Assembling Your Search Party (Part II): Nonacademic Jobs

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

In my last post, I discussed the importance of a “search party” for academic job searches. This group should be carefully curated, including subject-matter experts on what it means to be a faculty member in the 21st century, across different contexts within higher education.

What if you’ve decided, for one reason or another, to search for nonacademic jobs?

The approach to assembling a nonacademic search party is directly inverse to that of the academic one. Rather than assemble a small team of subject-matter experts, you will build an expansive network of professional contacts (some of whom, ideally, will become mentors).

Simple, right?

Well, if you’ve had little to no experience working outside academia, it’s not so simple.

Imagine that you have a Ph.D. in the humanities (or will soon) and one or all of the following applies:

  1. You know nothing about jobs beyond academia.
  2. You’re pretty sure that you’re not qualified for any of those jobs.
  3. No one in the entire history of the universe has been in such a desperate plight as you.

The first of these statements may be true, but only temporarily so. Two and three are cognitive distortions. And in the dark night of the soul that these thoughts engender, instead of a network, you may yearn for a reassuring, authoritative guide—someone to lead you forward to a sustainable future.

These thoughts capture my frame of mind six years ago, when I sat down at my computer at 3 a.m. and typed “Career coaches PhD Triangle” into the search engine. A career coach sounded pretty appealing at that moment, and it made sense to focus on the Triangle, as my husband and I had discussed moving there.

In hindsight, I’m intrigued by the “PhD” part of my thinking—my fixation on finding another academic to help me solve my nonacademic job search quandary. I wanted someone with a PhD who specialized in helping people leave academia. The closest I came that morning was locating a professional career coach who’d taught a few adjunct business classes at Fuqua.

Close enough—hired! She turned out to be just what I needed, but her academic connection had nothing to do with it. She served as a sounding board as I stumbled toward clarity in my new professional path and helped me frame an action plan. She also provided very nuts-and-bolts advice on how nonacademic job markets worked, especially how to format résumés and conduct informational interviews.

Lesson learned? Although when occupying a position of vulnerability, we often seek out people just like ourselves, there’s nothing terribly unique about searching for a nonacademic job with a humanities Ph.D. I repeat: There’s nothing terribly unique about this scenario. People switch careers and professions all the time, and whether or not they hold Ph.D.s, the basic steps for making these transitions look pretty much the same. (Anyone who doubts me should take a look at the new book, Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers, by Dawn Graham.)

“Searching for a nonacademic job does not require anything that resembles a graduate seminar. This is not rocket science. It’s not even post-structuralist literary theory.”

A lot has changed in six years, including a relative boom in programs and resources to support humanities doctoral students and recent Ph.D.s in nonacademic career exploration. I have nothing but praise and admiration for these programs, many of which have been designed and implemented by extremely smart, talented people. Yet I find myself both amused and slightly worried when I see how often this support is delivered via mechanisms that look suspiciously like Stuff in Academia. Depending on where you look these days, you’ll find bootcamps, workshops, and proseminars—intensive, classroom- and cohort-based experiences led by experts, all to introduce humanities Ph.D.s to the supposedly baffling world of nonacademia.

Should non-faculty jobs intrigue you, and should you have the opportunity to attend one of these workshops, by all means go. You’ll likely get a lot out of the experience (especially new networking opportunities). But just remember: Searching for a nonacademic job does not require anything that resembles a graduate seminar. This is not rocket science. It’s not even post-structuralist literary theory.

If anyone doubts me on this point, take a look at the VH@Duke alumni directory, containing profiles of Duke humanities Ph.D. alumi who’ve all established flourishing careers beyond academia. I’ve chatted with each of these alumni, and to my knowledge, none took advantage of any specialized programming for humanities Ph.D. career changers. I invite you to contact a few to learn exactly how they made the switch.

So … if you don’t need someone with a doctorate in Recovering Academics or a battery of seminars and workshops to locate your ideal nonacademic job, who or what do you need?

I return to the concept of having a trusted person to serve as your sounding board. If you are highly committed to finding a nonacademic job and feel like you need the support, hiring a career coach could be an excellent idea. However, I suggest starting first with the (free!) resources right in your own backyard: one-on-one advising through VH@Duke, mentoring/advising conversations with other members of the Graduate School staff, a faculty member who signals openness about career trajectories, knowledgeable personnel at Duke Career Services, and select online resources like ImaginePhD.

There are multiple possibilities. After all, this is supposed to be a party, right? And I don’t mean that ironically or cynically. Sustained self-reflection and discernment are critical to a successful job search outcome, but you won’t want to constantly look inward. Framing professional goals that look very different from the goals of others in your Ph.D. cohort can be isolating enough. So first identify your core supporters, and continue to grow your professional network expansively, creatively, even playfully.

It may never feel like a real party, but a similar logic applies. You will bring together a group of complementary people, trusting in the process, and tolerant of a significant degree of uncertainty and serendipity. And much like a wildly successful dinner party, you may be rewarded with an outcome greater and better than the sum of its parts.