The transition from academia to a nonacademic career is never as simple as shutting one door and opening another. As a career coach I’ve watched many a Ph.D. simultaneously work and live in both worlds while trying to forge a new career path. Transitions take time and are not a straight-line process.

This excerpt is from my article that ran today in Vitae, an online publication of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since it went live this afternoon, I’ve received several tweets and emails from many of you who are walking through that uncertain place. A recent grad from Boston emailed tonight, and put it like this, “I just completed my doctorate and I am in the hunt for the elusive professor position. Everything in your article rang true to me. I feel like I am in a contact state of purgatory; seemingly in between two worlds. Thanks and any advice you can shoot my way is greatly appreciated!”  

Boston, I wrote this piece for you and others who are trying to figure out there next move — academic or nonacademic. There’s little fun in needing a job, and not having one yet.

Try as best you can to separate your identity from your work situation. Ohhh, this one is tough. In the US, the number one question we ask upon first meeting someone new, “What do you do?” It’s cocktail hour talk, holiday dinner talk, networking talk, and so on. I love the past-present-future narrative as a way to answer this question. This is what I did, this is what I do, this is what I want to do next.  At one point in my job search, I got so exhausted with this question that I just started replying, “I’m in transition. I enjoy working on XYZ type of projects or using ABC type of skills, and I’m looking for a place to do more of that.”  While my reply seemingly left me vulnerable, it also allowed others around me to offer (mostly) great suggestions. 

Get as clear as possible on your vision for what you want at this stage of your life. Dig deep — what kind of colleagues, projects, work environments, timeline, income range, geographic location, prestige level, work hours, organization type, client/customer type (even professors have clients, if in a crude sense of the term), etc. I go over this visioning process in detail in my Options for Success Career Exploration course. It sounds a little foo-foo but the clearer you can get the better you can articulate it for yourself and to the people around you who want to help.  

Don’t get caught up in the either/or job search mentality. What do I mean? You have full reign to search for jobs that will bring you closer to your life and career goals. Broaden your job search to think about the different type of work you can do that would bring you satisfaction, meaning or whatever else you seek — whatever industry these jobs may be located in.

Know and trust that this too shall pass. Yup, it seems rough to be stuck in “purgatory. Okay, it is rough. Purgatory is actually probably a nice way to put it. Being in limbo doesn’t pay the bills and it doesn’t feel satisfying to the soul. But you have to connect to your faith — as you put out feelers and search down leads in applications, conversations and social media connections, things are moving on your behalf.

Keep a list of your accomplishments visible. It’ll remind you how great you are and how much you’ve done to this point in your career. You’ll want your rock star stories in your résumé, but you can also keep them on hand as a reminder of what you’ve accomplished. You can put them on an index card in a visible place like your nightstand, your wallet or bathroom mirror.

Be open to thinking of yourself as a professional, broadening your pitch from talking of yourself as a historian, anthropologist or whatever your discipline. Skills first, degree later. The skills and talents will get you the job; the degree may not be as easily recognizable to your target employer. Truth is, even today’s faculty have to show how well they’ve leveraged their broad skill set to contribute to or develop curriculum, student projects, research projects, grants, centers/programs, collaborations, group publications and so on. Tap into your broader skill set and the right people will take note. 

Finally, work with a career coach who can guide you to job openings and markets that would welcome your skills and talents. If you don’t know what those skills and talents are that’s even more reason to work with a mentor or coach. They can help you translate where you are and where you want to be AND how to get there. Work with someone who has a track record of helping people break through this space of career transition. Your university may offer coaching or services for alumni. There are also private coaches like me who can also help.

You are smart. You matter. You are adaptable. Your skills are valuable. 

For February, I have five slots open for new coaching clients. If you want help to get clarity and a plan forward, sign up for a Career Clarity session from the Services page.

If you’d like to check out the full piece in Vitae, click here. 

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