Crafting Your Post-Academic Career Narrative

Crafting Your Post-Academic Career Narrative

June 27, 2017
Crafting Your Post-Academic Career Narrative - White dandelion with blue center against red background

Whether you’re finishing up your degree, teaching as an adjunct, or currently on the tenure track, if you’ve decided to transition away from traditional academic work you need to make sure your wealth of experience is evident to employers. Your PhD equips you with the skills to research, write, and present your ideas in clear and convincing ways, tools you’ll need at your disposal as you search for and apply to careers beyond the academy. So how can you meaningfully express what you offer and land the job? This is where a strong post-academic career narrative comes in.

Make your career narrative cohesive

No matter where you’ve been or where you’re going, the most important part of shaping a post-academic career narrative comprehensible to others is understanding—and being able to explain to others—what your story is and why it looks the way it does.

Even if career opportunities felt haphazard as you were taking them, take a step back and survey the bigger picture for threads that link your past with where you’d like to go next.

There is no “right way” to craft a career, but there are incoherent narratives. Lay out all of the positions you’ve had and ask yourself what you loved about each role. Also examine what you hated and your motivations for moving from one position or program to another.

No one knows the ins and outs of your story like you do, so do the work to wade through your experiences to pull out a cohesive, engaging story.

Craft a story, not a timeline

Keeping cohesion and story in mind does not mean the only or even best way to craft your post-academic career narrative is chronological. Remember, you want to make it clear to employers (and yourself) what moves and motivates you, not just what you did step by step.

Try a thematic approach to crafting your story, and organize your experiences around answering who you are, what you’ve learned, and what you offer.

What soft and hard skills did you use across roles? What topics, questions, or problems have you engaged with throughout your career, even within totally different settings?

The work of thematically surveying your experiences is not only great for setting up your career narrative, but it can also be tremendously helpful for the substantive work of figuring out what you actually want to do.

Use a modular approach

Maybe the greatest benefit to thematically organizing your post-academic career narrative is that you can shift the pieces of your story around as needed for different positions or even industries. Think about this method as parallel to having a teaching resume and a writing resume for different kinds of job searches; both tell your story but each frames that story through a different lens.

Taking a modular approach means you do not have one fixed or even authoritative narrative you memorize. Instead, start with a brief, foundational pitch about your strongest skills. On top of this, create a deeper list of your strengths and abilities, and then have illustrative examples for each on hand (ideally, multiple examples of you exercising each skill, within different roles).

Crafting your narrative in modules also allows you to expand and contract your story depending on whether you are connecting with employers via a brief first-round interview, a longer in-person interview, or a networking opportunity with professional contacts. It also helps you prepare your references for what they should emphasize about you for specific positions.

Don’t be afraid to pitch yourself

So much of academic life trains us to be critical. The analytical impulse is a powerful one that can illuminate many important truths and can be a useful tool for personally determining what you are good at and not so good at.

But projecting a self-critical energy when relaying your post-academic career narrative and explaining to potential employers why you ended up in front of them won’t do you justice. Don’t lead with your shortcomings and end up rejecting yourself before they get a chance to judge for themselves.

Be honest but positive always, even when asked to share a stumble or explain a complicated part of your past. It can feel deeply awkward and uncomfortable (impostor syndrome is real and hard to get over, even outside of academic spaces), but when in an interview, strive to be your own best cheerleader.

Passion matters more than perfection

Even if your intentions for taking a certain position or enrolling in your degree program weren’t clear to you at the time, try to present yourself as intentionally shaping your career path, rather than aimlessly shifting from role to role.

Focus on what you did do, not what you didn’t (remain on the tenure track, for example). Sure, you should know how to respond if you’re asked why you decided not to pursue a more traditional academic path. Just don’t start your story there.

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