Pursuing non-academic careers; how to start a movement (not in the boardroom); creating the conference abstract.
Found in Knowledge Translation Blog
Branching Out to Non-Academic Careers
I knew early in grad school that, although I loved the learning and writing associated with research, I wasn't all that interested in pursuing a traditional academic path. At the time (2004-2005), it seemed there were few resources for seeking non-academic careers post-dissertation, or even reassurances that this was not, in fact, a Very Bad Idea™.
But I was willing to bet on myself, and so I did what made sense to me for building the eventual post-dissertation life.
Recently, someone in my network approached me with questions about getting into a non-academic career. (What am I, a grown up?) In any case, I shared with them the following advice.
1. Spread cheer: Volunteer.
This advice comes with the disclaimer that you should only do this if your schedule and mental health allow for the commitment - but if you can find opportunities to serve on committees, especially those in the community with governance or oversight duties, accept them. Graduate seminars are not the same animal, where everyone is vying for speaking time to appease the prof nestled in the corner, marking the intelligence of your commentary on a clipboard. (I wish I was joking about that.)
In 2006, our local mental health association was looking for board members, and in particular, for a board development committee. At the time, I was interested in finding a way to support mental health causes, but it was important to my non-academic education. In addition to meeting new people, it taught me about meetings, the kind with formal agenda and minute taking and Robert's Rules of Order. It taught me how to observe meeting dynamics, hear from a real breadth of viewpoints, and communicate effectively with others in plain language.
2. Your sentences shouldn’t have more clauses than the North Pole.
Along the same lines, learning to effectively communicate in plain language is a key goal for your non-academic professional development. Seek out an honest, critical assessment of the quality of your communication. Maybe it's the writing centre at the university. For me, I was fortunate enough to have a professor who taught me how to write better (in my case, more succinctly).
3. It’s okay to regift (your skills).
When you are revising your CV, or are preparing for interviews, you need to know how to sell yourself to the non-academic market. Sadly, your ability to discuss the finer theoretical points of attachment theory will cause employers to glaze over (or, shift uncomfortably in their seats). However, you already have many non-academic skills that simply need to be rewrapped in approachable language.
Planning a research study from start to finish? Project management skills.
Overseeing more junior students in the lab? Management.
Worked on projects with other labs? Collaboration and conflict resolution.
Gave a talk? Had a conference poster? Presentation skills!
This isn’t being disingenuous; it’s semantics. At the core of what you’ve done in grad school/post-doc are transferable skills to non-academic settings. It’s up to you to show them!
4. Pass the cranberry sauce, and prepare for awkward questions.
Unfortunately, you should be mentally prepared for an awkward conversation:
"Aren't you overqualified for this position?"
Now, none of us know what lies ahead in a year or two. What gives? At the core of this question is concern on return on investment. The hiring process costs money - running a recruitment campaign, leaving work undone during a vacancy, on-boarding a new employee, and (hopefully) supporting your ongoing professional development. If you leave in six months, the employer may not have recouped any losses/investment in hiring you.
In my experience, the best approach is honesty. Asked this question, I replied truthfully that I was ready to begin my career, that I was genuinely interested in applying my skills to make a difference, and from what I could see on the corporate website, that there seemed to be opportunities for growth. I then asked them about opportunities to support research within the organization. (I got the job.)
I do think it's a question more likely asked of new graduates, or if the position you're eyeing is further removed from research or your academic specialty, but be prepared for the possibility.
More glad tidings for your job search: Resources
This is the advice I shared with my colleague recently, and I hope you find it helpful, too. Additionally, there are great conversations and resources - far more than when I was searching years ago! Here’s a few to start your reflection:
Roostervane has a blog with lots of advice and insight, including this post about ways to get experience for your CV.
The creator of Roostervane, Christopher Cornthwaite, also shared his personal journey with tips over on InsideHigherEd.
BeyondProf had this practical piece about small steps you can take (e.g., take a headshot, make a LinkedIn profile) to moving ahead in your search.
(Aside: Does this mean I’m now mid-career? Deep breaths.)
What does engagement look like? Sue’s tweet, like many of her insights, is great because it highlights the reality of engaged research in 2021.
It’s not about bringing people to a singular event in an institution, either. As researchers and healthcare professionals, we need to go to them. Real movements start many times over in smaller places, with real people having real, honest conversations.
We need to sit at the kitchen table, and invest in the time to talk to people where they are at.
The abstract for conference submissions is probably the worst part of conferences, right?
Now, imagine if you aren’t as familiar with the process, but are interested in submitting an abstract to a conference. Luckily, Dr. Dawn Richards crowd sourced via Twitter other patient partners’ insights, and designed an accessible “how-to” infographic for new citizen presenters.
The research and scientific worlds are full of processes and protocols that most people in these worlds take for granted. One of these items is the conference abstract. If you’re not in the research world, how would you describe a conference abstract to someone outside of research?
Aside from make a great resource, how about the method of crowd sourcing development of a tool that is easily shared and used? Talk about breaking down silos efficiently!
The association between listening to music and working effectively is, for me, a purple circle. So it’s not surprising that I listened to a lot of tunes last year - over 1,800 hours. Check out my top songs for 2021 here, and let me know your go-to jams for writing or analyzing that data!