Tips for getting out.

Jan 13 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Deciding to leave academia can be a wrenching experience. Sometimes, people who decide to leave are bitter and angry to their core. Other times, they are sad, with constant feelings of failure. And many, many times, they feel lost.

When I first really seriously thought of getting out of academia, I remembered an 'alternative careers' seminar I attended my first year of grad school (the only one, actually, that I ever DID attend in grad school). The speaker was Nancy Baron, the author of "Escape from the Ivory Tower." At the time, her talk of alternate careers inspired me. I bought the book. I read some of it. Then, I got swept up in experiments and grants and more experiments and classes, and forgot.

But the book stayed on my shelf. So when I decided to look at other options, I went to go find it.

...and realized the book was now over six years old. Many of the recommendations seemed old fashioned, half the web addresses no longer worked, and then, I was just out of ideas. I wanted out, but where would I go? What would I do?

It's easy to fall into that feeling of helplessness. You start to realize that you want to leave academia, and you wonder what you have to offer the outside world. Well...I can pipette! And I can handle mice! And I'm very good at ANOVAs...well. Crap.

But for those who want to leave, all is not lost! Here are some tips that I've picked up along the way, and I would welcome any other tips in the comments!

1. Develop your networks, and of course, hit the internet. There are many other professions out there. Find out what they are. Go on a hunt. You may be in academia, but everyone knows someone. And with all the people who left, it never hurts to ask around. Some people are...worried that advisors and other people in the department won't take it well, and so don't want to be loud about leaving academia. In those cases, you can ask the career center (though many of them are best equipped for undergrads). You can also look around at other, closely related departments.

And of course, the internet is your friend. There are LOTS of us here, and many of us are vocal about our own career changes, and glad to help out others who are heading the same way. We can help you out, help you find people to contact and network with. Network contacts can help you get things like informational interviews, which can lead to more networks and valuable information to help you as you start on your new career.

2. Prepare a resume, and have people outside of academia look at it. This is vital. I prepped a resume based on my CV with the help of a career center. They had no idea what they were doing, it was basically the highlights of my CV in academic order. I sent it to a friend outside of academia. Three drafts later, it was a completely different document. Formatting changed, emphasis changed, everything changed. Her insights were hugely valuable...because she wasn't an academic. She knew what people on the outside were looking for. Find these people, and ask them for help.

3. Join groups. Groups like the Versatile PhD were built for those going out of academia, and are replete with advice. Many unis hold job fairs, get on the lists and go to them. Check out what's out there. See if there are groups around the uni doing things you are interested in. Maybe there's a science policy group. Maybe there's a research council that you could get experience on. Maybe there are groups that hold workshops that you can get involved in. Maybe there's a newsletter for a group you are in that you could write for.

If there's not a group for what you are interested in, start one! You'll get valuable experience, and help build up your resume with leadership roles along the way.

4. Get started. For god's sake, get started. It is never too early to start developing new talents that might help you in your future career. Many, many times, I've had people mention to me that they wanted out of academia, or ask me for advice. I tell them "what do you want to try? You may want to get some experience teaching/writing/in policy/whatever." Some of them dive in, find something to try, and start doing. Soon, they are having successes in their new field, and feeling more confident.

But often, I'll come back a few months later and say "hey, did you try that thing?" And they haven't. They've been busy. They are tired. The lab is hard.

I understand that. I do. I worked my share of long hard hours. I've been my share of busy and crazy and knocked down.

But, in the words of one of my mentors, "we're all busy." You need to make time for the things that matter to you. If getting out of academia matters to you, if seeking a different career matters to you, GET EXPERIENCE. If you don't start looking and trying, it's easy to remain on the same path in academia, grad school to postdoc, postdoc to another postdoc, just funneling along the path you know. Get experience elsewhere. Without it, you will not stand out from the herd of other PhDs who are out there looking for a career change. A PhD, funding, and publications look great in academia, but they are little-valued currency outside the ivory tower.

A side anecdote: I applied for a fellowship. I got an interview for it. I was excited, nervous, but felt like I maybe had a chance. At the interview I met two other applicants. One was about to defend their dissertation. They'd gotten some patents on the way...and founded a highly successful non-profit to help low income kids learn sports. While getting their PhD.

The other was an MD/PhD who spoke four languages, and had recently been spending their time with Doctors Without Borders in a South American Country. While they were there, they'd noticed a need, and started a successful vaccination campaign in another nearby country. THAT was what I was up against. Get experience.

For many careers that require a science PhD, you will be up against people AT LEAST AS successful as you. You need to be better. You got through grad school, you have the ability to be just as intimidating as those people. You DO. Get out there, and become it. Get experience. Maybe you can teach a class at a community college. Maybe there's a policy group at your school you can get involved in. Maybe there are internships. Maybe you can start writing a blog or a newsletter for a group, or take on editing on the side to get experience. As I said above, if there's isn't a group for this at your uni? Make one!

5. Find fellowships and internships. Some of these are listed on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Some of them come through internal listservs. AAAS has fellowships for mass communications and for science policy. Many other groups have fellowships for science policy as well. They are out there and they are designed for people coming from academia. They know what it's like to get out of academia, and are prepared to deal with those coming from that world, to help shape our talents for our new careers.

What tips have I missed? Let me know in the comments. And for those looking to leave academia, take heart. Some of us did it. You can, too.

12 responses so far

  • Janne says:

    In many technical or science-related fields you will be doing programming as part of your job. Especially so if you're employed as a specialist of some kind. And of course we all use computers every day in research.

    So it's never a bad idea to get some documented programming experience no matter what you "actually" do. And one good approach is to contribute to an open source project, perhaps one for a piece of software you'd use as part of your current project anyhow. As it's open source it's easy to refer to your future prospective employers, and the other project members can become valuable future contacts as well.

  • leigh says:

    With regards to the resume, have someone who is already in your desired job sector take a look at it. Preferably someone who has at least been somehow involved in screening candidates (so someone who has been there a few years). I found that my opinions changed quite a bit after reviewing a large number of them myself.

  • Nicole says:

    In addition to network, network, network (really my top recommendation to people who come seeking advice), also consider asking people in fields that interest you, out for a coffee to discuss their work (etiquette suggests that you should pay for this, given that the person whom you have invited out is taking time out of their schedule to speak to you - they may not let you, but you should always offer!). People are often happy to talk about their work, particularly a) if they like their job, b) they can empathize with your circumstances. It's a good way to get a more in depth picture of what a job entails, before jumping right in. It may also help you determine what you don't want to do. I did a lot of this, getting contacts from friends and asking them to chat about what they do for a living...it certainly gave me a good perspective on the different (non-academic) options out there for someone with a science (PhD) background.

    I personally suspect that there are some Profs at my former alma matter who send people in my direction 😛 - and I will normally make time to sit down and discuss my work and do my best to provide any advice I can for leaving the ivory tower....but I certainly agree with it being a wrenching experience 🙁 .

  • Get unpaid (internship, volunteering) experience while you're still a student, if that's one of the ways you want to build experience. General problems with unpaid internships aside, a lot of places WILL NOT give them to you if you aren't an enrolled student, and of course working for free is also a lot harder to swing once the stipend is gone and you HAVE to bring in money somehow.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    It is a good idea to highlight all the business stuff that people who run labs do, that the general community might not know about:
    Managing budgets, hiring, firing, meeting deadlines, are all key transferable skills, but you have to explicitly say that you have them.

  • Linked In.
    List every interest and skill, no matter how remote and undeveloped it seems. I am constantly surprised by the discussion groups and the career paths I see outside of the Ivory Tower for people (even MDs) with seemingly unrelated interests.

  • Heather says:

    Just before I finished Grad school, I helped a PI and students put together a "careers outside of academia" workshop. Part of my role was to go on LinkedIN and start cold contacting people to see if they would speak. Almost all did!!!! It was an excellent way for me to make contacts that I later used in my non-academic career path.

  • Liam C says:

    I've been to a lot of those "alternate career" talks. When the million dollar "how did you get your current job" question comes up the answer is either "I had a strong resume with lots of related experience" or "I had some experience and knew someone in the company." Always.

    It's amazing how many students say they want to leave academia, but are unwilling to put in the effort to build the resume.

  • Ellen Clark says:

    Contact a recruiter who specializes in placing life science recruiters in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Although most of the time their clients want people who already have industry experience, sometimes they have searches for people from academia.

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