A few weeks ago, I talked about the four things I say most often to academics who are considering leaving.
- You have more skills than you think.
- The best way to find out what jobs actually exist in the world is to ask people what they do and what they like about it.
- Of course you’re exhausted and grieving, and that is as it should be.
- Step one is always abundant, luxurious self-care, as much as you can possibly stand.
Last week, I talked about the skills you’ve probably not thought about. Today I want to talk about figuring out what jobs are actually out there.
There are more than you think
There’s a reason “what are you going to major in?” and “what are you going to do with that?” are such classic questions. Our cultural narrative around careers still believes the Boomer-era model of degree > entry level job in field > up the ladder > retirement is what should happen.
The problem is that most jobs these days don’t fit into a linear progression, much less emerge from a single degree.
Here are some jobs I know about, via colleagues and friends and lots of conversations:
- Helping a company figure out how to use SEO
- Managing a marketing roll-out
- Coordinating a project that has regular and irregular outputs
- Designing the straps for backpacks
- Supporting the brand on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.)
- Creating and managing a two-year-long training program
- Helping companies understand unconscious bias and how to combat it
There’s not a single one of them I could trace back to a single college degree.
Because higher education is cut into domains of knowledge, and because one of the functions of higher education is to prepare people for a certain segment of the working world, it makes sense that we implicitly assume that the one maps onto the other.
That’s only made worse because there are some fields that work that way. They tend to be the fields that require credentialing (think accounting, nursing, and law), and they tend to be the kinds of jobs we know about because they’re consumer-facing.
We don’t see all of the many jobs that don’t work that way, because they aren’t the jobs we come into contact with as consumers.
You don’t know what you don’t know
It can be really disheartening to think about leaving academia when it seems like there are no interesting jobs out there, because you don’t want to teach high school and you don’t know what else you could do.
So whether you’ve decided to leave or you’re still contemplating it, it’s helpful to start building an understanding of all of the various opportunities out there.
One way to do that is to browse job boards. This isn’t my favorite method, because it tends to get overwhelming and because it’s sometimes hard to see beneath the job title and description to figure out what the job actually does.
Another is to identify some companies you might be interested in and haunt their careers pages. This gives you insight into the company itself and the various roles people play.
My favorite method is to ask people about their work. Now, I’m an introvert, and small talk makes me want to pluck my eyeballs out with a dull spoon, but you’d be surprised how happy people are to talk about their work. The conversation goes beyond small talk really quickly when you bring curious questions to the table.
- Oh, interesting. What do you like about it?
- Huh, you know, I don’t know very much about X. What’s a typical day like?
- So what is the company’s overall mission? How does your job fit into that?
- Are most of the people you work with doing [same job] or are they doing different things? What are they doing?
The goal is to start internalizing the reality that most of the jobs out there aren’t ones you can name right now. As you start learning about jobs, you’ll also start recognizing your own reactions to them — Oh, that part sounds kind of interesting, but ick, that other part would make me want to cry. This is really important information. This gives you a starting point for identifying which kinds of jobs you want to learn more about and which you want to avoid.
The holiday season is perfect for this
Most of us will, within the next few weeks, end up at a party of some holiday description. Maybe it’s a spouse’s company’s holiday party. Maybe it’s a church potluck. Maybe it’s a PTA end-of-semester party. Maybe your mother-in-law throws an annual Boxing Day house party.
These are perfect situations for having a series of job conversations: You’re probably having to talk to some strangers, and you’re in a situation where it’s relatively easy to talk for 10 minutes and then excuse yourself.
But don’t assume you only need to talk to strangers. Your sister’s best friend, your brother-in-law, your son’s friend’s mother — each of these people probably has a lot to say about their own work and the work that happens around them.
Now, if you run into a Negative Nelly, just smile and thank them and change the subject. The last thing you need is a dissertation on why something sucks. Just know that most of the people you’ll talk to will have some good things to say about what they do.
At this stage, you aren’t asking anyone for a job. You aren’t asking anyone for introductions to someone else. You’re just gathering information you can use to figure out what else might be out there for you.