Starting Over

Practical Tips for Getting Out of an Academic Job and Into the Real World

Dr. Karen Kelsky (aka The Professor Is In) asked if I had any step-by-step posts on how I got my current job. That’s its own story, which I will tell at some point, but this is a quick overview of how I got where I am, with links to all the practical posts I could find. For practical tips I’d also highly recommend Post Academic, which is archival but very, very good.

How to Get a Non-Academic Job

1) Start acquiring new skills you think you’ll need, preferably before you leave your current job. Actually, you already have a lot of soft skills and managerial/admin skills, and those are very valuable. To quote an acquaintance who left grad school, “They pay me in actual money and food, can you believe it? Turns out that the skills taken for granted in the academic world are actually highly valued in the workforce. Who knew? ”

I’d still vote for having basic digital publishing skills (like these) when trying to get any decent/interesting job these days, and more advanced stuff if you want to be in the tech industry.

2) Network, network, network. If you’re an introvert, it’s no fun, but there are non-schmoozy ways to got about it — hell, Twitter is a great place to “meet” people — so just set some goals and do it.  It’s also necessary to have a lot of contact with new people so you fully understand the differences in communication and work culture (see 3, below), i.e. what academic tics come off as a little weird.

I wouldn’t have gotten the job I have now if I hadn’t actively curated a network and gotten out there. After seeing the job ad, I showed up at an Online News Association meetup where the Tribune tech team was talking about their work. I made to sure to introduce myself to the people in the tech department. When the interview process got to the point of needing references, it was a real moment of victory to realize I had three non-academic references (two former freelance clients, one startup manager) at the ready — and that I had successfully, deliberately built a entirely non-academic network. Freedom achieved!

3) Look around at how non-academic fields operate, because you’ll need to drop your old jargon and learn some new lingo. Attend non-academic conferences in various fields to check out the lay of the land, or read up if you can’t go in person. I like the HBR blogs, for example, especially when they say helpful things like “hire from the humanities“. And whether or not you agree with Mr. Kristof’s latest, you’ll want to drop your academic writing habits and get feedback from a focus group of “normals”. You may be shocked to hear yourself using phrases like content creators and make the ask but I guarantee it’s no worse than casually using words like discourse.

4) Throw out your CV and deliberately construct a strong non-academic résumé (or portfolio, if applicable). Often, this means working for free at first, honing your new skills on passion projects, or working for trade (I’ve done both). It might mean volunteering (which allows you to test the waters of a new field and network). It might mean taking any crazy, last-minute job in your new field that gets thrown your way (or it might not — if you’re freelancing you’ll have to learn how to fire clients). It might mean having a blog, or guest blogging, or possibly doing a blogathon or or making other media of your own. Giving talks for local organizations was one way I expanded my network, and my current employers were impressed that I was doing cultural stuff out in the community. Again, you never know what could lead to jobs.

Or it may be as simple as learning how to reframe your accomplishments so they sound impressive to non-academics. Whatever you do, don’t constrain yourself to an overly traditional format — making things pretty is important in the outside world, as is making them accessible. An attractive WordPress site can get you far, and even simpler than that are services like Vizify  (now defunct) and, which give you nice visual portfolios without you building anything. And I think LinkedIn is better than a resumé, these days, because you can link to it in a “cover email”, which is fast becoming the format of choice.

5) Realize it’s going to be hard. Depending on how financially stable you were before, it can be very hard. If you’re feeling bummed, read interviews like this one or this one or this one or this one to know that it’s totally possible. Possible, but hard, and there will be a lot of rejections, but really, I don’t think that’s much different from the academic job market. Or grad school. I’m a thorough pessimist, but I’d still say that to a certain extent you can make your own luck. With a few exceptions, I think it’s not worth throwing your resume into those auto-fill nightmares — that’s what the networking spares you from. And if there’s one thing you should be able to do, as a trained thinker, it’s to act strategically. And that’s really what it’s about.


  • Indeed you have — I just added a link to your former site. Shoulda done that in the first place!

    And I don’t like “make the ask”, but I use it anyway :/

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