An Academic’s Guide to Getting a Non-Academic Job

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This document is meant to be a rough guide to help academics in the humanities and social sciences who are looking to transition to non-academic positions. While this is certainly not intended to be the be-all and end-all of advice or resources on the subject, what follows is an attempt to distill what I have learned over the past seven years in non-academic research, advocacy, and policy settings.

In particular, this guide answers the questions I am most frequently asked by graduate students, recent PhDs, and early career faculty members. This is the guide I wish I had when I was first looking to make the jump from academia.

To say up front, this is mainly geared toward people interested in the policy, advocacy, think tank, and nonprofit sectors, though I hope this advice can be useful to anyone looking to make the transition.

Likewise, this guide is primarily about preparing for your search, networking, and applying for job openings. Because the non-academic market is so varied, and often very much place-specific, I don’t focus on where employers post jobs. My advice would be to start with the following job boards, but recognize that many organizations only post their openings on their own websites:

  • Idealist — The go-to job board for nonprofit positions
  • USAjobs — The federal government’s one-stop hiring portal
  • NCPH — The National Council on Public History job board
  • Foundation List — Another solid list of nonprofit jobs nationwide

I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Philip E. Wolgin | Ph.D. in History ’11 | University of California, Berkeley www.philwolgin.com | @pwolgin

Overview

  • Preparing for the non-academic market takes work, but no matter what stage you are currently at, there are a number of steps you can take to ease the transition.
  • Among the things you can and should do to prepare is to define your passion, and explore what you enjoy most about non-academic work.
  • While academics often gravitate toward research positions, there is a far wider landscape of non-academic jobs where your skills will be eminently applicable.
  • Most importantly, you will have to illustrate to potential employers that you have a range of skills and talents not always associated with the academy, including the ability to work collaboratively, meet concrete deadlines, and communicate clearly and concisely.
  • Throughout the process, networking is key. It will help you get a job, and will help propel you through your career.
  • Finally, community is one of the most overlooked parts of the job search. You can do far worse than end up in a career simply because you’ve found a group of people you like, and that will sustain you through highs and lows.

Preparing for the non-academic job market

While the exact criteria for each non-academic job will vary, there are a number of things you can and should do now — whether you are years away from the job market, or currently looking for a job — to help focus your search and make yourself as attractive as possible for potential employers.

In my mind, there are five parts to preparing for the job market:

1. Define your passion

First and foremost, figure out what field or fields you are most interested in working in. For some, this could be the same issue that brought you to graduate school in the first place. For others, it will be something else entirely. Either is completely fine.

So what issues are you most passionate about? What questions are you most interested in answering or what problems do you want to solve? What injustices make you the most angry?

It’s possible the answers to these questions will lead you to a single field (in my case, immigration policy,) or it might lead you to more toward a way of applying your skills to a range of issues (for example, applying mixed methods to solving social or development questions, or harnessing strategic communications for a multi-issue organization.) Here too, there is no one right answer.

Keeping your passion front-of-mind will give you purpose, and will help narrow down the types of places you might want to work on. And don’t worry if you do not yet know exactly what field or fields you want to work in. Your research and your networking (more on both of those below), among other things, will help you narrow down your search.

2. Explore what you like most about non-academic work

As academics, we largely define ourselves as researchers and/or teachers, but there is a much wider range of job types for which our skills and training are applicable. The more you can identify, early on, the type of work you are most interested in, the better.

I’m vastly over-simplifying here, but in the policy/advocacy/think tank/nonprofit world, positions generally fall into one of four buckets — research, communications, advocacy/policy, and field organizing (setting aside a range of positions in development, fundraising, finance, operations, etc.)

So I would push you to think about what you most want to do. Is it research? Is it writing and working with press? Is it advocacy at the local, state, or federal level, or crafting and implementing policy? Is it working with affected populations or community organizing?

I often find that people making the transition from academia tend to only look for research positions — and even more so, often only research positions in the narrow area on which they wrote their dissertation — or at least believe that research is where they would best fit in.¹ There’s nothing wrong with research, but any of the above positions can benefit from academic training — whether it is the ability to synthesize large amounts of information, to explain complex ideas to audiences of differing levels, or much more.

So I would push you to think beyond research, and consider a wider range of non-academic jobs.

And even if you ultimately decide to focus on research, think broadly about how your research skills might apply to a variety of fields, organizations, and positions. It is unlikely that there is one perfect job (or organization) out there, so even as you center in on a field or subfield, be expansive when it comes to thinking about job types.

3. Position yourself as more than just an academic

For just about all non-academic jobs, you will be required to show that you know more than your narrow methodological training and dissertation topic. There are three lessons I have learned over the years:

  1. First, as a PhD, you will be required to know Research with a capital “R.” Outside of a small subset of quantitative positions, no one will care that your PhD is in one field or another, or that you are primarily trained in interview methods, or archival research, or experimental theory, etc. You will be required to know Research. Period.
  2. Second, very few people will care about your dissertation. Yes, you’ve likely worked for years, toiling away to complete your manuscript, but dollars to donuts, almost no one will want to know much about it. What a potential employer will care about is how you prove that your skills — including the ones you used for your dissertation — are applicable to their needs.
  3. Finally, with very few exceptions, you will be required to show that you can work collaboratively, meet short deadlines, and present information clearly and concisely. And because — rightly or wrongly — the stereotype is that academics are not known for their teamwork, quick turnaround time, and clarity of writing, you will have to proactively illustrate your ability to do each of these things.

So how do you position yourself best to deal with these issues?

On Research: First, regardless of whether you are still in graduate school or not, now is the time to become familiar with other research methods outside of your primary training. If you were lucky enough to study in a field that taught you a range of methods, spectacular. If you were like me, and only received training in one discipline, make sure you know — at a minimum — some basic statistics, basic economics, basic interviewing methods, and basic synthesis.

I am often asked whether and how much quantitative skills really matter, and — in particular for people still in graduate school — if they should take more classes in quantitative methods. My take is this: You absolutely need a base level of numeracy, which includes things like being able to read regression tables, interpret census data, understand basic economic data, and the like. And if you know some Stata, R, or the like, all the better.

If you are still in graduate school, you can likely take classes in other departments. There are also a number of “stats-camps” out there to give you a crash course in only a few weeks. Seek those out. If you are out of graduate school, there still are lots of online and physical classes you can take, free online tutorials (I’m partial to MRUniversity for accessible video courses on basic economics,) and a range of books that can give you the training you need.

But for most folks, there is a wide gulf between being conversant in quantitative analysis, and being an expert in quantitative analysis. You need to be the former, but you don’t necessarily need to be the latter.

On your dissertation topic: My advice is to lead with your dissertation less than you might otherwise think. Most employers who didn’t come from academia won’t be interested in hearing about your thesis, and will certainly not want to read your abstract.

One of the biggest mistakes I see academics make on the non-academic job market is to waste precious space in a cover letter and/or resume talking extensively about their dissertation.

Now don’t get me wrong, I not saying that your dissertation research and work is worthless. Quite the contrary. But what employers are looking for is less about the topic you worked on, and more about the skills you bring to the workplace. So when you do talk about your dissertation, don’t rehash your argument, or your novel theory — talk about the type of work you did, the methodologies you used, and/or the skills that it taught you.

You could, for example, talk about your work wrangling interviews with difficult-to-find individuals, or your organizational prowess in keeping track of large amounts of data, or how you were able to translate complex theoretical arguments into plain English. Your exact frame will depend both on what you worked on, and what fields and jobs you are applying for, but the earlier you can start thinking about how you can explain your dissertation work in terms of concrete skills, the better.

And most of all, make sure that whatever you say about your dissertation is relevant to the job at hand. If you can’t make a direct connection between your dissertation to the roles, responsibilities, and requirements of a job posting, don’t include it in your cover letter or resume. (The same goes for any other item you may want to include in your application materials — more on that below.)

When you talk about your skills, the more specific you can be, the better. There is a common trope that academics are trained to ‘think critically.’ That’s great, but just putting ‘critical thinking’ on a resume is incredibly vague. Instead, be clear about how thinking critically can be applied to your specific field. To give one concrete example: I often talk about the fact that as a historian, my primary training was in synthesizing large amounts of information and making it accessible. That is huge skill in the policy arena, when the final product of so much of my work is 3–5 talking points in bullet form. So I focus on examples of how I have quickly and efficiently done this type of synthesis in the past.

Most of all, when talking about your dissertation: Be brief!

Second, because no one really cares about your dissertation topic, don’t sweat it if you wrote your thesis on something with little or no connection to the issue you want to work on now. It’s all about how you position your skills, and far, far less about the specific topic you worked on in graduate school.

Finally, because the stereotype of academics is — for better or worse — as solitary scholars toiling away on a massive tome with no sense of deadlines, potential employers will be looking to see that you can work on a team, work toward set deadlines, and write clearly and concisely.

So whether you are still in graduate school, or actively looking for a job, now is the time to think about your experiences — both inside and outside of the academy — and gather up concrete examples of your teamwork, deadlines, and clear and concise writing.

And if you don’t have concrete examples of these three things, or not enough examples, now is the time to go out and get them. There are many ways to do so, and no one best path, so here are a ideas few that come to mind easily:

  • Write and pitch op-eds or blog posts on an issue area that you are interested in
  • Volunteer with a local advocacy group or community organization, or join a volunteer Board
  • If you are able (and I realize this is not a possibility for everyone,) get an internship in the field that you are interested in

Once you’ve collected the examples of your ability to work on a team, to meet deadlines, and to write clearly and concisely, as well as examples of how your skill sets would translate to a given employer, it’s time to write your resume.

4. You need a resume — not a CV — and tailored application materials

A big part of how you will prove that you can function in the non-academic world, will come when you sit down to write your resume and cover letter. These materials need to be tailored to each specific job, but even before you even go on the job market, you should have a resume put together.

And let me say up front: For employers looking to evaluate your ability to write concisely for a non-academic audience, receiving a 5+ page CV is a non-starter. You need a resume, which should be at most be two pages.

There are a significant number of resources online about how to best write your resume, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. Some places to start include a slew of advice from Alison Green of Ask a Manager (here, on resumes, and here, on cover letters,) this great podcast from Manager Tools, and this list of 9 Ways to Refresh Your Resume, from Dave Stachowiak of Coaching for Leaders.

My colleague Carly Goodman has a great frame for thinking about how to translate academic skills to a resume:

Your resume is a sales document that should explain to the hiring manager how your skills and accomplishments have prepared you to excel at the job. Don’t assume that someone reading your resume will intuit that your being awarded a prestigious fellowship, or publishing an article in a top journal, or even completing a dissertation means something concrete. Explain your accomplishments in terms a hiring manager will understand. Applying for and receiving funding has given you successful grant-writing experience, demonstrating not only the importance of your scholarly ideas, but your ability to explain your work and persuade an audience of non-experts that your work matters and merits funding.

To push this idea even further: Every single item on your resume should speak to a specific part of a job description (generally found in the roles, responsibilities, and/or requirements section.)

So rather than just listing each and every one of your jobs, each course you’ve taught, each publication, be selective. Chose the things that will allow you to put your best foot forward. Writing a tailored resume is radically different than writing a CV, which generally covers every aspect of your academic career. For your resume, you don’t need to — and absolutely shouldn’t — include the entire kitchen sink.

And make sure to explain each item you chose to include: When you list your dissertation, discuss the research methods that went into it, and/or the skills or learnings you gleaned. When you list a job, make sure to highlight an accomplishment, or how it shows that you are a team player, can write quickly or concisely, etc. Use your resume to your advantage!

Finally — and this is key — you must tailor your resume and cover letter to each individual job you apply for. You cannot — CANNOT — send the same cover letter and resume to each job posting. Even the same type of job will require different materials from organization to organization. Your cover letter and resume for a research job at a think tank, for example, where just about everyone is a researcher, will look vastly different than for a research job at an advocacy organization, where you will be the only researcher.

As my colleague Beatrice Gurwitz puts it, “Think of the cover letter as a concise narrative that weaves together the components of your career in such a way that this job becomes the logical next point for your interests and skills.”

So pay close attention to what a given job is looking for as you craft your materials. Look carefully at the job posting — in particular the roles, requirements, and responsibilities section — and make sure that each item in your resume and cover letter builds a case as to why you are the right fit for this specific job.

I can’t stress this enough — if your materials look generic and not specific to the job at hand (if, for example, you don’t even name the position you are applying for,) you are unlikely to get an interview.

5. Do your research!

Finally, any policy or issue area has its own literature, and I don’t mean academic literature. Every field has a range of organizations (left, right, and center,) government bodies, think tanks, and the like that make up its ecosystem.

As early as you can, you should be following all of the news alerts, publications, videos and digital content, and updates of the major organizations — on all sides of the debate — in the field you are interested in.

The more you can become aware of the stakes, major debates, fault lines, and innovations in your chosen field, the better prepared you will be to when it comes time to apply and interview for jobs.

Once you’ve tackled the preparation for the job market, it’s time to start networking.

Networking 101 (Yes, you have to)

Networking gets a bad rap, but ultimately, it’s one of the keys to success both in getting a job, and advancing your career. It will help you find your community (more on that below,) and hone your passion and interests. The network you build now will allow you to identify which organizations you may want to work for (and, frankly, which you may not want to,) can help you land a job, and will help you build the web of connections that is critical to success in any field.

I am always amazed at the willingness of people to meet with folks just starting out in their field. Most individuals received a good amount of assistance when they were first looking to break into their careers and are happy to pay it forward.

I’m still in touch with a number of the people I first networked with when I was finishing graduate school and looking for a job; a few have become key mentors and friends.

Likewise, I tell every person I hire that relationships matter, because they do — knowing who to turn to when you need advice, when you need help, when you need insight into a particular problem , is critical to success in any field.

So start your networking early, and continue it throughout your career.

As with writing a resume, there is a lot of advice on networking on the internet. This piece, from Harvard Business Review, for example, is a great primer.

I also want to acknowledge up front the power dynamics at play in networking (and job searching as a whole,) whether because of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and more. Here too, there are a great deal of resources online about navigating these issues. This article, from Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman, while geared toward people going on the academic job market, includes a slew of advice and resources that is directly applicable to the non-academic market.

OK so how do you go about networking?

At a basic level, you should absolutely be using LinkedIn, which is helpful both for tapping into your existing network (and your friends’ network, and your friends’ friends’ network,) and also for identifying connections in organizations or fields you are interested in. Now is a good time to build up your LinkedIn profile and connections. Dave Stachowiak of Coaching for Leaders has a great podcast on How to Get the Most Out of LinkedIn.

I’ll also say that if your school has an alumni network, tap into it; if your program or advisors have students who are in interesting non-academic positions, reach out to them.

But beyond that, if you were like me, and had few, if any, connections to your field of choice, where do you start? Here are four pieces of advice:

1. Approach networking like a social scientist:

Start by making a list of all of the organizations you could potentially be interested in working for, and/or all of the interesting groups in the field you are interested in. (And, understanding the irony of asking academics to do their research on Wikipedia, I have to say, it has great lists of think tanks, nonprofits, and advocacy organizations out there.)

Then make a list of all of the people in those organizations whose jobs you might be interested in. Include people who are more senior and more junior. This point is particularly important: My first boss in DC received over 500 emails a day, so if you emailed her out of the blue you would be unlikely to receive a response. Don’t just contact senior people!

Once you have your list, start sending cold emails (more on that below.) You likely won’t get that many responses — my initial set of networking emails received a roughly 30 percent response rate — but that’s ok! As a good researcher, use anyone you do connect with to snowball out — ask them who else you should talk with. Even better, ask them if they can put you in touch with other people on your list who you haven’t been able to reach.

2. Focus on advice and mentoring, not job searching

Networking shouldn’t be transactional, and if you approach it as such, you will inevitably turn off the people you are trying to meet. Use your networking to learn about the field you are interested in breaking into, to meet the people who may one day be your colleagues and mentors, and to find out more about the career paths of people in your field.

Yes, networking can help you find a job. If you are in a field where job openings typically get 100+ qualified candidates, networking can often help get your resume off of the pile.

But once you think about networking as advice-seeking rather than job-seeking, it frees you up in three ways:

First, it gives you an easy way to frame your cold email, and to start a conversation: Ask questions like “How did you break into the field?” “How can I best translate my skills into X career?” “What are the biggest things someone looking to break into this field should be doing now, to prepare?” (Alison Green of Ask A Manager has even more great questions for informational interviews.)

Second, it puts you in a learning mindset. Instead of just looking for a job, you are collecting important information about your field: What issues are folks working on right now? What areas are likely to see the most growth or turbulence? Where are the fault-lines in the field? The more knowledge you gather now, the more you will be prepared to write cover letters and handle interview questions.

And finally, rather than only focusing you only on networking at places that are currently hiring, it refocuses you on the entire field. You never know where jobs are going to open up, but most issue areas and policy communities are small and tight-knit. When someone has a job opening, the first thing they generally do is reach out to their networks, so you want to get yourself on the radar of a wide number of people in your given field.

One last piece of advice here: Not everyone will be able to meet with you. That’s just a fact of life — people get busy at different times, some organizations have policies against talking to prospective candidates if they are actively hiring for a position, and some people just won’t have the bandwidth to chat. Don’t stress about it, just move on to other people on your list.

3. Do your homework and be mindful of what you are asking

Before you meet with anyone, make sure you’ve done at least some basic research as to who they are, where they work, and what you might want to learn from them. Prepare a list of questions in advance, and come prepared to discuss them.

If there is something specific that you want to get out of the meeting (whether it is advice, mentorship, introductions, or anything else,) think that through in advance.

The worst thing you can do is to show up to a networking meeting with no sense of why you are meeting with this particular person.

Two other pieces of advice:

First off, calibrate the asks you make of anyone you meet with. If they are a junior or mid-level staffer, don’t ask them to make an introduction to their CEO or their boss’s-boss’s-boss; it just comes across as tone deaf. Likewise don’t make too many asks, or asks that will take up a significant amount of time of the person you are meeting with (the simpler you can make your ask, the more likely it is to happen.) Asking, once, for an introduction to one or two people is generally fine. Asking for an introduction to five or ten is not.

Finally, be mindful of the fact that the people talking with you are doing you a favor. Be courteous, be aware of how much time you are taking up, and above all, don’t waste anyone’s time.

4. Follow up!

I’m always amazed at how few people follow up on networking conversations. At a very minimum, you should be sending a thank-you email after you meet with someone. This thank-you is a great opportunity to follow up on interesting points from the conversation, to pass along your resume for them to keep on file (if appropriate,) or an article or op-ed you’ve worked on, and the like, or to remind them of anyone they agreed to connect you with.

But beyond the initial thank-you, you should continue to follow up with the people you really connect with. You shouldn’t — and likely wouldn’t want to — follow up with everyone. Some people, and some fields, might turn out to not be good fits. But if you have a good conversation with someone, check back in with them every few months. If you publish a new op-ed, or see an article you think they might like, or just want to give an update, send a note.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to have an ask (such as setting another meeting,) to follow up with your network, you can just send a quick update. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate these notes when I get them.

The more regularly you follow up, the deeper your relationship becomes.

One last point — networking is equally about helping others as it is about soliciting help yourself. So if there are ways to offer your skills and expertise to the people you’ve met, all the better.

Find your community

I want to end with a piece of advice that I think is often overlooked as people try to find a career: Community is key.

Once you finish graduate school, you will likely spend the vast majority of the rest of your life at work. Even if you work just 9–5 (when so many jobs require more than that,) that means that you will spend the biggest chunk of your waking hours with your work colleagues — with co-workers from your own organization, and the people from your wider field with whom you’ll be in the trenches with day-to-day.

You can do much, much worse than to choose a career based largely on finding a community of people that you like — that is supportive, that picks you up when you are down, and that celebrates wins and mourns losses as a team.

Even if you have a strong sense of where your passion lies, of what you want to do with your career, there are always many avenues to pursue it. In my own field of immigration policy, for example, you could work solely on detention issues, on issues facing immigrant children, on high skilled immigration, on integration, on refugee resettlement, on asylum access, and much more. While the Venn diagram of these subfields overlaps considerably, they are each their own small community of colleagues.

So go out and find your community.

Thank you Carly Goodman, Laura E. Durso, Beatrice Gurwitz, Paulina Hartono, S. Deborah Kang, Andrew Keating, Erica Lee, Emily Redman, Sam Redman, Ariel Ron, Matthew Sargent, and Sarah Stoller, who all took the time to read and review this guide.

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¹ I would, however, strongly caution that there are very few non-academic research jobs where you really have the same freedom as in academia to define your own research agenda. In far more cases you would be working in service of a policy, advocacy, or outcome-based agenda. That’s not a bad thing, but if you are looking to find an academic job, just outside of the academy, that is easier said than done.