Leaving grad school and getting a job in a different field?
December 28, 2010 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Information about leaving grad school and getting a job in a different field. Help me figure out how to get my foot in the door. Long background and question follows.

I am a graduate student in the social sciences. I have master's degrees in two related but distinct social sciences. I am at the dissertation phase but do not see myself wanting to finish the dissertation or necessarily go into academia. I live in Seattle and have excellent analytical skills, strong oral and written communication skills, and am good at quickly mastering new concepts and acquiring new skill sets. I would ideally like to get a job with Amazon, Microsoft, or a related technology firm but am unsure how to pitch my somewhat abstract skills to them. My training is in using social scientific concepts and theory to investigate a broad range of topics; substantive areas of expertise are prized less than an ability to see substantive fields as cases of particular social phenomena. My research is not tech or software related at all, but I feel very confident that if given the chance, I would be able to excel in an innovative position in the IT sector.

I have strong quantitative/statistics skills and have a couple of years of undergraduate work (from 10+ years ago) as a computer scientist. I am still a technology enthusiast and spend a good amount of time staying current with new developments in computing and technology. So, I am not a programmer or an admin, but I feel comfortable talking to people about technology-related topics. When I have met tech employees around Seattle, they have often commented that they are surprised how well informed I am, for someone who is non-industry, about current topics in tech. Since I have a limited programming background, I feel comfortable writing simple shell scripts and am able to pick up basic programming concepts quickly but do not have the skills for programming positions (nor is this really what I am seeking).

How do I go about finding a position using these skills in Seattle? How do I communicate my skills to potential employers? How do I get my foot in the door when I don't meet the precise requirements for many jobs?

Note: I am talking to my advisors and confidantes but no one I know has made this particular jump and cannot advise me directly; most people I know that have left grad school have gone into related fields. Anonymous because this is not a public decision yet and I am exploring my options. Throwaway email at mefi.careerswitch@gmail.com for follow-ups or private communication.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (3 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would start by finding out what jobs exist that use your skills. Trying to convince a corporation to create a position that fits you perfectly is going to be extremely difficult unless you're an amazing salesperson. So you need to research job titles that already exist, because there's already demand. Here's how:

When I have met tech employees around Seattle

I would ask these people to help you find out what jobs you're qualified for. If you have a friend working for a tech company, or an acquaintance that you've hit it off with, do an informational interview. Let them know that you want to get into the tech field, go out for coffee, ask questions about their job and their company, and get feedback from them about what positions you would fit in a similar company. The point is to learn, not to land an interview.

Really, really listen when they tell you about their jobs, companies, and industry. Be flexible about which skills might get you hired. One mistake I've seen people make (and that I've made myself) is thinking of my favorite skills, and then latching on to anything that might utilize those skills. The correct way is to listen to companies' needs, and then asking yourself "Do I have any skills that fit those needs, even skills I didn't really plan on using?" I am great at eating cheese, but people hire me to explain technical issues to non-techies, which I am good at but not as good as I am at eating cheese. It's all about demand. In your case, many people are good at research, but your style of research may not be what companies need. Instead, it might be your logical thinking style, your ability to quickly draw connections, or your amazing use of PowerPoint animations that is in demand. So be open to finding a good job that doesn't emphasize or even use your favorite skills, as long as the job sounds interesting and offers a chance to learn.

Finally, brass tacks: you may be qualified for an entry-level Business Analyst position in a company that is willing to hire right out of school. There are some companies that hire recent undergrads and career-switching graduate students because these people are relatively cheap compared to experienced people, so you might look for companies like that. These companies are somewhat rare, but they exist, and after two years you will be in a very, very good position to jump ship and take on a better-paying role that requires experience. So even if you feel like you're past entry level, don't be afraid of decent entry-level opportunities. With your background you'll excel and can move on past the basics once you have a little experience.

Feel free to memail me to discuss.
posted by Tehhund at 9:23 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you need to articulate this better: My training is in using social scientific concepts and theory to investigate a broad range of topics; substantive areas of expertise are prized less than an ability to see substantive fields as cases of particular social phenomena. I lost you after "using." I realize that you might be keeping your self-description vague to avoid outing yourself to people who don't yet know of your plan to leave the academic track, but some examples of your work would help a lot.

You've phrased your question in terms of "getting a job," but it seems like the first problem to solve is figuring out what kinds of jobs might be a good fit for you. Have you used your school's career services office at all? You say you're talking to your advisors, but how about talking to people outside academia? Informational interviews can be great for posing questions such as "Where do people with such-and-such skill/interest tend to cluster within your company?" or "Do you know anyone with a social science background who is doing interesting work in the technology field?"

You've said a lot about your academic background, but little to nothing about work experience (it's ambiguous whether "undergraduate work . . . as a computer scientist" means school work or paid work). If you don't have much non-academic work experience, I'd suggest getting some, in whatever form you can find, even if it is not obviously related to the ideal "innovative position in the IT sector" you're shooting for. Part time, temp, office work, or maybe something more unusual like being a standardized patient at a teaching hospital, whatever you can find.

Book recommendation: So What Are You Going to Do with That?
posted by Orinda at 9:43 PM on December 28, 2010

When I was considering dropping out of grad school and wanted to explore my non-academic career options, I found my university's career services center extremely helpful. Much more so than I'd anticipated actually! For some reason I'd thought they would only know how to help undergrads land entry-level jobs, but they deal with grad students who want to leave academia all the time. They can help in so many ways that I hadn't even thought of till I went there.

Just a few examples of useful services that they offer, at least at my school: 1) they maintain a huge database of alums in different careers who are willing to talk to students about what they do and how they got there; 2) they run a variety of listservs aimed at liberal arts grad students that announce non-academic job openings; 3) they can coach you through learning how to network and do informational interviews (and real interviews too, of course!); 4) they have expertise in converting academic CVs to business-appropriate resum├ęs.

I ended up deciding to stay in grad school after all. But if I considered leaving again, I would definitely go back to Career Services with exactly the kinds of questions you are asking. Of course your academia-ensconced advisor can't answer these questions! Career counselors can.

And since you say it's not public knowledge yet, I should add that their services are entirely confidential.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:59 PM on December 28, 2010

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