Transferring out of Academia

Dear HR-Lady:

A professor of history at a small college with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, I’d like to take my skill-set and explore a broader world of employment options, but don’t quite know where to begin.

With good cheer,

Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read you…Sorry. Sometimes I burst into song without warning. (Which, by the way, is much better than bursting into flames, with or without warning.)

Where to really begin. I don’t know exactly what skills a history professor has. I do know that a Ph.D. from Columbia sounds impressive. My real question for you, is, what do you want to do?

This isn’t just my lame attempt to make you answer your own question. (Hey, that sounds like a really great blog idea–you send in your questions and your answer!) It’s actually because what you want to do determines where you start.

As long as you are just looking for a generic “change,” it will be nearly impossible to branch out. If you have a defined change you want to make, you can find a path.

Once you’ve determined what you want to do, start networking. There are several ways to go about this, but three things are very important. 1. Tell everyone what you want to do. “I’m currently a history professor, but I’m excited to transfer my skills to the business world. I’d really like to do qualitative market reasearch. I’ve analyzed a ton of documents in my day and interviewed a zillion people to draw conclusions. I’m really looking forward to using these skills in a business environment.”

You tell EVERYONE you know about your proposed change. Why? Because you don’t know what they know. One of those people may have a brother-in-law who owns a small market research firm, who is struggling for prestige. Having a Columbia Ph.D. on his staff may just give him the credibility he needs. (Even if you really know nothing about the business, just your credentials can be helpful.)

2. Start making appointments for informational interviews with people who already do what you want to do. Learn what skills you really need to be able to accomplish the job. If you are lacking something that can’t be gained on the job, figure out a way to get this. (As a college professor, you can probably take a class or two for free to gain some skills.) Listen, listen, listen and listen some more to what these people tell you.

3. Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. People with advanced degrees sometimes assume they can come in and start out as a director. You can’t. Having a degree means you have survived a Ph.D. program. You need to earn your way up the ladder. With your fancy degree you start out with some automatic credibility. Make sure you keep it. Work hard and you’ll be fine. But you’ll have to pay your dues, just like everyone else does.

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4 thoughts on “Transferring out of Academia

  1. Your reader should also check out WRK4US – it’s a fantastic listserv dedicated to academics seeking jobs outside of academia (mid-career, recent grads, etc). The archived discussions are an incredible wealth of information.

  2. I suggest technical writing. I have a history major, and the skills involved with that – writing, research, analysis – are well suited for technical writing. You have to be able to handle technology as well. It’s also #13 on the best jobs list (pays well, not horrific stress).

  3. I’m the person who initially asked the question, and I want to thank both EHRL and the, thus far, two persons who left comments. All are superb responses, and I’m truly grateful to you. And, if you are reading this and have an idea, please leave a comment. With real thanks–JR

  4. I would also suggest reading the latest ‘What color is your parachute?’. I found it helpful in cataloging my skills and interests.

    As for jobs, as a history PhD you are probably a great researcher. Lots of corporates and professional firms have Knowledge Managers (used to be called Librarians, but the internet has changed the job spec).

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