How to search for your ideal job outside academia

If you’ve already started looking for a job in academia, do you use Google to find available lectureships and research posts? Probably not, since in the UK at least, you’ll go straight to the Times Higher Education Supplement. You can check the hard copy or web versions of the THES for available jobs each week. The pool of academic posts is likely to be small enough for you to carry out a manual search within your area of specialism, or you can have matching jobs sent to you by email.

Starting a non-academic job search can seem quite daunting by comparison. ‘What do I google?’ is the first question most PhDs ask. Something like ‘jobs + PhD + [your degree name here]’?! Well you could try, but unfortunately very few employers will be including your PhD subject area in their job vacancy descriptions! In fact the academic job search method doesn’t suit a non-academic job search, because in other areas of employment, jobs aren’t advertised by areas of academic knowledge.

Instead they are advertised according to the functional job roles that exist within organisations. Therefore you initially need to concentrate on two or three specific areas of work that interest you, and note down key words and phrases from these areas, which you can use in your subsequent job search.

To take an example from my personal experience: back in the year 2000 I’d begun to develop a career ‘Plan B’, in case my academic job search didn’t work out. I’d realised that I was very interested in how new technologies like the internet could help people to learn faster, better and at a distance from their teachers and trainers.

Doing some basic research on Google, I discovered that there was a fast-growing industry springing up in the area of web-based teaching and learning, requiring specialist course designers, software programmers and training analysts who could make learning materials accessible. After my fifth unsuccessful academic job interview, and as the funding for my post-doctoral fellowship ran out, my Plan B kicked in! I took the keywords ‘e-learning’ and ‘web-based training’ from my initial research, and I typed these keywords into some mainstream job site search engines such as to find suitable vacancies.

After a couple of months of putting in applications, I landed a job in June 2000 as a Content Analyst with the UK start-up arm of a Swiss-based e-learning services company. The company had vacancies for people who could rapidly adapt learning materials for online delivery, within their Education Design team. Our clients hired us to turn their existing classroom-based courses into modules that could be studied online, in areas ranging from basic IT skills for employees, through to the technical details of new products coming onto the market for retailers.

This example shows how, by starting out with a good sense of my personal interests and passions, and through some basic research into specific work areas using Google, I was able to find a ‘niche’ with good employment prospects. Using selected words and phrases from this sector as keywords on job websites, I identified a range of vacancies, one of which led to a job offer. My PhD in Medieval Studies wasn’t relevant for the search terms I used to find my job.

To show you how it works at the job search engine level, I’ve listed 5 common keywords that I’ve used in the past when looking for work. Click one and explore the vacancies that come up. Depending upon where you’re looking for work, you can filter by country, state and city. Add other keywords to further narrow your search:

  1. E-learning
  2. Researcher
  3. Consultant
  4. Trainer
  5. Coaching

Take action now: Use the method described in this post to identify two or three public and business sector areas that interest you. Make notes about them and capture the key words and phrases. Then track down suitable vacancies by taking these keywords and putting them into job search engines like

Why you need to start thinking about a career outside academia – today!

Why you need to start thinking about a career outside academia - today!

Ask a first or second year PhD student what they want to do after completing, and you can bet that most will answer that they want to get an academic job. A certain proportion of all PhDs will indeed go on to secure academic posts. But how many?

In fact, a 2008 UK study showed that only 44% of doctoral graduate respondents were working in higher education 3 years after graduating, and only 22% of respondents were actually employed in H.E. teaching and lecturing roles (What do researchers do? Vitae, 2010, pages 4 and 15 – only accessible to registered users).

This statistic comes as a shock to many researchers – only 44%?! What happened to the rest? If you are currently a PhD student who is more than halfway to completion, it makes you realise that you need to put some serious time and effort into thinking about your non-academic career options! This is because:

  1. You may not get a permanent academic job, however hard you try, so it makes sense to have a Plan B;
  2. You may already know that you don’t want to follow an academic career path, so you need to consider your options for a mainstream career;
  3. You may want to review all of the options and decide which career route is right for you – academic or non-academic.

The flip side to the 44% statistic is that many PhD students don’t appreciate that the skills they have developed during their studies are very attractive to employers, including big hi-tech names like IBM and Google (click names to search job openings). The challenges and rewards of getting out into the world and putting your ideas into practice can be fantastic!

So actually you should give a career in industry or in public service some serious consideration, and not just treat it as a fallback position. You can read the career profiles of researchers who’ve made such a transition on websites such as The Versatile PhD and From PhD to Life (for North American profiles), and the Think Ahead Blog (use the hashtag #sheffvista) and Vitae (for UK profiles).

In summary, while it will depend upon your own career goals as to whether a non-academic route is your Plan A or Plan B, it makes good sense to set some time aside to develop such a plan. If you don’t have at least a Plan B, you may find yourself unemployed or having to take low-paid work if you’re unable to secure a permanent lectureship or research position after you complete your PhD.

To make it easy for you to develop your personal plan, you can follow a five step researcher career transition model, courtesy of Jobs on Toast. My blog post the majority of PhDs are switching into careers outside academia introduces the model, and all posts on this site are categorised according to which step of the model they fall into.

Take action now: Take some time out from your studies to read the career profiles at the links given above. Who inspires you the most?