If you’re in the middle of making a career change into a non-academic job and are having a hard time, don’t feel alone.
Transitioning into a new-to-you industry when you have little direct experience can feel like scaling Mount Kilimanjaro. It is not fun and you will want to give up on the way.
But it is possible. I have talked in the past about how I went from being an adjunct professor to working as a medical communications professional.
Making a similar shift is possible for you too. In this post, I will outline 7 tools to help you get there.
1. You’ll need a mindset shift.
I know you didn’t come here to get a motivational talk from me, but making a career change when you have no direct experience in that particular role does involve you making a mindset shift.
It could be something as simple as learning that an academic CV is very different from the resume you need to create for most non-academic jobs.
It could be learning and accepting that while publications make you look like a hero in academia unless your work will involve publishing or some form of academic writing, most non-academic hiring managers will not be impressed by those papers. And even if they are, it may not be a factor that impacts the final decision to hire you.
One of the most humbling things I learned on the journey to a non-academic career was that sometimes, the fact that I had a PhD didn’t matter.
It may look different for you. But, you will likely make several mindset shifts on this journey.
2. Highlight your skills more than your accomplishments.
From my experience, and from talking with other PhDs who have made this switch, I’ve found that employers are more interested in what you can do and how you can contribute to their organization’s goals. While academic achievements are undoubtedly impressive, they are not the sole determinant of success in a professional setting. This is why you will hear almost everyone who has moved into a non-academic role say that employers emphasize skills like communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration.
Beyond these skills that so many of us pick up in our Ph.D. programs, it is important to highlight specific technical skills you may have.
If you got your Ph.D. in the life or biomedical sciences, then you might be familiar with lab tools such as flow cytometry, ELISA, PCR, and cell culture. Instead of burying these skills in the descriptions of your resume, make sure you are highlighting them especially if the kinds of jobs you are looking for call out these skills. The way you can do this is to perhaps describe how you used a specific tool in answering a research question.
Even if your PhD is not in the life or biomedical sciences, you can apply this principle. Is there a research methodology you used in your PhD work? As you are reading job descriptions, are they describing those skills? If they are, frame your skills in that context as you apply for those jobs.
3. Talk to people who have the jobs you’re interested in.
You can learn a lot in 15-20 minute informational interviews with people who have the kinds of jobs you are interested in.
I’ve had people who have reached out to me on LinkedIn to ask if they could talk to me about my career. I’ve honored a number of those requests and those people have always told me the conversations were helpful. If you’re not on LinkedIn, this might be your cue to sign up for an account.
Once you do, you can begin to connect with people in the professions you’d like to get into.
Alternatively, you could tap into your alumni network and do the same thing.
Consider these informational interviews as research that will allow you to gather insights and help you communicate in your resume and your application materials how you’re a great fit for this kind of role.
4. Craft a strategic resume.
I wrote a step-by-step post on tailoring your resume for your non-academic job search. Click here to read that post.
Essentially, you don’t want to throw just any ole’ resume around and “see what works.” A whole lot of nothing will work if you do that! Spend time reading job descriptions and think about how your skills and job experiences fit into those job descriptions you’re reading. Then craft a resume that will increase your chances of getting an interview.
5. Sometimes, you MUST get some experience.
Yes, you are smart.
Yes, you have a PhD.
And yes, you have many transferrable/translatable skills.
But sometimes, the only way to convince people that you can do the job they need you to do is to show them experience.
To be honest, it doesn’t matter how you get this experience. I’ve talked in the past about how I leveraged my experience in freelance writing to get into my first science writer role. Without it, it would have been ten times harder to break in.
So, maybe you freelance. Or perhaps you intern for a few weeks. Or maybe you shadow someone. This will require some creativity on your part.
I acknowledge that finding and getting hands-on experience is not always easy. However, if you manage even a few months of experience through a freelance project or an internship, you can set yourself up for success.
6. Create a portfolio
This is not possible in some instances. But in my case, I was a freelance writer and so creating a portfolio was easy.
You can do something similar in your case. It communicates initiative and shows future employers what you can do.
7. Making a non-academic career change: a warning and an encouragement.
If you are trying to break into a new-to-you industry, you’ll likely get ignored.
But persistence pays. Don’t give up.
✨ Keep applying.
✨ Keep learning.
✨ Don’t stop networking.
✨ Build your portfolio.
✨ Follow up on your applications.
It’s hard to beat a persistent person. Remembering this as you make a non-academic career change will help you weather storms better.
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