We have received numerous questions regarding how to prepare for the non-academic job market. In the next few weeks, we will have several posts written by people who have varying levels of experience in this area. The first post is by Megan Shoji, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin who was “on” the non-academic job market this year. Megan will begin working for Mathematica Policy Research after completing her PhD. this spring.
Alt-academic jobs are attractive and viable for many PhDs, but as a student, it can be hard to know how to prepare. While there’s no single approach, I offer some general insights from my experience on the market this year.
An important first step is to identify why you’re interested in jobs outside academia, and what kinds of jobs interest you. This shapes both your job search and preparation, so ask yourself as early and regularly as possible, but ideally at least one year before going on the market.
Why do you want to pursue non-academic jobs? People often talk about life circumstances that may restrict success on the academic market (i.e., “I’m not sure I can get a faculty job”). This may be legitimate, for example if you’re limited by geography, but how you view a position can affect your chances of employment. It’s difficult to disguise intrinsic motivation, so if you see working outside academia as a fallback, you may be sunk before you begin — or at minimum you’ll lack the sincere enthusiasm that makes any candidate more attractive. To enhance your odds on the market (and personal fulfillment in your work), it’s important to find genuine reasons why a position you’re pursuing is good for you. Figure out what kind of work you want to do, how you want to do it, for what reasons, and in what kind of environment. In my case, non-academic jobs are ideal for what I want: to conduct research collaboratively, in an interdisciplinary environment, and toward the goal of directly impacting people’s lived experiences. But whether it’s that the job allows you to be in a city you love, to spend more time with your kids, or your partner pursuing his/her dream career, setting yourself up for success outside academia begins with recognizing how alt-academic opportunities are a good fit for you.
What kind of non-academic jobs do you want to pursue? Although people discuss ‘the non-academic market,’ realize that you’re really considering non-academic markets, differentiated by organization/job type and hierarchies. The work, environments, goals, and desired candidate skills can vary widely across markets. To know how to prepare, you must first get a handle on what’s out there and what interests you. Personally, I narrowed my search to research positions at policy analysis companies, state departments of education, and urban public school districts (particularly those committed to enhancing evidence-based decision-making and serving populations of focus in my research). From there, I generated a list of promising organizations to research. To find your interests:
Consult job boards listing non-academic positions, e.g. those run by the American Economic Association, Chronicle of Higher Education (https://chroniclevitae.com/), Policy Innovators in Education (http://pie-network.org/), or USAJobs (https://www.usajobs.gov/). Also conduct targeted searches by city or via organization websites.
Talk with as many people as possible about opportunities outside academia. As a grad student, discussing this with faculty mentors can be uncomfortable, particularly if they’ve made it clear that they prefer/hope/expect you to pursue faculty jobs. However, it’s likely in your best interest to begin this conversation as soon as possible. Many faculty have contacts outside academia are at least familiar with key nationally-renowned organizations. In my experience, while some said they believe academia offers incomparable advantages (or that it was their preferred choice for me), they also made it clear that their ultimate goal is that I find a productive and fulfilling career, and they were supportive and instrumental in my pursuit of alt-academic positions. Do your best to be forthcoming while remaining respectful and thoughtful toward the advice and feedback you receive. Also keep in mind that our hesitancy is sometimes rooted less in rejection from mentors and more in our own internalization of a culture that defines success as getting a faculty job.
Plan ahead and think strategically. Whatever your reasons for pursuing alt-academic jobs, don’t make the mistake of assuming it will be easy to get one, especially the one you really want. Maximizing your chances requires time, actively tailoring your graduate education, and (often) additional training beyond program requirements. Once you know what you’ll pursue, use these guidelines for how to prepare.
Don’t just dabble. Really cultivate skills, knowledge, and experience relevant for your target jobs. If strong quantitative skills are expected, instead of just taking a few extra classes, consider completing a minor, prelim, training program, or master’s degree in statistics. When attending conferences, joining professional associations, applying for awards, publishing, and developing your dissertation, writing samples, and job-talk presentation(s), make your activities relevant to non-academic organizations. Remember that skills that are desired but not required to get academic jobs—like the ability to communicate inter-disciplinarily or with practitioners and policymakers, work collaboratively, or balance multiple projects simultaneously—may be crucial to obtaining employment and succeeding in your ideal non-academic job.
Don’t just have it, show it. A potential employer won’t know you’re a great fit unless your application effectively communicates it. You could develop relevant skills through extensive extra coursework, but will your CV signal this as clearly as a minor or master’s degree would? And remember: while some non-academic organizations may prioritize publishing less than what’s typical in academia, many still rely on writing sample(s) and publication record to assess research skills.
Don’t be shy! Pursue contacts and mentors. Social networks are at least equally as important (maybe even more important) outside academia as within the academy. Networks not only help you access information and job leads but can also serve a vetting function in the hiring process. Make it a priority to set up informational meetings with non-academic organizations. Establish contacts locally, and make the most of research conferences—search programs and contact organizations to ask about popular conferences or whether anyone will be at those you’re attending. Pursue mentorship through summer or longer-term fellowships/internships, regularly offered at various non-academic organizations (and also great for gauging interest in an organization or career path).
 See point #1 in this guide to non-faculty job searching: http://chronicle.com/article/The-PhDs-Guide-to-a/143715/