If you are thinking about leaving academia — or maybe just having a bad day — you’ve probably heard variations on both of those lies from people trying to help you. Even worse, you might have assumed that if one of them isn’t true, then the other must be.
Of course, the sensible voice might say that obviously the truth lies in the middle, right? But if you’re talking with people inside academia about career options outside it, you might hear fewer sensible voices than you want. As a result, you’ll bounce around, careening from unrealistic expectations (“You could write for Rolling Stone!” more than one absurdly optimistic senior academic told me) to utter despair (“I’m sorry, but they’re probably going to give that job to a real editor,” said a mentor when I applied for a job whose qualifications, in retrospect, I matched extremely well).
It’s not because academics are bad at giving advice (though some are), it’s because the only advice they know how to give is for their own career path (and even then, their “inside” advice may be woefully outdated). For positions inside academe, your mentors can help you craft cover letters, look at your CV, or write letters of recommendation for you. But for jobs outside of higher education? They probably don’t even know their own transferable skills, so they won’t be much help in identifying yours.
But Ph.D.s do have transferable skills — even desirable ones! — beyond teaching and thinking deeply about one topic for an extended period of time. The first step to a successful move outside of academia is identifying your transferable skills. The second, more difficult task is figuring out how you might use those skills in a future career — one that you might actually enjoy. And the third, probably hardest, step is making those skills obvious to those who might hire you. This column is about the first of those three, with two more essays to follow. <Read more.>