Crafting Your Career Narrative for Non-Academic Jobs

by | Jun 27, 2017

Whether you’re finishing up your degree, teaching as an adjunct, or currently on the tenure track, if you’ve decided to pursue employment beyond academia, 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 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 career narrative is 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 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 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 academic 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. Next, articulate a deeper explanation of your strengths and abilities as they pertain to the specific job you’re applying to. Finally, have illustrative examples for each skill and ability on hand (ideally, this will be 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 it 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 explaining to potential employers why you ended up in front of them and how you can help them reach their goals simply won’t do you justice. Don’t lead with your shortcomings and end up rejecting yourself before employers get a chance to judge for themselves.

In your career narrative, be honest but always positive, even when asked to share a stumble or explain a complicated part of your past. This can feel deeply awkward and uncomfortable; impostor syndrome is real and hard to get over, even outside of academic spaces. But do it anyway: strive to be your own best cheerleader.

Ditch the perfectionism

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. 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.

Pursuing a career beyond the academy is incredibly exciting. Free from many of the strictures of academia, this is your chance to tell the story YOU want to tell about your abilities and experience.

Your goal here is not an ironclad or perfect explanation; almost everybody has idiosyncratic reasons for various career decisions. Rather, your goal to demonstrate your ability to retroactively stitch together a coherent career narrative by noticing patterns that are relevant to the position you are currently seeking.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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