In This Issue

Early Career Psychologist Column

Advice for early career psychologists on pursuing a nonacademic career

By Kelly Dunn, PhD, and Sarah Tragesser

This article represents the fifth installment in the series targeting issues faced by Early Career Psychologists (ECPs). In this article, we will focus on pursuing a nonacademic career.

Increasingly more Early Career Psychologists (ECPs) report interest in pursuing non-academic based careers; however, many ECPs may not feel prepared to transition into nonacademic settings. For example, psychology students surveyed as part of the National Doctoral Programs overwhelmingly felt their graduate program prepared them for academic positions but felt less prepared for nonacademic positions (National Doctoral Program, 2000). The APA and other organizations have recognized this evolution in employment goals and have begun to make resources available to help facilitate these creative new job interests.

Perhaps the first step in pursing a non-academic career is realizing that the skills you have developed as a psychological researcher can generalize well into other career settings.
Take an objective inventory of the skills you have developed as a graduate student/ECP. Do not take these skills for granted- for several years you have been directly trained in several areas that will contribute to your general job performance, including designing and implementing surveys and experiments; refining your critical thinking skills; conducting periodic assessments of quality control; learning new information; taking on leadership roles; hiring, training, managing, and supervising other employees; providing mentoring; interacting with a diverse group of colleagues, participants, and/or clients; and successfully presenting information in both written and oral format. Emphasize these skills on your resume and in your interviews with potential employers- though you may not have direct experience in the field to which you are applying, remind your potential employer that your extensive training history will help you to quickly acquire the information necessary to excel in a new position. It is also important to discuss these skills with the person who will be providing you a recommendation or reference letter and ask that individual to focus his or her recommendation on the skills you have developed that will generalize well into your new career path (as opposed to the specialized techniques you may have learned during your training that may only be relevant in academic settings).

The next step is identifying what other career options might be available.
Graduate training occurs in academic settings; therefore, it may be difficult to even conceive of the numerous nonacademic alternatives career paths that exist. To address this issue, the APA Science Directorate has compiled a list of interviews with doctoral-level psychologists who chose to follow non-academic career paths. The careers highlighted here range from being a science advocate and policy advisor to a video game user researcher, and the interviews emphasize both the demands of the position and the skill set needed to excel in that career.

Once you have identified an area of interest, consider doing an internship.
Depending on the type of career you have chosen, it may be possible for you to shadow or volunteer some time to learn more about your desired position. This experience provides an important opportunity to evaluate the demands of the position and is especially important for those of us who have been engulfed in academia and may be very unfamiliar with nonacademic settings.  This will also demonstrate to your potential employer that you are committeed to transitioning from academia. When shadowing/volunteering is not available, try to identify a representative from that discipline who can provide some guidance to help you forge your new career path. 
In conclusion, diverging from the traditional academic path may seem like a daunting and frightening experience, so it is important to identify the resources on which you can rely to make the transition as easy as possible. Ultimately, it is important that you identify the academic or nonacademic pathway that will help you achieve the work/life balance that you desire.