I am happy to introduce the first entry in the Cocoon's newest series: our Alt-Ac Workshop, which will consist in a series of guest-posts by philosophers who have transitioned successfully to jobs outside of academia. Each entry will focus on different tips: on interviewing, networking, and so on. Our first entry--focusing on self-evaluating marketable skills and searching for potential jobs--is by Calvin Warner, who recently received his M.A. in philosophy from Georgia State University and now works in technology/software. I hope you all find the series helpful, and a big thanks to Calvin for kicking it off!
What Skills Do I Have and What Jobs Should I Apply To?
By Calvin Warner (M.A., Georgia State University)
So you’ve decided to seek non-academic or alt-ac employment after years of studying philosophy. Prospective employers don’t seem to care much that you did your dissertation on Rawls, and you might feel as if you don’t have marketable skills that will help you transition into a different career. I’m going to show you why you’re wrong! You may even find, as I have, that pessimism about the value of philosophy is mostly restricted to academic philosophers and Marco Rubio, and not shared by corporate recruiters or hiring managers.
Before you start marketing your skills to a new job, you need to first identify which kinds of jobs you are interested in pursuing. My experience is that many folks leaving philosophy decide to evacuate for similarly depressed industries (publishing, say). They will likely find fierce competition for few jobs and salaries hardly more attractive than graduate stipends. While certainly publishing, journalism or teaching are the answer for some, my advice is to think outside the box. I interviewed with a variety of unrelated organizations, from a tech startup to a Fortune 10 company, positions in marketing to positions in publishing, and even a position in sports management. Ultimately I was offered a job at a software company, a job I now enjoy at a workplace rated the best place to work in my state. Much like PhD admissions, it only takes one successful application to land a job, and I definitely encourage you to try to maintain a positive outlook and have confidence in your skills, no matter how defeated you will likely feel at times. If you have any experience with the academic job market, you are already well prepared for this and will hopefully find the real world market less brutal.
If someone had told me this (and they did) at the beginning of my job search I would have rolled my eyes, but get on LinkedIn. This is a good tool to formalize and organize your loose connections. You’ll likely discover a few of your acquaintances work in interesting jobs, and maybe they could tell you a little bit about their industry or even help you get an interview. And of course there are job postings on LinkedIn too.
Your next step should be a serious self evaluation. For me, it was thinking about why I liked studying and teaching philosophy, and then thinking about what positions might allow me to preserve some of the things I liked and discard some of the things I didn’t. This will vary by person, but for me my favorite part of my work was teaching Intro. I enjoyed research too but teaching was what really made my work not feel like a job. Unfortunately, teaching is not something that has much remunerative value in our society, for whatever reason. But this was what I was passionate about and I just had to find a way to connect that to my job search. For me, it was when I started applying to positions in corporate training that I immediately noticed an uptick in the interest I was getting. These were positions in industry where a teaching background was an asset, and even though I would be leading classes on healthcare options or software updates, recruiters didn’t care that I’d been teaching philosophy; they were just excited to see someone with the right kind of experience.
And whatever your reasons for this transition might be, it is worthwhile to think about the features of academia you are happy to jettison. I had grown tired of the at times censorial and moralistic culture of professional philosophy, the impenetrable hierarchy that pedigree bias has created, and of course the dearth of opportunities for TT jobs. Thinking about your reasons for leaving can help you identify industries that might be a better fit, and can also encourage you to keep hunting even when you inevitably find yourself discouraged.
For better or worse, job hunting really does have a lot to do with networking. I had something like 10 job interviews. I’d say five came from talking with 10 friends, and five came from submitting 100 applications. I’d definitely recommend reading job hunting resource books for a more rigorous methodology, but they will tell you that applying for jobs is largely a waste of time (a reality that you are likely used to coming from philosophy). The job I ultimately accepted came about through leaving a resume at a career fair and being recruited to the position later. Believe me, it was embarrassing enough being 25, back at my undergraduate alma mater and standing in line next to a gaggle of freshmen getting extra credit to come to a career fair, and I know some readers will have more than a few years on me, but actually having conversations with people instead of just sending in a black and white resume will go a long way.
General job search advice: learn to read the culture of a company. In this era, some companies are just looking for a good culture fit and believe everything else will fall into place. When I applied to technology companies, my resume had a color image of me [to the horror of career services], graphs, charts and emoticons used to quantify my skills and achievements, and clickable links to my online portfolio. This was a slam dunk. When I interviewed with the tech startup, I waffled between wearing a suit or a button down and khakis. I opted for the latter and still ended up being overdressed. Many companies really do care about fostering a certain culture and you’ll gain more from studying that than from tweaking the language of your resume.
Speaking of resumes, what can a philosopher put on their resume? Unlike a CV, the education should not be the central focus for most jobs. It’s good to have a key qualifications section where you highlight the skills you have that make you a stellar candidate. Mirror the language in the job ad in your resume (your application will likely be read first by software looking for those words or phrases). Here are just a few of the things philosophers tend to be good at.
- Setting and meeting self imposed deadlines
- Setting up and sticking to a project plan
- Attention to detail
- Wearing many hats
- Critical thinking
- Public speaking
- Creative problem solving
- Accepting/incorporating feedback
- Giving feedback
- Learning new information quickly
- Working with diverse groups of people
- Passion for their field
- Organized and adaptable
All of these skills are helpful in university jobs but can be reappropriated for all kinds of careers in industry. While I never met a recruiter who said “we’ve been waiting for someone with a graduate degree in Philosophy to apply, especially from a program ranked on the PGR,” I also never met a recruiter who was turned off by it. In general, companies just want persons who can handle a variety of tasks, think critically, meet deadlines and solve problems, and an advanced degree in Philosophy is evidence of all of those things.
I really enjoyed teaching; thinking about, talking about and writing about philosophy all day wasn’t so bad either. Adjusting to the corporate environment and working on a completely new set of projects was really bizarre at first and I missed studying philosophy every day. But I certainly enjoy my job, my workplace and the people I work with, and I am confident about my prospects for growth. I think you’ll quickly realize that there are many occupations of value besides academic philosophy, fields with prospects for growth, fields that pay well yet don’t receive 400 jobs per opening. The first step is opening yourself completely to pretty much any possibility.
Thanks again, Calvin! Do readers have any questions for him--things that you might like him to expound upon, clarify, etc.? Fire away!
The Also, if you or anyone you know has made the transition from academic philosophy to a non-academic job and are interesting in contributing to the series, please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.