Non-academic jobs are not “stress-free”

It’s no secret that the traditional way of academic life (12-month, tenure-track, split research/teaching) jobs are fewer and farther between.  At least in STEM, most seem to be either 9-month with tenure or 12-month without.  Many universities are skipping traditional faculty and relying heavily on adjunct profs to teach main courses for peanuts and no benefits – but that’s a whole different story to tackle.

With the rise in MS and PhD graduates in STEM and a much smaller rise in available jobs, the topic of “alternative” careers has become a hot topic among students and professionals alike.  People are realizing that there are more ways to do what you love than a traditional faculty position at a research institution.

I am one of those people.  I work in the public sector and my job is helping people manage forest pests.  I work with employees in local, state, and federal agencies as well as university researchers, private landowners, and industry professionals.  I am able to have various irons in the fires of outreach, research, and teaching (I teach at a local community college as well).  I love what I do and I’m grateful everyday that I chose the path I chose.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t have been happy following another path, just that I’m thoroughly enjoying the one I’m on now.

However, when I was in that crucial stage of job-searching and interviewing, I couldn’t help but get the sense that my academic peers and mentors thought negatively of this “alternative” career path I was embarking upon.  Many were supportive but with a hint of “I get it, you just don’t want the pressure of academia”.  So while they entertained the idea that I was going where I wanted, there was never full acceptance of this choice.  It was always viewed with the idea that I just couldn’t cut it in the academic world and I must have chosen this path because I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the harsh world of academia.

Since this type of “alternative” career choice will continue to rise and be more common, I’d really like to address some myths I’ve encountered during and after my career switch.

MYTH:  Working outside of academia means you will never be with your group of scientific peers.

Photo from the 2016 North Central Forest Pest Workshop in Gaylord, MI.
TRUTH:  The connections I made during grad school have meant that I can make more out of my job.  I have been able to use my position to get a feel for what applicable research needs to be done to help my constituents.  I wrote a semi-large grant with university faculty within my first few months at my job because I had both the experience of the academic route plus my knowledge of what land managers really need.  I was able to take that “on-the-ground” experience and turn it into funding for faculty and another student’s journey.  Not just that but I have been able to attend regional and national conferences in my field, get invited to give talks at universities, review papers etc.  I do not feel like this move has meant a closed gate to the academic world in any way.

MYTH: Seeking a non-academic job means you can’t handle pressure.

TRUTH:  Pressure waxes and wanes just like it does in a university setting.  The timing may be different but the feelings are still there.  For example, this week I have three workshops coming up that I organized.  These workshops can be attended by anyone and took several hours of planning each.  Some of that planning involved hiking around tamarack swamps swatting deer flies and hand sawing trees that fell in the road during a wind storm.  And you have an idea, but you never really know what you’ll find until you go looking.  So identifying sites for these workshops is sometimes a wild goose chase looking for the perfect beetle-infested tree to demonstrate your point to people from a variety of backgrounds and education levels.  This fall I might spend most of my days behind a computer fighting with ArcGIS to make deadlines for federal grant reports (yeah, you still have to do those outside academia).  So the pressure may be different but I promise it is still there.

MYTH:  You have no real freedom in what you do or say.

TRUTH:  I am the expert in my field here.  People do not assign work to me or tell me what to research because they assume I know what I’m doing.  There may be guidance from higher ups in terms of priority topics that are affecting foresters, but those priorities are most likely already on my radar if they’re affecting the people I serve.  There is a general sense of camaraderie in that once a final decision is made by the governing body, employees are expected to follow that.  But that’s really no different than the provost making a decision affecting a college and the faculty being bound by it.  I was actually uncomfortable with the level of freedom I had upon entering my current job.  It took several months for me to discover that people generally trusted my ability to make decisions and follow through with them.  After asking your advisor or administrative person for approval signatures on every receipt and diary entry for six years, it feels weird to just….do what you need to do.

These are just a few of the most common myths I’ve encountered since embarking on the journey to leave academia.  I hope this helps students or anyone looking to make that jump realize that it is not a prison sentence and it’s also not a walk in the park.  If you’re struggling with any aspect of the job search or professional development, there are resources out there to help.  HackdemiaU is a service for students to get feedback on cover letters, CVs, interviewing skills and more for students in STEM (focus in entomology).  Beyond the Professoriate is a great community of people looking outside academia and making their names known in these “alternative” careers and provides career coaching.  The Professor Is In has a lot of awesome resources to help you in your journey of finding that academic job you seek.  You can make your career into what you want – you just have to take that first leap.

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