In her first two weeks at home, Ella got her entire head stuck in the baby gate 3 times. Once was frightening, twice was hard to believe, but after the third time, I realized that she doesn’t have any sense of consequences. She just acts without any kind of planning. In short, she doesn’t have an exit strategy.
Most of us resemble Ella more than we care to admit, especially those of us who have PhDs. We don’t tend to plan what we will do until we are downsized, can’t stand the idea of going to work in the morning, or (perish the thought) graduate with our degree in one hand and nothing in the other. Whether you are looking to leave a current position, or are planning to leave your career track, you can begin to develop your exit strategy long before it’s time to say your goodbyes.
For the formerly academically-minded, you need to walk a tight line. Not all professors are open to post-academic careers, so feel out your supervisor before you make any grand announcements. If you still have time left in your degree, take advantage of any training that your university might offer in areas of interest: facilitation, instructional design, curriculum development, research planning, grant writing, software, leadership… these programs are usually offered free to current students so be sure to jam as much professional development in as possible, and include it on your resume. You should also plan to attend career-related events, especially ones that feature guest speakers and employers to increase your network and get valid information straight from the source. Participating in university sanctioned programs will not attract unwanted attention from disapproving supervisors, and will still allow you to expand your skills for your post-academic search.
If, like me, you find that your school days are long behind you, you still need an exit strategy. What if your manager is replaced with someone different? The budget allotment for your unit is cut? The market shrinks? Business is outsourced? Your job is redundant? Or you’re just so miserable at the thought of going to work that you want to crawl back into bed? Many of my clients have made the mistake of thinking that they can speed up their search by quitting their current job. Don’t do that! Statistically speaking, it is easier to get a job if you already have one. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. It’s like the old childhood scenario that a toy is more desirable if someone else is already playing with it. Keep the job and plan your exit. You’ll feel calmer at work if you know that you are already planning for your next move.
Get your house in order. Make sure that your resume is updated and that every experience on it supports your professional brand. My motto for resumes is “if you can’t prove it, you can’t say it” so make sure that your application materials have lots of examples of your unique selling point (also known as why an employer should hire you and not the other guy).
Research, research, research. It doesn’t matter what field you are in, you need to know who might pay you to do what you do. Identify your potential employers. Check out their financial reports if they are publicly traded or a non-profit. Visit their website. Set up Google Alerts for news about them. You will save time in your search if you know who the potential players are, and why you want to work for them.
Reach out to others. Networking isn’t a dirty word, and it isn’t about asking strangers for favours. Waiting until your dream job is posted online and then asking for a chat is not going to help your cause any, though. That’s why the smart networkers start building contacts at their preferred employers before openings are posted. Alumni groups, LinkedIn and professional associations are great starting points for building a network.
Ask for help. Whether you are a student with a campus career centre at your disposal, or a mid-career professional, you might want to consider working with a coach or through a program available in your community. Career development professionals can help you to see the things you might be missing, direct you to appropriate resources, and guide you through new strategies that will help you to reach your professional goals, whatever they may be.
Do you have an exit strategy? Care to share? Questions, comments and stories are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.