Seeking a Profession Outside of Academia

Liesl Swogger | January 2001

If you receive this publication, chances are you’re looking for a job. And, given the academic job market, chances are you’re also looking more and more frequently at the Other Opportunities section of the AWP Job List. What if, out of base, financial need, you decide to abandon teaching and actually apply for a job outside of academe? What next? This article will answer the most basic questions that arise when someone decides to apply for nonacademic jobs.

Research & Preparation

No one would ever write a thesis without some lengthy research. Irene Honey, Director of Career Services at George Washington University, says that "the trick in successful career planning and transition is in serious and thoughtful preparation which includes self-assessment, knowledge of one’s skills, interests, values, etcetera, and knowledge about the realities of careers and the world of work. Research is imperative." And while searching for a new job doesn’t require nearly the same caliber of research as an academic tome, it will be time consuming. The benefit, on the other hand, is a satisfying career.

Where to Begin?

If you have never thought of an alternative to teaching, begin by making a wish list that covers both the position that you’re looking for and the organization. Ask yourself if you are looking for an organization, like a nonprofit or a think tank, that mimics what Honey describes as the "collaborative, reflective, research, and exploring world of higher education." Alternatively, would you like to be in an organization, like sales or technology, that focuses on the competitive "bottom line?" Are you interested in the organization’s mission? Or just in the job that you would be doing? Are you prepared to work more than 40 hours a week? Or would you prefer to work strictly 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.? Are you willing to travel? As tempting as it might be to say "I’ll do anything!" be realistic about what you really want, and can accomplish, given your other commitments-to work, to friends, and, of course, to that novel you’ve always talked about writing.

A more structured way of doing this exercise is to consult Richard Bolles’ book, What Color is Your Parachute?, a career planning "Bible" that is updated annually. This book comes highly recommended by Honey, who says that "those who haven’t read the book and done the exercises contained within are cheating themselves. The book is a classic and well worth its minimal purchase price!"

Once you have a list of your ideals, balance that against reality. Ask yourself, what jobs require skills that are most compatible with what I’m already doing? When Elizabeth Rose, a former adjunct professor at Penn State, began applying for nonacademic jobs she "just started applying for anything remotely related to my work as a writing instructor. On the side, I had done freelance writing and editing, so I was qualified for full-time jobs in communications and publishing."

Brain Picking

Rose already had some experience in the nonacademic field she was entering professionally, and so she had some idea of what to expect. If you don’t have any experience, Honey recommends that people learn as much about their field of interest as possible through Web research and talking to people in the field. She points out that informational interviews with contacts, colleagues, and alumni are helpful to job seekers. Conducting interviews can be a daunting task for adjuncts because they may feel that they don’t know anyone outside of academe. If this is the case, make a list of absolutely anyone you know who works outside academe including family, friends, and friends of friends-you may be surprised by the list of useful resources you produce. Other avenues for finding brains to pick: search for local networking and career information organizations, for example, websites like DC Webwomen,, and the Women’s Information Network, provide career information and people to contact. Sites like Career Alternatives for Art Historians, list jobs and the specific skills needed for each different category of work. Honey recommends (this site is monitored by Richard Bolles, the "guru of career development") and, saying that "both sites are full of good data and are easy ways to get information about individual career fields and organizations/companies of interest."

Don’t be shy about calling people to ask them about their career; these are people who have put themselves out there specifically to provide career information to others, and they are happy to speak with you. In addition to finding out what skills are needed for the job, ask what people do all day in that field-you might be surprised by the answers you receive (both pleasantly and otherwise). Marva Gumbs, Executive Director of the George Washington University Career Center, suggests asking questions such as: what the starting and ending points are in the career you’re investigating, and what are the salary ranges you should ask for if offered a job, what personality types fit best with the job, and what kinds of creativity are needed.

To find out what the job market looks like in your potential field, Honey recommends The Occupational Outlook handbook published by the Department of Labor. While you’re researching prospective fields, find out which organizations are hiring, what industries are growing, and what potential exists for you to grow in the career that you chose. For example, English professors who want to become professional writers have the option of looking at traditional, paper editing positions, or Web content writers. Examine the differences in pay between the two types of writing positions. Research the industry: while Web content writers often make higher salaries than traditional writers and editors, they are often hired by "dot-coms." And although the salary may be appealing, be aware that the high tech industry is currently going through a period of consolidation, with many dot-coms closing their doors. Apply to companies that have a history and look like they’ll still be around next year.

Organizational associations are another good resource. For example, someone considering moving into K–12 education would want to contact the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education as a starting point to investigate that field.

A New Environment

Know that a career change will bring a new, more regimented schedule. Rose comments that her new position, while providing the security of a living wage, health care, and predictable work hours, leaves little time for writing. Some adjuncts who commute to as many as four or five institutions to teach, may find that they have more spare time when working a 40 hour work week in one geographical place. For some this may become dull after a couple of months. For others, the 40 hour work week may be more than they are accustomed to working, having never been able to put together a full-time work schedule of adjunct positions. Simply being aware of the potential changes to one’s schedule may help with the transition.

From C.v. to Resume

Once you’ve decided what jobs you’re going to apply for, pull out your c.v. (if you ever had a chance to put it away) and get ready to transform it into a resume. According to Honey, "One of the biggest challenges facing professors looking outside academia is developing a resume which works in the marketplace outside of Higher Ed. C.v.’s do not cut it outside of Higher Ed… Being concise and clear while briefly describing professional accomplishments is a resume skill expected by the world outside academia." There are a number of resources available with information on how to transform your c.v. into a resume. Check out The Chronicle of Higher Educations website at, and Honey recommends "Tom Jackson and Martin Yate (as) authors of some of the most credible resume writing books." Additionally, some of the sites mentioned previously, and http://www. contain good information on resumes.

The Interview

Be prepared for people to call you soon after they receive your resume. Rose recounts that she "landed this job (her current Editorial position) quite swiftly. I think I’d only been looking outside of academia for about two weeks. I heard about this job and had it two days later." Although many adjuncts have interviewed at the MLA and with numerous schools, interviewing for a nonacademic job is different because, unlike teaching, which you clearly have experience doing, you must explain to your prospective employer how the skills you have translate to the position for which you applied. Rose explains that "when I interviewed for this job as a writer/editor, I not only played up my freelance work and publications, but talked about teaching rhetoric for 15 years. I argued that after teaching written communication skills for that long, I ought to be able to put into practice what I preached." Another difference between interviewing for nonacademic jobs is the influence that the current job market has on employers. Currently, employers are scrambling to hire people. Keep in mind that you, as the job applicant, have skills that this employer badly needs, and allow that to feed your confidence.

What Next?

Once you accept that nonacademic job that provides a living wage, health care, and a reasonable number of working hours, the only question that lingers is this: to what extent do you remain involved in the academic community? Rose, a published writer, continues to give readings and guest lecture classes. Rose also continues to search for an academic position, but without the same sense of desperation. She comments that "What’s nice is doing the academic search without being desperate. I have my dignity now, you know? I’m going to be okay." Once ensconced outside academe, former professors may find themselves with the ability to be selectively involved in academic life.

Whether one continues to pursue an academic job or not, people who invest in the career transition process reap the benefits in the form of a satisfying career, good salary, and health benefits, and, as Rose points out, a sense of dignity that adjuncts often feel is missing from their current situation.


Liesl Swogger recently completed the MA program in English Literature at George Mason University. She currently serves as Editorial Assistant at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

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