4 Things To Do in Grad School To Prepare for a Non-Academic Career

Via Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui on Twitter) comes this article on The Professor Is In, all about what to do right now in graduate school – even in your first year – to set yourself up to get an academic job at the end of it. It’s good advice: publish, go for grants, read job ads so you know what’s out there and what hiring departments are asking for, go to conferences and meet people. These are all keys to preparing yourself for an academic career and if you are in graduate school you should read it.

I have one major thing to add, though, that I think is crucial in today’s dismal academic job market: figure out a viable alternative career, and position yourself potentially to enter that career at the end of graduate school.

There are lots of reasons why academia may not work out. You may find yourself more geographically limited than you had anticipated, for whatever reason, as I have. You might find that, unfortunately, your research specialty isn’t very much in demand on the market and you’re unable to find a tenure-track position at all. You may find that there simply aren’t any academic jobs out there that you’re really keen on. Or heck, you could find that your alternative plan is more rewarding than an academic career, either financially, intellectually or otherwise.

This post is essentially a follow-up to my last post, on why the field of marketing is a good match for many humanities PhDs, and vice versa. Today, I’m going to provide some concrete advice as to what you can do in graduate school to prepare yourself for the possibility of leaving academia for a different career path once you’re finished your graduate degree. I’m speaking here from the perspective of someone with a PhD in English who also has 10 years’ experience in the business world, mostly concurrent to academia, and has built a successful professional practice outside of the academy.

1. Realize that you are not a failure if you leave academia.

I swear, one day I’m going to write a book about leaving academia called You Are Not a Failure. There’s so much emotional baggage in academia around success and failure. Megan Pincus Kajitani and Rebecca A. Bryant discussed this issue several years ago in their Chronicle of Higher Education article “A PhD and a Failure”:

“Failure, says academic culture, is anything other than achieving the ultimate goal of a tenure-track professorship. More specifically, the epitome of success is a tenure-track job at a major research university. You’re still successful, albeit to a lesser degree, if that job is at a liberal-arts college, and even less so if it’s at a community college. But a nonacademic career, well, that’s just unacceptable.”

The concept that you are a failure if you leave academia for any reason is simply wrong. It’s wrong, and it’s destructive. It is difficult adequately to describe without the use of profanity how awful I find it that some of the most intelligent people out there are encouraged to feel like failures by academic culture because they take their PhDs out of the academy.

Why is this #1 on my list? Because if you are going to start putting together scaffolding now on which potentially to build a successful non-academic career, you have to believe, truly, that you will not be a failure if you pursue that career. I am here to tell you that you won’t be. But you have to believe me.

2. Figure out what you like to do, using the 3 AM Test.

My friend Madeline Ashby, a science fiction writer and futurist, recently gave me the best piece of advice I have ever heard. “When you wake up at 3 AM and can’t get back to sleep,” she said, “what do you do? That’s what you should do for a living. And when I get up at 3 AM, I write stories. Always have.”

Me? I head straight to the computer and open up Twitter and Facebook, read the blogs I have in my RSS feed, and my brain starts working on analyzing discursive trends in the information I’m looking at and figuring out how this product could be used in that space to increase market share and making up taglines for the products I see advertised in banner ads. Yup, I’m a marketer, all right.

The 3 AM Test is really about what you do when you have nothing else at all youhave to do; when your time is essentially your own. Of course, the problem that many academics have is that at 3 AM, they read journal articles or put together syllabi. They really, really want to be academics.

The thing is, the 3 AM Test isn’t just about the specifics of what you want to do; it can work a bit more generally, too. At 3 AM, do you prefer to read or write? Do you write papers, or work on lectures, or grade papers? (OK, probably no one grades papers…) What you like to do in a general sense can help you figure out a potential direction in which you might want to go. If you prefer to read and analyze than write, a position as an acquisitions editor, market researcher or business or policy analyst might be something to aspire to, depending on your field. If you prefer to write, then copywriting or technical writing or organizational communications is a better bet. If teaching is your true passion and you write syllabi for fun, then corporate training or prep-school teaching could be a logical path. The prep school recruitment agency Carney Sandoe specializes in matching folks with advanced degrees with open positions.

Once you’ve figured out what sort of things you like to do when no one is telling you you’re a failure for not doing other things, then you can figure out who to contact to help you get into that field. Which brings me to…

3. Network with non-academic folks.

Networking is the name of the game in every field, I’m afraid. Just as you go to conferences in academia to press the flesh with the big-name profs and exchange ideas, you’ll need to do the same in business. This is fairly standard advice to job-seekers in any field, and I’m going to reiterate it here. Go to networking events, meet people, ask questions, exchange business cards. The big advantage you have at these things as a graduate student, though, is that you’re not actively looking for a job at these events; you’re just there to learn about the field and to meet people. This gives you the psychological and emotional energy to sit back, enjoy and learn without feeling or acting desperate for an opportunity.

In business, there’s also the the “informational interview”, which is a great way to make contacts in your chosen field. Informational interviews are essentially brain-picking sessions in which you have the opportunity to learn more about a person and their field. These are also fairly easy to set up if you’re at all outgoing, because you’re not asking someone for anything other than a half hour of their time.

Don’t be shy; ask your inner circle if they know anybody in your target field(s), and get in touch with a polite email. Offer to take them out for coffee and tell them you’d really love to find out more about what it’s like to work in Field X. Make sure that it’s clear you’re not looking for a full-time job; you just want to take the opportunity to find out more. Plus, with the advent of social media, this can be even easier; you don’t have to go through friends at all. Pick a blogger in your chosen field whose work your enjoy, read along for a while, and drop them a line.

In any and all networking, it’s important to remember two things. First of all, people enjoy talking about themselves. And second, people like helping other people. I’ve been asked many times to sit down with folks who are interested in getting into marketing and to give my advice about how to get into the field. I always do it, for both of the aforementioned reasons. I get an altruistic thrill out of connecting someone with an opportunity, and most people I know are the same way. And, frankly, who doesn’t love talking about themselves and their experiences? (The entire concept of blogging is essentially based on the latter…)

4. Get some work experience.

I started out in marketing while I was an undergrad; I worked during the summer and a little bit during the school year. During my Master’s degree, I worked 20 hours a week as a marketing coordinator for a construction company, and I started a director-level position in organizational communications very quickly once I started looking for non-academic work. I was lucky to find these opportunities, and I will readily acknowledge that my experience was pre-recession.

However, working for a major company isn’t the only way to gain experience in your chosen field. There are often on-campus volunteer positions that are resume-friendly. For instance, during my PhD I volunteered as a coordinator for a research group at Royal Holloway, University of London. Most schools have student-run committees and organizations that need people in lots of different capacities, from marketing and PR to financial management to human resources and recruitment and even supply chain management. Volunteering for positions like these can also help you get a taste for what kind of non-academic work you might enjoy.

It can also be worth your time to volunteer your time and skills for a charitable organization or your place of worship, from both a business and a personal point of view. I do some pro-bono social media consulting for Save a Child’s Heart, for instance. If you’re a highly skilled individual, like most PhD candidates are, you’ll likely be asked to do more than stuff envelopes: you might end up doing copywriting or web development or help with volunteer coordination or event management.

Plus, volunteering for these kinds of organizations can put you in contact with folks who are well-connected in the professional world. Many nonprofit board members are successful in their fields, which is why they’re asked to sit on the board; if you do excellent work for their organization, they may be able to connect you with professional opportunities.

The Upshot

I want to be clear: none of this is to say that you will not be successful in academia, or even that you should make your exit your primary plan. Academics are important and valuable, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be one. They (we?) contribute a lot to society and there is significant value, social and otherwise, in being an academic.

But the reality of the academic job market is that many PhDs will not find academic jobs. It just makes good sense to investigate, at the very least, the big wide world outside the ivory tower. And there’s no shame at all in deciding, under the circumstances, to do something else. You just might find that you like it – or at least that it’s an acceptable alternative to academe.