are you speaking in front of an audience? Winning an award for ground-breaking research? Working with a team? Writing alone? Where do you want to live? What kind of home do you want to live in, and who will you share your space with? Find pictures and make a poster that you can display near your workspace. The job search is challenging, and it can be useful to have a visual reminder of what you are trying to achieve.

2. Learn to talk about what you do instead of what you know.

When we ask an academic what “they do,” they often answer by saying what they study.  For example, when people use to ask me,  “Maren, what do you do?” I would respond with, “I study representations of sexualities in early American print culture.” That sounds simultaneously salacious and useless to most employers. More to the point, it is not at all what I do in terms of tasks, skills, competencies, and abilities.

Remember, most people come into contact with a PhD once in their life, as an undergraduate sitting in a college classroom. Few people know what goes in to designing and teaching a college-level course, writing a dissertation, conducting community studies, or running a lab. It is up to you, the job seeker, to tell them.

Take out your academic CV and make a list of everything you do in a day. The main categories on a CV are usually teaching, research/publications, grants & awards, and service to the profession. Take teaching as an example. It is the beginning of the semester and you are teaching a new course. You start by writing a syllabus. But what goes in to creating a new syllabus? What decisions do you make? How do you select readings? What steps do you take to write a lecture? Delivering a lecture? Answer student emails or run officer hours? Grade and provide feedback on papers? When you have finished listing every task you do as part of teaching, move on to other parts of your CV.

3. Once you have an inventory of your tasks, repackage them into key skills and core competencies.

Skills are the abilities we leverage to effectively perform a specific activity or job, such as writing, computer programming, or speaking in front of an audience. Competencies are underlying characteristics, behaviours and skills, such as analytical thinking; conflict resolution; creative thinking; and interpersonal relations. There are many free resources online that can help you learn about core competencies, but one book I recommend is Competency Based Resumes by Robin Kessler.

The key to a successful job search is to think of yourself as a package or cluster of interests, subject matter expertise, and core competencies. These should be things you are good at and enjoy doing, and can allow you to bring value to a variety of organizations. Do not think of careers as “doctor, teacher, lawyer, or dentist.” That view of careers in a twenty-first century creative economy is too limited. Today, few people stay in the same job, or with the same employer, for more than a few years. To move up, to advance in their careers, or to stay employed, requires that people stay nimble. If you thinking of yourself in terms of a unique collection of skills and abilities, you can find opportunities with a range of employers, enhancing your employability.

4. Rather than focusing on specific job titles, focus instead on organizations where someone with your skill set, core competencies, and interests, can bring value.

To do this, read company websites, job advertisements, and employee profiles on LinkedIn. What is the mission statement of the organization? What do they help their clients/partners achieve? What key skills and competencies do they value in their employees? What skill sets and competencies do employees highlight in their LinkedIn profiles or company bios? For PhDs with strong qualitative analytical skills, you are conducting a rhetorical analysis to help you understand the language, values, and goals of a new audience – employers of interest. If you tend to be a quantitative thinker, you might use an excel spreadsheet to keep track of key words and then run a simple pivot chart. What is in demand?

5. Once you have a clear understanding of the language and values of organizations of interests, and a clear sense of your own core competencies, it is time to start writing professional documents.  

Often times, PhDs talk about converting a CV into a resume, but that’s a failed strategy. A CV is accomplishment based and is often sent without revision to multiple job ads. A resume, on the other hand, must show your unique combination of skills and core competencies, and speak to the specific needs of the employer. While you should have a master resume document, any resume that you submit for a job must be carefully edited to the criteria outlined in the job ad.

Most professionals in career transition use a combination resume to highlight key skills and core competencies, while also providing a sense of career history. Hiring managers do not want functional resumes, because they do not provide a sense of a career history, and a traditional chronological resume will only show that you lack linear work experience.

Resumes are forward looking documents. This may seem nonsensical because you are writing about your work history, but the goal of a resume is to show that what you can do based on what you have done. It is a persuasive document carefully crafted to convince someone that you are the right person for a position. Anything that does not serve this goal needs to be removed. When you include something on a resume—publications, grants or awards, etc.—ask yourself, “what skill/competency does this demonstrate, and will the employer find it of value?”

Ask yourself this same question when including information from your work history. If your new career path is in communications, then only include research experience to the extent that it is relevant, perhaps to demonstrate project and time management. Your future employer will be much more interested in the hundreds of hours you spent designing and delivering lectures, speaking to a room of experts, or writing and editing the department newsletter, than the fact you wrote a three-hundred-page dissertation.

Adopt the language of the employer. If a position requires strong leadership skills, do not expect the employer to know that a good teacher is a good leader. Instead, describe your teaching as leadership. Calling people in your classroom “students” brands you as a teacher; saying you have “facilitated 200+ hours of small group discussions with 20 to 30 participants” sounds like someone who could facilitate team meetings. Do not lie, do not exaggerate, but do translate your work experience into language that is understood by people in your new career field.

6. Once you have a penultimate resume, turn your attention to your online profile.

A successful job search strategy involves reaching out to new people to ask for informational interviews. Many of these asks will come via LinkedIn.  LinkedIn has an array of videos and tutorials to help you get started and make the most out of that platform. Learn to love LinkedIn.

A LinkedIn profile includes a summary profile statement where you describe who you are as a professional; you may choose to use this space to talk about your transition from academia to your new career. You would not include this on a resume or cover letter, but it is appropriate on LinkedIn.

As a template, use profiles of people working in your chosen field. Include your work history, as you did on your master-resume-document, using key words familiar to employers and colleagues. Unlike a resume, you can use first person pronouns and full sentences on LinkedIn.

7. There is no need to create or manage a separate blog or website; upload media, relevant publications, and write a professional blog directly on the LinkedIn platform.

The people you want to reach will be on LinkedIn, and managing a website and trying to drive traffic to it is time consuming.

What you write and share on LinkedIn should be of value to the people in your network. If you want to transition into health policy, start writing about health policy. Share news stories or white papers with your network, and include thoughtful comments and analysis. This will show people you are serious about your career transition, and highlight your research and communication skills.

Make sure that your online presence reflects your new professional identity. Perform a quick Internet search on your name and minimize, delete, or make private, any account or post that distracts from your new image as Working Professional in New Field.  If you are strongly branded as an academic (you have a website that showcases your articles and teaching for an academic job search) consider taking it down. If you are political on twitter, consider making your profile private, unless you are applying for positions where a strong political opinion would be considered an asset. 

8. Now that you have a clear sense of how you will present yourself in person, online, and in professional documents, you are ready to start networking and looking for opportunities.

It is important to remember that networking is not synonymous with self-promotion. If all you are doing is talking about yourself and hustling people for jobs, then you are not networking. Networking is about building relationships; it is about listening, connecting, problem solving, and creating community.

Start by telling people you already know—former students, friends, family, acquaintances—about your career transition and ask then to introduce you to people they know working in this field. Once you have exhausted your current network, you can begin reaching out to new people for informational interviews.

An informational interview is exactly what it sounds like: an opportunity for you, the job seeker, to learn more about a person, their organization, the career field, and to learn about opportunities. It is never an opportunity to ask directly for a job. Asking people to speak with you over 30 minutes over coffee, or on the phone, is common outside of academia and many people will agree. Keep in mind that successful professionals are connectors; they have an extensive network of colleagues they can call upon. You are letting people know you exist, what your skills are, and that allows them to make use of your talents. So, reach out.

In an ideal situation, you will build contacts at an organization through networking, and then when a job is posted, you can reach out to your contact to let them know you will be applying for the position, and ask if they have any specific recommendations or insights to help you in your application. Hopefully, they will put in a word to the hiring manager. An even better scenario is that your contact tells you about an upcoming position and invites you to apply.

Another benefit of informational interviews is that you will learn about trends in the field, the workings of specific organizations, and gain insights into the day-to-day responsibilities of different types of jobs. When you apply for a job, or interview, you will have a much better understanding of the needs of the employer and how you can add value.

Those are my top tips for job searching beyond the professoriate. It will take time, perhaps six months or longer, but you will be successful if you keep at it. You may have to take an entry level position, volunteer, intern, or work as a contractor, before landing a full-time job. This does not mean that your investment in your education was a waste; once you learn the ins-and-outs of your new career field, you will be able to advance. The PhDs who speak on career panels for Beyond the Professoriate all testify to this.

My parting piece of advice is this: do not think you have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life before you leave academia. Think about what you want to try next. Most likely, what you try next will be but a temporary stop in your career path. You might try something and hate it; you might try something and love it but not where you work; you might decide you love where you work but not your specific job. These are all normal parts of a career transition, and it will probably take several years for you to settle in to a new career path. But think of how exciting this is! You will learn, take on new challenges, and meet new people who can challenge the way you think and how you approach the world. For me, being an entrepreneur is a roller coaster. Every day I learn new things. Now, instead of speaking to historians and fellow academics, I collaborate with people who are trained in business, engineering, marketing, communications, online learning, as well as graduate students, deans, faculty, and PhDs in career transitions. I find this challenging, but exhilarating.

If you are someone who loves learning, solving problems, meeting people who think differently than you do, then a career beyond the professoriate will be rewarding and satisfying.

Denver - Boulder Colorado headshot photography

L. Maren Wood earned her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate.

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