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Do you have a question about finding and applying for a job outside of academia after your Masters, PhD or post-doc? Browse the list of frequently asked questions below to find the answer. If your question isn’t answered, submit it using the contact form at the bottom of the page. Thanks to all my readers who’ve sent in questions so far!

Q1: Why won’t anyone respect me for the years of work I’ve done (instead of getting ‘work experience’) and give me a job?

A: Sometimes it can feel like employers would prefer to see time served in traditional job roles in organisations, compared with time invested in writing a dissertation. Partly this is to do with an ignorance of the PhD itself amongst recruiters, but it’s also to do with how you choose to market yourself as a PhD.

The solution here in my opinion is to list your PhD in the Employment section of your CV, if you’ve been funded to carry out your research. This way you can demonstrate your work experience in areas such as research and project management. You can name your funding body as your employer and give yourself the job title of ‘Researcher’, ‘Contract Researcher’ or ‘Research Manager’ for instance.

I’ve written more about this approach in section 3 of my post on Applying for jobs outside academia – from PhD to fellow professional.

Q2: I wonder if you might speak more specifically on whether and how you utilized your postdoc (if at all) to make that leap from academia to into business. How did you do it? I ask because I am in a prestigious postdoc position now but thinking hard about making that transition out of academia. I have academic responsibilities but I also don’t want to waste this time if there are tasks I can get started on to prepare myself for this move. Thoughts?

A: It’s true that I made my own transition after my post-doc rather than after my PhD. In some ways it doesn’t make so much difference when it comes to marketing yourself for a job outside academia. You are still a professional who is changing careers and many employers won’t quite grasp the difference between a PhD and a post-doc anyway! When you are writing your CV, you can include both in your Experience section.

Having said that, a post-doc can be a more tangible kind of reference point when it comes to explaining your skills and experience to an employer. Certainly you will have had more responsibility for managing staff, resources and budgets. You will also have achieved larger-scale outputs like writing and editing books, running conferences, managing research programmes, winning grant funding, delivering teaching programmes and performing administration roles. All of these achievements will look solid on your CV!

In my own case, when I applied for my first job outside of academia, my employer was very impressed by the fact that I’d funded my PhD and post-doc by winning research grants – this was seen as a sign of an entrepreneurial attitude!

So if you’re thinking about changing career when your post-doc comes to an end, take some time to prepare a non-academic CV and identify any gaps that you can fill:

  • Can you gain some work experience outside of academia in the time you have available?
  • Can you undertake work to commercialise your research or find concrete applications for your skills in business, industry, charities or government?
  • Can you build and serve an audience via a blog, website or app?
  • Can you gain a project management and/or ICT qualification to consolidate your skills in these areas?
  • Can you join a Chartered Institute to show your interest in a particular career path like engineering or personnel?

You can of course start building a network in your target market(s) via informational interviews right away!

Q3: If I was to look for a job outside of academia, employers might want to know why I am now, after several post doc appointments, wanting to leave academia? Why not earlier, immediately after the PhD? I often hear that if you want to get a job outside of academia, you need to make the transition soon after the PhD, not e.g. 5 years down the postdoc line.

A: One piece of advice I like to give PhDs is to start thinking of yourself as a professional X who is changing sectors. Fill in the X with how you’re planning to market yourself to a future employer: as a professional researcher, a scientist, an educator or a communicator for example. When you think of yourself in this way, you’re not ‘leaving academia’ as such, you’re just a professional who’s decided to change sectors, from higher education into business or government or the charity sector.

To be honest, I think it unlikely that an employer would ask you why you didn’t leave academia sooner. In my experience many interviewers have quite a vague understanding of how tertiary education works, including the academic job market, and they won’t understand the differences between a PhD and a post-doc. You obviously have a university background, but the rest of the picture is for you to paint.

So you need to take the initiative and establish quite clearly in your cover letter and at interview a good set of reasons why you’re changing career. You can explain that you’re looking for a new challenge, having accomplished everything you set out to do in academia. You can say that you’re looking for a more practical application for your skills, or that you want more influence and responsibility than is available in a university setting.

Lots of people change career, so you’re not unique – what matters is the strength of your story about why you are changing. In 2000 I had to explain why I wanted to switch from academia into working for a start-up e-learning company. In 2011 I changed sectors from transport consultancy into financial services, and I had to explain my way through that transition, and why the bank should hire me. It’s a situation that can recur throughout your working life.

Q4: I’m a History PhD trying to break into public policy or consulting. So what’s the best way to go about getting a job? Should I apply for posted positions via cover letter and resume? Or should I, per many others’ advice, keep trying to get information interviews and build a network so that I can explain my skills directly to people in these fields?

A: I’d suggest that you keep trying both routes. In the process of making applications for advertised posts, you’ll get better at writing cover letters and tailoring your CV. When you get rejections you can ask for feedback, which you can learn from. You can ask employers and recruiters to keep you informed of other suitable positions in the future. Keep on with the informational interviews too. As you say they help you to build a network for marketing yourself and where you can find out about job opportunities, especially positions which are not widely advertised.

The key to successful job hunting in my opinion is to approach it as a series of long conversations, one of which will eventually lead you to a job offer at the end. You don’t know at the start of your search which conversation will ultimately lead you to success! So you need to initiate and maintain lots of threads, informal and formal, to maximise your chances.

Q5: I just left my difficult postdoc for a non-academic science writing job. The job is nice to give me some perspective and catch my breath, but it is not very challenging or fulfilling. How do I bring meaning and engagement back into my work (and life)?

A: Fortunately you have a job and some time and space in your life to explore these matters. I’d recommend taking some time to reflect upon your personal sense of mission and motivation, and what kinds of work or social contribution will make you truly happy. Once you discover this, you can begin to look for opportunities inside your current organisation, or outside it, to fulfil those things.

I wrote a post called What do you want to be when you grow up? to help PhDs with their future employment options. The title is a bit tongue in cheek, but the post has a couple of exercises to get you thinking about your sense of purpose, and how you can realise it through your work. There are lots of self-help books available in this area, so be sure to check out the shelves of your local library or have a rummage on any online bookstore. You may also benefit from speaking to a career coach or life coach (see my post on How to get help and support when applying for jobs outside academia, for a starting list of some coaches who can help).

Q6: My Ph.D. (expected 2014) is in philosophy. I’m considering leaving academia to avoid being stuck in ‘adjunct hell’, constant moves, publish-or-perish pressure, and/or the worry of being perpetually single in smalltown America. A lot of the post- (/ quasi-) academic jobs I’m interested in are related to research on effective ways to combat poverty. Usually they are seeking quantitative training, especially in statistics, economics, etc. While I’m 28, have been in a PhD program for 7 (!) years, I’m wondering if it would be worth it to go for a 1-year Master’s in Applied Economics (plus knocking out some preliminary undergraduate econ coursework to get in). I’d have to get loans to pay for it (roughly $40K, including living expenses), but don’t have any debt presently.

A: As with any investment decision it’s a question of whether the costs in the short term will outweigh the benefits in the longer term. So how much more can you earn, or how much more can you improve your chance of getting a job that you want, by investing 1 year of your life + $40k? That will take you quite a few years to pay off, depending on interest rates and how much you can afford per month!

I guess my question back to you would be, how could you acquire the same skills for less time and money? How can you shortcut the process or do something to improve your employability sooner? I know a Masters can look impressive, but it’s more grad school on top of 7 years already – when it sounds like what you’re looking for now is to get a foothold in your chosen job area.

So can you find a way to get a crash course in the stats methods you need and combine that with some direct work experience? For instance, volunteering, helping out on a related research project or land an internship? That way you can show an employer you can apply your skills and have a great reference too.

Ask Chris a question

Submit a question using the form below and I’ll reply with an answer straight into your inbox. I’ll also publish the answers to all of the questions I receive on this FAQs page, to help other readers. Tick the box if you don’t want me to publish the answer to your question on this page.

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