‘But I don’t really know what I want to do!’

I’ve already written a post about how you need to identify specific areas of work outside of the university sector in order to focus your job search (How to search for your ideal non-academic job).

However, I appreciate that some postgrads and PhDs will still struggle to decide upon a non-academic career area. After all the focus that it’s taken to get through school and university and post-grad life, it can sometimes be difficult to think of a work area that really excites you as much as your academic subject.

The danger here is that unless you are prepared to rethink who you are and what you can do, and take a firm decision on how to market yourself, you can easily get stuck in post-academic careers limbo. ‘No employer wants to hire a specialist in contemporary critical and cultural theory’, a PhD may complain. Exactly right my friend – no employer outside of academia does! But employers do want to hire authors, analysts, researchers, consultants, advisers, project managers, trainers and designers, to name but a few job roles. If you have a PhD you are perfectly capable of doing all of these roles: in fact you’ve probably done some of them already without realising it! Written academic papers? Then you’re an author. Designed and run courses? Then you’re a trainer.

So you need to be marketing yourself as a professional X who is now bringing their talents to Y industry or the Z area of the public sector. Presenting yourself and your qualifications in a positive, employer-friendly way is the key to unlocking the mainstream job market.

Back in 2000 for instance, I picked e-learning as my target industry and got a job with a start-up company by presenting myself as a professional educator with an interest in technology. After the bottom fell out of that market and I was made redundant in 2002, I picked software training and technical writing and got into that by presenting myself as a training expert, with a wide knowledge and experience of different modes of learning. Did I have a PhD? Yes. Did I present myself as PhD in Medieval Studies looking for a job? Certainly not! My PhD is just one part of who I am and what I can do – it did not and does not wholly define or limit me.

In fact a postgraduate qualification gives you lots of angles when it comes to presenting yourself to employers. You just need to identify and decide upon a particular industry or job role, and then find an angle that helps the employer understand your unique value. In the examples given above, the angle I used was education and training, and this approach is open to all PhDs, whether you’ve taught in a classroom or a lab. You can always present yourself as a professional educator and get a job that way. You can also present yourself as a professional researcher, since your PhD demonstrates your capability in this area, although there are fewer research jobs outside of academia.

Other angles that you can choose, depending upon your confidence and relevance to a specific industry are given below (click on a job title to view current vacancies for that role in the job search engine glassdoor.co.uk – you’ll need to filter by country, state or city):

  • Writer or Author: required in the worlds of advertising, marketing, journalism, publishing and engineering (e.g. Technical Author).
  • Project Manager: a required position in many fields of work including engineering, manufacturing, finance, consultancy, health and sustainable development.
  • Analyst: many industries require smart people who can collate and digest information, ranging from intelligence and national security, through to software development and finance.
  • Designer: products and services need to be tailored for use by customers, and so this role is found in many areas including online businesses, manufacturing, financial services and publishing.

You might think that while all this sounds great in theory, can it work in practice? Well, if you look at my CV on LinkedIn, you’ll see that in the first 5 years of my post-academic career, I held job roles with all of the titles mentioned above. Did I spend 10 years in university just to become a Content Analyst? No … but did the fact that I was willing and able to market myself as someone who could fill a Content Analyst role help me land my first post-academic job, and open up a world of possibilties? Yes it did!

The bottom line here is that unless employers are advertising for a graduate trainee, they will only have vacancies for generic job roles with specific responsibilities. They want someone who fits the job description and who can get started in the business or organisation from day 1, to replace the person who left, or do the same work as someone who already works there and is too busy. In fact a recruiter or Human Resources Officer won’t take any time or trouble to try to understand your letter or CV; it will go straight into the Reject pile unless you come across in a familiar and acceptable way! So the critical first step in marketing yourself is to present yourself as a professional [fill in the blank], and have that role appear after your name on your CV. Choosing one or two roles to focus on in this way is an important psychological step, as well as a practical necessity in securing your first post-academic job.

Once you’ve decided on your shortlist of job roles, it doesn’t mean that you have to spend the rest of your life wearing one of those labels. The point is that the language of job titles is a bridge between skilled people on the one side, and the work that organisations need doing on the other. As a doctoral researcher who has already accomplished so many great things, you can perfectly well walk that bridge without giving up any of your personal integrity. The sooner you can decide upon a type of job, the sooner you can transition out of academia and get on with the rest of your life.

Take action now: After reading this post, take a quiet moment to list seven or eight mainstream job roles that appeal to you. Pick one or two that really stand out. Then take your CV and at the top, next to your name, write a dash and then the job role you’ve chosen. What does that look like? How does it make you feel?

Further reading – choosing your profession

Life after the PhD: 8 inspiring post-PhD interview websites, by Chris
Your job options after a PhD – in a diagram, by Chris
How to search for your ideal job outside academia, by Chris
How to research your target job sector, by Chris
How to find jobs advertised at PhDs, by Chris
How to get help and advice when applying for jobs outside academia, by Chris
Deciding who to work for after the PhD, by Chris
Project Management as a career path for PhDs, by Chris

I came across this great chapter on the subject of ‘Choosing what to do’ in Steve Chandler’s book Wealth Warrior. The restaurant menu analogy which Steve uses neatly emphasises that you have to choose a vocation; for most people, a vocation doesn’t automatically pop into your head! Many thanks to Steve for granting me permission to reproduce the chapter from his book here.

Check out Justin O’Hearn’s inspiring Storify article on PhDs Working Outside Academia. Some great first-hand examples of PhDs who have gone on to pursue careers as professional writers, educators, consultants, strategists and fundraisers.

About Chris

I've made the transition from a PhD in Medieval Studies, into a career in business, consulting and project management. But I want to give something back to the researcher community, and help everyone who's facing the challenge of finding work outside academia. Jobs on Toast is a way for me to share my insights and experience, helping you to make a successful career change. Use my five-step plan to get started right away!

2 thoughts on “‘But I don’t really know what I want to do!’

  1. Dear Chris,

    Another brilliant post! I wish I had access to this a few years ago when I was starting my career! Spot-on on the right choice of professional language to view and communicate one’s qualities, including the skills developed via a PhD. I shall deinitely recommend your blog entries to my PhD students!

    Best,
    Ioanna (University of Warwick)