April 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 4

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Applied Sociology

Forging a Career Outside the Tenure Track

Katrina Kimport, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health Program

When I entered graduate school in the fall of 2003, I aspired to become a professor. I expected to have teaching responsibilities, mentor graduate students, and conduct research. However, as I approached the completion of my PhD, I learned that those traditional, tenure-track opportunities were shrinking (as detailed in a July 4, 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education article). In addition, according to a 2010 report from the ASA Research Department, the competition for academic positions was increasing. I began to have real questions about my ability to build the kind of life I wanted outside of work. I worried about geography, being close to my family. I thought about studies finding that women in academia experience lower job satisfaction than men. Thinking outside of the academic job market box began to sound appealing.

A year and a half after earning my PhD, my story has turned out different than I anticipated. I am a full-time researcher at a think tank nestled in a university. Instead of balancing teaching, mentoring, and research, I conduct research full time and am responsible for securing grant funding to support my research. Although I am employed in academia, it is not the scenario I envisioned during graduate school. Nonetheless, I find my current position both satisfying and fulfilling. How did I get from there to here?

Informational Interviewing: The Strength of Weak Ties

When I began to look beyond the academic job market, it seemed that my contacts were people inside academia, all of whom had little experience with job searches outside of traditional, tenure-track positions. But I soon realized I was thinking too narrowly. Broadening my approach, I reached out to people I knew who had earned their PhDs and taken non-traditional career paths. I started small, e-mailing people I met at conferences and through personal connections—taking advantage of weak ties. When I approached these friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues, I asked for a half hour of their time for an informational interview. Most said yes.

I had several aims in these interviews: to learn about career paths, get feedback on marketing myself, make contacts at local research organizations, and, most simply, figure out if a non-traditional position would be a good fit for me. I asked interviewees how they got where they were, what skills they thought were particularly important to their success in their current position, and what they gleaned from my CV. At the end of every interview, I asked for recommendations of others I could talk to. Then I repeated the process with a new round of contacts. Within three months, I had spoken to 20 people.

Learning to Tell My Story

Over the course of informational interviewing, I finely honed a simple story about myself, which introduced my training, my knowledge base (avoiding terms that had been flagged by interviewees as “jargony”), and my research skills.

The experience was sometimes exciting and often discouraging. It was exciting because it unearthed for me a trove of opportunities I hadn’t known existed, like the professionals I interviewed, I could use my PhD to analyze the impact of public policy on women for a city government, translate academic research into direct service for HIV-positive men and women, or work at an academic press. The possibilities seemed endless.

Challenges came as I received candid feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of my CV. I was told more than once that my skills were not useful outside of academia. In response, I learned to talk about my academic training differently: teaching, publishing, and conference presentations became evidence of my ability to disseminate complex research material to a variety of audiences; co-authorship demonstrated cooperation; fieldwork showed I was an independent worker; and so on.

I also heard again and again that many employers are wary of hiring newly-minted PhDs, finding them “self-absorbed,” “elitist,” and “hard to work with.” Understanding these assumptions helped me tailor my story to assuage some of those concerns. For example, in introducing myself, I emphasized that I was explicitly seeking a non-academic job—working outside the academy was not a “fall back.” Another strategy I employed was to describe my career goals in terms that focused on accomplishment instead of exploration, thereby implicitly addressing the perception that PhDs do not understand the productivity expectations of the “real world.”

Telling My Story Over and Over Again

One of the realities of informational interviewing is that you are not actually interviewing for a job, you are building your professional network. This is a laborious process. I told my simple story over and over again, revising it with each conversation.

After three months of interviewing, the weak ties I had cultivated paid off. A colleague of someone I had informationally interviewed got in touch with me. They needed someone with my skills on a temporary basis to help wrap up a research project and wanted to know whether I would be interested. The timing and fit were right so I accepted. The next few months served as an extended try-out: I tried out the organization and they tried me out. In the end, the trial period was a success on both sides and I earned a permanent position.

Go From There

Sociologists can find rich and stimulating intellectual environments both in and outside of the academy, but success in the non-traditional job market may require adaptation. My non-traditional position does not mean I have to ignore my own intellectual goals, but it does mean I need to channel them to highlight the needs and goals of the organization. And I have had to learn what skills and accomplishments are valued in this setting. Although there are many overlaps, there are some important differences between what sociology as a discipline values and what is valued in my organization. I expect I will continue to negotiate these differences throughout my career. I’m looking forward to it.

Katrina Kimport is a Research Sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health Program, a program of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. She can be reached at kimportk@obgyn.ucsf.edu..

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