Taking the Right Risks in a Career Transition

There are real risks to changing careers, and leaving academia is no exception. This is especially true when you have very little tangible experience in whatever field you’re transitioning into. For example:

  • You might suck at it. Not everyone is good at everything, and even very smart people are lousy at lots of things.
  • You might hate it. The realities of a job might not match your expectations. A profession that looks appealing from the outside might turn out to be drudgery.
  • You could end up in a terrible work environment. The profession might be a good fit, but you could find yourself working with a bunch of jerks. Or you might end up working in a dysfunctional, failing organization.

There are good ways and bad ways to manage the risks that come with making a career transition. The bad ways are in either extreme. On the one hand, you might avoid taking any risks at all, and stay in a mediocre situation for the rest of your professional life. On the other hand, you might leap straight into a totally different career with no forethought at all. Total risk avoidance is stupid, but so is taking unnecessary, reckless risks.

The middle path is the smart path. You should definitely take risks, but they should be manageable and recoverable. Think of your career the way you’d think of making a financial investment. Simply putting your money in your mattress is dumb. So is investing everything you own in a reckless gamble. Ask yourself the same questions you’d ask when considering whether you should put your money into a particular investment:

  • Is there any reasonable chance that this is a losing investment? If so, can I afford to lose whatever I invest?
  • How do the risks compare to the potential rewards? Should I be willing to take a larger risk for the sake of a larger potential reward?
  • Will I be able to limit my losses if the investment goes south, or am I committed to the worst case scenario if things turn out badly?

When making a career transition, you’re not investing money as much as you’re investing time. The time that you spend comes at a cost, namely an opportunity cost. Just as there is a wide range of ways of investing money, so too, there is a range for investing your time.

The right way to proceed in a career transition out of academia is to find ways of investing your time that maximize reward and minimize risk. At first, the rewards are unlikely to be financial; rather, you should aim to learn as much as you can. Acquiring skills, experience, information, and personal connections are the rewards. The risks are the ways in which your extracurricular activities might adversely impact your academic career.

For example, I made a deliberate decision to spend a lot of my free time learning about entrepreneurship and technology. This came at the cost of my research, and it lowered my productivity somewhat in my academic work. I think that was a really good risk to take. The downside was very small, and there was a lot of potential to learn some very valuable skills (which I did). I made little or no extra money during that time, and I probably lost out a little bit on merit-based raises in my academic position. But overall, it was a good deal. And if I had ended up learning nothing useful, it wouldn’t have been a disaster.

When a small risk pays off, it puts you in a better position for the next one. The experience helps you evaluate your new situation. And you’ll have acquired skills that will positively impact the next risk/reward calculation that you’re faced with. For example, I ended up picking up a lot of coding skills during my first risk-taking experiments. This meant that I had a better chance of getting some kind of technical job later, which is a potentially better risk because of the much greater potential payoff.

For an academic, there is a wide range of very attractive risk-taking opportunities. These provide opportunities to learn a lot without giving up much. Here are just a few that I can name off the top of my head:

  1. You could take a course offered through your university at a reduced (or zero) financial cost. If you want to learn to code, see if you can do it without having to pay full tuition. Often, a faculty member will be happy to let you simply sit in on the course informally. When I was a professor, I frequently let motivated people come to my class. The risk here is just a little bit of your time. The payoff is that you could acquire some valuable skills. That’s a good deal.
  2. You can offer your services collaborating with someone in a different field, or with someone who has experience you’d like to acquire. For example, you can find someone who’s doing a grant proposal in an area where you have very little experience. Offer to help in exchange for the opportunity to soak up whatever knowledge you can. This can have a lot of value to the project, especially when the university is trying to establish interdisciplinary partnerships across traditional boundaries. Simply by virtue of being an outsider and attaching your name to the project, you could be quite useful. Basically, think of yourself as creating your own internship. Again, there’s very little cost, and a large potential upside.
  3. You can offer to work at a business part-time for very little or no money in exchange for the experience. Business all over the world are desperate for motivated, intelligent people. This sort of arrangement could be a huge benefit for everyone.
  4. You can get work in an organization that does something you’re interested in learning, and offer to lend a hand on projects you want to learn about. For example, you could get a non-technical position at a business that does technical work. It can be pretty simple to work out a deal where you’ll contribute to a technical project in addition to your normal job duties, with the understanding that you’re looking for the opportunity to learn.

The theme throughout all of these scenarios is that you’re looking for low-risk opportunities to learn. Once you’ve got one or two of these experiences under your belt, you’ll find it surprisingly easy to start discussing full-time, professional opportunities with potential employers in the private sector.

 

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