Beginning the Journey, Part I: Wayfinding and Orientation

Polynesian navigation device
Photo of a Polynesian navigation device showing directions of winds, waves and islands. Credit: S. Percy Smith (http://www.nzetc.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
 In my first few posts, I focused on the tasks of introducing myself and my career change in progress. Last time, I wrote about why I’ve chosen to learn software development in particular, and I’ll be writing much more about the specifics of that process in the near future, but before I do, I want to pause to fill in a few gaps.

The move towards programming was itself an outcome of a prior process of wayfinding that has a place on this blog as an earlier part of my journey.[1] Since I hope the blog will act in part as a resource for others considering or making a similar career transition, it seems inappropriate to elide either my earlier career explorations or foundations in programming in order to slide ahead to my current projects. While I won’t presume to present a “how-to guide” for a process I’ve yet to complete, I would like to share part of my own story and some resources that I’ve found particularly useful in the hopes that they might prove helpful to others. In this two-part post on “Beginning the Journey,” I want to return to the earliest parts of my re-focusing and re-training.

In hindsight, I can abstract the start of my own emigration from academe into three key stages. First, I acquired information about the journey and its possibilities. Next, I learned more about the landscapes and cultures of the business world I hope to join. Finally, I began to find a place for myself within it. This post addresses the first two stages. The next post treats the third.

1. Wayfinding for the Journey

I knew that I was serious about leaving academe and finding a new career well before I had a clear idea of how I would do that.  At the very beginning, it was critical for me to gain a working understanding of the overall shape of the journey ahead. I did this primarily in private and through books.

The idealized career trajectory from graduate student to professor can be so clear as to be overdetermined, even if the actual process itself is rarely smooth or direct. For me–and, I imagine, many others in a similar position–the comparative openness and multiplicity of paths to employment outside higher education was initially quite disorienting. Traveling these alternative paths can feel more like informal, adaptive wayfinding rather than the precise navigation to which many in academe are accustomed. Luckily, although these paths cross over relatively uncharted territory, they are far from untraveled or unmarked, and helpful navigational tools are available.

At this stage, I found two guides to be particularly useful. Both “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia, by Susan Basella and Maggie Debelius (ISBN: 978-0226038827) and Life After Grad School: Getting From A to B, by Jerald M. Jellison (ISBN: 978-0199734306) lay out a general map and strategies for the type of career change I am attempting. I highly recommend both books to anyone considering a similar transition. The importance of a basic outline map can hardly be overstated. Having these maps helped me to confirm that I wanted to commit to this journey and to know where to start.

2. Orientation in the Landscape

Once I had a sense of the journey to be undertaken, I needed to learn more about the landscape and people of the business world in order to start imagining what my place could be within it. I did this through personal conversations and business books, periodicals, and websites.

For me–and again, I imagine for many others in similar positions–this step was easier than the first, if only because of the relatively greater accessibility and openness of others with immediately relevant personal experience. The personal and professional difficulty of speaking openly with current and former academic coworkers about the process of pursuing an alternative career can be quite considerable, and even prohibitively intimidating.[2] In the very early stages of the process, it was, quite frankly, far more comfortable for me to seek guidance in books and online than in person. In contrast, once I moved on to exploring the business world, I quickly found that I already knew family members, friends, and acquaintances quite familiar with this world and quite happy to assist with career information and advice, just as the “maps” I recommend frequently reminded me. In short, I talked to the people I already knew, and asked new kinds of questions when I met others. This was tremendously helpful in pointing me towards possibilities for a new career.

In terms of reading material, I found Josh’s Kaufman’s Personal MBA book and website to be especially helpful as an overview of fundamental concepts and practices in modern business.[3] I have also benefited from following up on his introduction by reading several of his book recommendations on topics that particularly interested me.[4] In addition, I simply started reading more websites and periodicals addressing different sectors of the economy.

The main objective for me at this stage was simply to learn about the possibilities with an open mind and identify areas for closer exploration. For me, these further explorations eventually led to settling around programming and software development. If you find yourself in a similar situation and take a similar path, you might end up somewhere quite different. I actually see that as a strength of this approach. In my opinion, the important thing is to know that a career change is possible, and there are resources to help. My intention here is simply to help point the way.

Continued in Beginning the Journey, Pt. II

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Notes:

1. To anticipate a possible objection, I am using “wayfinding” in this post in a more general sense, rather than according to its stricter definition in environmental design. And yes, I first noticed the illustration for this piece on Wikipedia in the process of searching “wayfinding” to confirm my recollection of the concept.

2. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be done. On the contrary, I think these are vitally important discussions to have when you feel ready, and I am unequivocally glad that I did.

3. Josh Kaufman, The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business (ISBN: 978-1591845577), and online at http://personalmba.com/.

4. Kaufman’s online list of recommendations and reviews is located at http://personalmba.com/best-business-books/.

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