The murder by police of US citizen George Floyd has highlighted the systemic racism that afflicts the United States and many other countries. I offer my deepest condolences to Mr Floyd’s family and other people impacted by this terrible tragedy. I give my support and thanks to everyone who fights to end racial injustice and build a society that puts fairness, equality and human dignity first.
Within the scope of my work on this careers resource website (Jobs on Toast), I’ve always consciously sought to amplify voices that are marginalised in our current society – this is reflected in the writers and coaches whose work I feature, the personal profiles I choose to give as examples and quote from, and in the authors of guest articles published on the site.
I will continue this proactive approach and reflect further on what more I can do, in support of racial justice and anti-racist goals and outcomes, in my help for researchers making the transition into careers outside of academia.
Take action: Please write to your MP or other elected representative, to express your views and ask them to take action. The Independent newspaper has compiled this page where you can make donations and sign petitions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Use and share this ordered list of scaffolded anti-racist resources with others who can benefit through personal growth and learning more.
Collaborate: please get in touch with your ideas on how we as a community of current and former researchers, can share resources that specifically support Black and Minority Ethnic researchers, with the challenges of changing careers post-PhD. And resources that help to confront and overcome racial bias and prejudice in the hiring process.
This month we welcome a guest post by Courtney Danyel, who is a course creator, business writer and anthropologist.
As a former academic, I know the struggle PhDs have trying to find work in competitive job markets or adapt their skills to whole new professions. But one thing has always confused me:
Why do most PhDs want to pursue traditional careers, completely overlooking the opportunities with freelancing?
I left academia and joined the freelance world 6 years ago and I’ve never looked back. Over the years I’ve also learned just how well-suited PhDs are for freelancing.
Here’s why freelancing offers more potential for success than any other post-academia career choice out there.
PhDs Have Many Skills Relevant to Freelance Work
When I first started freelancing, I thought I’d have to learn a whole new trade before I could get any gigs. But I quickly realized there were lots of jobs I was already qualified to do.
Here are some examples of common freelance jobs that most PhDs are qualified to do right out of academia:
Editing (in academia, science or other fields)
Writing (on topics related to your PhD area)
Data management or analysis
There are also many freelance research assistant positions available online. You can help other academics in your discipline or a related one with their research without ever having to step foot inside their office. There are entire online platforms devoted to helping academics and organizations find PhD freelancers to hire.
When I first started out, I tried to land any freelancing gig I was even remotely qualified for. As an anthropologist, I had taken one statistics class and done some basic statistics in my thesis. So I applied for lots of data management or analysis gigs. I was shocked to discover how much businesses would pay someone without a stats degree to do simple regression analyses for them.
Ultimately I ended up narrowing my work down to writing and editing. I started out working on projects only relevant to my academic field (e.g. I wrote for a human rights organization). But eventually I got this client that wanted me to write about marketing topics. I had never taken a marketing class and knew nothing about it. But I used my expert research skills I gained in academia and figured it out. Now 6 years later I call myself a marketing expert and nearly all my clients have me write content in this space.
Here are the takeaways:
You already have plenty of transferable skills to earn money as a freelancer right now.
You have the research skills, discipline, and attention-to-detail to enter new freelance niches.
The possibilities are endless.
Let Freelancing Serve Your Personal Goals
Another great thing about pursuing a freelance career post-PhD is that you can adapt it to fit your personal goals:
Supplement Your Salary
Most PhDs graduate with debt, and if you’re lucky enough to join a career right away, you’re probably still not paid very well. Freelancing on the side is a flexible, lucrative opportunity to fill your income gap and pay off debt early in your career.
To this day I’m kicking myself for never freelancing in undergrad or grad school, let alone after graduating. I always had a job, an RAship or a TAship, but those never paid enough to do anything with. Instead of sitting in my office hours every week waiting on students that would never show up, I should have opened my laptop and freelanced to earn extra income. Then I could have graduated with zero debt.
Hold Off For the Right Opportunity
The truth is, your dream job post-PhD is out there somewhere. But it’s likely not available right when you need it after graduation. All the PhDs I know in recent years who got the jobs they really wanted had to wait several years for the right opportunity to come by. They had to fill that gap in low-pay/low-reward postdoc positions or working jobs outside their field altogether.
Why not freelance until your dream career comes along? Freelancing can keep your pocket full while you search for the perfect job. It can also help you flesh out your CV. Freelancing allows you to work on several projects simultaneously, giving you more experience and credentials that can help you land the perfect job in the future.
Do What You Want With Your Life
If you decide you want freelancing to be your full-time career (like I did), there are even more added benefits. Because my work is 100% online, I have the freedom to live and travel wherever I want. And I never really had to stop being an anthropologist in order to do this.
I currently live in my current field site (Ethiopia). Fieldwork was always my favorite part about being an anthropologist, and I get to do more of it now than I ever did when I was actually in academia.
Full time freelancing gives you the flexibility and freedom to pursue the passions, hobbies and dreams of your life.
Freelancing Can Earn You Great Money
The one thing that scares PhDs away from freelancing the most is the myth that you can’t make good money as a freelancer. It’s true that a lot of freelancers are underpaid and underemployed. But PhDs are almost never a part of this category. That’s because less than half of freelancers today offer skilled labor and services. The vast majority of freelancers are offering unskilled labor for a very low price. Not only are PhDs a part of the skilled labor category, they’re ultra skilled. PhD freelancers are rare and sought after, which is why they can charge the highest rates for their services.
I earned six figures for the first time in 2018, after 4 years of freelancing. I don’t know when I ever would have done that if I stuck with a traditional career. Freelancing gives you the opportunity to scale your income that no other job-type can. For my first few years freelancing, I was able to grow my income30% year-over-year. What kind of career gives you a raise like that?
And the truth is, I could have grown my income even faster if I understood from the beginning exactly how to apply skills from academia to freelancing online. It took me a few years to learn how to market myself and land high paying clients. But you can skip the learning curve if you want to.
After years of advising former colleagues and other PhDs how to enter the freelance market and succeed, I decided to create a course to walk people through the whole process. You can check it out here (affiliate link):
To get more tips and advice on how to apply skills from your PhD to earn great freelance income, check out my blog at Academia to Affluence.
Courtney Danyel is a course creator, business writer and anthropologist, in that order. She can teach you how to build a successful freelance business using your existing skills at AcademiatoAffluence.com. Learn more about her writing services at CourtneyDanyel.com. Twitter @danyeltravels.
This month we welcome a guest post by Ulrike Schneeberg, PhD, who works as a career consultant, trainer and blog author with a special focus on transitions from academia to industry. Ulrike is the author of the book Monster zähmen (engl: Taming Monsters) that investigates 25 different career paths of people with humanities degrees (so far, only available in German).
As a career coach and trainer, I often work with international PhD candidates and postdocs across Germany. They have excellent research careers. Yet, they come to my seminars because the uncertainty of a career within academia is no longer tenable to them. Many of my seminar participants have started their own families. Some have partners with a good academic job in Germany and no desire for an international long-distance relationship. Others are simply drawn to the German way of life and culture. They all look for attractive career alternatives outside the academic system.
If you are considering a career in Germany or simply curious how things work for PhDs and postdocs elsewhere, have a read. Although, of course, every seminar participant brings their own individual situation and topics, there are five questions which I hear in every seminar. Here they come:
Q1: How hard is it to get an industry job in Germany with my PhD?
Behind this question hides the fear of negative stereotypes against (ex-)researchers. I’m sure you know the kind of stereotypes I’m talking about: “no practical experience”, “incapable of dealing with tight deadlines”, “rubbish in teams”, “arrogant”, “too expensive”, and so on.
So, are these stereotypes true or not? What do employers in Germany think about PhDs?
One thing that is certainly true (and that is good news for you!), is that in Germany the PhD title “Dr” is a lot more common on business cards than in English-speaking parts of the world. Indeed, in many professional fields, in addition to research and higher education, a PhD title is considered a credential that equips its holder with authority and status. (If that consideration is justified or not is a different matter.) For example, in management consulting, a high percentage of employees hold a PhD – not only because their PhD shows that they are capable of tackling complex problems, but also because the title creates more of a power balance when the young consultant advises senior executives (many of whom also hold a PhD).
Executives and board members across all industries in Germany are more likely to have a PhD than their colleagues in similar positions abroad. In fact, many people believe that a PhD opens doors to these higher management positions faster than other factors. Income statistics suggest that this is at least partly true:
So, is a PhD only useful if you want to become an executive?
No. There are also specialist industry jobs that require or prefer a PhD., such as patent attorneys, researchers in the pharma industry or scientific librarians. And then there are, of course, all the jobs that do not specifically ask for a PhD, but that are also available for PhD holders.
And what about the stereotypes mentioned at the beginning?
Here’s a challenging hypothesis: It is not the stereotypes of HR against PhDs that make it hard to get an industry job, but the stereotypes that you BELIEVE are out there that make it harder or easier for you.
Q2: Do I need to speak German to get a job in Germany?
The short answer: that depends.
The longer answer: it is certainly possible to find high-profile jobs that don’t require you to be fluent in German. Your chances are particularly good if you are a natural scientist or engineer with expertise in a research field that is, according to an HR development manager at a German automotive company I spoke to, considered ‘hot topics’ in their research and development departments. For the automotive industry, current hot topics are: connectivity, automation, sharing and electrification. What are the hot topics in your preferred industry?
You also have good chances if you want to work in a start-up company because in many of them the working language is English and the start-up culture is generally very open towards lateral entrants. This is particularly true if you know how to code. But being a native English speaker with an international (research) network will also be an advantage for all roles that require communication with (specialised) international customers, such as in sales or recruitment positions.
Q3: What other job opportunities apart from the well-known corporates are there?
When I ask the PhD candidates and postdocs in my seminars where they want to work, they name all the big, well-known German companies: Bayer, Daimler, Bosch, Philips, Lufthansa, Volkswagen, Siemens, BASF. These companies belong to the industries with the highest turnover in Germany: automotive, engineering and the chemical industry/ pharma.
There’s nothing wrong with applying here, except that everybody does. Thus, competition is fierce and even if you get in, you might realise that the working conditions are not what you were hoping for. So, it makes sense to look at other possible career paths:
1. German Mittelstand
Translating this with “small and medium-sized companies” (i.e. companies with up to 500 employees) would be inaccurate, although this is how the term is most often explained. Because of its positive connotations (family-owned, down-to-earth, etc.), some large companies, such as Bosch, also claim to be part of Germany’s Mittelstand. For your search, the essential aspect should be that these are little known companies in Germany – except in the regions where they are based. Have a look at this (German) career fair website [https://www.karrieretag-familienunternehmen.de/] with a list of all the represented Mittelstand companies. They all need specialists and some of them have research and development departments with international, English-speaking teams. Or browse the Hidden Champions https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_champions, small but highly successful companies in Germany.
2. Start-up company
Make use of the open and dynamic culture in start-ups to gain industry experience. Have a look at what jobs are advertised here (https://germanystartupjobs.com/) and do some research on the companies that pique your interest. Get in touch with them and explore your opportunities.
3. Found your own business
You don’t need an MBA to become a successful business owner. What you do need is curiosity and courage – and a lot of the skills you have developed during your PhD. Find business owners as role models and interview them. Or take part in one of the workshops organised by the Falling Walls Foundation, aimed at PhD candidates who are curious about entrepreneurship. (For your motivation: I know someone with a PhD in German Literature (and no scientific or engineering degree whatsoever), who co-founded a company that develops and sells radar modules for the mining industry worldwide.)
Q4: What?! My CV needs a photo?
Yes. In Germany, employers expect to see a photo included with the CV. In fact, your application might be ignored without one. Although companies are not legally allowed to request a photo in the vacancy announcement due to privacy laws, they want one nonetheless. Employers argue that a CV with photo provides a more complete representation of the applicant and lets them make a connection with the person in a way that’s easier than just scanning words on paper.
Q5: What else can I do apart from answering job ads?
Great question! Germany might have a reputation for being highly regulated and fond of complex administrative systems, so you might be tempted to think that applying to job ads is the only way to get a job. But like everywhere in the world, in Germany too, there is so much that you can and should do apart from answering job ads. In my view the three most essential things are: