A PhD is an achievement, not an activity

A PhD is an achievement, not an activity

‘What do you do?’ is a question we’re often asked when we meet someone new. How do you answer? I’m doing a PhD? I’m a researcher? I’m in academia?

Actually, you don’t really ‘do’ a PhD at all. I know we say this to our fellow researchers, as a kind of shorthand. ‘I’m doing a PhD on medieval festivals, and their influence on the balance of power in English towns in the Middle Ages’, I might have once said!

But think about it: you actually ‘do’ a whole range of highly skilled tasks in the pursuit of your research topic. You carry out research, present your work, write grant applications, publish articles and reviews, defend your arguments, conduct fieldwork, organise conferences and manage experiments. You do all of these activities in order to develop your dissertation and prepare for your viva defence.

So strictly speaking, a PhD is an achievement that you earn, not an activity that you do. Your PhD is the outcome of a sophisticated research and communication process, in the same way that a novel is the outcome of a creative writing process, or a bridge is the outcome of a complex engineering process. 

Take action now: Find a form of words for talking about yourself which avoids scholarly and academic types of language. Notice when you use expressions like doing a PhD, studying, dissertating, writing a thesis, in grad school or still in university to describe what you do. Try the following ways of talking about your profession instead:

  • I manage a grant-funded research project on behalf of [name of funding organisation]
  • I’m working on a cure for [name of disease]
  • I analyse changes in culture and society and help policy makers to make better decisions
  • I’m a conservationist who specialises in [name of specialism]
  • I help the public to understand the heritage and history of [name of country, region or culture]
  • I’m training the next generation of [name of profession e.g. chemists, engineers, English teachers] and I help them get better at [your research area]

I’d love to hear how you’ve chosen to describe your work – please leave a reply below, or a comment on the Jobs on Toast Facebook page, or tweet me (an even harder challenge, keeping it to 140 characters)!

How to introduce yourself to employers outside academia, after your PhD


Question: When an employer asks me why I’m leaving higher education after my PhD, what do I say?
Answer: Introduce yourself as a professional who’s decided to change employment sectors.

One of the most common challenges researchers face when looking for work outside of higher education is knowing how to introduce yourself and your change of career. As regular readers will know, I recommend that you present yourself as a fellow professional who’s made a clear decision to change employment sectors. I believe this is a powerful and convincing strategy, and it’s certainly one I used myself when transitioning out of academia.

For some researchers, this narrative will come easily and they’ll have no trouble articulating it. Other researchers will find it very difficult to verbalise a convincing story. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like a failure who’s leaving academia behind, when actually you need to be positive about yourself and your skill set. So in this post I’ll give you a detailed method for creating a confident statement to introduce yourself to employers.

If you can tell a joke, you can deliver a great introduction!

I was fascinated to find out recently that many jokes follow a common formula. I was listening to an interview with Kevin Rogers, a former stand-up comedian who switched careers and who is now a professional copywriter. In his interview Kevin explains how he used to write jokes according to a four-step formula: Identity – Struggle – Discovery – Surprise. Let’s see how this formula works with an old favourite:

‘Waiter, Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup …’
‘Don’t shout too loudly madam, otherwise everyone will want one’.

So the first sentence introduces the identity of the protagonist (a diner), and the struggle they are undergoing (contaminated soup) following an unpleasant discovery (the fly). The response of the waiter plays on the sense of discovery, but rather than fixing the problem, the waiter asks the diner to keep quiet instead (the surprise). Think about some other jokes you know and you’ll see this formula at work, or listen to Kevin explain it further in episode 116 of the SPI podcast.

How did Kevin make his successful transition into copywriting and advertising? He found out that he could adapt his joke formula to write great advertising and marketing copy, by replacing the element of Surprise with the element of Results. Think for example of the Remington razor advert: a guy likes the convenience of an electric razor, except that it doesn’t give him such a close shave as wet shaving. He then discovers a model of electric razor which gets the same results as a wet shave, making him happy at last (so happy he bought the company). Once you know it, you’ll see this formula at work in all kinds of adverts and marketing campaigns.

It struck me while listening to Kevin that job hunting is another area where you use a story to convince an audience. I could certainly relate what he was saying to my personal experience of marketing myself when applying for my first jobs outside of higher education. For instance, this is how I introduced myself when applying for jobs in the sector of e-learning and web-based training, as my post-doc drew to a close (bear in mind this is 15 years ago, before MOOCs were even invented!):

‘I’m a professional researcher and educator. I’ve won three separate grants against tough competition to fund my work over the last 8 years, enabling me to complete my ambition to write a book. As I’ve seen the Internet grow, I’ve become more interested in technology, and especially its potential to democratise learning and bring education and training to a much wider audience. That’s why I now want to move into the private sector. This job will enable me to put my skills to work developing high-quality e-learning courses for your clients.’

So you can see how the first sentence establishes my IDENTITY (according to Kevin’s formula), while the second sentence describes my STRUGGLE and how I’ve overcome past challenges, while hinting that I’m also looking for a new challenge. The third sentence introduces my DISCOVERY of a new opportunity and passion, and the fourth sentence explains the RESULT, both for me and for the employer.

The message to my future employer was ‘I’m a professional who’s changing employment sectors’. There’s no mention of me being ‘a PhD/post-doc who’s leaving academia’! In fact you can see why describing yourself as a PhD leaving academia doesn’t work as an introduction, even though it’s literally true. You’re only presenting an identity and a struggle when you introduce yourself this way. There’s no personal story for the employer to relate to; and a busy Human Resources Manager sorting through a pile of CVs, or meeting scores of candidates at an event, doesn’t have the time to solve your career problems!

That’s why it’s so powerful to contextualise your career change in terms of a discovery, and back this up with a clear statement of the results you can deliver. You want to establish a human connection and the beginning of a professional relationship with the interviewer, not burden them with your troubles! You want to draw your interviewer into the story of how you’ve overcome past challenges, and help them appreciate the value you’ll bring to their organisation. Telling a personal story with a positive outcome helps you to build this feeling of trust and rapport. No wonder researchers find it difficult to move on with their careers while they keep talking about themselves as a PhD leaving academia …

I want you to use these insights to develop a statement that enables you to introduce yourself, confidently and convincingly, to an employer in business, government or the charity sector. So take action now:

1. Craft your introduction: On a sheet of paper write down Kevin’s four headings at intervals on the page: Identity – Struggle – Discovery – Result. Underneath each heading, write out some statements from your personal experience that fit into that category. Refine your statements until you have a clear four or five sentence story to introduce yourself to future employers. Once you have a basic story, you can customise your introduction for specific job opportunities.

2. Get the book: After listening to the interview with Kevin, and writing this post, I discovered he has a 50-page book called The 60-Second Sales Hook. In his book Kevin shows entrepreneurs and freelancers how to apply his 4-step method to marketing their products and services, by telling a powerful story about themselves. But a lot of what he says is directly relevant to  job applications too, because as we’ve seen in this post, applying for a job is the very essence of selling yourself! So download a copy of Kevin’s book for free (email address required), or buy a copy from Amazon to learn more.

3. Share your story: I’d love to read the introductions that you come up with after reading this post! Feel free to post your introduction in a comment on this page. Maybe you have an even better approach to creating introductions? Then drop me a line through my contact page today.

Read my note about Afffiliate Links on the Jobs on Toast website.

Feeling like a failure? 4 strategies for beating the post-PhD blues


You can’t allow feelings of failure to hold you back in your search for jobs outside of academia post-PhD. As I explained in the first part of this post, you need to recognise if the failure story is affecting you, and then tackle it and move on. So in the second part of this post, I’m going to give you some practical strategies for overcoming any such feelings. Here are four ways to turn yourself around – pick the one that works best for you!

1. Academic employment is an opportunity, not a certainty

Today’s PhDs are realising that employment as a tenure-track professor, or as a permanent lecturer, is an opportunity that many would love to realise, but very few PhDs actually achieve. When you’re one of hundreds of applicants for an academic post, the fact that you weren’t offered the job, or even called for an interview, doesn’t make you a failure. Not one bit. With such long odds, we are talking about slim chances, rare opportunities, being in the right place at the right time. You cannot fail to win the lottery!

To take just one example, Dr Patrick Iber was on the job market for four years without a single offer, despite his outstanding credentials:

In my own case I had five academic job interviews in three years without a job offer. That was hard to accept at first, but I had a plan B which enabled me to move into a business career instead – having a job was more important to me than the type of job at that time! So think positively about how you took the opportunity to apply for academic posts (if you did) – but don’t dwell on the fact that it didn’t work out. Find other sectors of the economy where your skills are in more demand, and secure professional work there instead.

2. Do your discipline somewhere else

It can be easy to think that leaving academia means ‘giving up everything’ that you’ve previously worked for. Nothing could be further from the truth! Universities are not the only place where you can practice your discipline. You are a professional X – fill in the blank yourself (see my post on Applying for jobs outside academia – from PhD to fellow professional). You can carry on your trade anywhere that you can find clients, customers or users. You can set yourself up as an independent historian or writer for example. Or take up a role as an engineer or ecologist working in business, or for a charity or the government. First and foremost you are a professional practitioner of a particular trade or skill-set – the sector where you choose to take up your employment is secondary.

Taking your expertise and putting it to work outside of higher education is not failing: if you feel that you can do more good elsewhere, or you want a better income or prefer the work-life balance, then do that. That’s certainly how I feel now: having worked in sustainable transport and now in ethical banking, I’m sure I’m happier than if I’d stayed teaching critical theory and medieval studies in a university. I’m not saying that teaching critical theory or medieval studies aren’t important – they are – but there were a finite number of posts available back in the late 1990s. And I do wonder how challenging that role would have been for me in the long term. On the other hand, as a society and as a species, right now we need as many as sustainability practitioners as we can get! And I’m proud to be one of them, working at the forefront of building a greener, cleaner and fairer future.

3. It’s time to leave school and move on

Thinking back to when you were in secondary school or high school, what’s the worst thing that could have happened? If like me you were academically inclined, the worst possible thing would’ve been to LEAVE SCHOOL (either getting kicked out or just leaving at the earliest opportunity)! Now, thinking back to your bachelor degree days, what’s the worst thing that could have happened? That you DROPPED OUT OF UNIVERSITY – shock horror!

There’s a powerful drive in our society to stay in school – it makes sense, because it’s through investing in our education that we gain the qualifications and experience that give us access to better paid jobs and work. This drive may in part help to explain why some PhDs can find it hard to make the break with higher education. YOU’RE LEAVING SCHOOL?!!! But we aren’t kids any more. We’re adults with outstanding academic records. It’s perfectly fine to complete a masters degree or a PhD and then leave the university sector to do something else.

OK, so breaking the news to your supervisors (your surrogate parents?) is one of the many challenges that PhDs making the transition have to deal with! But there’s a right time to leave school – especially now that you’re equipped with a research degree and so many transferable skills. It’s exciting and liberating to cut your ties and move out of the university sector, into pastures new.

4. Embrace the failure story

After the first part of this post went live, I got into a twitter conversation with Rebecca Schuman and Derek Attig about the failure story. Derek came up with a totally different angle on failure which I’m pleased to include here – thanks Derek! His view was that we should be willing to embrace the failure of a narrowly-trained, narrowly-focused version of oneself, as a prelude to post-academic work.

I admit to never having thought about it this way – actually embracing a sense of failure! But this might be just what some people need to do – to accept that the version of themselves that they fashioned, as the scholar, the academic, is no longer going to help them get full employment in today’s labour market. Recognising this, and letting go of the persona you’ve spent your adult life building, isn’t easy – but it may be a necessary step on the path to your personal reinvention. Version 1.0 has outlived its usefulness – it’s time to reboot with version 2.0 of you. Pick the metaphor that suits you best!

Take action now: I hope you found one or more of these strategies useful – which one(s) worked for you? If you want to learn more about overcoming feelings of failure and/or  lack of direction after your PhD, I highly recommend Isaiah Hankel’s book Black Hole Focus: How Intelligent People Can Create a Powerful Purpose for Their Lives (affiliate link).

Further reading

To read more of my posts on the topic of telling a great story about your career transition, go to the site index, and see the list under Step 5.

See also (Probably) Refusing to Quit, by Patrick Iber