What It’s Like to Search for Jobs Outside of Academe

Full vitae search for jobs outside of academe

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By Erin Bartram

When Ph.D.s talk about the transition to a nonfaculty career, we tend to focus on where to look for work and what to expect on the job. All the dicey steps in between — like how, exactly, to find and apply for work outside of academe — tend to be glossed over. I suspect that’s because hunting for nonacademic jobs seems, at first glance, to be simpler than the yearly slog that is the tenure-track job market. After all, in "the real world," there’s no tying yourself into knots to prove you can cover every specific area listed in the job ad without stepping on the toes of anyone else in the department, and no "hiring season" outside of which finding full-time employment opportunities is slim.

But in the months since I decided to end my search for a tenure-track job in history, I’ve discovered that the hiring process outside of academe, while different, is not necessarily simpler. In fact, figuring out the hiring culture in different employment sectors has been deeply frustrating.

After my essay on leaving academe went viral, I got conflicting career advice. Many colleagues and internet strangers urged me to consider jobs that seemed close to faculty work — specifically, teaching history at a secondary school. Others advised me to think broadly about what I might like to do. I chose the latter option but quickly discovered that my imagination was rather limited. I also realized that people unfamiliar with doctoral work didn’t have many suggestions for me.

My brainstorming bore fruit only when I met with friends who both: (a) worked outside of academe and (b) understood academic culture and skills. They were not bound by preconceptions of what a Ph.D. in my field could do or should want to do, and were able to imagine me in jobs I didn’t know existed.

It’s important to have such conversations before you dive into a job search. But it’s equally important to keep having them while you search for jobs, because the searching itself can be overwhelming even with specific goals in mind.

As Ph.D.s, we’re used to a fairly narrow job market. You may have to sift through tenure-track positions in a few places, but it’s manageable, especially given that jobs are advertised by subfield and are limited anyway. In a nonacademic search, however, even with a good idea of the kind of work you want, you’ll rarely be able to search for openings on job sites with that level of specificity. Simple things that we took for granted with academic-job postings — like the date that an application closes — can be hard to find in nonacademic postings. It can be maddening to look or apply for jobs when you can’t tell whether the employer is reviewing applications in real time or is no longer accepting them.

Still, there are ways to get more efficient with your job searches. On the academic job market, you learned to read the subtext of job-ad language, and the same skill is useful here. When you find ads for the kinds of work you want, make a note of how they were categorized and the language they used, so that you can refine your future searches. Use that same language to rephrase the skills you bring to the job in ways that are clearer to people reading your application.

More befuddling can be the issue of job experience. In academe, no matter how excellent your track record, you still start on the tenure track at assistant professor. But if you’re leaving academe because you couldn’t get a good teaching job, the emphasis on tenure-track employment can also make you feel as if your career never really started.

It’s important to remember that you do, indeed, have work experience. The marketable skills you developed in academe are valuable whether or not you did them as a tenure-track employee. If you’ve been doing research, writing, and teaching for a decade, you’re not inherently an entry-level employee in a field that draws on those skills.

Yes, it’s challenging to make the case that you have the skills and experience to take on a midlevel position in a new career. But don’t shy away from that simply because the culture of our warped academic job market didn’t recognize or value your skills.

Taking time to learn the language and rhythms of nonacademic job postings is an important first step, and from there you can do a few things to make the job-search process less overwhelming:

  • With a better idea of the kinds of employment you’re considering, you may be able to find more-specialized job boards, like those listing nonprofit work in your region or those affiliated with relevant professional organizations.
  • In some fields, especially those adjacent to academe, job postings are shared on social media, so it can help to follow organizations and even individuals in the sectors you’re considering.
  • It is tempting to sign up for daily alerts from job sites based on specific search terms. Doing so can quickly overwhelm your email — unless your search terms are very precise or there aren’t a lot of jobs posted. It’s OK to opt out of those alerts.
  • It takes a lot of time out of your life to apply for jobs, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. I found it helpful to schedule "job-search time" into my week, to ensure not only that I regularly and systematically searched job boards and wrote applications, but also that I had a designated time to stop and put it aside for the next day, before I burned out completely.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for me has been confronting what networking actually means in the nonacademic job market.

After months of searching for jobs in a wide variety of fields across a good swath of the country — with very little to show for it — a friend urged me to post on social media that I was job hunting. I felt uncomfortable but gave it a shot, figuring it wouldn’t do much anyway.

I received an immediate crush of suggestions, publicly and privately — for jobs that hadn’t been posted widely, hadn’t been posted publicly, or hadn’t been posted at all. Some were for jobs that I’d seen but discounted only to be told some inside information that made me realize I was a better candidate than I’d thought. Those suggestions were helpful but also a bit discouraging.

So much of nonacademic hiring is done "off the books" that it can make the rules and systems of academic hiring seem quaint by comparison, despite academe’s many inequities. In talking with other scholars who have found nonacademic work, I sense that the back-channel hiring is far more prevalent in small organizations than in large ones. In an earlier essay, I urged professors not to assume that "networking" was something all of their Ph.D.s could do, but I didn’t understand how important that warning was.

As a scholar, I may not have had a real chance at getting many of the tenure-track jobs I saw listed, but at least the positions were posted and I had the chance to apply. Both academic and nonacademic systems promote from within — when you go up for tenure, after all, your department doesn’t bring in other candidates to compete with you for the promotion — so I had no expectation that every nonacademic job would be open and available to every outside candidate. What I was unprepared for was the extent to which even finding out about "open" midlevel positions, let alone successfully applying for them, would depend on the personal and professional network I had cobbled together and my willingness to draw on it. I can’t offer any advice on how to get around that "who you know" dynamic, which still makes me uncomfortable, no matter how many times nonacademic friends have told me "this is just how it works."

Even if you can’t do the kind of networking that will turn up unadvertised job postings, you can still use your network of friends and colleagues to help you acclimate to nonacademic hiring. Talk with your friends about their career paths. Ask how they found out about jobs they’ve had. If they regularly oversee hiring, ask how it works and what they look for. If they’re willing, have them keep an eye out for positions that you might miss or overlook, especially ones for which you might wrongly assume you’re underqualified.

Academe didn’t prepare me well for the nonacademic job market, but I can’t blame it for that. Nor should people reading this — in or out of academe — roll their eyes at how difficult it can be for Ph.D.s to make the transition into an unfamiliar hiring world. After all, scholars who went directly from their B.A. to graduate school may never have held a full-time nonacademic job before. I had several full-time nonacademic jobs before I went to graduate school, but even so, the last time I applied for one of those jobs was 12 years ago, and it was nothing like applying to the midlevel positions that advisers and others have encouraged me to apply for now.

Nonacademic hiring is different from academic hiring, and there’s no shame in recognizing that you find it challenging and even infuriating. Taking time to learn how it works, especially with the help of friends you trust, can make your transition both easier and more productive.

Erin Bartram, formerly a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Hartford, is writing about her career transition out of academe. Her website is Erinbartram.com and you can find her on Twitter @erin_bartram .

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