It’s never too early to start thinking about non-academic career paths, even if you plan to test the academic market. If landing outside the ivory tower is even a remote possibility, consider taking the following steps to set yourself up for success in the non-academic market.
Start Networking. This is the best investment you can make. Meet people. Set up some no-pressure coffee dates with interesting professionals who’re doing interesting things. Find out what they love and hate about their jobs, how they got there, and what younger professionals just starting out can do to enter the field. Most people will be more than happy to chat with you, even if you’re up front about the fact that you still want to keep your options open about pursuing academia.
Find a Part-Time Job (or Two). Employers don’t want to hire smart employees. They want to hire smart employees who can get things done. In every application and interview you’ll need to prove that you have “demonstrated abilities” (to use job application lingo), which means you’ll need to have a proven track record of professional success. You’ll also need recommenders, recent or current nonacademic bosses who’ve seen you in action and will go to bat for you. On-campus part-time jobs of the non-library, non-grading, non-retail variety can be great for building a professional history. Ideally, look for opportunities that relate to your potential post-academic professional interests and that will allow you to lead or innovate.
Determine What You Have to Offer. Figure out your skills, interests, and what gets your professional blood pumping. The earlier you can identify the personal attributes that make you tick, the earlier you can start thinking about the kinds of jobs and fields that will be best suited to you.
Write a Resume/Cover Letter, and Solicit Feedback. Draft a killer resume and a generic but thoughtful cover letter as a test run to get some practice at marketing yourself on paper. Then solicit feedback from friends who work outside of academia and preferably in fields you’re potentially interested in exploring further. Ask readers for honest feedback about the documents’ layout, scanability, language, use of keywords, tone, and content. Then revise and repeat the process until you have consensus from a number of friends that your templates are ready to go.
Apply to Select Jobs. That’s right, apply for the really amazing opportunities that you find—the kinds of jobs your future self will regret if you let slide by. Submitting an application—or interviewing, for that matter—isn’t necessarily tantamount to giving up on academia. Nor are you required to accept any offers that result from applying. Rather, submitting applications will provide you with valuable opportunities to practice your letter writing and interview skills, which will help you down the road no matter which job market you ultimately land in.