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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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Exploring Alternative Academic Careers

Utilizing informational interviews to get to know other career paths.

November 30, 2017
 
 

Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Iowa. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien.

While more and more faculty are recognizing the value of “alt-ac” careers for graduate students, most academic departments aren’t well-equipped to help students explore and pursue these careers. Few faculty have experience outside of the traditional academic career path and those who do tend to have a relatively limited perspective. While a wide variety of online resources have popped up in the last several years to help grad students with this type of search (The Versatile PhD and Imagine PhD are two great examples), the best way to get a sense of what is involved in particular alt-ac career is to talk to the people who work in them every day.

If you already know some alt-ac professionals, talking to them can be a great place to start. If there aren’t a lot of alt-ac professionals in your professional network however, setting up an informational interview with someone in an area that interests you is generally your best bet to learn more about the field. While this process (like all professional networking) can be daunting, it’s a valuable way to explore careers, expand your network, and learn more about people from across campus. Here’s a rough outline of the process that you might follow:

Explore

Using your career services center, browsing through your university website, or reading through articles about alt-ac, explore what type of careers might interest you. As you explore, it’s helpful to note an emerging distinction between “alt-ac,” or alternative career paths within the university and “post-ac,” alternative career paths outside the university. It might be helpful to start with some of the broad categories within alt-ac or to simply to think about what type of work you would love to do every day and ask around to figure out who at the university does it. Talking with people, whether faculty or other students within your program, can be a great help with this as they may well be able to connect you with someone who is currently in a field you might be interested in exploring.

Reach out

Once you’ve identified an area that seems promising, reach out to someone who works in that or a related area. This can be done through a direct email or asking faculty in your department if they happen to know the person. If you use LinkedIn, you can also look for points of contact within your professional network. Whatever way you choose to connect, it’s best just to be up front and polite, explaining that you are a graduate student on campus and you are interested in learning more about their field. Ask if the person might be able to spare some time to talk about their job and career path. Chances are they will be more than happy to chat and, if not, they’ll likely be able to recommend someone who is.

Prepare

After you’ve found someone to meet with, the next step is to prepare for the interview. While glancing through the interviewee’s LinkedIn or resume can be helpful in prepping for an interview, the bigger thing to focus on is learning a little bit more about the career area itself. Do they have a professional organization? An annual conference? A publication? Getting even a cursory sense of the field can help you develop stronger and more useful questions so that you can learn valuable information without monopolizing the interviewee’s time. This is another point where asking around in your department for questions or information can save significant time and energy during this part of the process.

Connect

Meet with the person. This could be in their office or if could be at a local coffee shop (make sure to give them the choice, so they can pick the place where they are most comfortable). Try to ask open-ended questions that allow you to get a sense of what their job is and how it was that they got there. You can also ask about other professional opportunities in the field, the types of skills that they rely on on a regular basis, and how their education and experience prepared them for their current job.

Remember that people tend to like talking about themselves, particularly to interlocutors who are genuinely interested and make a sincere effort to learn more about them and their career. It’s also a good idea to share why it is that you’re interested in this career and to ask if there are particular resources (professional organizations, listservs, or publications) that you could use to learn more about the career area.

If you find that you’re really interested in their field, you can also ask if their office has any assistantships or practicum experiences for graduate students that you might be able to apply for. These opportunities are often unadvertised and can be a great way to build your skill set and resume.

Network

Make sure to follow up after the meeting. You can send a thank you email, though a physical thank you note shows an extra degree of appreciation (and with campus mail, you don’t even have to pay for postage!). It’s also a good idea to try to connect with them on LinkedIn (and if you don’t have a LinkedIn, seriously consider making one) so that you can both continue to follow each other and so that you have them as a point of contact in your network.

While this process can seem intimidating, if you spread it over the course of a semester or even a year (perhaps trying to connect with one person every month or two), it becomes much more manageable. As with any large project, networking and career exploration are best tackled in small, discrete steps. There are a lot of great alt-ac careers out there and embracing the possibilities of this career path (rather than treating it as a fallback) can be a huge advantage in navigating the job search, no matter what field you choose.

Have you done an informational interview with someone? Do you have any tips or tricks for making the process smoother or more effective? Tell us about them in the comments.  

[Image by Pixabay user Rachel Scott and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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