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Learning about Alt-Ac opportunities (aka how to get started)

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:

Getting started part 2: understand yourself

An ideal job would sit at the intersection of:

What do you enjoy doing?

Spelling these things out can be a prolonged process of self-exploration. Some questions to ask yourself:

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:

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:

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?

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.


  1. 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.