Take control of your career by switching into a job outside of academia

‘Who do you want to work for?’ and ‘Where do you want to work?’ are two questions you’re unlikely to hear in a discussion of the current academic job market. Given the desperate state of the market today, with many more candidates than jobs, the idea of having a choice about your first post in academia seems pie-in-the-sky. Researchers are resigned to going anywhere they can get work, even if the position and location aren’t a great fit for them presonally (adjuncting in North Dakota, anyone?).

Ask these two questions in the context of jobs outside of academia however, and you get a very different response. The sheer amount of options can be quite overwhelming at first: ‘You mean, I get to CHOOSE who I work for, and where?!’ Well, obviously you still have to apply for and get the job! But you definitely have more control over your employment terms – salary, location, workload and work-life balance – in comparison with posts inside higher education.

So let’s take a look at the abundance of career opportunities outside academia, with a view to helping you choose your next job after your PhD or post-doc.

Careers outside academia

Some people mistakenly imagine (from inside the academy) that PhDs only venture out of higher education as far as publishing houses, or into research labs. The reality is that PhDs are enjoying successful careers in a broad range of organisations beyond academia. I recently listened to a radio profile of Angela Merkel, a PhD in quantum chemistry, who as Chancellor of Germany is running the biggest economy in Europe …

There are lots of dedicated websites where you can go and read interviews with PhDs who’ve successfully switched into careers outside of academia. Take a look at PhDs At Work for instance. This fantastic site has profiles of PhDs who are employed across a range of sectors, from coaching to environmental health to film and the arts (look out for me too!) These researchers are succeeding on the back of the skills and experience they gained from their doctoral research, not in spite of them.

You check out my post on life after the PhD for a fuller list of websites carrying interviews and profiles with PhDs employed outside academia, or download and keep my free guide to The 10 career websites every PhD should visit.

Who do you want to work for?

So, who do you want to work for? You might decide that you actually want to work for yourself. An increasing number of PhDs are setting up their own businesses in fields like marketing, consulting and coaching. Being your own boss may not be that different from doing a research project – a lot of the same skills are required, such as time-management, self-motivation and dedicated hard work.

If you decide you want to work for someone else, you have three main options – non-profit, government and business:

Working for a non-profit, you’re going to be using your transferable skills in a role that supports the organisation’s mission. This mission could be health-related, environmental, artistic or may involve helping disadvantaged groups in society or in another country. This is a great way to put your expertise to work, in a research capacity (e.g. with a medical charity) or as a subject specialist or an administrator.

Your second option is to work in local or national government. In local government you’re going to be responsible for the delivery of a service to the public– this could be heritage, libraries, schools or planning for instance. I know of several PhDs who’ve gone into museum management – they are now heads of their own collections. If you go to work in national government, you can find a home for your research skills in a policy unit, or perhaps further afield as a diplomat. One of my contemporaries from the University of York is now the British High Commissioner to Kenya!

Your third option is to work for a company. From the perspective of academia, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to business, and think that you have to sell your soul to work in a company. Actually, there are many companies which are doing a great deal of good in the world while turning a modest profit. I strongly encourage you to find out about small and medium-sized companies with an ethical, social or sustainable mission. Companies in the ethical and green sectors tend to have an open-minded recruitment policy, and want to employ people who are aligned with their values – read about my personal experience working for a sustainable bank for instance.

Where do you want to work?

Having spent a long time living and working in a university town or city while completing your PhD, it can be quite a wrench to have to up sticks and move to a new job. Certainly for recent doctoral graduates, it would be quite unusual for an ideal academic post to come up locally, so relocation is a very likely prospect when taking a post in higher education.

When looking at your career options outside of academia however, the ability to stay put can be a nice perk. Why not start your own business in the location you know best – your home town or city? Or go to work for a local employer who’s looking for someone of your calibre and potential? While the offices of large and popular employers like Google may be located hundreds of miles away, or in another country, you may find that one of their suppliers or spin-offs has an office just down the road …

On the other hand, if you fancy a change of scenery, a job outside of academia can be your passport to a dream location. Very few posts will come up at the University of Hawaii for instance! But once you’re looking for work outside of higher education, you’re free to search for opportunities in the exact location that you and your partner want to live. Especially once it comes to starting a family, your priorities change, and finding job security and a nice place to settle down become paramount.

It’s your choice!

If you’re following the current commentary on the academic job market, you’ll know that it’s dominated by feelings of scarcity, insecurity, compromise and under-employment. Researchers are taking temporary, low-paid teaching work in universities in the hope that by ‘staying in the game’, something more permanent will eventually come up. This is an understandable strategy, but the odds of decent employment may actually decrease over time, and you’ll still have little control over when or where you’ll finally get a job.

By contrast, we’ve seen how you can gain more choice and self-determination by opting for self-employment, or for a job in an organisation outside of academia. In my own case, my first job after my post-doc was working for an e-learning company in the south-east of England – right job, wrong location! After nearly two years we relocated to the south-west of England, which was a much better fit in terms of quality of life and affordable housing for our growing family. Thirteen years later and we’re still here!

So where will you end up working, and who will you be working for? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these two questions – please leave a comment below, or drop me note via Twitter or the Jobs on Toast Facebook page.

An earlier version of this article was published on the website How to Leave Academia (no longer available).