5 work experience options for PhDs and post-docs

Gaining work experience is the second most important thing you can do to improve your job prospects during your PhD or post-doc (networking is top). Having relevant work experience on your résumé demonstrates clearly to an employer that you’re ‘one of them’. You know their business, their customers and how to fit into your future role.

Here are five options for gaining work experience during or after your PhD:

1. Freelancing and self-employment

Freelancing is a great way to get work experience, earn money and build up a network, all at the same time! Some well-known post-ac bloggers like Jennifer Polk and Jessica Langer worked for themselves during their research, hiring their skills out to businesses.

You can get started by thinking about your strengths and the types of  jobs that organisations need help with. What are you good at doing: organising events, designing, researching, selling, training, coding? Then consider the target job sector where you want to find work after you complete your PhD. This should give you some ideas about how to market yourself, and the kinds of organisations you want to target.

You can advertise your services or approach organisations directly, or hire yourself out through an online freelance community like oDesk or Elance.

Pros: lots of flexibility; good income potential; highly regarded experience.
Cons: can take a lot of initial effort to find clients; variable amounts of work.

Link: Check out this great Storify article on Freelance work with a PhD from Jen Polk, who writes the blog From PhD to Life.

2. Become an assistant

You are an intelligent, articulate, literate professional. Lots of busy people working in organisations would love to have your help to get things done!

So think of the job role you want outside of academia, and then think about who might typically support someone in that role. For instance, if you fancy being a book editor, consider openings as an editorial assistant for a publisher. If you want to run your own business, can you work as a personal assistant for a local entrepreneur, shop owner or trader?

Pros: direct experience; fair income; excellent opportunity to network.
Cons: you may need to commit to a job for a longer period of time.

Link: read how Adam Capitanio used his experience gained as a editorial assistant on academic journals, to land a permanent job with an academic press just before his dissertation defence!

3. Start consulting

A consultant is someone who hires out their expertise in order to solve problems for organisations. They usually combine a deep subject matter knowledge with great interpersonal skills, and have the confidence to work with senior people to solve challenging problems.

You might think ‘that’s not me’. But being a consultant doesn’t have to mean being a stereotypically brash hot-shot. The best consultants are empathetic, listening carefully to their clients’ problems before recommending solutions or advice. I was a full-time consultant for six years, and I loved being able to help my clients to deliver a big project or solve a tricky problem.

Pros: highly regarded experience; good income; great networking.
Cons: lots of competition; harder to do for shorter periods of time.

Link: read this fantastic article on consultancy, principles and profit by Lauren Tedaldi.

4. Get an internship

An internship is an arrangement which gives an employer an extra pair of hands to get some work done, whilst giving the intern valuable work experience (and pay)!

Typically as an intern you’ll spend a fixed period of time working at an organisation. You may be put onto quite routine work, perhaps helping to cover staff absence during the summer or over a busy business period. Or there are also more interesting kinds of internship where you get to do a specific project or piece of research for the organisation.

Pros: a structured way to gain work experience; great for your résumé.
Cons: lots of competition; timing may not fit in with your research schedule; lower pay; may be aimed at more junior candidates.

Link: check out this helpful page on internships for PhDs from the London School of Economics, which also has a handy PDF on writing speculative applications for internships.

5. Explore Knowledge Transfer Partnerships

In the UK some universities have teamed up with businesses to create a special kind of work placement under an arrangement called a ‘Knowledge Transfer Partnership’ or KTP. The KTP post typically lasts 2-3 years and pays a salary, with participants completing a specific piece of work for a company or university, after their PhD or post-doc.

Paul Yeomans, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships Team Manager at the University of Nottingham, told me that ‘they are a great way to turn academic skills into industry application, and they tend to have a very positive impact on the associates’ employability.’

Speaking about the Nottingham KTP scheme, Paul said that ‘about 75% of KTP associates are offered a full time post by the host company […] we haven’t had a KTP associate end a project without at least one job offer from somewhere else.’ That’s a pretty impressive track record!

You should definitely find out if your university runs a KTP scheme. You can also discover what KTP posts are available across the UK by downloading the jobs.ac.uk app, or go to their website. Do a search for KTPs and you’ll get a list of current vacancies with salary details and the closing dates for applications.

Pros: salary; great work experience; 2-3 years in length; training budget for development.
Cons: competition; longer-term commitment.

Link: Read about How a knowledge transfer partnership could boost your career from The Guardian.


Take action now: Choose one or more of the options described in this post and set about gaining relevant work experience. If you start early enough, you should be able to rack up two good stretches of work experience during your PhD or post-doc. This will look great on your non-academic CV!

I’d love to hear about your experience with gaining work experience! What approach worked for you? What questions do you still have? Please leave a comment below, or email me directly via my get in touch page.

Further reading – choosing your profession

5 Ways to Gain Valuable Skills Outside of Your Academic Training, by Ryan Raver

How to gain work experience for jobs outside academia, by Chris
Free Resource Guide: 10 career websites every PhD should visit, by Chris
Your job options after a PhD – in a diagram, by Chris
How to search for your ideal job outside academia, by Chris
How to research your target job sector, by Chris
How to find jobs advertised at PhDs, by Chris
How to get help and advice when applying for jobs outside academia, by Chris
‘But I don’t really know what I want to do!’, by Chris
Deciding who to work for after the PhD, by Chris
Project Management as a career path for PhDs, by Chris

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

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