#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · jobs · PhD

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Informational Interviews

In a recent conversation with a PhD student, the topic of informational interviewing came up and the term elicited a blank stare. For people focused on the tenure-track career path, informational interviewing is often not even on their radar. But if you’re still trying to figure out what career path or what type of work environment–business, not-for-profit, academic administration, government–might be right for you, informational interviewing is a powerful research tool. I call informational interviews research, because that’s what they really are. They are not, as some might claim, a disingenuous way to impress people who might eventually give you a job. They are, however, a great way to start getting a real sense of what jobs are out there that might make you feel happy, balanced, challenged, intellectually stimulated–whatever it is that you’re looking for in a career.

What is an informational interview, for those of you who reacted with the blank stare? A brief meeting, usually between 15 and 45 minutes, with someone who has a job in which you’re interested. You get to ask the questions, and the questions are usually aimed at finding out more about how that person got into their career, what their field/position/industry is like, and what their working life is like day-to-day. While general advice about informational interviews suggests that you should reach out to anyone in your network (or in your network’s network) who has a job in which you’re interested, my advice is for PhDs to be a little bit more focused, at least at first–see if you can find people with your degree, in your field, and start out by talking with them about their jobs. It can seem impossible to imagine yourself in any career but a professorial one when you don’t have any examples of what those other positions might be, or any information about how a person with your degree might go about moving from academia into something else.

If you’re really and truly unsure about what else you’d like to do, cast your net wide. Look to those sources of information I mentioned in my last post–your program, your university’s alumni office, your LinkedIn connections–and make a list of people with your degree in all kinds of industries that you might want to talk to. Cold calling people for informational interviews can be surprisingly effective–people like having a chance to talk about themselves–but it is often more effective, and less intimidating, to get someone you know to set up an introduction. I belong to the Toronto VersatilePhD group, and we’re offering each other introductions within our respective fields, and to people we know outside of them. A member of my PhD program has set up a Facebook group where we talk about what we’re doing with our degrees, and somewhere similar is a great place to find targets for an info interview.

Once you’ve set up an interview, spend a little time doing your homework. Find out what you can about the person and what they do so that you’re not asking questions that can be easily answered by Googling and you’ve got more time to ask the important questions. Decide what questions you’d like to ask–this list can get you started, but think about what it really is that you want to know about their career, and their working life. If you’ve done a skills or preferences assessment already, these can guide you to the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask, and the kinds of answers you’re looking for. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably want to know about how the person transitioned from academia into their current career. You might also want to ask about the skills the person uses in their working life, and about the skills gaps (if any) they felt they had when they moved into a non-academic career and how they addressed those gaps.

When it comes to the details, treat the informational interview a bit like you would a job interview. Dress nicely, although not as formally as you would for a job interview. Mind your Ps and Qs. Respect the amount of time you agreed on, even if you’re having a great conversation. Get yourself some business cards–yes, even if you don’t have a job–and exchange them with your interviewee. And write a thank you note when you’re done.

After a few informational interviews, what you’ll hopefully have in hand is this: a really good sense of some careers and positions in which you might be interested, knowledge about how to move into a new field, key terms and lingo from that field you can use in job documents, the names and contact information of friendly faces who might just call you up if a job comes around, and confidence in your ability to interact with and impress people in a wide range of non-academic fields. All that for the price of a cup of coffee.

If you’re looking for some more advice or information about informational interviews, check out the links below. And what about you, dear readers–how many of you have done informational interviews? Did you find them helpful for your job search?

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · jobs

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Figuring Out What Else to Do

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.