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A guided self-reflection for getting started with Alt-Ac jobs
Feb 27, 2023
This post operationalizes the questions and discussion topics I introduced in my previous post on getting started with alt-ac jobs. As I laid out in my post on job titles and job descriptions for social scientists, there are lots of types of careers open to former academics, which make use of the many varied skills we develop through our degree programs. However, it can still be difficult to identify the types of jobs and skills that we want to engage with in a non-academic career.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, 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.
There are some other things you’ll want to consider, as well, and I’ll try to spell them out here.
Consider your likes and dislikes about academia
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. There are also various pieces that academics implicitly do but aren’t even officially counted among those three components. So, for example, when you say you enjoy “research”, 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. More specifically:
Do you enjoy your research? What about it is enjoyable? (By the way, it’s also ok if your don’t like research at all!)
- Do you enjoy formulating the general research question?
- Do you enjoy breaking down the main question into operationlizable sub-questions?
- Do you enjoy identifying resources to support hypothesis building and data collection?
- Do you enjoy planning timelines, identifying resources, establishing collaborations, etc?
- Do you enjoy engaging in data collection?
- Do you enjoy data collection specifically in the field, in the lab, in archives or printed texts, or using some other resource?
- Do you enjoy teaching yourself new tools, or do you like learning in an organized setting?
- Do you enjoy coming up with vague early proposals that can guide early hypothesis building?
- Do you enjoy trouble-shooting/identifying holes in early proposals?
- Do you enjoy identifying the right analysis for your data?
- Do you enjoy implementing the analysis?
- Do you enjoy producing the graphs and other visualization for your work?
- Do you enjoy writing the project up?
- Do you enjoy presenting results?
- Do you enjoy science communication? If so, what parts?
- Do you enjoy writing long-form papers?
- Do you enjoy making posters or slides?
- Do you enjoy writing blog posts or tweets?
- Do you enjoy editing your own or others’ writing?
- Do you enjoy answering questions in forums or groups or other informal venues?
- Do you enjoy working with large/small groups, or teaching one-time workshops on your research?
- Do you enjoy teaching? Although teaching isn’t always the most valued part of the job in academia, if you enjoy it, maybe consider making it part of your new career. What part(s) of teaching do you enjoy?
- Do you enjoy designing the curriculum for a class?
- Do you enjoy making teaching materials?
- Do you enjoy standing in front of a classroom?
- Do you enjoy giving office hours?
- Do you enjoy developing the right assessment tools?
- Do you enjoy providing good feedback?
- Do you enjoy grading exams or papers?
- Do you enjoy doing hands-on activities?
- Do you enjoy facilitating discussions?
- Do you enjoy working in small groups or large ones?
- Do you enjoy teaching introductory materials and first introducing participants to something new, or teaching advanced materials?
- 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?
- Do you enjoy identifying resources needed for your job through connections or innovation?
- Do you enjoy administering budgets?
- Do you enjoy hiring people and building teams?
- Do you enjoy making connections across parts of your organization that don’t always speak to each other?
- Do you enjoy organizing events along their various dimensions – identifying the need, the format, the speakers, the audience, the budget, the time and location, etc.?
- Are there other skills you are good at and that you enjoy that may not fall into the above categories but that you can nonetheless identify?
- Do you like coding?
- Do you like statistics, data analysis, data visualization, hypothesis testing, and similar?
- Do you like writing?
- Do you like designing things, including anything from webpages to products to new recipes?
- Do you like making things, including anything from sewing patterns to comics to cakes?
- Do you like building up and supporting the work of others?
- Do you like planning things or do you prefer to be told what to do?
- Do you like to be creative? (In what ways?)
Since this is just for you, I hope that you can be honest with yourself. I’ve broken “research” down into a dozen or so pieces, and there are probably more; the same goes for the other categories. I assume you don’t enjoy all parts the same, and that’s not only okay but expected. For example, not everyone likes having to come up with new ideas all the time, but they’re really good at pursuing the details of a vague idea someone else has proposed in passing. Some people like identifying the right statistical analysis for their data but really don’t like implementing it (and vice versa). Some people really enjoy making pretty graphs, and others couldn’t care less. Some people enjoy writing, others prefer editing other people’s writing, and yet others don’t enjoy any part of putting a project into words. This is all fine! The question is really about what is right for you: what are you good at, and what do you enjoy?
Of the things that you enjoy from the list above, are there any that stick out as more important? Any that you wouldn’t want to do without? Are there things that you don’t enjoy and definitely want to stay away from? Are any themes emerging?
Consider your preferences for a new job and career
There are various other factors you could consider at this point, to help narrow down your search space. Within a job:
- How important is it to you that your job engage directly with your research topic? E.g. for linguists:
- Do you want to work with language data?
- Do you want to work on a language product even if your day-to-day doesn’t touch language data too much?
- Does it matter that the language or data types be the same the ones you worked on as an academic?
- Would you be happy if you used similar research methods as in your current research, but applied to very different types of data or problems?
- 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 have thoughts about what stage of a project you’d want to work on?
- Do you want to work on the ideation and early design of a product,
- Do you want to focus on implementing someone else’s design?
- Do you want to test a product with customers?
- Do you want to focus on sales and researching market reception?
- Do you want to think about communicating or advertising a product?
- Or do you actually prefer being involved in mulitple stages of a project, from beginning to end?
- Do you prefer to work on an existing, established product or be involved in early R&D?
- Do you enjoy designing things? both in terms of process and in terms of visual impact?
- How important would it be that the job have clear, established responsibilities, documentation, and support to get your started? Would you be comfortable landing in a team with less structure where you’d have to be independent and teach yourself things more quickly?
At a higher level:
- Do you prefer a particular company size over others?
- Do you prefer a particular industry or sector – e.g. the government, non-profits, (higher) education, tech (FinTech, AdTech, EdTech, MedTech, etc.), advertising and marketing, etc?
- Do you prefer a part-time or full-time job?
- Do you want to be self-employed (a contractor or consultant) or salaried?
- What is your preferred/minimum acceptable compensation? (I realize this may be hard to know without a bit of research, but you should know this before you start applying — so you don’t pigeon-hole yourself into lower-paying jobs, and so you don’t give a lower range to a recruiter than you should)
Consider your values (or: your “no-list”)
- Are there companies or industries that you would not want to work for?
- Are there specific job responsibilities you would not want to perform?
- Are there locations you would not want to live in?
- Are there properties of the team or company you want to insist on – such as diverse team structure or leadership?
Consider work-life balance
- Do you want to work on-site or from home or in a hybrid situation? How much does this matter to you?
- What is the minimum amount of PTO you’d be willing to take? Could you work for a company with a culture that doesn’t support employees taking too much vacation?
- How much do you value the ability to learn within the company, e.g. through explicit studies or internal mentorship at the company? (You could also just learn on your own, or feel like further education isn’t currently a priority at all)
- How much do you value having flexibility in actual work hours?
- How much do you value the ability to grow and be promoted within your role? (for example, maybe you just want a job to learn some skills or draw a salary, and promotion doesn’t matter right now – you can always take a job at another company or team later)
- Are there other specific accommodations that you would need the company to provide?
Consider your circumstances
Things aren’t always set up so you can just pursue your ideal career or job immediately (or ever). There may be other considerations you need to take into account.
- What is your immigration status? Do you need visa sponsorship?
- What location(s) are you prepared to work in?
- Can you move for a new job at all?
- What is the minimum salary you are able to take? What is your goal salary?
Needing a visa will limit some options — not every company will sponsor a visa. Larger companies are more likely to provide sponsorship, but it’ll be something to ask about very early so you don’t waste your time with an interview process that can’t lead to an offer. Likewise if you would like to have green card sponsorship, that’s a conversation to have with the company very early.
Being open to working in more diverse locations and being able to move for a job will give you more options, too, for obvious reasons. If that is not possible or preferable for you, it may mean that you’ll have to be more flexible in other areas, such as the precise job description or the compensation, and you will likely want to allow yourself more time to search.
Likewise, you may have obligations such as student loan debt or the costs of caring for others that place limits on the salary you need to draw as a minimum. You may have needs relating to medical circumstances or specific health insurance needs that take precedence over other considerations. There may well be other considerations in your life outside all of the above that matter more. This may mean you will end up taking a job in an industry that isn’t something you’d otherwise choose, but, well, pays the bills. Being realistic about what you can do, in addition to what you want, is obviously important. Sometimes all you can do is get by, and you can leave the more idealistic planning for another time.
Overall, I hope that this long list of questions can help you identify must-haves and nice-to-haves, and generally help you narrow down and focus your thinking. There will probably be some (hopefully small) set of things you can absolutely not do without, and perhaps some clarity on what specific things you like about your current job/career/life. With this early set of thoughts, you should be able to go on to thinking about specific skills you have or that you want to develop more, and consider how they translate into jobs and titles in various industries outside academia. You should then be able to take some concrete steps like doing informational interviews and writing your resume.