Job sectors outside of academia--private, public, and nonprofit--have characteristics that you will need to understand and adjust to after being a part of academia.
What is “Business”?
• “Business” is used as a synonym for the “private sector,” as opposed to the public sector.
• Businesses are “for-profit" organizations.
• People sometimes use “business” interchangeably with “corporate” or “corporation.”
A corporation is a legal entity that limits the liability of its members but still retains the rights and privileges of a person. A corporation can be for-profit or not-for-profit. Many people think of corporations as being the publicly traded companies on stock exchanges, but most of them are privately held, and thus not traded on stock markets.“Corporate” also refers colloquially to the corporate headquarters of a business or the people who work there. These people are in upper-level management, which means they manage the brand of the business and form long-term strategies. It is often when discussing corporate or business culture that the words get used interchangeably.
Can I expect to experience culture shock if I pursue a business career?
Academics have some preconceived notions about what business people are like, and the reverse is certainly true as well.
Stop for a moment to consider what your opinion is of the business world. Some of the stereotypes academics have about business people are that they
• lack values and standards,
• are driven by money,
• care too much about appearance rather than truth.
Some of the stereotypes business people have about academics:
• they are impractical about time and money
• they engage in endless reflection without action.
Of course, the problem with all stereotypes is that they don’t account for individual differences or the circumstances that give rise to some of these behaviors.
Are the skills I’ve developed in my grad program applicable to business?
It depends. About the ease of transferring academic skills to the world of business, one editor for a financial company said, “They translate well. They do not translate readily because of the cultural bifurcation” (Woolf), which means that academic skills will serve you well after you conquer the learning curve of adapting to business culture. This editor speaks at length about the culture shock she experienced in her move to Wall Street, though eventually she found that her love of research and ability to translate finance language into more readable prose were highly valued once she got the hang of the culture. She says that adjusting to the new culture requires “speaking differently, dressing differently, understanding the chain of command, understanding a workday that is unremitting, less vacation, and in which life paths and experience are likely to be very different."
To thrive in a corporate (or business) work environment, you need:
• to find a culture that fits your personality (including how passionate your coworkers are about their mission),
• be adaptable to new forms of writing and responsibilities, work well in teams,
• to keep the bottom line and end-user in mind.
“The Bottom Line” and Alternatives
People in business are focused on "the bottom line," which refers to a business's financial statement—the bottom line on the last page of that report indicates whether the business has made a profit or not. The profit-making orientation doesn’t mean that all business people disregard anything except profit, however. Businesses can have admirable missions that even the most liberal of liberal arts types can get behind. In addition, businesses give massive amounts of money to nonprofits, including universities. It’s a misconception that most of the profits go to making the board or the top executives rich; much of it gets reinvested into the business or donated.
Corporate Social Responsibility
There is a growing movement in the business community to respond to the changing demands of investors, regulators, consumers, and employees. Some of these demands involve sustainability and quality of life. “Corporate social responsibility” is a new buzzword denoting the corporate response to demands for increased attention to non-financial factors. Some corporations even have designated corporate social responsibility officers. (You can search for this position in Vault’s Career Insider to get a better idea of what CSR officers do.)
Another response to changing pressures has been to focus not on the one financial bottom line, but the triple bottom line—
• and planet.
Or even five bottom lines—
• and empowerment.
Corporations concerned about responsibilities other than making profit will include reports on these less tangible outcomes in their annual reports to shareholders.
New Corporate Structures and Change from Within
Other alternatives to traditional corporate missions include new legal structures available to corporations called “benefit corporations” or “flexible purpose corporations.” Even in traditionally organized corporations or businesses focused solely on the economic bottom line, socially conscious employees of the organization can effect change from within it. This might be an even more powerful method of creating social and environmental change than trying to effect change on corporate behavior externally.
How could a business career benefit me?
The most commonly mentioned benefit of working for a business, particularly a large one, is the pay. Salaries in the business world tend to be higher than comparable positions in government, nonprofits, or higher education.
Isn’t it bad to be motivated by money?
Maximizing your earning potential is not an unworthy or shallow goal. Many graduate students have high student debt loads; some have families; most have lived in relative poverty for much of their adult lives. Earning a salary that enables you to meet some important financial goals does not make you a sell-out or earn you a place at the foot of the altar to Mammon. Knowing that earning potential is important to you is one of the first steps to your nonacademic job search and will help you narrow down the jobs you’re interested in once you determine your target salary range.
What if I’m not motivated by money or the company’s mission?
If while working a corporate job you can’t muster much passion for their products or services, you might find satisfaction in helping your colleagues do their jobs better or improve other aspects of their lives. Professionals in HR, management, training, and other common corporate positions can assume a care-taking role for their co-workers and really care about ensuring that they have great benefits, appropriate career trajectories, solid writing skills, etc. This camaraderie can be particularly true in smaller businesses or, of course, government or nonprofit sector jobs, too.
Print and Web Resources
LACS handout on researching corporate careers
LACS handout on human resource careers
LACS pages on management, consulting, and education/training for graduate students
Levit, Alexandra. They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World. Revised. Pompton Plains, NJ: Career Press, 2009. Print.
- Good for explaining corporate culture, how to project and sell your “corporate persona,” office lingo, etc.
Yes Magazine - about trends in corporate social responsibility
Jellison, Jerald M. Life After Grad School: Getting From A to B. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010. Print.
Newhouse, Margret. Outside the Ivory Tower: A Guide for Academics Considering Alternative Careers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Office of Career Services, 1996. Print.
Lemire, Timothy. I’m an English Major: Now What? Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books, 2006. Print.
- Also available as a free ebook download from writersdigest.com
- Q&A with three corporate or technical writers, 170-182
For those who like the idea of public service, working for the government could be an ideal destination, especially if you are comfortable with navigating the bureaucracy of a public university. Working in the public sector carries many benefits, including relative job security, generous benefits, and the satisfaction of serving one's fellow citizens. There are a wide range of roles you could fill at all levels of government--local, state, and federal. Even at the federal level, you could have a degree of choice about the location where you work if Washington D.C. isn’t for you--one-third of federal workers work in Washington, but others work elsewhere in regional offices.
For some federal jobs, the application process can take as long as the academic job search, so if there is a government position that interests you but you're not ready to start immediately, you might go ahead and start getting your materials written and submitted for a start date that could be a year away. Though the process of getting hired can be somewhat arduous, once you are employed by the government, it can be much easier to make vertical or lateral moves.
Presidental Managment Fellows Program
There is a special program specifically for academics who are interested in pursuing work in the public sector called the Presidential Management Fellows Program. This is a paid two-year fellowship providing experience working for federal government. In addition to the benefit of getting your foot in the door, student loan repayment benefits may also be available. Most finalists do come from fields like law, international relations, or public policy, but there are a few liberal arts graduate students in the program. Apply in the fall of the academic year in which you expect to defend your thesis or dissertation.
Print and Web Resources
LACS handout on researching government jobs
LACS pages on intelligence, foreign service, and politics for graduate students
Dodd, Laura. Dig This Gig. New York, NY: Citadel Press, 2011. Print.
Axelrod-Contrada, Joan. Career Opportunities in Politics, Government, and Activism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2008. Print.
Eberts, Marjorie, and Margaret Gisler. Careers for Good Samaritans and Other Humanitarian Types. 3rd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print.
Nonprofit jobs include many of the exact same skills as corporate or government jobs, but the focus is different: in nonprofits, the mission is everything. Nonprofit work could be good for people who feel the need to believe strongly in the purpose of the organization they work for and are willing to accept lower pay to work there.
Some upsides to nonprofit work are that you might be able to get hired with less experience than in a for-profit institution if you have experience in the area or can demonstrate passion for the mission. You also get to belong to an organization you feel is doing important work, such as supporting the arts or serving vulnerable populations. But you won’t be paid as much for it as in the private sector, and the irony about working for a nonprofit is that you have to think about money (how to get it, how to carry out your mission on very little of it) all the time.
Print and Web Resources
LACS handout on researching nonprofit careers
LACS pages on fundraising/grant writing and museum work for graduate students
NonProfit Times - in PCL Periodicals room
The Chronicle of Philanthropy - in PCL Periodicals room
Council on Foundations’s Career Center
Foreign Policy Association’s Global Job Board
Texas Association of Nonprofit Organziations
OneStar Foundation - Texas foundation to promote volunteerism and strengthen the nonprofit sector.
Hands On Network - United Way, affiliated with the Points of Light Institute
Hands On Central Texas
All for Good
Volunteer Match - can search for “virtual” opportunities as well as ones in a local area. Can narrow search results by interest area. Can send message to the organization through the website.
Regional Foundation Library
Greenlights - consulting firm provides guidance and resources for Central Texas nonprofits
2. Eliza Woolf, “From Academe to Wall Street,” Inside Higher Ed, September 24, 2010.