Finding Your Place in a Pandemic: The Non-Academic Job Market
Updated: Jan 16
Dr. Angel Steadman
Duolingo & Highline College
Finding Your Place in a Pandemic: The Non-Academic Job Market
Few things spark as much dread and anxiety among graduate students as applying for jobs. In the best of times, graduates outnumber academic positions, leading to intense competition and extended job searches (Larson, Ghaffarzadegan, & Xue, 2013). Now, as the world reels from the ongoing implications and disruptions of COVID-19 and many academic institutions continue their hiring freezes (Olena, 2020), it can seem even harder to find a good position (Kelsky, 2020). The good news is, for those who are interested in finding positions outside of academia, there are hiring managers around the world who are looking for exactly the skills and talent that graduates of applied linguistics programs bring with them.
Before I continue, I should clarify that, throughout my own academic career, I have always felt as if I have operated with one foot in academia and one foot in industry. In addition to my work as a teacher and researcher, I have a professional background in corporate communications, training and development, and program administration. In each position, I was not only responsible for translating my academic know-how into practical assets for the organization, but I was also on numerous hiring committees that operated with the organizations’ needs in mind. Now, after having completed my doctorate, I continue to combine the two worlds by working as a writer and editor for the popular language learning app, Duolingo, in addition to my full-time faculty position at Highline College in the Seattle area.
Searching for a Non-Academic Position
The hardest part of finding a non-academic position can be simply finding an opportunity that piques our interest and allows us to imagine ourselves in settings that are structured quite differently from the world of academia. The tips below may help guide applicants through this challenging initial hurdle.
Carefully consider the type of work and workplace culture that you find enjoyable and fulfilling. This step may seem obvious at first glance, but spending some time going into detail about this can help you save time in the long run. Take every aspect of the job into consideration. Consider larger questions such as the sort of work that will leave you feeling fulfilled, but also be honest with yourself about the everyday work culture that you will feel comfortable working within. Some questions you can ask yourself include:
Do I prefer having a regular work schedule, or do I need flexibility to work my best?
Do I do well in fast-paced, constantly changing environments, or do I need the time, space, and institutional stability to reflect on and finesse my work?
Am I willing to travel regularly for work (often on short notice), work long hours, or take on the added stresses of management positions? (Keep in mind that promotions in industry often involve personnel or project management responsibilities.)
How much autonomy do I need to have in my everyday work? Relatedly, how well do I do with constructive criticism, working toward clearly defined goals, quickly reconceptualizing projects, and adhering to predetermined timelines?
Of course, not all non-academic jobs will require all or any of the attributes discussed above, but having a good grasp on where you personally stand in each of these areas will help you determine which positions will be a good fit for you both before you apply and during the application and hiring process.
Place your work and your interests within the broader context. Much of our work in academia entails delving deeply into a single area of focus, but to be successful in non-academic markets, it is important to be able to make connections between the details of your area of expertise and the larger societal needs it addresses. This will not only help you identify a position that will be meaningful for you, but it will also help you talk about your work in your application and interview process in ways that will resonate with potential employers.
Getting to the broader context may require a series of questions about why you are interested in the topic and why it matters not only to you, but to the world at large. Graduate students are often advised to give an “elevator speech” about their topic, which is short, accessible to those who do not have in-depth knowledge of the subject, yet informative enough to be interesting to the audience. The concept I mention here is very similar, but with immediate, practical implications for the organization as the focus. For example, graduate students focusing on corpus linguistics may directly apply their work to targeting key vocabulary or phrases in language learning apps or artificial intelligence software, while graduate students who focus on discourse analysis may find a good fit in educational consulting or public relations. Those on the more pedagogical end of the spectrum may apply their deep knowledge of learning theory and curricular planning to instructional design or workforce learning and development, each of which are high-paying and rapidly growing areas in the corporate sector, even in today’s fluctuating job market.
Applying and Interviewing for the Position
The second hurdle is intertwined with the first—by the time you get to the stage in which you are applying for the position, you should already have a good idea of not only the points listed above, but also why you are a strong contender for the position. However, the process of applying and interviewing for a non-academic job is often radically different from an academic position, so knowing how to translate your qualifications in ways that will be noticed by hiring managers is key.
Think of your resume not only in terms of accomplishments, but in terms of the skills you have developed in the pursuit of your achievements. This is, in my experience, one of the biggest differences between how individuals present themselves professionally in academia and industry. Academic CVs, with long lists of awards, grants, publications, and service to various committees, are seen within academia as evidence that we can continue working toward similar accomplishments in the future, and since these are core parts of a typical academic job, they need little exposition. However, in non-academic positions, grants and publications may have little or nothing to do with the actual job requirements, and indeed, hiring managers may see long lists of accomplishments with no contextualization as evidence that an applicant is more driven by status or title than the work itself.
In order to stand out to hiring managers, think about what attributes or skills you have, whether evidenced by or developed in the pursuit of your previous accomplishments, that will be of use to their organizations. For example, writing dissertations, theses, and papers requires excellent written communication skills including attention to audience and genre, multiple revisions, and adhering to style guides; data analysis and interpretation; word processing, formatting, and visual and textual representation of data; and ability to organize, synthesize, and present vast amounts of information coherently and cohesively, among many other skills. Likewise, giving talks and presentations requires advanced public speaking skills, the ability to adapt communication style to multiple formats, as well as a willingness to network and promote ideas within the field. It is your job as the applicant to show not only that you have achieved something you are proud of, but the personal attributes you have that allowed you to accomplish what you have done, and how those attributes are valuable and can be applied to a wide range of organizational projects and initiatives.
Draw attention to your experience working with others. In academia, particularly during our grad school and early years in our careers, there can be a strong emphasis on individual accomplishments. Although collaboration is also important in academia, it is a non-negotiable reality for the vast majority of non-academic jobs, in which teamwork—and even more important, dedication to the team—are among the most highly valued attributes a candidate can possess.
In almost every interview in which I have been involved, the decision of whether or not to hire a person came down not to the number of accomplishments the candidate could list but how and whether that person could contribute to the team as a whole. I can recall multiple times that candidates were highly qualified but did not have the teamwork or collaboration experience that the job required, and they were not offered the position as a result. Highlighting the ways you have collaborated with others in the past, as well as the ways that you have been able to grow and adapt as a result of these collaborations, will help give hiring managers a better idea of how you will fit within their institutional structure.
Don’t panic when you adapt your CV into resume format. Resumes must be significantly shorter than CVs; whereas CVs can have pages devoted purely to publications and public talks, resumes should typically be no longer than two pages. This means you will have to cut out many of the accomplishments you list on your CV—and some of this will hurt. I distinctly remember this pain from the first time I modified my CV into a two-page resume: It felt as if I were discarding months or years of my life into the ether. As a result, it is tempting to simply submit a CV in place of a resume (which is something you absolutely should not do unless the job posting specifies this as an option), or to create a “resume” that is actually a lightly whittled-down version of your CV. However, doing so can be counterproductive in making you seem out of touch or unwilling to align yourself with the needs of the organization.
Be brutal in your deletions. Delete those hard-won lines that detail your every publication or presentation. Keep only those that you believe are both directly applicable for the position to which you are applying and are meaningful to individuals who may not be intimately familiar with your field. Having received a distinguished award may be advantageous to include for some positions, but most presentations and publications will need to be removed. In their place, focus again on skills and responsibilities. For example, a monetary award can be reframed as having successfully managed a budget to carry out a research project, and serving on a conference planning committee can be evidence of long-term logistical planning alongside a wide range of stakeholders.
Have a LinkedIn page, a personal website, or both. Employers regularly perform searches for candidates during the hiring process, and LinkedIn pages or personal websites are great ways to “brand” yourself and prove that you are serious about your career. They are also excellent ways to mention the many accomplishments that you had to delete from your resume, display testimonials from your colleagues about your professionalism, and provide samples of your work. In addition, LinkedIn has a job-search feature that will automatically alert you to positions that match your experience and skillset, which can be invaluable in helping you identify positions that may not appear through your typical search criteria.
Be prepared for practical questions in the interview. Depending on the position, you may be asked to describe how you would handle challenging scenarios, lead the interviewer(s) through your thought process as you tackle major projects, or deal with disagreements between yourself and your team or members of management. This is a great way for you to show how your academic experiences have given you organizational and soft skills that are highly valued in industry jobs. Learn everything you can about the company and the position before the interview so you can have an idea of what sort of questions you may be asked. If possible, prepare for the interview with someone familiar with the field in which you are applying. They can give you insights into some of the field-specific terminology as well as industry norms that might be difficult to know before entering the profession.
Plan for a fast pace. The non-academic interviewing and hiring process is dramatically different from the norm in academic settings, which means all your application materials, including letters of recommendation, need to be submitted quickly. Whereas academic jobs may take months to fill, interviews with private companies may be scheduled and held within days (or even hours!) after you submit your application. After the initial interview, they also typically move even more rapidly; if the interviewer(s) determine you should continue in the hiring process, you may hear back from the organization within a couple of days or weeks about next steps. Once you reach this stage, you should be prepared to move quickly. As an example, I once came to what I thought was an initial interview only to be shuffled into multiple back-to-back interviews—including one with the CEO of the company—was offered a position that day, and I was asked to begin work within the following two weeks!
Landing the Job
The final hurdle is one that deserves attention as well—the hurdle that applicants face when they actually take the job. If you have not previously worked in a non-academic setting, the workplace culture can feel foreign and overwhelming. Familiarize yourself carefully with policies as well as unwritten expectations and norms in areas such as holding meetings, communicating with coworkers, and time allowed for socializing. As early as possible, try to get to know everyone you will be working with, even if they are outside of your department or team, and begin building relationships with them. As mentioned previously, non-academic jobs often have a strong element of teamwork and collaboration, so these relationships will be key to your success.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions as you are getting situated; ask about typical timelines, long-term projects in development, and the organization’s visions for the future. Locate vision and mission statements, and ask your colleagues how your work intersects with the work of others to further the organizational vision and mission. Ask for feedback from your supervisor, and be sure to clarify the level of autonomy and flexibility you have in each of your projects before you begin.
Transitioning to non-academic job settings can be stressful given the large differences between industry and academia, but it can also be an excellent way to have a fulfilling, lucrative position in which you are able to do what you love—and make an impact on the world in ways you may not have initially considered.
Kelsky, K. (2020, April 17). The professor is in: Stranded on the academic job market this year? The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-professor-is-in-stranded-on-the-academic-job-market-this-year/
Larson, R.C., Ghaffarzadegan, N., & Xue, Y. (2013). Too many PhD graduate or too few academic job openings: The basic reproductive number R0 in academia. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 31(6). 745-750. DOI: 10.1002/sres.2210
Olena, A. (2020, October 5). The pandemic continues to put a damper on faculty hiring. The Scientist. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/the-pandemic-continues-to-put-a-damper-on-faculty-hiring-68020
Dr. Angel Steadman is a Pedagogical Content Editor with Duolingo and a tenure-track faculty member in ESL at Highline College in the Seattle metro area.