This article is the third in a multi-part series on career paths beyond the academy. The first piece provided advice on when and why to consider careers outside higher ed and the second provided advice for exploring career paths and taking care of yourself while navigating a potential career transition.
Once you’ve decided to explore leaving—or decided that you’re going to leave—the process rarely happens overnight. Although the interview process outside the academy is often much quicker, you can still expect to put significant time into researching organizations, developing your materials, and preparing for interviews.
As you are developing your resumé and cover letter and preparing for interviews, it’s important to use the language of the industry you’re applying to, reframing your experience for your audience. You can learn and use this language by reading job descriptions closely, reading trade publications, through informational interviews, and through courses, certificates, and webinars that focus on professional learning and development.
As you are crafting your resumé, be sure to look at examples from other professionals in the field(s) to which you’re applying. Develop a generic resumé template and then carefully adapt for each position you apply to. As you are revising your resumé for specific positions, tweak the language in your resumé to mirror the language in the job description. For instance, if the job ad lists “event publicity” in the requirements, revise your resumé from “event marketing” to “event publicity.” Clearly conveying the impact of what you did is as important as describing your job responsibilities. For example, rather than “Developing and leading university-wide training and upskilling program” use “Developing and leading enterprise-wide training and upskilling program for 50+ units, exceeding uptake target by 32% and under budget by 66%.”
Rather than repeating your resumé in narrative form, your cover letter should convey why you’re passionate about what you do, what makes you excited about the mission, products, or services of the organization you’re applying to, and why, specifically, this role is an excellent fit for you. Highlight 2-3 key areas of your skill set and experience that are most relevant to the position, rather than trying to provide an exhaustive but surface-level overview of everything you’ve accomplished. As with your resumé, reviewing examples of cover letters from other professionals working in the area you’re applying to can be extremely helpful in ensuring that you’re on the right track in terms of both tone and content.
Once you are contacted for an interview, celebrate! Transitioning career paths is a significant undertaking, and I strongly encourage you to celebrate each step of your success.
As with your resumé and cover letter, it’s important to connect the dots for your interviewers between your experience in the higher ed industry and in the industry to which you’re applying. Your pitch should be polished, compelling, and targeted to the specific company and role for which you’re interviewing. Before you begin the interview process, develop “talking points.” Review each item in the job description and be prepared to speak to how you have done similar work in the past and with what outcomes. Focus on describing what you did, how you did it, and with what impact. Industries beyond the academy often highly value teamwork, collaboration, and collegiality; using examples that illustrate how you’ve not only participated in but facilitated collaborations is important. Your job in the interview process is not to convey how much you want the job—although enthusiasm is important— but how you can help the organization you’re interviewing with to solve the specific business needs outlined in the job description.
Having a well-developed list of questions for your interviewers that help you assess topics that are important to you in your next career move is a critical part of interview preparation. In addition to learning more about the specific role and the team you’ll be joining, you should also be exploring whether the organization and its culture are a fit for you.
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until you start the interview process to start answering that question. Read reviews on GlassDoor (which also posts reviews of interview processes and sample interview questions), Indeed, and other review platforms. Look for organizations that regularly win awards in areas important to you—Work-Life Balance, Happy Employees, Best Places for Women, Best Places for Parents, Best Places for Minorities, etc. Comparably’s Best Companies for Happiness, Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For, Newsweek’s Most Loved Companies and similar rankings of employers are also useful sources of information about organizational culture.
Remember that interviewing is a two-way street; you should be just as focused on determining whether a particular organization and role are an excellent fit for you as you move through the interview process as your interviewers are on determining whether you’re the right candidate for the role.
In the next and final piece in this series, I’ll share advice for navigating a professional identity change, creating a vibrant new professional network, and flourishing in your career beyond the academy.
Brandy L. Simula, PhD (she/her/hers) is a consultant, coach, and professional speaker working at the intersections of leadership and organizational development, DEIB, and well-being. After a decade working as a scholar, teacher, and administrator in higher ed, she transitioned to a leadership development role at a Fortune 50 in 2021. Read more about her work at brandysimula.com.