Networking, Soul Searching, and Alternative Careers

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk to a group of local postdoctoral fellows about how to prepare for a non-academic job search. This sort of career is commonly called “an alternative career” in academia, despite the fact that by sheer numbers, academia is the alternative.

The talk was part of a larger series of seminars with advice for people looking at alternative careers, so I did not delve into the details of writing resumes and cover letters or going to job interviews. I focused solely on the work that happens before you send out any resumes. There is a lot of preparatory work for a non-academic job search. You need to change your mindset from an academic one to one more suited for your post-academic career. You need to explore the options out there and figure out what you actually want to do. And you need to do some networking. OK, lots and lots of networking.

I don’t want to recapitulate the entire talk here. Perhaps I’ll eventually share the slides, but the talk included a lot of explanation that is not on the slides and so I haven’t done that yet. A large portion of what I discussed is covered in my short book about non-academic job searches, Navigating the Path to Industry. I may write up some of the material that is not already in the book in future blog posts.

The talk went well. I had fun, I got some great questions during and after the talk, and I’ve already had one follow up informational interview with one of the attendees who wanted more information. I recently received the feedback surveys on the talk, and they largely confirmed that the talk did indeed go well and that people found it useful.

There were a couple of things in the surveys that I want to discuss further, though.

The first is the fact that a large proportion  of attendees listed the importance of networking as something that they learned that they hadn’t known before the talk. I’m glad I got that message across, but I am a bit dismayed that it was a surprise. It was so much of a surprise that one person’s feedback on what they didn’t like about the talk was that I didn’t give any alternative methods for finding a career in industry.

I didn’t give any alternative methods because I don’t know of any alternative methods, beyond exceptional good luck. In fact, I consider myself to have had some exceptional good luck in the timing of my exit with a PhD and the fact that I had done some work that was relevant to the then booming field of bioinformatics. Despite this extraordinary good luck, I still got my first job via networking. I served on a committee with a recruiter who was trying to fill the position, and she convinced me to apply. If I had not been on that committee, I almost certainly would never have heard about that job, which was at a very small start up company on the other side of the country. Even if I had stumbled across it and applied, I am not sure my application would have been as successful without the recruiter vouching for me.

So, to anyone out there who has not yet heard: if you want to land a job outside of academia in one of those “alternative careers” you keep hearing about, networking is basically a requirement.

I know that networking is an intimidating thing to do. I discuss some ways to overcome that in Navigating the Path to Industry. An interaction with one of the people who attended the talk showed me another facet that I had not previously considered. She found the thought of attending a large networking event intimidating, but had no problem sending emails to virtual strangers and following up with one-on-one conversations. This is exactly what you have to do to get informational interviews, and informational interviews are among the best forms of networking out there for people who are changing careers (and leaving academia for industry is essentially a career change, even if you stay in research). Once I explained that to her, the importance of networking was less intimidating to her.

The second piece of feedback I want to discuss came from only one person, but is representative of what I suspect is a common misconception about job searching. The feedback was that it was “charming” that I  included so much information about how to figure out what sort of career you want, but that the fact is that postdocs these days don’t have the “luxury” of thinking about that and will simply have to take what they can get.

This is so terribly misguided that if I ever give this talk again, I will include a slide that addresses this concern directly.

It is indeed true that the market is tight right now, and even downright grim in some fields. In that sense, it is true that job seekers cannot afford to be too picky.

However, if you go into a job search with a “I’ll take whatever I can get” attitude, you are unlikely to get many good options, unless you are a master actor or actress, capable of hiding this attitude from the people you meet while networking and anyone who contacts you for an interview.

I see a three reasons for this.

1. You might miss less well-known options that are great fits for your skills and interests. One of the benefits of spending some time investigating possible careers and trying to understand which match your skills, interests, and career values is that you’ll almost certainly have a larger list of potentially interesting careers after you have done this work. Chances are some of these options will be a little more off the beaten path of well-known “alternative careers” for PhDs than the ones you knew about at the start, and as such, they might have fewer applicants with whom you will have to compete.

2. In a tight job market, you need to really shine in comparison to other people applying for the same position. To do that, you need to be able to make a case that you are ideally suited for the position. And to do that convincingly, you need to believe you really are well suited for the position. The way to get that belief is to have done the work of figuring out what your strengths are. You need to know what transferable skills you have that are relevant to this position, and be able to point out specific experiences in your past that demonstrate them.

3. No one wants to hire someone who is “settling” for their job. They assume that as soon as the market picks up, that person will leave for a job more to their liking, and hiring and training new employees is expensive. Therefore, when you’re making an application to a job, you need to convince the person on the receiving end that you really want it. Ideally, you will also have thought about what is important to you in a job, and be able to explain why this job matches your career values and interests.

If you are applying indiscriminately to every position that matches any keywords you have in your resume, it will show, and your resume will probably not make it out of the slush pile unless you happen to have some rare skill that the hiring manager really needs. (There’s that exceptional good luck again.)

Viewed in this way, taking the time to think about what you want in a job and a career isn’t a luxury. It is essential.

By all means, if you are genuinely interested in multiple paths, pursue them all and let the job search fates pick one for you. But you must be able to articulate why each path is interesting, and make a persuasive application.

The only acceptable type of bitter during a job search.
The only acceptable type of bitter during a job search.

I would never argue that the job search climate right now is fair, or that methods of identifying and hiring candidates currently in use are the best ones. There are some terrible injustices both in how the market is currently constructed and in how job candidates are selected. I can understand how the feeling that the deck is stacked against you despite years and years of training can lead to a certain cynicism about the job search process, particularly for people who have never before bumped up against such gross unfairness in the world. I might even agree that some of that cynicism is justified.

However, it is an extremely bad idea to let this cynicism show during your actual search. Cynical and bitter is a terrible look in a job search. You can recognize the absurdities of the hoops even as you jump through them with conviction and as much flair as you can muster. And if you take the time to consider how the situation looks from the other side of the hiring equation, you might even begin to understand why those hoops are there, and see better ways to get through them. The ultimate goal of a happy post-academic career is worth the effort.


  1. The frugal ecologist said:

    great advice – I am glad your talk went well. This is very timely for my “Hates to network & is currently applying all over the map” self.

    February 20, 2015
    • Melanie said:

      So sorry for the delay in approving! I had some email issues.

      March 4, 2015
  2. Jenna said:

    My husband is just about to start a job as a data analyst at a financial company. He studied engineering for his Ph.D. Every single one of his interviews was obtained through informational interviewing. He used it to figure out what he wanted, to get the interview, to prepare for the interview and more. Unless you manage to find a fit through campus recruiting, I think this is the path!

    March 22, 2015
  3. […] Since I was in the mood to share slides, I also uploaded my slides about getting ready to conduct your first non-academic job search, from the presentation I mentioned back in February. […]

    June 3, 2015
    • I guess it comes down to the strength of the brand and what it represents to the consumer based on lifestyle, fashion and association by brand. I’ve always been an advocate of the “tallie” or long neck & it shall remain iconic to it’s audience for years to come.

      September 19, 2018

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