Post-PhD careers: you can have your cake *and* eat it

How do you feel about working and earning a living? As something that you have to endure, or as something that you really enjoy?

When I was a post-doc thinking about jobs outside of higher education, it seemed to me that I couldn’t enjoy anything more than working in a university. I thought leaving university research and teaching would mean trading better financial security for lower personal fulfilment.

In fact the opposite turned out to be true – when I got my first job in business, working in an e-learning company, both my financial situation and my sense of personal fulfilment increased. I was happier, healthier and I had a better work-life balance than when I was a researcher.

The reality is that many companies today will offer you good pay and working conditions, and the opportunity to do meaningful, impactful work. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for some great organisations in the years since I left academia.

For example today I work for a sustainable bank, which only lends money to organisations involved in positive social change – areas like renewable energy, organic agriculture, social housing and the arts. It really feels like I’m part of a movement that’s making a tangible difference in the world.

Remember, a job outside of academia needn’t require a direct trade-off between your pay and your personal values. Companies are offering good salaries to attract intelligent, highly-skilled and motivated people – which perfectly describes you as a researcher.

You really can have your cake and eat it, to borrow a phrase!

Take action now: Spend a few minutes reflecting on your unconscious assumptions about the nature of work outside of academia. Are your preconceptions about soulless corporations, and an overly-rosy view of academic life, holding you back?

Take some time to read about the work of companies which are committed to doing good in the world. Check out the B Corporation movement for instance, and browse this fantastic job board on the 80,000 Hours website, which lists some of the world’s most high-impact jobs. Which jobs interest you most?

4 Replies to “Post-PhD careers: you can have your cake *and* eat it”

  1. Hi Don, thanks for your observations, as you say, there’s always a balance to be struck! The key point is for doctoral graduates to understand they have a number of career options, and they shouldn’t feel unduly constrained by their qualifications or their background, when it comes to thinking about the next steps after the PhD.

  2. Hi Arie, I’m glad you’ve found the blog useful! The first step IMO is to do an audit of your transferable skills and experience, to understand how you can market yourself for careers outside of academia. Did you see my blog post on this topic? The link is in the side bar.

  3. It is certainly true that one can with a PhD do very interesting and rewarding jobs outside of academia. There are risks however. If you have a research agenda that does not coincide with available paid work, you may in effect be working two jobs – having one cake and eating another? Also, if you’ve ever heard reference to people leaving skill sets in the trunks of their cars when they go to the workplace, that feeling may be amplified in the case of advanced degree holders (and all the more so with more experience). For example, I had some high earning positions where I felt like I left a truckload of skills, experience, and ideas in the parking lot each morning – but they did facilitate my doing other work when I got that truck back home. All of which is to say you might end up with the more challenging task of managing a bifurcated career – part for love and part for money.

  4. Hi Chris, I just saw your blog on LinkedIn. Thanks for the inspiring tips on leaving academia. I just got tenure at Western New England University, but that has not made me happier with my work/life balance. I keep my eyes open and am looking around but I am afraid to take the first step 8)

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