How to search for your ideal job outside academia

If you’ve already started looking for a job in academia, do you use Google to find available lectureships and research posts? Probably not, since in the UK at least, you’ll go straight to the Times Higher Education Supplement. You can check the hard copy or web versions of the THES for available jobs each week. The pool of academic posts is likely to be small enough for you to carry out a manual search within your area of specialism, or you can have matching jobs sent to you by email.

Starting a non-academic job search can seem quite daunting by comparison. ‘What do I google?’ is the first question most PhDs ask. Something like ‘jobs + PhD + [your degree name here]’?! Well you could try, but unfortunately very few employers will be including your PhD subject area in their job vacancy descriptions! In fact the academic job search method doesn’t suit a non-academic job search, because in other areas of employment, jobs aren’t advertised by areas of academic knowledge.

Instead they are advertised according to the functional job roles that exist within organisations. Therefore you initially need to concentrate on two or three specific areas of work that interest you, and note down key words and phrases from these areas, which you can use in your subsequent job search.

To take an example from my personal experience: back in the year 2000 I’d begun to develop a career ‘Plan B’, in case my academic job search didn’t work out. I’d realised that I was very interested in how new technologies like the internet could help people to learn faster, better and at a distance from their teachers and trainers.

Doing some basic research on Google, I discovered that there was a fast-growing industry springing up in the area of web-based teaching and learning, requiring specialist course designers, software programmers and training analysts who could make learning materials accessible. After my fifth unsuccessful academic job interview, and as the funding for my post-doctoral fellowship ran out, my Plan B kicked in! I took the keywords ‘e-learning’ and ‘web-based training’ from my initial research, and I typed these keywords into some mainstream job site search engines such as to find suitable vacancies.

After a couple of months of putting in applications, I landed a job in June 2000 as a Content Analyst with the UK start-up arm of a Swiss-based e-learning services company. The company had vacancies for people who could rapidly adapt learning materials for online delivery, within their Education Design team. Our clients hired us to turn their existing classroom-based courses into modules that could be studied online, in areas ranging from basic IT skills for employees, through to the technical details of new products coming onto the market for retailers.

This example shows how, by starting out with a good sense of my personal interests and passions, and through some basic research into specific work areas using Google, I was able to find a ‘niche’ with good employment prospects. Using selected words and phrases from this sector as keywords on job websites, I identified a range of vacancies, one of which led to a job offer. My PhD in Medieval Studies wasn’t relevant for the search terms I used to find my job.

To show you how it works at the job search engine level, I’ve listed 5 common keywords that I’ve used in the past when looking for work. Click one and explore the vacancies that come up. Depending upon where you’re looking for work, you can filter by country, state and city. Add other keywords to further narrow your search:

  1. E-learning
  2. Researcher
  3. Consultant
  4. Trainer
  5. Coaching

Take action now: Use the method described in this post to identify two or three public and business sector areas that interest you. Make notes about them and capture the key words and phrases. Then track down suitable vacancies by taking these keywords and putting them into job search engines like

Get organised – create a Career Planner

When I first started looking for a job outside of academia, it was initially a very hit-and-miss process. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, find interesting job vacancies, put in applications and learn from my knock-backs, all at once! Looking back now, I can see that success came once I’d met a series of consecutive milestones – these are the steps that I’ve set out in my post on developing a Career Roadmap.

I wish also that I’d had a systematic way of recording my planning and progress. Finding a job is often about overcoming a series of personal hurdles and the better you can manage this process, the quicker you’ll reach your goal. That’s why I recommend to all job seekers that they keep a hard copy or electronic Career Planner file to accompany their career journey.

So take an A4 ring binder or start a new spreadsheet or document. Depending upon your personal taste, you can decorate it with pictures, quotations or anything else that gives you inspiration or energy! Divide your file or document into 4 sections or tabs with the following headings:

1. Discovering my potential
2. Choosing my profession
3. Marketing myself
4. Getting an offer

The posts in this blog are organised into four categories, each of which relates to one of these sections in your Career Planner. So you can safely file away the material you create after you’ve read a post and after you’ve put the principles into practice.

Depending upon whether a non-academic career search will be your Career Plan A or Career Plan B, give your file the appropriate name. You are now all set to begin!


What do you want to be when you grow up?!

Primary school, secondary school, undergraduate degree, postgraduate study – many PhDs have spent their whole life working towards goals that are education related. It’s natural to think of an academic position as the logical next step or culmination of all those years of work. And yet, it’s also worth taking some time out to reflect and ask ourselves, by completing a PhD, have we actually achieved what we originally set out to do? What else do we want to achieve in our lives?

These are important questions, because each of us has hopes, dreams and ambitions that help to drive us on, or which we’ve not yet fulfilled. Knowing what motivates us is important as we approach the end of our PhD, because these hopes and ambitions can help us to generate options for career paths outside of academia.

So take 15 minutes out of your day to reflect upon the following topics:

1. Childhood dreams. Think back to when you were a child. When grown-ups asked you ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’, what did you say? Did you want to become an professor or researcher? Write down your dreams, however fantastic or mundane they sound. Is now the right time to begin to realise those dreams? Can you pursue a career path that will help to make your dreams come true?

2. Ambitions. As we grow up we develop ambitions and goals that we strive to achieve. What were, or are, your ambitions? Financial – make enough money to live comfortably? Environmental – save the world? Have you put your ambitions on hold while you take the time ‘get your qualifications’? Now that you’re in sight of completing your PhD, is it time once again to focus on achieving your personal ambitions? Jot down your ambitions and consider the career path that would best help you to realise those ambitions.

3. Challenges. Sometimes we set ourselves challenges in life – or they are set by other people for us. Maybe someone once challenged you to ‘get a proper job’? Maybe you’ve sat too long at a desk and want to master the art of gardening? What about running your own ethical business? Walking to the North Pole? Write down some challenges that excite or frustrate you. How could you tackle and overcome these challenges after completing your studies?

Having spent some time reflecting on these topics, think about where you are now in your life. Despite everything that you’ve accomplished (and a postgraduate degree is a tremendous achievement), do you still feel a sense of unfulfilment? Could you feel more fulfilled if you took steps towards realising one of the dreams, ambitions or challenges that you’ve noted down? Think also about the people who matter to you, and how they might be surprised, but also full of admiration, if you took bold steps towards achieving a personal dream or ambition.

There are no right or wrong answers to this exercise. Exploring these aspects of your character will help to confirm that academia is right for you, or bring to light potential career paths outside of academia.

Further reading

The Four Steps to Finding Your Passion, by Stephanie Huang