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Three hard truths I learned before moving to a non-academic career

Written by: Janelle Ward
Published on: 17 Jun 2021

Follow the yellow brick road. For those who want to transition out of academia, it's useful to learn some home truths first

Source: iStock

Academics are leaving the ivory tower in droves, disappointed by a career defined by survivability and determined to find a new professional home that will embrace their skill set. The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend: a 2020 survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Fidelity Investments found that 35 per cent of tenured faculty are considering leaving higher education to pursue a different career. The motivation is there, but many academics seem unprepared for what it takes to achieve a successful career transition. I know this because I was recently one of them.

I spent 10 years working as a faculty member at Erasmus University Rotterdam before transitioning to a career in UX (user experience) research in 2019. Since then, I’ve mentored dozens of PhD holders, postdocs and professors who want to leave academia for industry. Listening to others and going through my own transition, I’ve identified three hard truths that academics need to hear before they can successfully begin a new career:

Academia is a ‘known unknown’ to those outside of it
When I began networking with those in non-academic industries, I knew the vast majority would have a degree. The difference between us? I stayed in the academic environment, eventually earning a PhD. I was one of those super nerds who loved the university experience so much that I opted to triple my time on the inside.

But those who leave after their student years have a different perspective on academic life. I had a corporate recruiter ask me why I would leave such a cushy job, after he reminisced about how his professors would teach a class and then disappear, only to appear again for one weekly office hour.

Known unknowns are things we are aware of but don’t understand. A lot of people power through university as a means to an end. Staying in academia, in what some say is a cult, can be hard to comprehend. To compound this, Strada-Gallup consumer data from 2019 show that of working US adults, only 26 per cent strongly agree that their college education is relevant to their work and day-to-day life. Keep this in mind when relying on your advanced degrees to open doors.

When tackling a career transition, it is your task to translate others’ impressions of your academic work environment to its reality. We know that reality was a lot of intense, dedicated labour, chock-full of transferrable skills. We need them to know it, too.

Exude confidence not cockiness when mentioning your degree
In academia, you get a seat at the table by earning a PhD. It’s a huge, impressive accomplishment, and those of us who have a PhD – or are working to earn one – respect it. Outside of academic circles, it represents something different.

Recruiters, hiring managers and future co-workers might be impressed with your PhD, but it will not open doors the way it does in academia. Your new manager probably doesn’t have a PhD, and she’s higher on the food chain because her experience is more valued than a doctorate. That’s the reality when you enter a new work environment: relevant experience counts for more than education.

What this comes down to is practical self-presentation advice. Your relevant work experience, and not your degrees, should be front and centre on a CV. Use the PhD title after your name at your discretion, but keep in mind that translating what that degree and subsequent work experience adds to your new career is crucial.

Your cover letter should not be all about you, the work you did to earn your doctorate and the logic behind your transition out of academia. It should be about why you are the best fit for the job to which you are applying. Humbling yourself in such a way is also vital to embracing point three.

Learning new terminology is essential, but so is translating previous experience
Part of changing careers is learning what can seem like a foreign language. Jargon-heavy professions are everywhere. Expressing your experience in industry terminology means that you’re speaking the same language as your hiring manager and your future team.

As a hiring manager, I’ve read job applications from those who simply attached their academic CVs. I even had one candidate who uploaded a copy of a recent journal article he had published as a motivational letter. When you apply for a job, you need to answer the question: why this company? If you’re coming from academia, you also have to address: why this industry? And the strongest answer is provided in the language they speak.  

This starts with transforming your CV. I spent weeks translating my 10-page academic CV into a concise document. It was a painful experience. I had to take a deep breath and convert pages of publication details into one tidy number. Then I had to determine which parts of my experience were relevant for the job I wanted and express the impact those projects had − in the language of my new field.

Embracing these three truths means being empathetic to your new audience, whether it’s potential colleagues, recruiters or hiring managers. Remember, you’re the one who wants to make the transition, so the burden falls on you to do the work of closing the gap between what you were and what you want to become. It took me 18 months of hard work before I landed my first non-academic job. The transition took time and learning these truths along the way has made me – and can help you become – a more pragmatic professional.

Janelle Ward’s first career was in academia, as an assistant professor in media and communication. After 10 years in academia, she transitioned into UX research and has worked as a lead researcher and manager in digital product companies.