For how much longer will a career outside of higher education (H.E.) be considered an ‘alternative’ career for PhDs? After all, a 2010 UK study by Vitae showed that only 22% of doctoral graduates were working in H.E. teaching or lecturing roles three-and-a-half years after graduating, with only 19% in H.E. research. With the majority of PhDs switching into other professions these days, there’s a huge demand from researchers for careers advice about making the transition.
So here’s my five-step plan for conducting a successful job search outside of H.E., pulling together for the first time many of the individual posts published here on Jobs on Toast:
Step 1: Discover your transferable skills
I made my transition out of academia when the internet was starting to go mainstream (the late nineties). I could see that technology companies weren’t just hiring techies, they were hiring trainers, designers, marketeers and analysts as well.
So that’s where I put my focus in the last few months of my post-doc: I worked out all the transferable skills I’d gained during my PhD and post-doc. I knew I could design training courses; build websites; write great proposals to win money; work well under pressure; understand new concepts quickly and communicate them; and work well in teams.
I took all these skills and I built a new CV (also known as a résumé) around them. Out went my academic publications: in came my list of skills. Using my new CV I landed an interview at a start-up company which built e-learning courses for clients. I was offered a job as a content analyst and subsequently became an e-learning course designer.
So start by making a list of your transferable skills, and compare it with the list in my post on the 20+ transferable skills of PhDs.
Step 2: Decide which path to take
As mentioned above, my job search focused on non-technical roles at technology companies. If you need inspiration for your own search, there are hundreds of online profiles of PhDs who’ve pursued careers outside academia. Start with the fantastic website PhDs At Work, or download my free resource guide listing my top 10 post-PhD interview websites.
As you’re browsing, note down any roles you find interesting and challenging. Put these keywords into a search engine to find out more. Who’s hiring? What skills and experience do you need – and already have – for these roles?
Make a clear decision about your target employment sector before moving on to the next step.
Step 3: Get the right experience
As a researcher, one of your biggest challenges is going to be a lack of direct work experience. That said, if you start early enough, you do have time to gain relevant experience. Here are five ways to gain work experience:
1. Freelancing / self-employment
2. Become an assistant, for instance at a publisher
3. Start consulting
4. Get an internship at a relevant company
5. Explore Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (in the UK)
For more details see my post on 5 work experience options for PhDs and post-docs. Aim to gain at least two periods of work experience in the target sector you identified in Step 1.
Step 4: Create your professional brand
As mentioned above, employers want to recruit roles like analysts, project managers, consultants, communication experts and marketing gurus. When applying for jobs, you need to market yourself in a way that closely matches what employers are looking for. So don’t lead with your PhD: instead, market yourself as a professional ______ with a PhD. Fill in the blank: are you a professional scientist, educator, writer or zoo nutritionist?!
Use this approach to develop a persuasive cover letter and CV. Put your new job title at the top of your CV and list your transferable skills underneath. Include the time spent on your PhD in the ‘Experience’ section, describing your role as ‘research manager’ or ‘freelance researcher’ for instance. Include a statement about your publications as an overall achievement, rather than listing them individually.
Step 5: Tell a great story
The job interview is often the most daunting part of the job search for PhDs, since you’re venturing into an unfamiliar environment in order to sell yourself. To present yourself confidently, you should develop a strong story to explain your career change. For instance, ‘as a professional zoo nutritionist, I’m looking to secure my first permanent role in a zoo, bringing a wealth of insight and practical experience gained during my research, and two work placements at …’
Use this format to develop the story of your own transition. Practice introducing yourself, explaining where you want to work and why, and back this up by reference to your skills and work experience. For more advice, see my post on How to tell a great story about your transition out of academia.
Pushing at an open door?
The good news is that employers want the skills and experience that PhDs have. A 2009 UK Vitae survey of 104 employers found that 73% would welcome more applications from doctoral graduates, and nearly a third are already actively targeting them. So forget about alternative careers … welcome to the mainstream! To make a smooth transition into work after your PhD, start job hunting in the penultimate year of your research and follow my five-point plan. Use all the great resources online and remember to take advantage of careers advice offered by your university too.