Career planning and job Hunting for academics – A quest for a new life or a frustrating odyssey?
It is no secret that academia has become a more and more challenging career choice and the academic sector is far from the secure employer it was for some decades ago. Careers are shortening, competition over positions is intensifying, and the number of researchers who never appear as the first author of a publication is on the rise, according to a paper written by Milojević, Radicchi, and Walsh (2018). Whether you decide to play the game of academia or are on the lookout for a non-university job, you are facing the challenge of learning to package and market your skills and make some well-planned choices.
Staying in academia is a process that is not only related to your research skills and how much you are willing to work. It is also related to knowing the right people, having a strong network, and publishing in the right journals. Staying within academia takes a lot of effort and persistence in networking, continuously learning new skills, acquiring funding, publishing relevant papers in high-impact journals, and willingness to be flexible and jump between different disciplines. Working hard – in fact, living just for work – seems to be the default setting of many academics, but unfortunately, it is not the only key to making it in academia. If you don’t plan your career carefully and have a clear vision of your future, you risk ending up just playing your part in the academic machine, overburdened by teaching and never having any time to do research, for example. For the most part, academia does not prioritise the wellbeing and career prospects of individual staff members – you have to do it for yourself and seek peer support.
Academics often overemphasize the importance of pure research skills and topics in their career design and forget the crucial role of networking. The impact of social relationships also works the other way round. In the opinion of some prestigious academics that I have spoken to, the biggest hazard you would encounter in your academic career is not rejected papers or grant applications but ending up collaborating with people who don’t allow you to learn anything new. Thus, the biggest danger to avoid is ending up being surrounded by people who circulate academia in their personal nonsense generators – unable to even answer a simple question, for that matter. Moreover, early career researchers especially may face the challenge of a mentor who will not make any contribution to a co-written paper but will gladly take credit for work done by someone else to make sure they get a new publication on their CV. It takes a lot of courage to speak up and make this kind of malpractice open to discussion, and too often, PhD students are left alone with few options other than to accept their mentor signing off their work without contributing anything to it.
Seeking a Non-academic Job and How to Master the Transition to a Non-academic Career
The Covid-19 pandemic has tipped many universities over the edge in situations that were already challenging to begin with. Hiring freezes, research projects coming to a halt, and people from all disciplines and all levels of academia being let go is the current reality of academia worldwide. Many universities in the UK and Australia, for example, rely heavily on international students, and face a dramatic loss in enrolments due to the pandemic putting a stop to international travel.
A growing number of academics are facing a situation where they must jump into a non-academic career, and many of them are poorly prepared for this. For years, universities have already offered some services to prepare their PhD students for a life outside the academic ecosystem. However, more often than not, we are still talking about sporadic workshops and conference days where successful alumni are presenting their story of how they were able to make it outside the university. Too often these kinds of events give false signals about what it takes to create a non-academic career. It is too easy to make it sound like a PhD is essential to success gained outside academia, even if it is other skills and personal assets learned and developed on the job that matter. There is tremendous resistance within universities to admit that a PhD can be relevant for a career outside the university, while at the same time admitting that it does not guarantee you a job.
Quick industry skill workshops can of course be useful learning experiences, but they can also give the false impression that complex skills relevant to a specific industry or other non-academic job can be acquired quickly, complementary to your academic degree. Your PhD in literary studies does not make you a journalist even if you attended a one-day workshop in conducting interviews, and one course in Human Resources does not turn you into a recruitment specialist. When preparing your applications, put these courses into perspective and keep in mind that exaggeration does not give a good impression.
Non-academic employers will not be impressed by your degree per se; it is necessary to be more explicit about what skills you have and how you would approach different tasks on the job. Don’t operate on the assumption that whatever skills you have, they are specific to academia and could not be learned outside this sector. This is an insult to all the research conducted in the private sector and the third sector.
Instead of putting your degree first when job hunting, it is best to make your personality and your skillset the edge of your sword. Read up about the position you are applying for and also study what the competitors of the company or organisation are doing. Think carefully about what kind of skills and experience are needed to excel in the job and what kind of matches can be found between what you learned at university, both as a scholar and as a person, and the assets of an ideal candidate. Then, be as specific as possible in explaining what you can do and why it is relevant for the job you want. Practice how to explain about your academic work in as clear and down-to-earth language as possible and avoid jargon at all costs.
The university discourse often has a lot of emphasis on “transferable” or “soft skills”; skills that you can use both in academic jobs and outside them. Your academic experience, whether you are a fresh PhD degree holder or a seasoned professor, has provided you with a lot of multi-level skills as varied as being able to process a lot of information quickly, solve complex problems, write and speak in a clear and logical manner, handle criticism well, give presentations to demanding audiences, work in teams under time pressure, lead projects, and acquire funding. Often, the challenge is not the result of having failed to develop a lot of valuable personal and research-related skills in the academy, but the difficulty lies in putting these skills into words in a clear, jargon-free, and positive manner. Make these skills stand out in your application and CV and remember that the value of academia lies in how it has made you grow and use your personality in combination with your cognitive skills, not in the degree itself. In other words, make sure you don’t come across as thinking you know how to do things better simply because of your degree.
In addition, several more specific skills that can be learned both in academia and outside it might serve you very well in your job hunting if you remember to first acquire these skills and then highlight them in your CV. For example, programming, being able to use an online survey tool and analyse statistical data, as well as speaking a foreign language will be strengths in any job-search adventure. Make a list of both your more generic and specific skills and strengths, and tailor how you describe them based on which position you are applying for. Do this using fresh expressions instead of clichés and focus on active verbs rather than nouns only: “I enjoy writing on the topics of international law and data protection, and I can express myself fluently in Swedish and English both to academic and non-academic audiences” rather than “I have good written communication skills.”
Even if it feels like an Odyssey, make it sound like an adventure – and believe in it!
In moving from academia to industry jobs, ensure that you are not framing this transition in a negative way, for example “dropping out of academia”. Any underlying resentment or disappointment with academia will show in the way you write your applications and come across as a negative attitude in interviews. Make it crystal clear to yourself the good things that academia has brought to you as a professional and as a person, and emphasise the positive sides of the situation – even if you feel that you have been forced to leave academia.
The transition might not be easy and may take time, but allow a new professional identity to develop and flourish by framing it as a new phase in life, not as a Plan B coming to action because “academia didn’t work out”. Sometimes we are too attached to idealistic dream careers that don’t exist outside our imagination, and just letting go of some of these might open up a lot of mental space to see new possibilities. Too often we imagine there are only one or two different paths life can take; in addition to your Plan A and Plan B there could also be the wild card or the joker in the pack, and multiple combinations of these different approaches are possible.
You don’t need to know what you will do for the rest of your life when making a career change – in fact, you can’t know for certain, even if you want to. Sometimes planning life one year ahead is the best you can do, and more chances will turn up along your path as you go on.
Milojević, S., Radicchi, F., & Walsh, J.P. (2018). Changing demographics of scientific careers: The rise of the temporary workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (50), 12616–12623. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1800478115
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