What does life after the Brittain Fellowship look like? What opportunities within academia or in other sectors do Brittain Fellows pursue? And how does the postdoc prepare Brittain Fellows for these positions? The Professional Development Committee reached out to former Brittain Fellows and other experts to find out the answers to these questions and more. (See other installments with Andrea Krafft, Emily Kane, and Rebecca Weaver).
For the third interview in the series, we spoke with Dr. Brandy Simula, who, after receiving her PhD from Emory, is now a professional development specialist in the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Faculty Development at Georgia Tech.
She also will be part of our upcoming Alt-Ac workshop, “Preparing for & Landing Higher Ed Positions Beyond the Professoriate.” Dr. Simula will facilitate this webinar Thursday, January 28th at 4 p.m. She will share effective strategies for identifying transferrable skills, converting an academic CV to an administrative CV, and leveraging experience in a cover letter.
In the interview below, she prompts Fellows to recognize the relevance of Alt-Ac careers, particularly in these extraordinary times. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
While setting professional development goals, how might Brittain Fellows consider career goals that involve Alt-Ac?
It’s really important to be intentional about thinking about and planning for alternative careers. I think one of the things that can be challenging is when people get into a situation where they have applied unsuccessfully for faculty positions and then are having to make the jump without really having had an opportunity to think about other kinds of careers. So, I think early exploration is really important.
I would say also thinking broadly about career paths [is important]. My advice would be to take a step back and think about what I want my day-to-day work to look like. Do I like to work individually? Do I like to work collaboratively? If you’re someone who likes teaching, do I want to have opportunities to continue doing things like teaching, training, mentoring, and advising? If you’re someone who likes research and writing, looking for opportunities to do that. Start with [the question:] What do I like to actually do with my time? Being expansive in terms of thinking about other kinds of positions, I’d say, is really useful for starting.
I think informational interviews with people in positions that are interesting [is key for exploring alternative career paths]. Having virtual coffee with people about what their career paths have looked like — what they like about their work, what they don’t like about it — can be particularly useful. Getting a sense of what you can do to prepare for particular kinds of career paths looks really different depending on the career path. I think talking to people who are in the careers of interest to you about how they made that transition, particularly if they’re someone who has a PhD and is familiar with the kinds of training and skills that you have [can be helpful].
How might Brittain Fellows rebrand themselves for Alt-Ac careers?
I think a lot of times when we’re training or preparing for academic positions, we get advice like, don’t put your previous non-academic jobs on your CV and just underscore your academic research, teaching, scholarship and service. But for other kinds of career paths, what you did before graduate school, what you did in other kinds of positions that you may have had during a postdoc, is really important to include on your CV. And it doesn’t have to be a paid position — so, if you’ve been involved in organizing or community service, those things count too.
It’s also really important to understand how to adapt the language that you’re using to describe your skill set and experience to the particular kind of field that you’re applying to. I’m thinking about just small things; some fields use the term “publicist,” some fields use the term “marketing,” some fields use the term “communications,” and those are all very similar kinds of skill sets. Taking time to do some research about this terminology is important.
The third thing when you’re applying for other career paths is learning how to talk about your transferrable skills. When I started applying, I got this wrong repeatedly because my dissertation research, my publications, my teaching areas, and my academic area of expertise were really the only things I had learned how to talk about professionally. Even though I had other kinds of experience — in event planning, in communications — I didn’t know how to talk about those things outside of the context of research. Moving beyond research to talk about the skills you have is really important. And related to that, that also means you do need to take some extra steps to be getting experience and training beyond research and teaching. And that doesn’t mean you have to have three years of outside experience, but have you gone to a workshop on project management? Have you had experience working on a data visualization project? You don’t have to be an expert on all eight items listed on the job ad, but you want to be able to show you have taken some steps to start getting prepared to do several of the particular requirements of that position.
Which skills are most marketable for gaining Alt-Ac employment?
I totally get that question, but I think it is important to recognize there are literally thousands of skill sets. Instead of thinking about which is going to make me most marketable, I think the approach of saying, ‘Here are the three or four career paths that look interesting to me. What are the skill sets?’ (And they’ll each have their own set of skill sets that are required.) And then focus on those skill sets that are common across a couple of different types of work that you are interested in doing. So, if you are looking at five career fields and there are three skills that all five of those require, focus on those three skills.
In general, I think employers are really looking for ability to work on a team. In a lot of fields, particularly humanities and social sciences fields, we work primarily alone so there’s not a really collaborative model, and employers want to know have you had experience working on a team.
The other piece is communications. As academics we all think and know that we’re good communicators, but employers beyond the academy don’t always know what that means. The way we’ve been trained to communicate is very different. For example, a lot of us don’t have experience writing white papers or executive summaries or communication memos. Showing that you can communicate across audiences I think can be really useful.
What postdoctoral opportunities (teaching, research, service, etc.) are especially valuable in pursuing alternative careers?
So again, I think it depends on the kind of career you’re interested in. So, I’m thinking about for example a Postdoc that I advised who has gone on to work for public radio doing research. So, research experience was really important for them. But I think focusing on teaching [is especially important]. There are a lot of careers in what’s called learning professional development, which falls under HR for a lot of organizations, for people who are effective workshop facilitators. [Many of the skills required for these positions] are related to teaching skills.
So I think it’s not so much about focusing on research, teaching, or service, but figuring out the kinds of career paths that you’re interested in and then figuring out how to use what you’re already doing in terms of your research, teaching, and service to help prepare you for those career paths. I do think service can be one of the areas that is useful for building out transferable skills. [For example], certain things like community engagement or community outreach can be really effective for showing that you know how to work with the academy, but you also had some experience in other kinds of work settings if you haven’t already.
What advice would you give postdoctoral fellows for setting professional development goals and objectives?
My first piece of advice is to make regular time for goal setting, but then also to not forget to make regular time to actually work on the goals that you’ve set. [For instance,] I set out my goals for the semester and then I think, “Oh I’ve got the whole semester to get to it.” I don’t actually put time on my calendar. [In addition to] figuring out what skills you need, though, you have to actually make time to get that experience in building certain skill sets. You might identify that I see a lot of jobs want database management skills, and you don’t have those specified skills. You’ve got to go and figure out how to actually get that experience and build those skills. So, scheduling time for professional development can be useful.
My second piece of advice is when you are setting goals for professional development, thinking about goals that prepare you for multiple career paths is really useful so that you’re preparing yourself for lots of things by developing one or two skills, rather than developing really, fairly specialized skills for just one career path.
Do you have any other suggestions for setting professional development goals/objectives and entering the job market, particularly within the context of the pandemic?
The first thing that I’ll say to do during the pandemic is to prioritize taking care of yourself — getting rest, taking time for self-care. In the context of the pandemic and in the context of certain [aspects of] higher education, but also society in general reckoning with racism and white supremacy, [it’s important to recognize] that we, as a society, are going through a really stressful period. I think a lot of us, when we feel stressed, tend to think, “Oh, it’s just me. It’s just me. I need to handle it better.” We’re all handling it as best as we can. And I think extending yourself some grace and making space to take extra good care of yourself is really important.
Obviously, there’s nothing positive about the pandemic, but I think there are a couple of things that are easier in the pandemic context than in previous contexts. First, you have more free access to getting virtual training for other kinds of skills. The other thing that I think is more accessible and somewhat easier is setting up those informational interviews for virtual coffee.
I also think it’s a common question in interviews to talk about a context in which you encountered a challenge or a set back and how you handled that. I think being able to have an answer in the context of pandemic [is important]. I think it’s likely that employees are going to be asking about your experience during the pandemic. Did you learn anything about your learning style, etc. etc.
The last piece of advice I would provide is community matters. That’s certainly true in the pandemic moment, but as you’re going through your exploration, going through interview processes, having that support community where you’re checking in with folks and sharing what you’ve learned about alternative career paths [is crucial]. Having that space to sort of process as you’re going through figuring out what’s next for you … is especially useful.