A walk in the wild side
Tips for the journey outside academia
If you have a Ph.D. or are working towards getting one, you should know that chances are very few people in your cohort will get a tenure-track job. That includes you, unfortunately. I understand how hard it is facing this reality and although I would love you to feel not just content but fulfilled with a job outside academia, it is really a matter of personal circumstances. However, I can offer some of my own (and definitely not generalizable) experience in this transition, so that if you find yourself having to apply to non-academic jobs (for whatever reason), you have at least some sort of reference.
Depending on your stage in the Ph.D. you’ll find there are some unwritten rules about the academic market. For example, some institutions are perfectly fine with ABD candidates (All But Dissertation). Others are not. In some cases, the exact same CV gets way more attention from hiring committees when you already have a defence date. Some supervisors encourage students to apply earlier in the process than others, some simply won’t give you a recommendation letter until you have defended. International students face all of the above and the special circumstances that come with their migratory status. For example, some institutions won’t consider a candidate viable until permanent residency status is granted.
Well, this is not the case with non-academic jobs (or as I will call them from now and on, jobs because as Mark Humphries writes: “academia is the alternative career path”). You can apply anytime as you are already in the path to acquire a terminal degree and I seriously doubt that a job outside academia will require you to hold a Ph.D. as it does within (of course, I could be wrong). Knowing this, here are a couple of things that you can do right away.
Get your CV down to 1-2 pages
After years of having to put absolutely everything in your CV, this can feel like a daunting task. The best advice I can give here is to find a really good template to follow and overcome the temptation to “quickly mention” any additional stuff. A good resource to build an industry-ready CV is creating a LinkedIn profile and populating it conscientiously, this will help you know what is and what is not standard practice. Within academia, a lot of nuance and clarification is needed (which university, department, etc.). Outside academia, you have or nearly have a freaking Ph.D. For many people, you have already proven yourself. You might think is not completely true, but dealing with impostor syndrome is part of a completely different conversation.
Work on your elevator pitch
You know the drill. You must have seen calls for the famous 3-minute thesis competition and you might have been recommended to work on your “elevator pitch” in case you have to explain your research. All of these efforts align with the notion of knowledge mobilization and are nice attempts to make you a more effective communicator. Well, the idea is exactly the same, but instead of trying to pin down your research in a few sentences, work on answering what is the potential impact of your research outside academia. Why is it necessary? What are the next steps? What is your research going to do for your community/city/country/etc? It always helps to focus on what you can do, not what you have done.
Get business cards
Don’t stress about getting the official business card template from your university (unless you can, then go for it), in fact, you don’t need any brand at all, you’ll want to make possible for people to read your name (this is particularly important for students with unconventional names), your contact details and maybe (just maybe) some details that will be possible for people to remember you and potential conversation prompts. Maybe an image, a quote or phrase, it’s up to you… which leads us to the next point.
I know, I hate it too, but networking is crucial for finding a job outside academia. I personally think that part of the aversion to the idea of networking is the association of this word with empty talk, pretension and social awkwardness. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Every time you meet someone new you are extending your network, so you are already networking. For me, the idea of making social interactions I was already having a little bit more purposeful really helped a lot. Besides, by now you’ll have two great tools, that new version of your elevator pitch and your business cards. You can gain confidence by start attending events outside your department, then your faculty and then the university. Now, if you are a natural networker or you want to try to go right away where the action is, try finding a Meetup group that matches your current and future professional interests or simply attend events from professional institutions. This is really important: In academic environments, hiring is regulated by its conventional practices, outside academia, it is way more likely for you to get the job if you know someone within the company. Is it unfair? maybe, but that is how it is.
While you are there…
Unfortunately, not many of the skills that you are currently learning are easily or obviously transferable into the industry. Academia has a very particular way of dealing with project management and time expectations that are not always compatible with industry standards, for example. This does not mean that your experience in academia is not valuable or useful, it means that you have to make some adjustments to get the most out of it. These are a few things you can do while you are still enrolled in your program.
Take more methodology courses
In my opinion, research methodologies are the most transferable of all academic know-how. If you are still enrolled in your program, get a balanced diet of methodology courses. Anything goes. Ethnographic methods have been very useful to me, but you don’t know what kinds of projects you’ll end up having to deal with, it’s better to be prepared for anything.
Fine tune your presentation skills
Oral presentations are the bread and butter of most academics. After all, they (we) are supposed to address audiences all the time, either in the classroom or in conferences. Presenting with confidence is a great skill to have in any job, but please do not assume that academic forms of delivery are the standard, they are simply not. The idea of providing a mind-twisting idea or a fascinating perspective to a fundamental problem might not be what you’ll be expected to do. You probably will be required to deliver simple ideas in a clear, powerful way. Think about the general idea behind the concept of public scholarship. This can be really hard, though. I have been told countlessly to make my discourse more accessible to people (not that I am particularly sophisticated, but my second language is not English, but academic English). Also, forget what you think to know about good slideshow design or posters… particularly posters. These are things that you’ll probably have to relearn.
Get involved in as many short projects as possible
I am generalizing here, but the likelihood of you having to deal with a research project of the same scope as your dissertation is very low. Depending on the company and the nature of the position, you might have to set up goals and report on them every 3 or 6 months. With that in mind, try to get more experience in shorter, quicker research projects while you are still enrolled in your program. This will give you some rough idea of what to expect when working with this kind of timelines.
Some additional (personal) advice
I tried to maintain this list of recommendations as general as possible. However, there are some things that I have experienced over the last couple of years that I think can be useful to others, although it probably won’t be for everyone.
Get comfortable with bold statements
This one is really hard. At least for me. I cannot tell if it is a scientific indoctrination or simply my own insecurities but it is super hard for me to make declarative statements about my findings. Every single time I am about to communicate a research insight, I start with “research seems to suggest that…” and finish with “remember that these results are preliminary”. These kinds of statements might be academically responsible, but you will probably be hired to give straight answers. I still cannot say “I am sure…” but I found a nice compromise in the phrase “I am highly confident”. Find yours, you’ll probably need it.
Don’t burn any bridges
As I have written elsewhere, I would not mind getting a tenure track job and I still publish and teach because I enjoy those two things — I probably enjoy these things because my family’s livelihood does not depend on them. The desire to keep teaching and the friends I made during the Ph.D. program have led me to maintain a close relationship with my university. This relationship has created an interesting situation for me and my current job. Let me explain: Being a teacher gives me access to the university’s library, which allows me to do my job as a researcher. If my office had to pay for access to all the databases I have access to through the university, it would be too expensive for them to support my position. But my love for teaching ended up being financially convenient. In any industry for which ROI (return of investment) is a mantra, this is a powerful argument to support research and partnerships with academic institutions.
Don’t do it forever if you don’t want to
A Ph.D. is forever, but there is a sort of implicit expiry date to your degree when it comes to academic jobs. If after a couple of academic hiring seasons you don’t get a tenure track job, your likelihood of getting one diminishes dramatically. But getting a job outside academia won’t prevent you from getting the academic job that you want, so you should try anyway, you might learn a thing or two that you can apply to your academic career.
Don’t do it alone
There is a large organized network of PhDs working outside academia, for starters, follow Jennifer Polk, get familiar with Beyond the Professoriate, follow #altac on twitter. Don’t be afraid of reaching out, no one will judge you, I promise.
This text was presented during the Language and Literacy Education Graduate Students Conference at the University of British Columbia on May 2 of 2019 in Vancouver, B.C.