I am excited to share the launch of my new column at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The column is called The Career Change, and there I answer reader questions about professional development and transitioning to postac careers. This column has been in the making since December of last year, and I’m so glad to share with you that the column is now live. Click here to visit my column at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Question: I’ve spent the past year applying to jobs in editing and writing but I haven’t gotten much traction. During graduate school, I worked for a year as an editorial assistant for a leading peer-reviewed journal in cultural studies. I figured I would be able to take that experience and parlay it into a full-time position. My Ph.D. is in the social sciences and I’ve spent years doing international fieldwork. Because I’m fluent in Spanish, I’ve been able to land freelance translation gigs. But I’m tired of short-term jobs and I want to have a career that I enjoy.
Last year, to boost my profile, I took some courses and certifications in editing, human rights, and indigenous rights. Now I’m thinking that I should focus on jobs in research (for organizations and companies) or in editing and writing. I want to do work that I enjoy and that uses my background in international studies and languages. How can I turn those experiences into a real career?
You’ve done a great job of narrowing your search to research and editing/writing jobs. Many Ph.D.s in the process of changing careers apply too widely for jobs they’re not certain they want or for which they’re not well suited. While it’s good to keep an open mind about your career options, applying to scores of jobs out of desperation can sap your time and energy and lead to burnout. Better to first ask yourself: If I had to pick my ideal postacademic job, what would it be?
Perhaps your experience and skills are best suited to one of the two areas you’ve chosen over the other. Either way, to be a viable job candidate, you have to demonstrate that you’ve successfully done similar work in the past. You have completed literature reviews, international fieldwork, data analysis, dissertation writing, and editing work as a doctoral student. Ask yourself how applicable the research, writing, and editing skills you learned in your doctoral program are to research jobs outside of the academy.
A little online digging can help you determine which organizations are hiring researchers and what skills and technologies those employers value most. Do they need qualitative skills, quantitative skills, or both? What data-analysis technologies do they use (i.e., STATA, R, Python, Nvivo, Atlas.ti, Dedoose, etc.)? Which topics are the focus of their research? An organization like Human Rights Watch, for example, may want researchers with oral and written foreign-language fluency, qualitative research, international experience — particularly in the region with the job opening— and perhaps even a legal background. An organization like Educational Testing Services might lean toward researchers with quantitative experience in education, psychometrics, and scoring. Both organizations hire researchers — but with very distinct profiles. Take an inventory of your discipline-specific and transferable skills and see how they align with the job requirements of a particular position. If you possess 70-to-80 percent of the skills listed in the ad, the job could be right for you.
If I were coaching you directly, I’d first want to see how you represent yourself on paper. Do you present your career narrative in a clear, relevant, and compelling way on your résumé and cover letter? Can I, in a quick scan of your materials, discern what you might bring to the job and what previous experience you have that might fit the employer’s needs?
Given how you describe yourself in your email to me, I wonder if your résumé presents a clear narrative of your past, current, and desired experiences. Rather than list editing, writing, research, and translation as separate skills for distinct careers, highlight the synergy between them to craft a compelling narrative about why you are the best candidate for an editorial job. For example, a brief summary at the top of your résumé might read: “Qualitative researcher with extensive editing and translation experience for academic presses, print, and online media.”
I’m always cautious about recommending new courses or certifications to Ph.D.s looking to change careers. Academics tend to assume that more education will magically open the doors to a job. However, there’s no substitute for experience — even if it’s short-term.
That said, courses and certifications can be a way to help you demonstrate your interests. You say you’ve earned certificates in editing, human rights, and indigenous rights. How do these subjects align with your target jobs and past experience? Ideally, any extra coursework or certifications you pursue should build on your experience and bring you closer to your career goal, not merely provide you with a piece of paper.
You’ve also worked in editing in the past. Even though the experience was brief and possibly unpaid, you made contacts with authors, senior editors, and other professionals involved in the publication process. The best way to start your job search is to reconnect with them. Ask if they have 15 to 20 minutes for an informational interview on how you might parlay your previous editing work into an editing, writing, and translation job at an English and/or Spanish publication.
During your chat, ask about the state of the field, the best entry points for new people, events you should attend to meet more professionals in the field, and any leads or job openings they’ve heard about.
If you really want to break into editing and writing, you may need to consider related careers. For example, digital-content producers and social-media managers are responsible for creating and editing written, audio, and video content for online platforms. Only you can determine if that type of writing and editing aligns with your interests and skills. Still it’s important to take stock of the state of the field of editing and publishing, or any other careers of interest, to see if your career planning energies are well targeted.