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Resume & Cover Letter Tips for Alt-Acs and Other Career Changers

This is part of my Transferable Skills Talk: An ongoing series in which we identify and discuss your transferable skills as an alt-ac. Today’s edition: how to talk about your current work AND how to talk about what you’d like to do in your resume and cover letter.

When you are trying for a career change, as an alt-ac does, one thing that can hold you back is how you describe what you do.

When you change careers, one thing you have to do is clearly connect the dots between what you do now and what you want to do. Let’s look at some strategies for rebranding your already awesome self so that you don’t leave hiring managers scratching their heads on why you’re interested or a good fit.

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Alt-Acs Must Get On LinkedIn

This is one of the most contentious topics I discuss with academics who are “breaking” alt-ac. That they need to get on LinkedIn. Look. I get it. LinkedIn is of virtually no use to true academics. (Although perhaps that is changing? Someone who is an academic please let me know!) It’s not part of your grad school curriculum, you don’t know any professors on it, AND it’s just a gross “over there” for corporate types, amirite?

Yes and no. Mostly no. And if you’re alt-ac: you are definitely wrong.

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A Critique of the Nature article that says a PhD isn’t for Everyone

Oh lord. A Nature story is going viral on my twitter, “Teach undergraduates that doing a PhD will require them to embrace failure.” The piece is about how not all students are a good fit for a PhD. Agreed. But the tweet that Nature put out was this one sentence excerpt:

“The two most common causes of hardship in PhD students are an inability to accept failure and choosing this career path for the prestige, rather than out of any real interest in research.” ~Irini Topalidou, Nature (18 Oct 2018)

No wonder people are pissed. Graduate students face so many, much more prevalent challenges, and more universal problems, including mental health, having to pick a new topic, financial stress, hazing, imposter syndrome, no work-life balance, isolation, and the list goes on. The “inability to accept failure” and “choosing this career path” wrongly aren’t in the top 10. I doubt they’d even rank among the top 20.

But. When you look past the tweet, there is something in the article worth discussing.

What the Nature Article Gets Right

What Nature tweeted wasn’t the article’s premise. The article’s thrust is that there is a real need to provide more instructions about and require those considering graduate work to research career outcomes, challenges, and strongly consider whether a PhD really is right for them.

I agree. Every student – in every undergraduate major and grad program – needs more support and training in career options, how to research careers, and how to build a thriving career. No arguments there.

Some Things the Nature Article Gets Wrong

But there’s tons of other things the Nature article gets wrong. Here are my top 4.

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Avoid Remote Only Job Sites

When it comes to job searches, a lot of alt-ac clients want to find a job that allows them to at least in part work remotely. I know how important this is for academics in particular. 

So today I’m tackling one of the most common questions in my inbox: “Where do I find remote jobs?”

Why Academics Want Remote Jobs

Academics WANT control over their work. Autonomy and independence are some of the biggest reasons for pursuing academia and grad/professional degrees in the first place! We wanted to become experts so that we could exercise greater control over the kinds of work we do. The ability to make choices about what kinds of tasks we take on. The ability to schedule our own workday as we please. That is part of the expected deal. That what comes with deep expertise and authority over one’s subject matter is a more professional level of job. 

And these days, most of us are smart enough to realize that there’s often no compelling NEED for us to physically be in the office 5 days a week. (Or at all?!) Between Zoom, Skype, Slack, and I don’t even know what else, can’t we be connected no matter where we are? If dumb #influencers (yeah, I said it!) can work from anywhere, why can’t those of us with highly specialized knowledge and skills be afforded the same courtesy?

Why Academics Need Remote Jobs

And then there’s also very real needs. Many of us alt-acs NEED remote work – for all kinds of reasons. Many academics are members of dual-career households. Many are partners with someone who is faculty and/or otherwise geographically bound. My alt-ac PhD spouse, for instance, specializes in the archaeology of the Colorado Plateau. Even if I find a great job in Minneapolis, that’s not going to work for his career.  So should my career suffer when I’ve maxed out my opportunities locally?

Of course I’m all for finding the style and type of work that you need AND want, but I’m afraid I’m here to warn you that there is no great answer to this question.

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For Alt-Acs: Lose the Dissertation Requirement, PhD programs

What might a PhD program designed specifically for alternative-academic careers look like” asks Joshua Kim in the Inside HigherEd article “Collaborative Work, Academic Training, and Alt-Ac Careers.” It’s a good question. Kim’s article points out how much PhD work – the prospectus, the lit reviews, the research, analysis, and the dissertation, are all done as solo efforts. But alt-acs “do almost all of their work in collaboration.”

True.

Nearly all of my work is as part of a team. Yes, there is a rhythm between doing individual tasks independently (writing curriculum, writing training workshops, etc.) but that is balanced in at least equal amounts of time by coming back together to work with a team (instructional designers, web developers) on how the curriculum I’ve written will be developed and delivered as eLearning.

The other alt-acs I work with – their work is largely structured the same.

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