How One Tenure-Track Prof Left Academia: A Beginner’s Guide

obama mic drop

I’m a former tenure-track professor of world and postcolonial literature now pursuing a career as a nonprofit communicator and fundraising professional. After 13 years spent in academia, not including my undergraduate degree, I made my career shift in 2013. I made the switch for a number of reasons, among them a desire for greater geographical autonomy and a longing to find a career in which I could be part of a team working towards a common cause, rather than a “lone wolf” researcher and professor.

The most common refrain I hear from people in academia when I talk about my transition is along the lines of “that sounds great, but I’m just not qualified to do anything else but analyze Dickens/write about Etruscan pottery/research the Civil War.” It’s both a lament and a boast, often uttered in a jocular, self-deprecating tone. And I get it. It’s hard to reconcile the sacrifices that you’re making in the pursuit of a Ph.D.—time, money, opportunity-cost, intellectual and emotional labor—with the reality that that the outcome is essentially a crap-shoot. A certain amount of denial is required, which often means convincing yourself that the specialized training you’re receiving makes you useless for anything else.

But while pursuing a Ph.D. does require specialization, it’s not true that the many talented, intelligent people who took that path are unqualified to do anything else. I think what this refrain reflects, rather, is the way one’s mind is shaped by the experience of being professionalized into academia. And I believe changing this mindset—in a sense unlearning aspects of one’s professional cultivation, rather than agonizing over which “transferable skills” you’ve developed, or what your degree does or doesn’t qualify you to do—is actually one of the most important steps in the process of moving from academia to another career.

Here are a few lessons I’ve gleaned from “unlearning” my professional biases in my journey from professor to nonprofit professional:

  1. You don’t have to be an expert to change careers

One of the first things I struggled with when I began to make my transition was the worry, sometimes verging on panic, that I’d left it too late to switch gears. I’d spent so many years learning how to be a professor I couldn’t possibly start over in a new field. The truth is that in many career paths outside of academia there’s no requirement that you spend many years gaining expertise as a prerequisite for being able to even apply. Of course, every field has its learning curve. But, especially in entry-level positions, there’s an understanding that you’ll learn on the job.

One thing I often tell people considering a shift to the nonprofit world is to read job ads for positions that you think might interest you (idealist.org is a great resource), and look at the skills and qualifications listed to assess where the gaps in your experience are and how best to fill them. I also counsel them to read between the lines. We’ve all seen the kitchen-sink assistant professor ad requiring the ability to teach everything from Moby Dick to the latest YouTube video, but generally academic job ads are very specific about the skills and qualifications required. Nonprofit job ads, on the other hand, are often a “reach” or a wish list—a description of an ideal candidate who may not even exist.

The skills, background and qualifications listed in these job ads are a means to an end: the ability to do the job well. Good, persuasive writers and speakers—like most humanities Ph.D.s—can make the case for how their own unique skills, backgrounds and qualifications have prepared them to do the job well, even if they don’t line up exactly with the ad.

In the nonprofit world there is less focus on proving one’s expertise and more on having the good judgment to know when to make a decision with the information and knowledge you have and when to gather additional information. Today, as a nonprofit professional with a busy schedule I make judgment calls daily—whether about a particular grant proposal strategy or the cover of a brochure—based on a combination of all I’ve learned through formal classroom instruction, continuing education workshops, on-the-job experience, and my gut. The fast pace means that I have the responsibility and opportunity to make decisions that have an immediate impact upon the direction of my organization.

  1. You do have to “network,” but it’s not as awful as it sounds

Some aspects of the academic mindset that I had to unlearn have less to do with professional and intellectual norms, and more to do with the striking differences between the academic job market and the “regular” job market. They’re so great that the regular job market can sometimes seem like “opposite world” to those in academia: Go to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s online forum and look for threads in which academic job applicants ask “X happened, should I contact the search committee?” Unless you won the Nobel Prize, the overwhelming response to almost every version of that question will be “No.” Early-career academics are trained to let our recommendation letters and written materials speak for us, and earn our way by merit. Intervention on our behalf is appropriate only if made by an established star in the field. Well-meaning relatives offering to put a good word in for us at institutions where there are no tenure-track openings in our field make us want to scream, “That’s not how it works!” at Thanksgiving. It’s a world of scarcity where any misstep feels like slipping during a high-wire act without a net.

Not as weird or daunting as it may seem

Not as weird or daunting as it may seem

It’s not that the “regular” job market is so easy that you’ll breeze into a job without putting hard work into your materials and your self-presentation. But I can confidently say that for each position you apply or interview for, there is much less of a sense that this is your one chance to get it right and otherwise you’ll blow it for another year. There is no “hiring season.” The fact that nonprofit jobs come up year-round takes the pressure off considerably. The trick is finding the ones that suit your interests and qualifications at the time that’s right for both you and your prospective employer.

These differences also influence the way prospective employers will treat you. Let’s face it: academia is a buyer’s market. By contrast, nonprofit employers often receive a much broader range of applicants for any given job, especially at the entry and mid-levels, and they must work hard to come up with a pool of really great applicants who are a good fit for the position. That’s why word-of-mouth references and recommendations go so far in “opposite world.” Nonprofit employers are eager to find someone who can hit the ground running, learn fast, and exhibit maturity and judgment when dealing with co-workers, donors, and the community. I got my first nonprofit job by volunteering with an organization whose mission I was passionate about. Through this I was able to get to know the people who told me when a position opened up and eventually became my co-workers. A family member who happened to be a highly-respected volunteer for the hiring organization referred me to my next nonprofit job. I went through a rigorous interview and vetting process, but the initial referral gave me a positive credibility boost. Making personal connections is how you get a job outside of academia.

But what if all your friends are academics? Think creatively. What about their spouses? Friends of friends? Online acquaintances? And yes, this is where we talk about the dreaded “informational interview.” (See also Megan Doherty’s discussion of this same issue.) It’s an intimidating term, but once you get started you realize that it’s really just a conversation about something both you and the other person are already interested in—their career! Astonishingly, people outside of academia don’t tend to see themselves as woefully compromised by their lack of commitment to the life of the mind. They are proud of their achievements and eager to talk to you about their career.

I could do anything i only knew what it was

The great thing about informational interviews is you’re not asking for a job, just for a modest amount of someone’s time. When I was first exploring my transition, I was amazed by the generosity and warmth of those I approached. And now that I’ve been on the other side, I love getting to know my fellow academic “survivors” and exploring how I might be able to help them with advice, a personal referral or even a book recommendation. Just be polite and personable when you make the initial request, be respectful of your interviewee’s time, and send a thank you email afterwards.

A good place to start is at www.versatilephd.com, which provides a positive, supportive forum for discussing all aspects of moving on from academia. It’s aimed at people in both STEM and Humanities and Social Sciences fields. Check the site for a list of institutions that subscribe to versatilephd.com. If your institution is one of them, sign-up with your university email address and you’ll get access to an abundance of resources only for paid subscribers.

Everything I’ve discussed here is “networking”—a word that doesn’t have to mean using people as part of a self-interested quest to get to the top. Notwithstanding the current economic climate, most working nonprofit professionals aren’t living in a world of scarcity, or suffering from survivor’s guilt just for having a job. In fact, many have more than what they need—whether it’s job leads, connections, or opportunities for continuing education—and want to pass along those opportunities to help strengthen the nonprofit sector as whole.

  1. Practice self-care and take imaginative leaps to open doors

Sometimes instead of the “I’m not qualified” line I hear, “I just can’t imagine doing anything else.” Indeed, making a career change requires an act of imagination in order to envision yourself doing something for which you may not have an immediate role model. This is why informational interviewing and taking advantage of educational or volunteer opportunities in your new field are so helpful. It’s not just information you’re gleaning—you’re also meeting the people whose shoes you can imagine filling one day.

I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it and I, I could do anything if only I could get round to it

I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it
and I, I could do anything if only I could get round to it

It’s hard to picture yourself doing something new when you’re in a time of transition: not quite done with the “old you,” but without having fleshed out the “new you” you’re working towards. I found the book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges very helpful during my own transition process. Above all, it reminded me that the process of transition doesn’t happen overnight. During this time, activities like meditation, getting outside, or even watching a good film can keep you grounded and provide perspective on the big picture.

I look back on my own transition with gratitude toward the many mentors and helpers who generously shared their advice and encouragement. I’m thrilled to be in a career where I’m able to exercise all the different parts of my personality and learn new things every day. I encourage those considering a change to explore the possibilities. There are nonprofits out there that would be lucky to take advantage of your skills and talents and eager to give you a chance to serve a mission that you’re passionate about while finding a fulfilling career path.

An Action Plan for Career Changers:

  1. Read the Books
  2. Set Up Informational Interviews Remember, it’s just a conversation. The cliché is true—most people love to talk about themselves and genuinely want to feel useful to others.
  3. Consult with a Career Counselor or just a supportive friend; use them to help you convert your CV into a resume. Brainstorm about your talents, aptitudes and skills, including ones you might have given short shrift during your academic years.
  4. Use Websites and Social Media
    • Create or update your LinkedIn page and link your academia.edu page to your LinkedIn profile
    • Join versatilephd.com and read beyondacademe.com
    • AskaManager.org, a daily advice column written by career expert Alison Green, is a great introduction to the culture and expectations of the non-academic workplace. Both she and the members of her lively commenting community will give you multiple perspectives on how workers view their world.
  5. Get an Education, But Don’t Re-Credential More Than Necessary

If you’ve identified a prospective area you’d like to target (e.g. fundraising), take the minimum number of courses or trainings necessary to show that you are serious about it. Take advantage of extension programs at local universities. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of spending more time in grad school getting another credential unless it’s absolutely necessary. (Editor’s note: there are a variety of free online courses and even YouTube tutorials that can help you pick up skills, especially technical ones, that can turn out to be surprisingly useful in a nonprofit or corporate position.)

  1. Volunteer and Make Connections

Approach your favorite nonprofit, a cause you already give to or are passionate about. Figure out if there are volunteer opportunities there. Get involved and ask for informational interviews with those you meet.

Like all big changes in life, changing careers can be scary—but it can also be exhilarating. Of course you’ll analyze your options and do your research, after all, you’re an academic. But if and when the time comes—don’t be afraid to make the leap.

Felicity Palmer is the Development Manager at Executive Service Corps of Southern California. She was previously a Development Associate in Institutional Giving at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. She earned her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature and Society from Columbia University in 2009, and has held tenure-track positions in world and postcolonial literature at Clarkson University and the University of Southern Mississippi.

This piece is part of an ongoing series at ToM about alternative careers for academics.  Other posts include:

I Have a PhD in History. How Can I Survive in the Private Sector? 

Making Your Way as a History PhD in the Think Tank World

Working for the Man?! Turning Your PhD into a Meaningful Job with the Federal Government

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this – as a full-time non-profit professional and full-time doctoral student, I often find myself serving as a translator between different ways of approaching social issues. People in both academia and non-profits have found my intellectual training useful and I’m grateful that I know how to interact with so many different kinds of people. It’s so important to remember that an arts & humanities degree requires critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, communication skills, and so much more. These are important qualities for any person to develop – it felt like a risk for me to enter non-profit work, but it’s been exciting to build the confidence to be able to say I can thrive in any kind of rigorous environment.

  2. Thanks for sharing…

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