The Duck of Minerva

How I Found a Job Outside of Academia

8 April 2022

I hold a PhD in history from the University of Virginia. Like many graduate students, I began my doctoral program hoping to become a professor. But as I finished my degree and began my postdoc, a few things became clear.

First, the humanities job market was (and is) abysmal. The best case scenario would send me to a small town, far from friends and family. The worst case scenario would see me peripatetic, moving every year for underpaid adjunct positions.

Second, my dissertation was on gender, race, and politics in nineteenth century America. Donald Trump’s election made it clear that the dynamics I researched and wrote about were still in play. I wanted to combat those tendencies in American politics. Becoming professor was far from the most effective way to do that.

Third, I wanted to make more money.

I soon realized that neither my university’s career services nor my professors were prepared to assist me in my search for an “alt-ac” job, Here, then, is the advice that I wish I had four years ago. With the caveat that I am a straight white woman from a middle-class family – with all the privilege that entails – I want to share what worked for me in my job hunt and what I wish I had done differently.

How I found my job

Step 1. Discerning what kind of work I wanted to do. This meant asking myself three questions:

What did I care about? Yes, I care about nineteenth century history. But more broadly, studying history attuned me to how politicians still wield gender and race to make arguments and seize power today. Given the current political environment, I wanted to help advance women’s rights.

What brought me joy in academia? I really liked research, writing, and constructing arguments.

What would I want to change for a future job? I wanted a wider audience for my work. I wanted it to affect modern politics – and for each project take maybe one year instead of six.

These three questions helped me focus my search on women’s rights work, whether domestic or international.

Step 2. Informational interviews. Deciding that I wanted to do “women’s rights work” was a good start, but I didn’t really know what that entailed. I fixed this by going on many, many informational interviews.

I found people to interview in a variety of ways. I contacted friends of friends. I sent out cold emails. I made use of LinkedIn. The AHA Career Contacts program connects historians with recent PhDs working outside the academy. Your university likely has an alumni contact network that can be filtered by field.

I asked the people I interviewed the following questions:

  • What do you do?
  • What is your day-to-day like?
  • What do you like and dislike about your job?
  • What hard and soft skills are required in your line of work?
  • How did you get your job? What advice would you give to someone who is looking for a job like yours?
  • Can you connect me with anyone else in your field? (This last question is crucial: it helps you turn one contact into a whole tree of interviews in a particular industry.)

Write each person you interview a thank-you email. If they offer to put you in touch with someone, make it easy for them: send a second email with a blurb about yourself and an attached resume for them to forward onto their contact.

None of my informational interviews turned directly into a job offer. But they helped me find out about open jobs and contract work that couldn’t be found online. More importantly, they helped me figure out what specific field I wanted to enter: gender research at a think tank or advocacy organization.

Step 3. Convert your academic CV into an industry-specific resume. Academic CVs list everything you’ve ever done, in chronological order. Resumes, on the other hand, highlight experience that’s relevant to a particular field.

The standard resume sections are Employment History, Education, Skills, and Honors and Awards. The whole resume should be one to two pages long.

My resume for research-and-advocacy jobs included: Qualifications (a two-sentence summary), Education, Research Experience, Political and Non-Profit Volunteer Experience, and Selected Talks, and Publications.

Regardless of the precise subcategories you use, you want to tailor the resume to the job description, playing up experience that aligns with the job. (This is very similar to the way you tailored your project description for each grant application in graduate school.) Check Imagine PhD for resources on CV-to-resume conversion.

Step 4. Use LinkedIn. Update your LinkedIn! Fill out all the sections you can. Then add everyone you know. (You can even add me!) I found LinkedIn useful not so much for who I was connected to, but for who they were connected to. I reached out to second- and third-degree connections to learn more about organizations and open positions I’d seen online.

Step 5. Apply to everything!. The lengthy job applications required for academic positions force you to apply selectively. But outside of academia, applications are much shorter – a one-page cover letter and a resume. This makes it even easier to apply expansively. As soon as you see something interesting, write a cover letter, edit your resume, check LinkedIn to see if you have any connections at the org, and send it off.

Don’t wait to hear back from your two or three top picks before applying for more positions. I didn’t get any offers for about six months. I then received a number of interviews and offers in just a couple of weeks. Just keep applying!

Step 6. Negotiate your salary. In academia, horror stories abound about people whose job offers were rescinded when they tried to negotiate their salaries. Outside of academia, negotiation is expected.

I used the American Association of University Women’s online Work Smart salary negotiation training to get a $20,000 bump in salary. I recommend it to everyone to help build the confidence and language you need to communicate your worth. Plus, your future raises will be calculated as a percentage of your base salary, so negotiation helps now and down the line.

What I wish I had known

Start your search early. I wish I had done everything I have described above about three years earlier. Doing so would have made the alt-ac job hunt less frenzied. It also would have taken some of the pressure off of my academic job search. Academia would’ve become one of many viable career options.

Acquire hard skills while in grad school. Starting the job hunt earlier would have also given me time to acquire the intellectual and practical tools required by my new field. As a historian, I had honed my skills in research design, analysis, writing, critical thinking, project management, and so on. But I lacked the one hard skill – statistical analysis using SPSS or STATA – that hiring managers look for. I did take a course after I started work. But the job hunt would have been easier if I had acquired that skill while I still had access to undergraduate courses and software licenses at the University of Virginia.

So look at job ads in the field you’re interested in, see what skills they are asking for, and find a way to acquire and demonstrate those skills (through a course, a project, an internship, or a part-time or contract position) before you start applying for full-time work.

You can still publish your book. Leaving academia doesn’t mean you can’t publish your book. I worked early mornings and weekends to revise my manuscript for publication with the University of North Carolina Press (The Democratic Collapse: How Gender Politics Broke a Party and a Nation due out this fall!). Finding the time to do this is care obligation-dependent, a fact of which I am intimately aware. But my editor didn’t look askance at my job outside of the academy.

Everyone’s personal and professional background and circumstances are different – I can only speak to what worked for me. All the same, I hope sharing what I learned will help other academics bridge the gap between work in the academy and outside of it.