In the spirit of Aimee’s academic how-to series, I’m consolidating past posts and generating new ones that will form a complementary how-to series on the #alt-ac job search and career. It should be noted that I’m not a career services professional, and you should seek those out at your institution, but my advice is informed both by my own experience and by the work I do with people in career services and coaching for graduate students.
Today, we’re starting from the beginning: once you decide not to go on the tenure-track (or not to finish the PhD, or to look for both academic and non-academic jobs), how do you figure out what the heck to do next?
The data on academics in non-academic careers is very clear: we don’t have a hard time getting into them. Despite the very limited amount of non-academic career support currently built into graduate studies, PhDs do very well at finding jobs outside of academia. With only 18.6% of us in full-time academic teaching jobs (and that includes contract work), the other 81.4% of us are finding our way into something else. And we’re doing it well–PhD holders have the lowest unemployment rate of any group of Canadians. But if you’ve been told, over and over, that you’re developing the skills to do precisely one thing–become a professor–and you stop thinking about other careers, it can be difficult, even intimidating, to start figuring out what other things you can and would like to do. Where do you start?
Whenever someone asks me this question, I refer them to So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, which is now in its third edition. (My university carries So What as an e-book, and many career centres also have copies to borrow.) Written by Susan Balsalla and Maggie Debelius, PhDs themselves who now work inside and outside academia, So What covers a host of the topics to which new PhD job seekers might need an introduction: translating skills gained in academia into terms that employers can understand and value, career counselling, interview etiquette, etc. All of So What is highly useful, but of particular value are the self-assessment exercises that ask you to figure out what it is you really like about academia–the skills you like exercising, the activities you like doing–and then help you see other industries and positions that would allow you to do the things you like doing more. In my case, I figured out that what I really liked was non-academic/theoretical writing, mentorship, research that had use-value, and work that was aimed at helping others rather than myself. Perhaps my favourite thing about So What is the way it helps PhDs realize that there are a number of careers that might suit their strengths and interests better than being a professor, and the way it helps them identify what those careers are. For me, it helped me see that I might like to be a grant writer, or a counsellor, or what I am now, which is a graduate professional skills coordinator and research administrator–which suits me and my strengths better than being a tenured professor likely would have.
Another resource I recommend for people doing the fundamental work of figuring out what they could do next is Strengthsfinder 2.0. (My university library also has this one as an ebook, and yours might too.) Although not aimed at an academic audience, Strengthsfinder offers a more robust sf diagnostic and analytic tools than So What that are aimed at helping you figure out what you’re good at doing and what jobs would let you do those things. The book is complemented by online testing that generates reports about talents and strengths you might want to explore in more depth, testing I found both accurate and helpful. One of the many challenging (and awesome) things about moving into an #altac career is the flexibility and openness of the non-tenure career path; the challenging part is keeping an eye on where you are and where you’re headed, and assessing if those two things still match up with what you want from a career. Occasionally redoing the tests from Strengthsfinder (and So What) is a useful way to see how my skill set has changed as I’ve learned and developed on the job, and to assess where I’m at in my career development.
The last thing I’d suggest for people trying to figure out what to do after they’re done is finding the unit at your university that keeps track of what PhDs are doing after they graduate. Some graduate programs–more and more of them–are tracking the post-degree placement of everyone who graduates from their program with a PhD, whether they’re going into a tenure-track job or not. Alumni or advancement offices also often keep track of what PhD alumni are doing, and can often provide you with that information, or put you in touch with people in your field. Many universities, through graduate programs, the Career Centre, or the Faculty of Graduate Studies, put on regular career panels featuring PhD alumni in non-academic jobs. However you find the information, see if you can figure out what people with your degree, in your field, are doing now. PhD transition stories, like those that Jennifer Polk collects in her blog From PhD to Life, are also a good resource. It can be difficult to find out what PhDs in non-academic jobs are doing, simply because universities have tended to track only t-t placement rates, although universities are realizing the necessity of collecting this kind of data and large-scale post-PhD tracking projects are getting underway. But it’s a lot easier to figure out what you might want to do, what you could do with your degree, if you know what others who were once in the same boat are doing.
Next up, we’ll talk about what to do once you’ve figured out a job or industry (or a few) that you might be interested in and that might suit you: the informational interview, also known as research.