Kicking the Tires II: Nonacademic Job Opportunities

kicking the tires

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement in the Humanities


Last week, I wrote about the importance of evaluating tenure-track job offers carefully and critically.

For the academic who is just transitioning to looking for work outside of academia, there’s a different set of questions to ask. You should start asking these questions as soon as you learn about an open position (whether through a formal job posting, or by word of mouth).

More than a few Duke Ph.D. students I’ve encountered already have significant work experience outside of academia. If this description applies to you—congratulations! You do not need to read this post. Go back to writing your dissertation or checking your Twitter feed.

For those of you still reading, I want you to start by having a long, earnest conversation with yourself about how you respond when you read nonacademic job postings.

Question No. 1: Should I apply for this opportunity? As I’ve noted in a previous blog post (“Developing a Networking Habit”), you should spend only a small portion of your job-search time searching for open positions to apply to. Networking and personal referrals are far more effective ways to find a job. But the inclination to look about is so ingrained in the job-searcher’s psyche, you will find yourself doing it. (You will also get depressed, because no matter how qualified, successful or hireable you are, reading job ads is like feeding your ego through a meat grinder.)

You will also, occasionally, come across an opening for great position. Maybe others have forwarded it to you. Maybe you just stumbled upon it on a website. You should think about applying, because—even if it doesn’t lead to a job—it could very likely land you a great practice interview.

As you review the opening, your thought process will probably go in one of these directions:

  • I’d love to apply, but with a Ph.D. they will think I’m overqualified.
  • I’d love to apply, but I have no relevant experience and I’m totally underqualified.

Now read this part carefully, and copy it on a Post-It note:

It is not my job to decide whether or not I am qualified for the position. That is the hiring committee’s job.

If the position sounds exciting to you, apply.

Most of the Ph.D. students I’ve talked with about nonacademic jobs are more qualified for higher-level positions than they think. Despite their assumption that entry-level is the only appropriate place to begin in a new field, employers will be reluctant to fill those roles with Ph.D.s (from any discipline). Smart employers (that is, the ones you want to work for) will know that candidates with the skills to earn a Ph.D. are going to add the most value in positions where they can advise, create, influence others, and help shape the direction of the organization. Those are the mid- to senior-level positions. Tell yourself you deserve a fancy title and a nice salary, because (despite the long exercise in self-denial that is graduate school) you do—you really do.

Let’s assume that after you apply, things go well and you’re offered the job. First, you will ask a lot of questions about aspects of the offer that only affect you: your new salary, your new benefits, your new work schedule.

However … you, your awesome title, and fancy new job will be part of a larger system you need to evaluate as well. Ph.D.-level humanities training has the unfortunate side effect of encouraging people to think of themselves as lone wolves. For this reason, academics might be prone to overlook questions relating to relationships, teamwork, and organizational culture.

Question No. 2: Whom will I be working for?

One of the first things I learned, when I left academia and went to leadership camp (they didn’t really call it that), was the truism, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses.”

In academia, at one point or another, we’ve all had professors or academic advisers who made our lives more difficult. And at the faculty level, I don’t want to understate how much havoc an incompetent or unsupportive department chair can create, especially for junior faculty.

Yet there are buffers in academia. Chairs rotate in and out … and someday your former chair might even answer to you. And no matter who oversees the department, your core activities—teaching, research, and departmental service—likely remain the same. At some point (hopefully) you’ll get tenure, which goes a long way toward helping you feel secure, regardless of leadership.

A boss has a lot more control over nearly every aspect of your nonacademic (untenured) work life. So once you’re presented with an offer, think carefully about who you will be working for. People tend to expect a lot of their bosses, and sometimes it’s unrealistic. Managing people is one of the most challenging tasks in any organization, and even experienced supervisors get it wrong sometimes.

But you should, at minimum, work for someone who is competent, principled, fair, and committed to supporting your success on the job. If that person is a great listener and communicator, even better. A really gifted boss will motivate you to find talents you never knew you had, and to accomplish more than you thought possible (but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Question No. 3: Whom will I be working with?

In framing the “who” question, I don’t mean the people you’ll share office space with, or see regularly at office potlucks and parties. I mean: whom will you work with?

Consider that in today’s workplace, people are increasingly expected to collaborate and work in teams. Who will be supporting your work on the job, and whose work will you be supporting? Do people in the organization have well-defined roles that complement each other, or are the roles unclear or (even worse) redundant?

Is the organization’s culture such that people are motivated to work together toward a common goal? Is there a culture of respect and professionalism in the office? Or is negativity, gossip, and backbiting the order of the day?

To be fair, there’s only so much you can learn about an organization’s culture in a couple of interviews. But by paying close attention and asking good questions, you might be able to spot red flags. For example, how well does the hiring committee work together in the interview? Do they seem to have a good rapport? Can you get a sense of team morale? Are people excited and engaged when they tell you about their work? Have they stuck with the company over time, or is everyone there nearly as new as you are?

There are plenty more questions you might ask of the nonacademic job offer, but the larger point is that you should try to think in terms of the “big picture” when you kick these tires. The big picture consists of relationships, networks, and workplace culture that rarely—if ever—get laid out in the job description or offer letter.

At the end of this process, you might decide that despite the flattering job offer and the ping-pong table in the break room, the job isn’t a good fit. And that’s ok. One of the great advantages of the nonacademic world is that you don’t have to wait a year in between each run at the job market. Apply for something else exciting tomorrow!