Mentoring Students Pursuing Non-Academic Careers

by | Feb 6, 2018

Professors are usually most comfortable mentoring students to follow in our footsteps, but increasingly students are looking at careers outside the academy. Even if they aren’t already, they need to be as the academic job market continues to be an ugly terrain.

Here is how you can mentor students pursing non-academic careers—even if you don’t have experience yourself beyond academia.

Be open to student choices

Students can be wary of telling us they are considering non-academic careers, worried that to do so is to admit some kind of failure. Mentoring students means being open to where they are, not where we might want them to go. Make sure your mentees know that you support whatever choices they make.

You can signal this by asking open-ended questions that make it clear that you expect they might choose to head out of the academy. Be encouraging, and fight that urge to push your mentees toward your own path.

Our job as mentors is to listen and really hear what our students need, and figure out how we can be helpful given our own skills and connections.

Think broadly

It might seem easier to mentor those with similar career goals to your own, but when our mentees are considering other paths, it is important to figure out what you can still offer.

What experiences do you have that are relevant to your mentee’s non-academic career plans? How can your own skills translate to other areas? Did you consider non-academic careers yourself, or do you have work experience outside the academy that might be relevant?

It can be incredibly helpful for mentees to hear about your own experiences choosing—or not choosing—academic careers. Much of mentoring is about listening and offering support, and those are things you can do regardless of your own career choices.

Research and recommend resources

As academic mentors we are used to recommending academic resources first and foremost. We can help our mentees by doing research and recommending resources that specifically address concerns of those seeking non-academic or alternative academic (altac) careers. While these resources will most importantly help mentees find mentorship that helps, signaling them signals to our mentees that we support their choices. Here are few to start with:

Know your limits

When mentees look outside the academy for careers, it is tempting to think you know enough to offer helpful mentorship. In many ways you do.

It is important, though, to understand your own limits. Writing and publishing as academics, for example, is really different from building a freelance public writing career. Some of your own experiences are relevant, and some aren’t. Avoid thinking you know more than you do about non-academic careers.

This is the time to think about other people who might make good mentors—former students or colleagues who have gone on to non-academic careers, people inside the university who have different careers or side jobs outside of it, and friends in other lines of work who might be able to step in. Sometimes the best thing we can do as mentors is to help our mentees find better mentors than we could be.

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Kate Drabinski is a senior lecturer in gender and women's studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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