Sometimes Going Backwards is the Fastest Way to Move Forward

Often academics looking for work in a new field get immediately frustrated by one big factor: the salary. Why? Because since working in a new field often entails just getting a foot in the door, you may feel like you’re starting over, sometimes even at ground level. And you may be right.

But that can also be a short-term problem, so before you just cross something off your list solely on pay, there are 2 major things to consider.

First, I can’t sugar coat this so let’s just get this out of the way. When you are switching fields your graduate degree does not give you any unique advantage in entering a different field. Just because you have a Master’s or Ph.D. doesn’t score you points with the hiring manager. (In fact, many biases still remain *against* applicants that are seen as overqualified and inexperienced in the new field.) Most professions that are most suit able for academics themselves have their own requirements and barriers to entry. So when you’re applying for jobs in a new field, you’re competing against applicants who often already have the training, degree(s), and/or knowledge or experience in that field. So often you do have to lower your expectations on the level of job that you can reasonably expect as your entry point into a new field. And that often means lower pay than you’d like to see. However, there is a silver lining. Career changers who come in with an advanced degree are much more likely to rise through the ranks much quicker. So in, say, a couple of years, you may find yourself with a couple of promotions and thus, faster increases in pay than those who rise incrementally with 2-3% pay bumps here and there. For instance, in my first new job in my field, my pay was comparable to my colleagues in the same field who had “just” a Bachelor’s degree. But after the first year, I got a 25% bump in pay with a promotion, and within 3 years I was making more than new assistant professors in my Ph.D. program.

But second, are you taking into account all of the new knowledge and skills you will gain by taking a new opportunity? You’re sacrificing pay but learning on the job, rather than having to reschool yet again to get a new degree or certificate on your own. And what about the connections you’ll build? Meeting new peers and expanding your network may be instrumental in finding a higher paying, better opportunity. And a final strategy to consider is that switching directions – even in spite of a temporary downgrade in pay – can be worth it if your new field is less of a dead end. Like when there are way more companies in the new field, or you’d be taking a role that is found throughout multiple industries. This makes pivoting FROM that to what you really want to get to a whole lot easier, as often experience on the job trumps all else.

Here are questions I’d ask you to consider. Would you rather keep waiting to find the “perfect” opportunity to come along? Or take something that at least pays a steady salary and benefits while you upskill & continue to look? By taking that approach, you gain insights (really powerful insights I might add) into how that field works, and what the day to day work really is, giving you a chance to finetune your search. And finally – is it better to face a gap in employment and thus have even more urgency and pressure to quickly find the “right” job or to have a less-than-stellar job for now to stave off that stress and anxiety?

The transition from an academic path to an alt-ac path is HARD, you guys. It is SO hard. And at times, you may need to humble yourself (yes, I used its as a verb). Okay, fine, for you grammar nerds -🙂 – lower your expectations. I personally don’t believe in using the phrase “beneath you,” when talking about this. The job search, and doing any kind of work are both hard enough. So I don’t ascribe to there ever being shame for doing honest work to pay your bills. And there are other secondary benefits to considering this strategy to when switching careers. Trying something new means you can take at least a temporary break from or significantly slow down your job search.

Is this a strategy you would consider? Why or why not? (Other than my usual fine print of obviously I’m not going to tell you you have to take a job that doesn’t meet your basic financial needs!) Presuming it meets at least your bare minimum, could you accept a lower than desired salary short term (a year or two) in order to make the rest of your path that much easier?

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