Leaving the Academy: How I Transitioned into Industry at Mid-Career and How You Can, Too

Part 2: I Know What I Can Do….So How Do I Do It?

In my first blog, I told you how I knew it was the right moment for me to leave academia, and what I did to start thinking about what could be next. I highlighted my process of doing research on the career possibilities that matched my skillset and how I built a network of people I could learn from and lean on to help me start looking for new adventures. In this second post, I want to talk about how I took all that learning into the active process of seeking a job outside of academia.

  1. Hiring a resume writer. Once I knew the career I was interested in, I had to start applying. With a resume. Eek. Academic CVs are a beast of another nature from standard resumes. My CV was 20-pages long and listed every class, paper, conference presentation, and committee I ever touched. I knew that corporate resumes were a two-page max situation; I also knew I was NOT up to the task of whittling all those pages down, so I hired a resume writing service to help me. It was amusing to hear the resume writer ask, “So….do you have a shorter version of this CV that we can start from?” No, sir. I do not.So, with some probable despair and plans to ask for a pay raise, he got started and quite successfully reduced my 20-year work experience into a two-page document that focused on impact instead of quantity. How my research impacted the community and classroom. How my leadership in our general education class impacted the success of students and my department. He also turned my academic vocabulary into industry speak, using action verbs and outcome language. Being the Director of the Basic Course turned into being a staff manager; being a course designer translated to instructional design. The writer knew I was looking for UX research roles and so he made as many connections to that vocabulary as he could—and then I filled in the rest.

    The main takeaway here is that in industry, a laundry list of tasks or accomplishments will never be enough to get you an interview. You have to focus on how your work made a tangible difference. Think about assessments you did in the classroom that highlight how students acquired new knowledge or skills. How did your work on a committee impact campus curriculum, finances, or employee satisfaction? How did your research make a meaningful change in your community? Did you do any consulting or community outreach? That will sell you more than just the number of classes you taught or committees you served on.

  2. Take a chance on your future.  A grad school friend had been out of academia for almost ten years and was working in a UX career in California. He was one of the people I reached out to during my early networking phase. He was so gracious to connect me with others he knew who might have tips and/or opportunities for me. One of those connections was yet another former academic who worked for a large tech company. That person connected me to someone in the company looking to hire a contract worker to do usability research.The thought of taking a six-month contract position after having a long and stable career for 15 years felt like a huge risk. I talked to my risk-averse dad about it, and he told me I had a way of always landing on my feet because I worked hard and made things happen for myself. This contract, he said, was another opportunity to show what I can do. So I said yes to the opportunity and became a UX researcher for real! I know everyone has a different financial situation, and for some the risk might be too high. However, if you can swing it, taking one or a couple of contract jobs can be a way to build experience. And fun fact: my six-month contract job paid more per month than my academic job. And included health benefits!

    The big takeaway here is this: the transition for you may not be a seamless leap from full-time job to full-time job. It might look like a step (or three) backwards or to the side. But those steps will build the momentum to get you back ahead if you can persevere and keep building those networks.

  3. Grab every opportunity you see and look for even more. The contract position turned out to be the single greatest working experience I have ever had. The people I worked with, including my direct manager and folks on other teams, were nonstop supportive of me and my work. I was given the tools I needed to start and then the freedom I wanted to build and grow the skills I would need in my new career.When I started this new position, I put myself into the mindset that I was a student again and the job was like an applied graduate classroom. My colleagues were my professors, and my manager the department chair. I interviewed them about their jobs, I asked them to look over my work, I sought advice on how they would approach a research script. I attended their sessions to learn how they develop readouts. When I made mistakes, I listened to their critiques with a humble mindset and tried to avoid feeling stung and embarrassed. (This was sometimes easier than others!). Academics have a reputation as arrogant know-it-alls; I wanted to show them I don’t fit that stereotype, but I also genuinely knew I had a LOT to learn about an industry research role.
  4. Document everything. My contract role manager was as organized as she was smart. She encouraged me to build a table of each project I completed, including a variety of data points that would showcase my growing skills. My table included study goals, research questions, method justification, key findings, and impact overviews. As I worked on a study, I filled out a new column of information on the process in real time. When it came time to develop a research portfolio for permanent position interviews, I had an extensive list of projects to pull from that required no panicked “what did I do on that one??” It was all there, ready to be elaborated on. It made job presentations easier and also helped me build confidence in how much I had grown over the six months.I also kept a list of how I was blending my academic skills with my growing industry skills in UX so that I could fluidly speak to that in interviews. If I wanted to show that my academic career was relevant to the new space, I had to find the vocabulary and applications to do so. By listing those things as I realized them, I was ready to answer anything in an interview.
  5. Prepare for the long haul. The hardest part of the process was the waiting game. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you are a shoe-in for jobs because you know you have the skills, experience, and energy for the job. But be prepared that most industry folks don’t see years of education as working experience or skill building. The perception is that graduate school and even being a professor isn’t “real life,” and so you might be looked over for jobs that you are well suited for. It’s a bummer, but it’s a reality that many employers see you as either over- or under-qualified just because of those degrees. You will have to accept a lot of rejection for a lot of reasons.If you can find some volunteer or freelance work that can build the bridge from academia to industry, take them…and then highlight the heck out of them. It will show that you have all that experience, skills, and abilities to step into the non-academic space and thrive. Post on LinkedIn what you’re doing, add it to your resume, ask for recommendations/referrals from these folks, ask them to post those recommendations on LinkedIn. Just keep building the narrative of your strengths in whatever form you can. Eventually, an employer will see the potential in you and give you a chance to shine.

    For me, after what felt like hundreds of no’s, I was contacted by a local health system that was looking to grow its UX team. I was in the right place at the right time, and I had the record to demonstrate that I was a risk worth taking. I’ve been there since January 2023, and I continue to grow.

The long and short of it is that transitioning out of academia is a commitment: of time, of energy, of humility, and of selling yourself. I never found a shortcut, but if you do—let me know! It requires persistence and patience and a tolerance for hearing a lot of No’s before you get to the big YES. If you’re thinking of making this switch and want some help, reach out. I’m on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dena-huisman/.

By Dena Huisman
Dena Huisman