5 Traits Of An Effective Alternative Career Mentor Network
Written By: Jackie Johnson, PhD
How am I going to get out of academia?
Like a broken record, I was asking myself this question for days… months… years.
Being in academia had left me feeling inadequate.
While I knew I wanted to move onto something better, I had no idea how.
I had sent out dozens of applications.
I had landed a few interviews… and bombed them.
I felt like a loser with nothing to offer the world.
I felt like a total failure.
I skipped networking events. Who wants to set themselves up for more disappointment?
Besides, I didn’t have the confidence to put myself “out there” face-to-face.
To protect my ego, I thought to myself: “People who get jobs in industry are just getting lucky.”
I was wrong.
Luck had nothing to do with it.
My weak mindset crippled my job search strategy.
Worse yet, I felt completely isolated.
I felt like I was the only PhD on Earth who couldn’t get it together.
But I was wrong about this too.
As soon as I began to open up and share my story with other PhDs who had recently transitioned, I realized that my story was not unique.
The more I opened up, the more meaningful connections I made.
I eventually built a network, not just of peers, but of mentors who helped me transition out of academia.
I learned from these people’s successes and failures, which expedited my own career transition.
I became more motivated and my confidence resurfaced.
These PhDs were like-minded and had gone through the same trials.
As a result, they were more than willing to include me in their now well-established, professional networks.
Before I knew it, I was getting job offers for top positions.
Now I’m in industry, on a career track that makes me happy, and allows me to do meaningful work.
Why PhDs Should Find Alternative Career Mentors
The numbers don’t lie: most PhDs and postdocs will need to find a job outside of academia.
According to a report by The Royal Society, less than 4% of PhDs will become staff scientists and less than 1% will become professors.
Less than 1%.
Moreover, the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America confirms the continuing decline in opportunities in academia for PhDs, citing “hyper-competitiveness” and “systemic flaws”.
It’s obvious you need to leave.
But you already knew that.
The question is, how?
If you’re smart, you’re already aware of the lack of industry career resources available.
You’re also likely aware of your own massive knowledge gaps that are keeping you from executing a quick and easy job search on your own.
Your first instinct might be to scour the web for a solution.
But most websites are not tailored to the unique problems facing PhDs.
Worse still, the sites that do talk about PhD grads describe the lack of positions, the horrors of the job market, and how the problem is getting worse, not better.
There are so many unknowns for PhDs trying to career transition.
“Should I spend $60,000 on another degree to make myself more marketable?”
“Will a hiring manager consider my application even though I don’t have the 5 years of experience listed in their job advertisement?”
“What is the best way to target a resume for positions in big pharma companies?”
These are likely some of the questions that roll around in your mind late at night when you’re trying to go to sleep.
Without solutions, you’re left with nothing but despair.
What you need is a supportive community to bounce these questions off of without feeling small and inexperienced.
You need a mentor.
More than that — you need a mentor network.
The Academy of Management Perspectives journal published a piece on mentorship illustrating how multiple mentor networks are integral to success in highly competitive job markets, as well as in overall professional development and career longevity.
The concept is not original.
Companies often implement mentoring within their corporations because it has been proven to have a significant impact on employee engagement and each employee’s career development.
Finding the right group of people — the right community of mentors — will help guide you through your academic exit strategy.
They will give you advice on your resume from a place of expertise and experience.
They will both celebrate and commiserate with you through the peaks and valleys of job searching.
A community of alternative career mentors is an oasis of hope and encouragement.
Not only are you not alone, but alternative career mentorship allows you to be a part of a community with common goals and aspirations.
This is the opposite of what you’re likely to experience with an academic mentor.
5 Traits Of An Effective Alternative Career Mentor Network
PhDs should not expect to transition into an alternative career alone.
Instead, you need to build a strong network of alternative career professionals.
Finding a supportive group of industry professionals or aspiring industry professionals is a fantastic way to diversify your mentor-mentee relationships without relying too much on any one connection.
Having your own alternative career mentor network is like having a personal board of directors.
In other words, no one person will be completely responsible for guiding your career (except yourself).
No one person is responsible, which allows you to get help from everyone.
A broad network will provide you with a variety of perspectives, which is critical to transitioning into industry.
Alternative career mentors are coaches who can help build self-confidence in your job search, while giving you strategic advice on how to navigate your own unique situation.
Here are 5 traits of an effective alternative career mentor network…
1. They teach you to be self-confident, not needy.
A good mentor can look at you subjectively and tell you what you can do better.
Mentorship includes accountability and your willingness to grow.
On the other hand, asking your friends and family questions about your job search will likely only result in them assuring you how great you are and that “something should work out soon.”
This kind of feedback is nice, but not helpful.
When you’re in the middle of a job search, you need someone to tell you what you are doing wrong and then give you advice on how to change your strategy.
“Although you have enough experience to get a job in industry, your current resume doesn’t highlight your results. Here’s what you can do to change that.”
This is the kind of advice you need to receive.
An effective mentor will be honest with you WITHOUT tearing you down.
Receiving this kind of feedback is the only way to identify short-term, achievable goals for yourself.
This might mean drastically updating your resume, revamping your LinkedIn profile, or creating a strategy for setting up informational interviews.
Regardless of the honest feedback you are given (or the strategies you end up implementing), an effective alternative career mentor network will make you more self-confident.
You’ll slowly learn that the reason you do not have a job yet is NOT because there’s something wrong with you — it’s simply because you haven’t been applying the right strategy.
This lesson alone will help you present yourself more confidently and assertively during your job search, making you more magnetic at interviews and networking events.
2. They increase your accountability, not your procrastination.
Whether you like it or not, the world operates on accountability.
In graduate school, your supervisor and the desire for publications, and eventually the desire to graduate, held you accountable.
You knew that if you didn’t do your experiments correctly, get sound data, and write proper papers, you would not graduate.
Unfortunately, there are no similar measures in place to keep you accountable during your job search.
Weeks and months can pass by without you accomplishing anything.
As a result, procrastination becomes very easy.
You wallow, because you can.
You make excuses to not to attend networking events because no one will know if you don’t show up.
On and on this goes, until your entire job search adds up to nothing more than skimming LinkedIn every couple of days.
This is where building an effective alternative career mentor network can help.
Simply telling a single mentor that you want to transition out of academia will hold you accountable.
The more people you communicate your job search goals to, the more people will hold you accountable.
Like everyone, you are more likely to take action when others are watching.
First, find a network of alternative career mentors.
Second, ask your mentors to hold you accountable to the goals you vocalize.
Use this support group as a diary that requires updating weekly.
In other words, follow up with your mentors over and over again so they can keep you accountable at each step of your job search.
This will force you to set weekly goals for yourself.
The knowledge that others are waiting to hear how things went — at a networking event, on an interview, during a negotiation — will in turn force you to keep making progress.
This feedback loop will allow you to continually refine and improve your job search strategy while preventing bad habits from forming and ineffective strategies from repeating.
3. They keep you motivated, not discouraged.
An effective alternative career mentor is not only an accountability partner, but also a personal coach.
Good mentors will instill a positive attitude in you, especially when you are deep within the networking process.
When you feel stuck — after not getting a call back or after someone declines giving you a referral — they will keep you going.
The job search process is discouraging.
Effective mentors will help you turn each discouragement into a teaching point.
They will help you “double your rate of failure” on your way to success.
Like science in general, a job search is stuffed with failures.
But it only takes one “yes” to completely change your life and professional career.
It only takes one “yes” to get the industry job of your dreams.
Studies show that having a network of mentors can directly and positively influence your mental health.
The right mentors will provide emotional support, listen to your problems, and most importantly offer solutions and experienced perspectives during stressful times.
An effective alternative career mentor network will help you see that career transitions are not bestowed upon the lucky few.
They’ll help you see that anyone can transition when they have the right attitude and the right strategy.
They’ll also celebrate your successes with you — which is an important part of internalizing your accomplishments before going on to your next goal.
4. They will continually increase your professional network, not isolate you.
I did not know anyone outside of academia when I started my job search.
Academia has a way of isolating you from the rest of the world.
At the same time, many academic mentors work to keep you isolated.
They work to keep you all to themselves, in the lab, so you never go to any off-campus networking events, and sometimes never see daylight.
It’s impossible to get an industry job when you’re isolated.
An effective mentor network will help prevent this kind of professional isolation.
During your job search, you will have to learn to cope with many different personality types and unfamiliar situations.
You’ll have to build relationships with numerous hiring managers, recruiters, department heads, and even presidents and CEOs.
The problem is that most PhDs are not used to talking to these types of professionals.
As a result, they end up asking questions like these…
“Who should I reach out to first?”
“How do I ensure I don’t sound like an inexperienced PhD student?”
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ll be plagued with self-doubt.
You’ll take hours and hours to write a simple introductory email.
It will feel like you are both running a marathon and trying to read other people’s minds.
Having the right mentors can help you come up with strategies to continually create new relationships that can lead to job referrals.
That’s the key — getting job referrals.
More and more job referrals.
The right mentors will also share their network connections with you, automatically expanding both who you know AND your professional credibility.
These new connections can lead to informational interviews, job leads, job referrals, interviews and even job offers.
The benefits of a supportive and professionally cultured network are limitless, not just for your immediate goals, but for long-term goals at any point in your career.
5. They prepare you for long-term career success, not short-term dead-end jobs.
Networking, resumes, interviews, and salary negotiations.
For PhDs who have never set foot outside of academia, these sequential processes are all completely foreign.
As a result, most PhDs believe that the entire job search process comes down to sending out a resume and getting called into an interview.
They forget about (or don’t know about) every process in between.
More importantly, most PhDs fail to plan for life after getting hired.
What happens AFTER you get hired into an industry job?
A network of alternative career mentors can help you develop skills for long-term career success.
They can show you how to negotiate a job offer successful AND how to onboard with a company successfully.
They can teach you core business concepts like corporate strategy, business ethics, and organizational behavior.
This kind of information is critical for PhDs who want to be taken seriously in industry after being hired.
Effective career mentors can help guide you through common career and workplace issues.
The people who have already faced the same obstacles that you have are the best positioned to support you.
They’ve spent time jumping through the same hoops you will face. They have learned through trial and error so you don’t have to make the same mistakes.
Remember, mentorship does not end once you have landed a job.
Effective mentors can foster your sense of belonging within an organization, and help you understand company culture and politics, all while providing you with the confidence you need to climb the corporate ladder.
Independently piloting your career transition may initially seem like a noble endeavor, but you are missing out on a vital lifeline of support. Mentors will help you build your professional network and validate your job search and career trajectory. They will prepare you for every step of the transition process – from resumes, to negotiation, to onboarding – and will help you cope with temporary failure and celebrate when you succeed. You will execute your transition and start your new job filled with confidence and motivation, and an ongoing network of support and shared interests.
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