The First Steps to a Nonfaculty Job Search

Start by making the most of the Ph.D. alumni panels cropping up across academe

Brian Taylor

April 20, 2016

Julie: Chances are that someone, somewhere on your campus right now, is planning an event for doctoral students to meet Ph.D. alumni in nonfaculty careers. You also may have noticed similar sessions popping up at national conferences, where Ph.D.’s who left the academic track are — to their own surprise — being welcomed back to their disciplines with open arms.

Jenny: If you’re a graduate student, you need to make the most of those events — even if a nonfaculty career is your Plan B. Julie and I have organized many such meetings, and I’ve even participated in them — most recently, as a panelist at one of the 2016 MLA sessions on "Connected Academics: A Showcase of Ph.D. Career Diversity." In the process, I’ve learned that, while everyone has a unique career path, Ph.D.s who find success outside of academe share several common traits:

  • They take the initiative and are open to saying yes (and I’m not just referring to luck).
  • They are willing to network.
  • They are able to set aside their worries/fixations/sadness about leaving academe and focus on the future.

Julie: Taking the initiative means following up on some bit of information that looks interesting — for example, hearing about a new project or program close to your research area, figuring out who to contact, and then doing it. Being willing to network means attending a networking night that sounds like it might be a drag, and meeting people who are willing to talk about their careers.

Jenny: Being able to set aside your feelings about leaving academe means not dwelling on your disappointment. Instead, when you discuss your career path with nonacademics, be able to tell your story in a coherent narrative — one where your choices sound deliberate (even if they weren’t). It can also mean describing your skills in a way that doesn’t ground them only in the context of your discipline but makes them understandable to people outside of it.

Julie: If your institution has a subscription to the Versatile Ph.D., use it. It allows you to interact with Ph.D.’s in a wide variety of careers who participate in online panel discussions, such as a recent one on careers in technical writing for Ph.D.’s in the humanities and social sciences.

Jenny: Plenty of other websites allow you to get a sense of the career possibilities for Ph.D.s. Some of the sites are disciplinary — such as the American Society for Cell Biology’s COMPASS Career Perspectives and the MLA’s Connected Academics project. Others are book projects, both print and online — for example, Career Options for Biomedical Scientists and #Alt-Academy.

And some are a result of the herculean efforts of one or more Ph.D.s working for the good of the group — such as PhDs at Work, PhD Career Guide, or the forthcoming Beyond the Professoriate online conference.

Taking the time to read through some of those materials or participate in online sessions is a low-stakes way to answer the question, "What career paths do Ph.D.s follow?" But they are not always the best way to answer the question, "What career path should I follow?"

Julie: That’s why there is no substitute for meeting Ph.D.s in person, hearing them talk about their nonacademic job search and career, and asking what advice they can offer you. Not only do you get to hear their stories, but you get the chance to make an impression (a good one, I hope), in a way you often can’t do over the web or the phone.

Jenny: By their very presence at these events, Ph.D. alumni signal a willingness to help. People who have made the transition out of academe remember how hard it was. We get emails from former academics all the time offering to share their experiences.

Julie: It’s important to understand that — in a nonfaculty job search — your discipline often matters less than your skills. Interdisciplinarity is the reality of the nonacademic world. You have to know what your skills are, and be able to discuss them in relation to careers other than that of college professor.

Jenny: That’s where your conversations with Ph.D. alumni come in handy. Talking to panelists at these alumni events can give you ideas about how to narrate your skills. Chatting with them after the formal presentations is good practice for networking, so come armed with questions. Things like:

  • Which skills from graduate school helped you to get hired? Where were their gaps in your readiness for a nonacademic career?
  • What does the hiring process look like in your sector? What do you look for when you hire people?
  • What do you like best about your job? What do you find toughest about it?
  • What are the best sources of information about open positions in your sector?
  • What’s a typical career path for the field? Where do you see yourself going next?
  • How has your profession changed since you’ve been working in it?
  • What advice would you give to Ph.D.’s looking to follow a similar path?

Sometimes, you will hear the answers to those questions during the panel session. But if you don’t, they provide a perfect excuse for a one-on-one conversation afterward.

Remember: While alumni can provide support and even understanding, they are not the right vessel into which to pour all of your frustrations with academe. So keep your conversations positive and upbeat, and vent to your partner, your family, or even your cat.

Julie: We know doctoral students and postdocs have challenging schedules. Setting aside the time to attend an alumni panel, particularly early in your graduate career, can feel like a low priority. Research, teaching, or procrastination (Netflix, anyone?) can feel more important. But try not to be blasé about these alumni events.

At the very least, hearing alumni talk about their work will give you the opportunity to make an informed decision about your own next steps. Or, it might lead directly to an entirely new career path.

Julie Miller Vick has retired as senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and now works there part time as a senior career adviser. Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center. They are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press).