Repost – A scientist’s path to a non-academic job: Tips and tricks

Dr. Marlieke van Kesteren is a Neuroscientist with a pretty impressive CV. She discusses science and life on Twitter and in various blog posts. This one is particularly relevant looking at the academic job market, so Marlieke kindly allowed us to share it on this blog.

Reposted from:

“We regret to inform you…”. No matter what they concern or how often you receive them, such emails are devastating. In this case it regarded an Assistant Professor position that I had enthusiastically applied for, the only one advertised within the Netherlands that had fitted my background and preferences.

It hit me: My last “chance” in academia was shattered to pieces.

I stared at the screen, astonished but also revived. Approaching the end of my second postdoc – 6 years after obtaining my PhD – I had sworn myself not to start another and risk becoming a feared “permadoc”. I had no major grant applications running because of my recent maternity leave and, thanks to the Dutch law, I could not stay at my current university without an (increasingly hard to get) permanent contract. Moreover, my two young kids kept me from moving abroad in the coming years.

After more than 10 years of being a pretty successful scientist, there was only one thing left to do…

Look for a non-academic job.

I had previously played with the idea of “leaving” academia due to the stress, short-term contracts, and big luck factor. But it felt like failing. Also, I loved science, was good at it, and truly felt like a scientist, what else was I supposed to do?

This time, equipped with some previous career counseling and many colleagues that had preceded me, I took the hurdle and started cautiously exploring jobs beyond the concrete walls of academia. I first consulted my Twitter followers about their trajectories, which sparked a lot of replies and tips, giving me confidence.

Taking this first step was the hardest, but after that it only became easier and, in hindsight, very gratifying! I was happy to see that having a PhD and academic experience is (more and more) considered a useful feature outside the “ivory tower” of academia, and that many of my former colleagues had been successful in finding a job that made them happy. Now it was up to me to follow their suit.

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Below I will detail some (obvious but hopefully useful) tips from my job hunt:

1. Investigate

Think about what parts of your current job you like. What would you like to keep doing? What would you rather delegate or omit? Keep it general: do you like to work alone or with others, do you enjoy working on one project at a time or would you rather switch regularly etcetera. Follow courses or take career counseling (many universities offer this for free) to see what your skills and interests are. Talk to close friends, colleagues, relatives, to see what kind of job they think would suit you. You’ll be surprised about the different options they can bring in. Use this information to find out what kind of jobs fit your interests and skill set.

2. Search

Subscribe to vacancy newsletters that post jobs in the field you’re interested in. For example, in the Netherlands AcademicTransfer is a good option for any position related to academia, e.g. management and support positions. Make sure you identify useful websites, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds, and possible other sources for vacancies. Sign up for email alerts, you can always unsubscribe later.

LinkedIn is not often used by academics, but it has great features for job searching. For example, you can enter searches for vacancies containing certain keywords, and you can open up your profile for recruiters looking for candidates. Also change your profile, make the “about” section more general, talking about your skills and preferences for a new job. Peek at other profiles and use parts you like. Use keywords such as “data analysis” or “scientific writing” so recruiters can find you. Make it a bit “juicy” but do stay close to reality. If you prefer to work by yourself, don’t say you’re a “team player”, it will come back at you at some point.

3. Network

Make sure people “out there”, preferably ones that are in positions you think you’d like, know that you are looking for a transition. Many of such (former) colleagues, friends, and acquaintances can be found through social media tools such as (again) LinkedIn and Twitter, but reaching out in real life can also be very helpful. Don’t feel shy to send people direct messages, asking whether they’d like to meet up for an informational interview over a coffee or beer. You’d be surprised how many want to chat with you. And if not, they can perhaps make time for a (Skype/Facetime) call or refer you to a colleague that does want to share experiences.

Ask them about what they like and don’t like about their job and how they found it. What do they do on an average day? Perhaps they can even help you to fine-tune an application letter or CV. This part of my job search was the most enjoyable to me because it involved catching up with former colleagues and friends, relating to them, and learning about their path and struggles.

4. Apply

When you encounter a vacancy you think suits you, get applying! I noticed that starting to write a letter helped to gather thoughts on whether the position actually suits you. If it feels weird, leave it for a while and come back to it later. If you notice that writing the letter decreases your excitement, reconsider applying. Start early, so you can easily find out your emotional attachment to the vacancy.

Moreover, not unimportantly, work on your CV and/or resume. It’s not easy to get rid of most of the scientific details and focus on what skills you learned during your scientific career. My academic CV consisted of 11 pages listing all my published papers, prizes, presentations etc. With pain in my heart, I had to reduce all of that to one page. I chose a clear design, added links to social media and Google Scholar accounts and (after some deliberation) included a photo as well. I’d be happy to share it upon request!

5. Find

During step 2, I became excited about a position for Grant Advisor, where you advise and help researchers writing their grant proposals. I thought I had a really good shot to get an interview invitation for a position at my former institute, but I didn’t…

The overwhelming feeling of dismay that followed showed me that this was indeed a job I cared about. So I applied to more such jobs, was invited to all of them, followed a job assessment, and ended up with 2 job offers in one week. After letting these options sink in, I decided to accept the offer of a grant advising company and fully leave the university.

6. Move on

Looking back, I was initially scared. Scared to find out that all the years spent in academia had been a waste of time. Scared that companies would view me as someone without relevant skills. Scared that people would think I had been “stuck” in academia for too long to be able to adapt somewhere else.

Guess what: The opposite happened! In academia you do acquire many skills that are relevant outside of the ivory tower. Fortunately, more and more companies recognize this now.

Finally: Don’t feel shame. You haven’t “failed” academia when you choose or have to switch careers, an academic career is not superior to one in industry or government, where switching regularly happens. Academia is not anymore the alleged ivory tower that you slowly climb to become elevated from the rest of the world. It still cultivates an outdated and broken system, training too many for too few spots and favoring competition over cooperation so people can only climb up at the expense of others. Fortunately, that system is now slowly changing.

I’m happy I took the jump, now let’s see what’s out there. Good luck to all of you who are looking to switch as well!

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