Looking to Energize Your Career? Take an Experiential Journey

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Written by Dr. Janine Bower

CapSource’s Academic Innovation Partner Dr. Janine Bower shares how as a former college professor, an experiential learning approach to career exploration and development helped her forge a new career path beyond higher education.


Like many other faculty across the country, I was seriously considering leaving higher education to pursue a different career path even before the pandemic struck.  As a tenured professor with nearly 15 years at a small, private liberal arts college, I had enjoyed many aspects of the career path I had taken: the emphasis on teaching and learning, leadership experiences, and freedom to engage in scholarship and practice meaningful to me. There were other aspects of my career that did not align well with my goals and expectations, a realization that was only exacerbated by the pandemic. Two months into the first fall semester of the pandemic, I began reassessing my career plans to consider opportunities outside of higher education. I started by reading about careers in other industries and studying job descriptions. I quickly realized that I was uncertain how my talent, experience and interests translated into careers outside academe; I needed a strategy for furthering my own career goals. Enter experiential learning.


As a recent opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed suggests, experiential learning (EXL) is a great approach for trying out new career paths. Experiential learning has gained popularity at colleges and universities across the United States as an effective approach to furthering educational and career goals of students in and outside of the classroom. More than just “hands-on learning”, the EXL framework involves not only the concrete experience, but purposeful reflection, abstraction, and active experimentation (or “now what”) which essentially helps the learner imagine how their new knowledge and skills may be practically applied and are transferable. Faculty are increasingly versed in its principles, strategies and techniques, and likely equipped to use these strategies to forge their own career exploration and preparation journey. Coming from an institution that emphasizes EXL in and outside of the classroom, I could readily adopt some of the strategies I’ve used to help my own students gain practical and relevant experience, enhance professional skills and networks, and evaluate career options.  


My experiential career journey began taking shape when Jordan Levy, Co-founder and CEO of CapSource, noticed the emphasis on experiential education in my LinkedIn profile and invited me to connect. CapSource is an innovative, ed-tech start-up specializing in designing and delivering experiential learning opportunities through carefully designed collaborations between academic and industry partners. I saw the invitation as a first-step in my journey, an opportunity to connect with a company whose mission and products were interesting and relevant. Joining a new company, even in an adjacent industry, is never easy let alone during a pandemic. That being said, I had no way of knowing then how it would be instrumental to my career journey by helping me define and forge a career path beyond the academy.


I joined CapSource in October 2020 as the company’s first instructional designer. Central to this position is working with faculty and industry partners to design and implement projects that serve as the basis for hands-on, industry-based learning experiences for college students. I had considerable practice helping students design and carry out field-based learning experiences and spent years developing and integrating project-based learning opportunities in my own courses. My background proved helpful in developing my role as instructional designer. For one, it enabled me to gain confidence and establish effective working relationships with educators who, in their own right, were learning how to embed these types of projects in their courses and looking to me for guidance. 


Even so, collaborating with co-workers and clients representing a wide range of industries and academic disciplines means learning the culture of other professions. Making the change to a nonacademic career presents a number of challenges, and as Christopher Caterine points out, being unfamiliar with the jargon and values of other professions is an often overlooked but important barrier. I initially experienced this gap when I joined in company’s communication channels and realized I was the only one clueless as to the meaning of acronyms, short-hand expressions, and the like which are apparently common in the business world.  Nevertheless, my status as a cultural stranger was never more evident than when I began scoping projects. 


Project scoping is a key role of instructional design at CapSource, and involves gathering written and verbal information from participating academic and industry professionals to outline in detail the goals, activities, deliverables, roles, and constraints of the project. CapSource conducts business virtually, and the work I perform is entirely remote. As such, I have the opportunity to engage industry and academic partners from across the US and internationally.  Most of the academic partners I’ve worked with hail from business programs, several ranked among the top 30 business schools in the country, but other fields such as social work, computer science, and engineering are also represented. The allure of working with academic partners to solve industry challenges, engage students, and in some cases recruit talent attracts an array of businesses from start-ups to multinational corporations as well as non-profits. 


Having scoped dozens of projects, I’ve moved beyond knowing the jargon to develop a deeper understanding of these professional languages and ability to apply them meaningfully to new situations. Scoping projects on a wide array of topics gave me the opportunity to practice using these different languages to visualize and communicate connections between academic and other industries. I am better equipped to lead conversations, offer suggestions, and solve-problems in a broader array of groups and situations. While advancing my competency as instructional designer, my experience at CapSource also illuminated professional interests and career pathways I hadn’t previously realized or considered.  In that regard, it’s been an incredible resource for exploring and evaluating my career options. Whereas at the start of this journey I really struggled to visualize a career path outside of higher education, I now readily envision how my own academic skills and experience translate into other occupations and can effectively communicate my value to and suitability for these roles.


When I took on additional roles in support of partnership success and academic innovation, I began working more cross-functionally with departments and needed to become more familiar with the technologies used for communicating and collaborating at the company. Since joining CapSource I’ve been introduced to an array of communication, scheduling, design, and project management tools used across nonacademic industries. Taking on responsibilities for facilitating cross-department collaboration on complex projects created more opportunities to experience the ins-and-outs of different software applications, learn how others use their features to manage work, and experiment to learn how best to incorporate them into my own routines. Collaborating with the product team in particular opened an entirely new window for understanding the relationship between technology and education, and helped me to realize the bigger picture by getting a taste of what software design and development is like.  Boosting my technical competency has increased my ability to effectively perform the kind of professional roles that interest me and self-confidence in learning and using the tools and frameworks common to these industries. 


Though it’s not an exhaustive list of how my career development has benefited, my account illustrates the value and application of EXL strategies for academics looking for a new career path outside of higher ed, but uncertain where to begin.  In just a little over one year with this company, I cleared away a number of barriers that stood in my way of envisioning my career path and developed a number of skills and habits that will help me be successful in other industries. I also sharpened my understanding of how my knowledge and skills align with the kind of professional roles I’m interested in and how I can add value to organizations in other industries. After two decades in higher education, I left my position with the college in fall 2021 and started an organizational learning and design consulting business. I continue to work with CapSource as an Academic Innovation Partner, where I conduct research, collaborate with industry and academic partners, design curriculum and content for experiential learning products, and develop user content and write thought leadership blogs.


The start of a new year invites reflection and renewal, and brings a sense of possibility for new beginnings. Experiential learning strategies are well-suited for exploring and developing new career pathways, particularly when considering careers outside of familiar professions and industries. Academics are likely well equipped to plan and carry out their own experiential journey, one that purposefully includes reflection, abstraction, and experimentation practices essential to learning experience. For those looking to start a new career path beyond higher education, an immersive experience in another industry can help to formulate that path.


Interested in exploring ways to grow your career with CapSource? Check out their comprehensive list of job opportunities updated regularly on AngelList.