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Learning about Alt-Ac opportunities (aka how to get started)
Dec 26, 2022
Ok, so you’ve decided you want to explore non-academic jobs, but you don’t know what options are out there and you don’t know how to begin prepping. This post is an attempt to spell out some of the steps you’ll need to go through. This is part 1 in a two-part series. I’ll cover learning steps first, and the next post Prepping for Alt-Ac jobs (aka taking action) will discuss actions you can take.
Getting started part 1: understand the diversity of paths
It can be daunting to start pivoting to a non-academic career. Most academics share the experience of having been trained to stay on the academic path, and many are explicitly or implicitly taught that anything else is failure or quitting. Putting aside the many fallacies that lead to this belief, there is one thing to be said for the academic path: it’s very clear — your goal is to obtain that coveted tenure-track assistant professor position, and once you have it your goal is to get tenured, i.e. become an associate professor, and maybe one day, a full professor.1 It’s clear how what you’ve done in grad school and as a precariously employed academic constitute relevant experience for the job, and your advisors have direct knowledge that can help you identify the jobs and apply for them.
Not so once you start looking outside this narrow path. It can be hard to see how your skills are relevant to other jobs (although they absolutely are!). It can be hard to even know what jobs are available, what they’re called, or where to look for them. Your advisors can’t help you because they simply don’t know and don’t have the experience. Maybe you’re even afraid to ask, worried that they’ll think less of you or stop investing time in advising you. So there is a great deal that you’ll have to research and teach yourself.
Read some of my other posts:
- Transferable skills (and how to talk about them)
- Job titles and job descriptions for social scientists
Getting started part 2: understand yourself
An ideal job would sit at the intersection of:
- Things that you are good at,
- Things that you enjoy doing, and
- Things that the market needs and compensates for.
What do you enjoy doing?
Spelling these things out can be a prolonged process of self-exploration. Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you want a job where you have a lot of meetings and collaborations or where you mostly work on your own?
- Do you want to go deep into one topic or engage with a lot of topics in less detail?
- Do you enjoy your research? What about it is enjoyable – is it identifying resources, or building the early proposal that gets you close to the solution, or trouble-shooting/identifying holes in an early proposal, or doing the right statistical analysis, or producing the graphs and other visualization, or writing the project up, or presenting it, …?
- Do you enjoy science communication? If so, what parts? Is it writing long-form papers, or making posters or slides, or writing blog posts, or answering questions in forums or groups or other informal venues, or working with large/small groups, or teaching one-time workshops, …?
- Do you enjoy teaching? In academia teaching isn’t always the most valued part of the job, but if you enjoy it, maybe consider making that a part of your new career. What part(s) of teaching do you enjoy? Is it making teaching materials, deciding on the curriculum, standing in front of a classroom, working in small groups or large, doing hands-on activities, giving office hours, focusing on the right assessment tools, or providing good feedback, …?
- Do you enjoy organizing things? Again, this type of service may not be appreciated in academia but there are whole jobs that revolve around making sure things are working smoothly. Do you enjoy coordinating the work of multiple individuals, or finding new resources, or administering budgets, or hiring people, or finding the right tool for the job, or making connections across parts of your organization that don’t always speak to each other?
- Do you want to work on the ideation and early design of a product, on implementing someone else’s design, on testing a product with customers, on selling it, on researching market reception, or communicating about it, …?
- Do you enjoy designing things? both in terms of process and in terms of visual impact?
That is, it’s useful to recognize that the three main components of an academic life — research, teaching, and service — really break down into many smaller pieces. When you say you enjoy “research”, for example, what about it is actually fun and what is just the stuff that comes along with it? There will be jobs that cater to any particular part of your interests that minimize the stuff you enjoy less.
What skills are you particularly good at?
To identify particular skills that you enjoy and are good at more directly, if the questions above are still too vague or hard for you to think through, there are various tests online that can help you identify skills more explicitly. Google one that works for you, go to your university’s career center for resources, or consider coaching or other outside help if necessary.
I frequently get asked, do you have to know how to code in order to get a job in tech? The true answer is it depends! If you want to be a software engineer, then yes, you’ll have to code. But there are plenty of jobs that require minimal or no coding experience. Even if you can code, if you don’t enjoy it, a coding-heavy job is probably not for you. What is true, though, is that more jobs will be open to you if you can code at least a little bit, and that often more technical jobs are better compensated than those that do not require technical skills. I say a bit more about this in my next post.
What are your values and preferences?
This is also a good time to think about your values and preferences. For example:
- Are there types of companies, industries, or jobs you wouldn’t want to do? Some common examples may include working for the government in certain capacities or working for certain companies whose products you may not support.
- Are there locations you do/don’t want to live in?
- Are there other properties of the team or company you join that are deal-breakers? For example concerning the diversity of the leadership, whether it’s privately owned or public, characteristics or work style of your manager, types of work you wouldn’t do in any situation, etc.
Finally, you should also ask yourself: do you want a job that is related to your academic field of studies? That’s not necessarily a given, and even if you say yes, there are different levels of engagement with the topic that might work for you. For a linguist, do you care if the product you work on is language-related, or that the job itself is language-related (those are not the same!)? Do you want to engage with language data directly or would you be happy doing more of a higher-level analysis where you don’t usually engage with the raw data itself?
Learn about different jobs and industries
What kind of job is right for you?
There are various materials out there that can help you identify types of jobs, including guides and interview series. You could start with this post by Khia Johnson provides a collection of links to get started, or with my post on job titles and job descriptions for social scientists. I’d also recommend browsing Superlinguo’s Linguist Job Interviews, which presents a variety of jobs.
The process of learning about different types of jobs can also help you answer some of the questions above. When you read about people’s descriptions of their jobs, are there parts that you relate to more? Which parts stand out repeatedly in different posts? Those are probably worth exploring more.
What size company is right for you?
This is also a time to consider what type of employer you’d want to work for (and what type you would not!). Consider roughly four options:
- Start-up/small company — companies that have a very small number of employees (think several dozen). Job responsibilities are not well defined, so you’ll have more flexibility, but there’s probably less support if you get stuck. There may be fewer established processes in place (think small/no HR, for example). On the practical side, startups may pay less and be less inclined to support visas. But if you get in early and you believe in the product, if the company succeeds you may leave with a lot of reward in the form of actualized stock options, connections, and unique experiences.
- Mid-sized company — companies with a few dozen to a thousand employees, say. Such companies may have a few locations and may have been around for a bit longer. They’re maybe not actively in a money raising phase, but rather have a stable product they produce. These companies will have less of a hierarchical structure, but still there are established teams and administrative processes and some documented knowledge. There could be interesting options for career growth here; a lot will depend on the individuals around you. I might also group some NGOs and non-profits under this category.
- The giants — tech giants, financial institutions, large pharma companies, and the like. These are global companies with multiple offices worldwide and thousands and employees. They tend to be very stable and have established admin processes. They may be the most likely to support a visa application if you are international. Your role will often be very well defined, and there will likely be a decent level of structure and hierarchy. I might also add government and academic institutions here, although they’re not global, they can be large and very stable and hierarchical in a similar way.
- Work for yourself — there is always also the option of starting your own company or working as a consultant/contractor/freelance. This may be hard to do as a first job, but keep in mind that this is an option that may suit your personality and priorities down the line, once you’ve made the transition out of academia and gained a bit of experience.
Conduct informational interviews
I’ve written about informational interviews in a different post. They are useful for getting additional details about potential career paths and to start building a network.
How do you find people to interview? One of two ways: you can start from people you know. Maybe recent alums from your program, or friends you met elsewhere. If you can find someone who has a similar background to yours or someone who knows you well, you may be able to get targeted advice that will help you identify types of jobs and translate your experience into the language hiring managers speak. Or start from jobs of (potential) interest. Find people who work in these jobs on LinkedIn or on social media, and pay attention to their profile. There are quite a few people out there who explicitly offer up their time to help others in your situation.
If cold-emailing someone doesn’t sound appealing, consider events that lend themselves to making these early connections. There are meetups in a lot of locations. The LSA Linguistics Beyond Academia special interest group runs events every Annual Meeting and at various other times of year, and participants will usually be open to speaking to academics who need their help. Your department may organize similar events, or maybe you should think about organizing one yourself.
Learn the terminology
Once you have some (vague) sense of what types of jobs might be of interest, it will be important that you learn the terminology used in those jobs. This will be a crucial step toward translating your academic experience into resume bullet points that will catch a hiring manager’s eye. How should you do this?
- Read LinkedIn profiles of people with similar jobs and pay attention to how they describe their experience
- Read job ads and identify terms that repeat
- Read blog posts about the relevant field
- Read my terminology post
- Browse the many resources on the Linguistics Career Launch website.
- When you conduct informational interviews, pay attention to terms that aren’t familiar to you. Make a note and ask your interviewee what they mean.
There is a bit of a learning curve here, mostly in adjusting how you think about your existing experience and how you talk about it. But, we’re linguists, after all. Studying various ways people express themselves is what we do! Use your linguistics superpowers to help you through this part of the process.
Replace this with lecturer and senior lecturer in the UK or similar titles in other locations: there is always a clear job title and expected path of career progression, ignoring for a moment the possibility of taking on administrative roles. ↩