(Caveat emptor: My field may be different from your field, your financial situation may differ from mine, and your heart may be in a totally different place. Your mileage may vary, consult with your doctor, and this advice does not constitute advice from a licensed attorney, etc.)
So not a few people have asked me, “So, how did you do it?” Not a bad question, really. As graduate students, we are inculcated with the belief that anything other than a fancy tenure-track position at some desirable R1 or fancy liberal arts school is failure. In some fields, a sweet post-doc before landing a lucrative lab or R&D job is also OK. Teaching at a community college, an R2, or taking a job outside the academy? Nope.
And yet…when you do the math, you quickly discover that the odds are never in our favor. There are simply not enough of these plum jobs to go around. There haven’t been for a long time, and it seems that things will only get worse. You can, of course, take a job at a non-fancy place. Many people want an opportunity to make a difference for students who need a college education to make their way up in the world. It’s certainly more rewarding than working at a place that only serves to perpetuate our society’s inherent inequalities. But, the pay is lower, the teaching load is higher, and the work can be very intense. Ultimately, all of these jobs have their limitations, and no one job is perfect for all newly minted Ph.D.’s who desire teaching jobs.
Assuming you can’t get any of these kinds of jobs, or if you don’t want one to begin with, what do you do?
1. Make the decision. This seems simple, and yet it can be extraordinarily difficult. Some people slog through the academic market for as many as four years (guilty!) before making the firm and resolute decision to do other things. Do things in your own time, and you’ll know when you reach this point. Some symptoms: Frequent crying bouts, feeling worthless, all-consuming depression, bitterness, exhaustion, and possible physical illness. Don’t suffer just because you think you have to. You don’t, and you shouldn’t. Get out.
2. Take an honest assessment of what skills you have and how they translate in a non-academic world. In most academic fields, your job involves a lot of research, writing, talking in front of groups of people, and collaborating with others. These skills are quite valuable in a number of non-academic contexts as well. You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that not everyone can just churn out a 20-page article in a week or two, or that some people are absolutely paralyzed by speaking in front of people. If you’ve been an academic for any length of time, you are likely organized, critical, and largely self-motivated. Don’t sell this part of yourself short when you look to market yourself outside. You may even go so far as to think about your strongest assets and do keyword searches in job databases for these skills. Examples: “SPSS”, “archival research”, “copy editing”, “Farsi”, “training.”
3. Once you have an idea of what you can do, also think about what you want to do. Do you crave ultimate flexibility, or do you prefer maybe a bit more structure? For me, I know that given unlimited time to work, I will work for an unlimited time. In my current position, there are no expectations of evening or weekend hours, so I can leave things behind physically and psychologically. That’s me. You may keep a different schedule, or have family obligations that make a 9-to-5 a bit tougher. You may discover that going into business for yourself is a better option, if your skill set and local market allow for it. Some corporations allow flex-time arrangements, as do some non-profits. Government work may be less flexible, but it depends on what department and where you are.
4. Now you know roughly what you want to do, but can you do it where you are? If the answer is no, then you obviously need to move. And this (obviously) isn’t easy for everyone. Moving sucks, and it can be expensive. If you have a partner and/or offspring, it’s even more complicated. I concluded that I was willing and able to take a variety of jobs, so that opened me up to moving where I really wanted to be. Your skills or field may be more highly specialized, and this may limit where you can move. There are, of course, flex time and remote work arrangements, but these may be hard to negotiate if you are new to an organization. It never hurts to try, but don’t assume that this will always work out!
5. Revamp your CV. And your cover letter. Seriously. If either document is more than a page, you are doing it wrong. Cover letters ideally should be no more than 3/4 of a page. Your resume is not just an abbreviated CV, and you will have to make some painful cuts. Those chapters, articles, and conference papers were a lot of work, and you’re proud of them. I totally get that. 99% of potential non-academic employers simply will not care, and you need to be mindful of that. You should include really only the following information on a post-academic resume:
- Contact info (phone and email only will suffice)
- Work Experience: Keep your descriptions to a minimum, and do what you can to tailor your job-related experiences to the jobs you’re applying for. If they are looking for someone who is familiar with educational technologies, be sure to mention you used D2L, Moodle, Blackboard, etc. If they want someone who is a strong collaborator, mention the collaborative work you did with your colleagues. Get it?
- Education: Notice that this comes last. Resumes are used as a quick-and-dirty sorting mechanism, so that they can ascertain that you meet the minimum educational qualifications. You’ll at least make the first cut, but having a Ph.D. or other terminal degree won’t necessarily get you the job. That’s ok. We’re expensive! You may mention coursework you took, if it’s relevant to the job. Mentioning awards isn’t a bad idea, either. Just 2 or 3, not 10!
Putting too much will either glaze over a hiring manager’s eyes, or will make them think you don’t understand what they’re looking for. Give them exactly what they want, no more and no less.
6. Consider possible sources for job listings. Obviously, you can work at a university without being a professor. These jobs are nice for the post-academic because the setting is somewhat familiar, but the pay is somewhat better and the hours are way better. Look into advising, student services, international education, etc. My strongest focus was on this domain, and it obviously paid off. The people hiring you will understand what it means to be a faculty member and what you bring to the table far more than someone in a purely corporate environment. Also look into state and federal government jobs. Network with colleagues, friends, your advisor, and other trusted mentors, and let them know what you’re looking for. You never know what might turn up down the road.
7. And finally, don’t get discouraged. It’s so easy to do so. You will likely not get the first, second, or even fifth job you interview for. It doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake, it just means you haven’t found the right fit yet. It will happen. Even in these rough economic times, there is still a need for smart, hard-working people. You’re one of those, and you are needed. Give yourself at least 6 months, longer if you aren’t living in a major job market (i.e., NYC, LA, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia). There’s no shame in taking on some adjunct or online work in the meantime. Work at Starbucks, wait tables, do what you need to do so that you can make ends meet while you transition into a new life. Depending on your job situation, you may qualify for unemployment. It’s not much, but it’s something.
I hope this is sufficiently thorough so as to be informative and perhaps useful. Best of luck in taking control over your life!