‘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?

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 monster.co.uk 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 glassdoor.com.