The Sweet Spot of a Nonacademic Job Search


January 02, 2012

When I was young, my parents stubbornly clung to a belief that at least one of their daughters would be an athlete. Along with the skiing, which was de rigueur in my family (my dad was a competitive skier), I dutifully attended tennis lessons and even played softball. Not much remains of those old lessons, I will confess. I haven't played tennis in years, and the closest I have come to playing softball has been reading the e-mails that my colleagues circulate about their team.

But in recent years, I have been thinking a great deal about the experience of finding the sweet spot on the racket or the bat. There was something incredibly pleasurable about hitting the ball at a specific spot that you knew would pay off. It's a lot like the rush you feel from a successful career move once you've found your niche.

When I decided to leave academe after four years as a professor, I felt as though I had stepped back into my childhood. I swung wildly on the nonacademic job market, trying to get a hit any way I could, answering job ads left and right. On one day, I would imagine myself as the director of a major museum. After all, I had a Ph.D.—one in history, no less. On the next day, I would imagine myself struggling to convince someone that I possessed the skills to be a secretary. After all, I had a Ph.D.—one in history, no less.

It took eight long months of unemployment and a lot of informational interviews before I understood that I needed to find the sweet spot and aim only for jobs in that range. To my surprise, once I found it, I began to be successful, landing job interviews and even, ultimately, two job offers. Yes, two! I was staggered by the idea of a choice.

I was offered those jobs not because I was a perfect fit for them (I wasn't) but rather because I had finally figured out how to craft an application that would highlight the skills and experiences I possessed that coincided with ones the employer wanted. Even as I had been busy telling employers that I was a "quick learner" and an impressive researcher, I had failed to understand that I needed to learn how to search for a nonacademic job.

Like most academics, I focused on the idea of leaving academe, not on the idea of entering a new and different career field. I did not understand—and failed to do the necessary research on—how the nonacademic work force operated, what its expectations were, and most important, how I could persuade nonacademic employers to hire me, a historian of 18th-century Britain with an expertise in early modern medical theories about menstruation (not, I will admit, the most useful background to have).

My inability to understand what I could and could not do meant that I spent the first few months of my nonacademic job search flailing.

Looking back, I would like to claim that I made the most mistakes one can make when leaving academe. But now, in running a Web site to assist historians seeking to leave the academy and in reviewing job applications for my day job, I have come to realize that the mistakes I made were fairly common.

Because academic culture frowns on Ph.D.'s who consider leaving the ivory tower, most of us who jump ship find ourselves at a loss as to where and how to begin a job search.

Yet a nonacademic job search is actually quite similar to a standard research project. Both require advance planning, substantial research, collating evidence for an argument, and, finally, making a convincing argument—all skills that academics possess and that, if used effectively, can ease the transition to a nonacademic job. Few of us see those connections, however, and even fewer of us use the skills we acquired in graduate school when applying for jobs.

I'll candidly admit that, even as I excoriated my students for failing to begin their research early, I procrastinated on starting my nonacademic job search. Perhaps that's understandable given that I was used to the slow pace of an academic search while the nonacademic version can move much more quickly.

Leaving academe typically entails changing fields, and changing fields always requires a sharp learning curve. You can never, in other words, start too early. One of my former bosses used to advise that you be perpetually on the job market, even when you love your current position. Starting a job search when you need a job, he would argue, is too late; you should be thinking and learning about a variety of career options at all times.

Not everyone is so career-focused, but the further ahead you plan, the more successful your job search will be. If you're a Ph.D. looking to leave academe, you can begin that process simply by reading job ads a year or so before you go on the nonacademic market. The more you read the ads, the more you will understand what employers want.

Reading those ads will underscore the value of expanding your horizons, via an internship or even a summer job. Such temporary positions will provide you with additional skills above and beyond those you acquire in the classroom, and will also help you to determine what types of jobs you like and dislike. If working as an editorial intern turns out to be your idea of death by slow torture, the time was well spent because now you know to avoid that sort of job.

Internships and part-time jobs in the corporate sector, government, or the nonprofit world have the added benefit of persuading employers that you understand nonacademic careers and that your work experiences have made you want to work outside of academe. You are not, in other words, simply fleeing academe.

Working outside of academe before you've officially left, and before you begin an actual job search, also allows you to build and maintain a network of nonacademic contacts. Academic culture tends to be insular, so it can be difficult to socialize and maintain connections with nonacademics when you're buried in your research and teaching. That's unfortunate because the broader your network, the broader your exposure to a variety of careers. The best networks build upon years of contacts and shared experiences.

Outside the academy, people typically use networking and informational interviewing to learn about career options. Informational interviews are not job interviews. Job offers do, sometimes, come out of informational interviews, but that is rare.

The real intent of an informational interview is simply to allow you to peek inside a particular profession. It's an opportunity to ask candid questions to someone who works in that field about the skills employers want, how résumés in that field are structured, where jobs are advertised, and, even more simply, what a typical day in that profession entails.

The best informational interview I ever had was one in which the subject gave me detailed instructions about how to complete and submit a federal job application. No job offer came out of that interview, but the information I obtained allowed me to submit a successful application for a federal job a month later.

Informational interviews can not only give you tips on how to apply for a job, they can also help you to understand the jobs for which you should apply. Most academics can explain, in their sleep, the differences between an assistant professor, an associate professor, a visiting professor, an endowed chair, and an instructor. Graduate students instinctively know not to apply for an associate professorship and to focus instead on other types of jobs.

When I began reading ads for nonacademic positions, I read the job titles with a great deal of bewilderment. Associate director? Director? Program analyst? What was the difference? And which was I qualified for? Through informational interviews, I finally began to understand why my mailbox had been stuffed with rejection letters. Better yet, I came to understand where the sweet spot on my racket was and which jobs I should aim for.

Still, knowing where that spot is and knowing how to hit it are two very different things.

When I began writing job letters and crafting my résumé, I assumed that employers spent a great deal of time reading my materials. Having now been on the other side of the hiring table, I know that employers read cover letters and résumés in the same manner in which professors read the hundreds of essays they must grade at the end of a semester—quickly, and with an eye to finding the best argument supported by the best evidence.

Job letters and résumés that do not clearly respond to the qualifications listed in an ad are tossed after a first glance.

The situation is even worse at organizations that routinely get hundreds of applicants. There, computers often make a preliminary cut, weeding out applicants who do not use the words and phrases of the job ad before their applications even reach the person in charge of hiring.

The best way to avoid getting culled early, then, is to make sure that your application materials reflect what the employer specifically mentions in the job ad. Few applicants possess the entire list of needed skills for any job. The best candidates I have seen have been those who make the best argument for why they are the best qualified for the post.

Note: I did not say that the best-qualified person was necessarily the best applicant. On several occasions, I've seen an unconventional candidate selected over a conventional one because the unconventional candidate did an outstanding job of making the connections between the job requirements and his or her background. Not every employer adopts that approach, but enough do to enable unconventional job seekers to find opportunities if they craft a résumé and cover letter that closely reflects the job requirements.

Making a sharp argument requires substantial planning and deft thinking. Whenever I have been on the job market, I have typically carried the job ad and a draft résumé around in my purse. While riding the metro, waiting for takeout, or doing anything that provides me with a few minutes, I have repeatedly scrutinized the job ad, attempting to match my experiences with the qualifications and jotting down relevant experiences as I remember them. Over a week or so, my personal list of qualifications becomes a résumé tailored to the specific job ad. In other words, I've found the sweet spot.

In conversations with colleagues and friends, I have come to realize that my approach is actually fairly common, even among those who have impeccable qualifications. Even the best athletes need practice to find and hit the sweet spot.

Those of us who are less athletic need the most practice. But it is possible, even in a bad economy, to hit that spot.

Alexandra M. Lord is a historian who left academe in 2000 for a position with the federal government. Since 2004, she has also run Beyond Academe, a free Web site that assists historians in finding work outside the academy.