2 Pieces of Advice that helped me in my Career Transition
This story was first published at phdcareerstories.com. There, you can listen to the podcast and also read stories of other PhDs.
Hi, my name is Anne. I hold a PhD in the social sciences and have been working in the non-profit sector for the last 4 years. Today I’d like to share two pieces of career advice that have proven true for me on my professional journey thus far.
Number one: Answer the question how much you are willing to suffer for a career in academia.
Asked by a career counselor shortly after I finished my PhD, this question really hit me. It triggered me to actively question my career and life choices and forced me to figure out what I really wanted – because, quite frankly, during my time as a PhD student I never really thought about the next career step. I somehow drifted into my program and later into the great opportunity of being a visiting postdoc at the University of California Berkeley. I guess I really loved the atmosphere in academia, I loved the exchange with tremendously smart people, and the flexible lifestyle.
But soon the doubts crept in, and this crafty question made them very obvious. I wasn’t so passionate about my research that it outweighed the disadvantages of an academic life, such as instability, a narrow job market, moving around a lot, you name it. I wanted to live in Berlin, I felt that I wanted my work to have an immediate impact, and I was more interested in hands-on tasks.
However, for many PhD students and young postdocs such as myself back then, academia is the only path they’re familiar with – even though statistically, academia is the alternative career for PhDs.
Questioning my priorities in life helped me to make an informed choice. Once I knew that the hardships of an academic career were not for me, I could then lead my energy towards pursuing another path. If however a career in academia is the right thing for you – go for it! But make it a proactive and informed choice. I can also highly recommend the TED talk by Ruth Chang on how to make hard choices.
Advice Number two: You don’t have to know what you want to do in 5 years – but you can set yourself up for lucky coincidences.
I am currently executive director of a non-profit that supports scientists and researchers who want to pursue a career in Germany – either in academia or in other sectors. My team and I do that by offering career coaching, facilitating career workshops, and developing and managing programs that fill gaps in the current funding landscape, for instance a leadership academy for academics, or a boost fund that supports independent and flexible research for postdocs. We’ve been building a network of PhDs, who work in all sectors, and are able to connect them with those researchers who are about to take the next step in their careers. I really like this job because it combines many things that I enjoy doing, while interfacing with a diverse intellectual community.
5 years ago, after having talked to the career counselor at UC Berkeley, I would have never guessed that I’d do what I do today. However, in retrospective the outcome wasn’t all pure chance and luck.
During my PhD studies I also worked as a research assistant. Back then I learned that I really enjoyed organizing workshops for fellow doctoral students, I enjoyed being an advocate for young researchers as representative on the university board, and that I was good at building and fostering networks. I felt more at home giving talks and managing people than evaluating data and writing on my own. That didn’t change while doing my postdoc.
After I decided to look for a job outside of academia, I started to gather information on how to transition into another sector. I found resources in the United States, but hardly any in Germany. So I set up a blog about career topics and experiences for job searching beyond academia in German. Gaining traction with online visibility, I then conducted a bunch of informational interviews on life beyond academia, and landed some side hustles moderating panel discussions and writing. At the time, I was also working part time organizing a leadership program for students at a non-profit called Common Purpose. I got this job in Berlin after doing quite a bit of homework on how to build a CV and letter of motivation that appeals to the world outside of academia. Importantly, I highlighted my transferable skills and strengths, demonstrating what I could bring to the table in a non-academic sector with an academic background. There was trial and error in this process – before landing this job, I was rejected for positions I thought I was qualified for, but not having the right work experience wasn’t really helping that much.
However, only a few months after I got my foot in the door of my first non-academic job at Common Purpose, I received a call from a headhunter asking if I was interested in a leading position in a research management-related non-profit. As a sociologist with hardly any work experience in the sector, I was not at all used to getting this kind of call. Apparently someone working at the organization had suggested me as a potential candidate after talking to me at a conference and following my blog. I was curious and went through the application process. I honestly thought that I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting the job due to my lack of experience. But to my surprise, I did get an offer. I was intimidated at first by this new role – I’d never led a team before, never was responsible for the finances of an organization, or raised funds other than my own stipends.
However, I quickly realized that my previous training had prepared me at least enough to learn these skills on the fly, and I find myself constantly learning on the job. This is a „transferable“ skill I carried with me from academia into my new role – analyzing problems, solving them in real time, quickly adapting my thinking to new information – that comes with PhD training regardless of the specific field.
More important than the hard skills are communication and problem solving skills, the ability to deal with uncertainty, as well as understanding my target group of young academics.
To sum it up, whether you want to become a professor or do something else, it helps to make yourself visible and heard. And after a while you won’t have to chase opportunities, but instead they will present themselves to you. And by the way, I have no idea what I’ll be doing in 5 years. But I look forward to finding out.