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On Campus Podcast – Academic Career Pathways (Part 1)

Season 1 – Episode 26 – Academic Career Pathways (Part 1)

For many graduate students, both academic and non-academic careers are possibilities, which can differ greatly. Those graduate students who decide to pursue an academic career often work within an academic department or function at an institution, such as a professor, librarian, or administrator. Graduate students who work in a non-academic career might work as a consultant, within an industry, or in a variety of other functions. The choice for a graduate student to decide between an academic and non-academic career is often personal and difficult. While academic and non-academic careers both have tradeoffs, starting a career in one pathway does not mean an individual cannot transfer to a different pathway later in their career.


Episode Transcript

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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis, and this is On Campus. Today, the first of two episodes discussing what are academic and non-academic careers? Why one might leave academia? And how to identify transferable skills? I spoke with Sarah Melton, Product Education Strategist at Sprout Social, where she creates educational content and training materials. She previously worked in academic libraries and digital scholarship centers. Sarah received her PhD from Emory University in 2017.

As a reminder, this podcast is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about the relevant laws and regulations discussed in this podcast.Additionally, the views expressed in this podcast are solely those of the presenter. Hi Sarah. Thank you for joining me today.

Sarah Melton: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Darren Gaddis: To get us started today and really ground this conversation, what are academic and non-academic career routes and why might somebody pick one over the other?

Sarah Melton: So some of this is definitely going to depend on your particular discipline. So academic jobs, that might be a little easier to figure out. Of course, there’s tenure track, there’s non-tenure track teaching as well. But in addition to those types of jobs, academic jobs might look like working in academic research centers, maybe working in academic libraries. A lot of campuses have things like teaching and learning centers that might support online learning or pedagogy writing centers.

So those are all things that I would consider under the larger umbrella of academic career routes. But then non-academic career routes can look like just about anything. And this is also where some of this really depends on your own background and skills. So my advice is generally to, of course, connect with graduates from your program, see where they’ve gone. If your department isn’t keeping those types of records, and it’s hard to find that, sometimes you can do searches on LinkedIn for alumni from your university to see which companies they’re currently at and what types of jobs they’re doing.

Speaking kind of anecdotally, I’m coming from a humanities background. I’ve seen a fair number of my colleagues go into things like user interface design, user experience research. Those are sometimes kind of lumped together as UI, UX, technical writing. I’ve seen lots of people go into things like web design and development as well as instructional design and consulting work. So those are some areas that might resonate with you. They might not, but generally speaking, if you are able to see where maybe some of your colleagues have ended up, the types of job roles they’ve taken on, it can at least get you thinking about what those career routes might look like for you.

And the choice of staying in an academic career or branching out into a non-academic career is really personal, but it might come down to things like stages in your life, wanting to have more flexibility over your work schedule, wanting to be able to move. Those were some of the reasons that I can talk about later in my own kind of career journey. These are important decisions and shouldn’t be taken lightly, but it’s also not like if you choose one route, you can’t ever change your mind and do something else. So I don’t want people to be too full of anxiety over things like this.

Darren Gaddis: With all this information in mind, would you be willing to share a little bit about your own academic and career journey?

Sarah Melton: Yeah, absolutely. So I started a PhD program in 2009, which now seems extremely long ago. And I was at Emory University and I took a part-time job in my first year of my PhD working on a journal. And that journal happened to be a journal that was what’s called an open access journal, so free to read online for anyone, free to submit to. And when I initially took that job, I was really excited about the content behind it and the editorial process. And those are still things that I really love and find fascinating but I found myself drawn more and more to the technology and the world of digital projects and building things digitally, which was kind of surprising to me because I hadn’t ever thought of myself in that way. So I kept working on that journal for a few years in a part-time capacity.

And then towards the end of my PhD, I took a full-time job in the digital scholarship center at Emory, working on other types of digital projects as well, and gained some skills there and things like some web design, some GIS, various types of digital scholarship skills as we call them now. And then from there, I took a role as the head of a digital scholarship department in an academic library. And I worked for another five years or so, almost six years in academic libraries in the field of digital scholarship, helping people bring digital tools and methods into their research, teaching lots of workshops, helping people kind of conceptualize some of the work that they were doing in that way.

And I hit a point I think many others have in the past couple years in the pandemic where I was really kind of reprioritizing what I wanted, really realized that I was valuing the flexibility of being able to work from home, was ready to just live somewhere else geographically. I was living in Boston, which is a very, very expensive city, and was just kind of ready for some changes, other changes in my life. I got engaged and started thinking about longer term plans and other life things, and that really led me seriously to thinking about what a non-academic career path would look like.

So I’m happy to talk about how I went about that search and identifying those skills, but I took my current job in March of this year.

Darren Gaddis: When you decided to leave academia, how did you identify transferable skills?

Sarah Melton: So I really started by trying to identify what kind of an industry I wanted to be in, and actually worked with a career coach for a little bit just to think about what are some of the industries I could transfer to? How do I talk about my roles and my skills in a way that will make sense to people? And it wasn’t a huge leap to kind of thinking about going into tech based on the work that I had been doing.

I didn’t necessarily want to do a full shift and become a developer or anything, but wanted to kind of work in that industry. So I actually found my current role by joining a Slack community for people who work in technical writing, which had been a part of my previous roles, writing tutorials, doing some documentation, teaching. Those are all things that I think are actually fairly closely aligned with technical writing and with the work that I do now.

I was actually pretty successful beyond the job that I ended up taking in finding other career opportunities from that Slack group and getting a decent number of interviews at the time. And really, I did things like looking at job descriptions, really thought about the work that I had done previously around creating educational resources. And the hardest part was definitely shifting the language from that very kind of academic centered language to things that would just be more transferable and understandable to an audience that was not in the middle of academia. And that took a little work, but it certainly wasn’t impossible. And looking at a few models of resumes and CVs was really helpful in that way as well.

Darren Gaddis: We are going to pause here for today’s episode, but be sure to listen later this week when Sarah and I continue discussing how to utilize academic skills in the private sector? How to stay connected to higher education after leaving academia? And the impacts of COVID-19 on an individual’s career path. Be sure to follow, like and subscribe to On Campus with the CITI Program to stay in the know.

I also invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses and webinars that may be of interest to you. All of our content is available to you anytime through organizational and individual subscriptions. You may also be interested in CITI Program’s Preparing for Success and Scholarly Publishing course. Please visit the CITI programs website to learn more about all of our offerings.


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Meet the Guest

Sarah Melton, PhD – Educational Consultant

As the Head of Digital Scholarship at Boston College, Sarah led a group that teaches technical topics. Her team facilitated data-driven research, project creation, and digital publishing. Now Sarah consults on topics related to digital scholarship, such as open access publishing. ​Sarah received her PhD from Emory University in 2017.

Meet the Host

Team Member darren gaddis

Darren Gaddis, Host, On Campus Podcast – CITI Program

He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.