Applying for jobs outside academia – from PhD to fellow professional


Question: After your PhD, how do you go about marketing your skills and capabilities to employers outside of academia?

Answer: Work on presenting yourself as a fellow professional who is just changing sectors, moving out of higher education into working in business or for not-for-profit organisations.

In this blog so far I’ve focused on the early stages of the non-academic job search – finding out what you really want to do, and searching for job opportunities in specific sectors. The next step on your career roadmap is to develop the stories, profiles and application materials you’ll need to market yourself to potential employers. In the next few blog posts I’ll be writing about this marketing process in greater detail. In this post I’ll focus on the benefits of presenting yourself as a fellow professional who is changing sectors, moving out of higher education in search of new challenges and opportunities.

At the heart of the fellow professional approach is the ability to present yourself and your capabilities in a language that your prospective employer can understand and relate to. And when applying for your first job outside of higher education, you’ll need to be especially thorough. Remember, the interviewers are hiring someone who is the best match for the job vacancy title and role description. If their first impression of you is as a freshly-graduated PhD or as a conventional university professor, this will trigger all kinds of stereotypes and preconceptions about you, before you’ve even had a chance to present yourself! That’s why you need to present yourself from the outset as a professional researcher, or analyst, or scientist or educator, who has a strong skill-set and relevant qualifications and experience. If you are already speaking the interviewers’ language, potential barriers will fall away.

I appreciate that while it’s easy for me to say that you just need to present yourself as a fellow professional, many readers will feel a very long way from being able to do that right now! Well, remember that you already know how to present yourself professionally in academia – throughout your PhD you’ve absorbed the language and style that makes you a successful university professional, probably quite unconsciously. So what you need to do now is focus quite deliberately on acquiring the language and professional style used in your target job sector. Personally I’ve always found it an energising challenge to try to be seen as ‘one of you’ to folks in my target job sector, sometimes with strange results (in my last job some folks thought I was an engineer by background, even though I was only managing a team of engineers … another time a professor of transport economics thought I actually had a PhD in transport …). Although the first time I had to recast myself was when I made the transition out of academia, I’ve used the same approach several times since too – when I’ve been made redundant or put at risk of redundancy, and I’ve had to apply for work in a field that’s been new to me (e-learning, software development, transport consultancy, banking). Learning how to present yourself as a fellow professional is an important life skill!

It may help you to think in terms of a Venn diagram, with you and all your awesome talents in one circle, and the job description of your target job in the other circle. You need to explain the common ground between the two circles to the interviewers, so they understand how you’ll meet their requirements and hire you. This area of common ground will be articulated through your social media profile, in your covering letter, in your CV and what you say and do during the interview process. So an important first principle is that you don’t have to be a complete match: you just have to be a sufficient match. You are changing sectors of course, so you won’t have everything they want, but on the other hand you can bring a little extra something from your time in higher education that other candidates won’t have. There are 4 key areas of skill and experience matching that I recommend you work on:

1. Job title. Think very carefully about what to call yourself when job-hunting post-PhD. The starting point is to look for suitable job titles and roles in the sector where you’re applying for work. For example, after being made redundant from the e-learning company that I worked for, two years after leaving academia, I marketed myself as a Training Consultant. This was a sufficiently general title for me to apply for a range of education- and training-related jobs, emphasising a consulting edge that I brought to the role, as well as my ability to design and deliver training. I ended up being hired by a software company as a trainer and technical author. More recently, I’ve used the title ‘Project Manager’, as that’s a generic title that’s understood across many sectors. I used this title on my LinkedIn profile and CV while I was job-hunting in 2011, even though in my previous role I had been a ‘Business Unit Manager’ and my main role had been managing programmes of work, not individual projects (yes I was officially a B.U.M!). Calling myself a project manager was generic enough for the types of role I was applying for, I had lots of previous experience as a project manager, and it helped people to ‘get me’ and what I could do for them in a couple of seconds. What are you going to call yourself?

2. Skill set. The next step is to match your skill set to the sector where you are applying for work. It goes without saying that as an applicant you need to be able to offer the technical skill-set that employers are looking for. Danielle Deveau has written a fantastic article on Reframing Doctoral Skills for the Non-Academic Workplace. This is definitely the place to start when you’re looking for the right way to communicate your skills, and Danielle has 4 strategies to help draw those skills out. For a worked example of how to turn your knowledge into skills, see the excellent presentation on Using Your PhD in the Non-Academic Job Search by Dana Landis (recommended by Danielle), especially slides 9-18. ‘Reframing’ your academic experience is key, as Dana says:

Reframe, rather than disregard, your academic experience:
• Translate knowledge… (i.e. my dissertation described the impact of nongovernmental organizations on the development of democratic institutions in Kenya)
• Into skills… (i.e. Researched and wrote a dissertation. Identified research problem and designed criteria to evaluate possible explanations. Developed timeline, cultivated contacts in Kenya, and supervised a team of undergraduate researchers)

Communicating your skill-set for your target sector is actually a two-stage process. In the first pass, you’ll reframe your skills for the sector in a relatively generic way. You can use this skill list on your online personal profile for instance, or when networking and telling people what you can do. In the second pass, you’ll tailor your skill-set for a specific job application. In a future post I’ll give you a couple of worked examples to show how this works in more detail.

3. Work experience. The third area to work on is reframing your previous work experience. This is probably the hardest part of this approach to achieve; many PhDs have said to me, we’ve spent all our time in universities, so how can we have any experience relevant to our target sector outside of academia? So there are three parts to tackling this one. If you’re starting early enough in your job search, you have the chance to get some non-academic work experience in your target sector before the end of your PhD, or immediately after. This is the easiest and most obvious way to show an employer that you’re a fellow professional: you’ve already worked as an intern, or done some paid or voluntary work in their sector. I won’t go into the full details of how to get such work experience here: I suggest you read James Mulvey’s e-book on How to Find a Career with Your Humanities Degree as that’s a great source of information and practical advice.

The second part is reframing the time spent working for your PhD in language that people in your target sector will understand. This will be on a case-by-case basis. If you’re applying for a job where your PhD has relevance for the employer, then by all means be ready to talk about your work and your high-level findings. If you’re applying for a job where your PhD isn’t relevant to the role, you need to be able to stand back from your dissertation and talk quite casually about it – as a piece of work that you delivered to fulfil the remit of a grant award for example, in the context of a wider research programme. You were (or are) a researcher and that’s what researchers do after all!

So I’ve never been asked about the details of my PhD in an interview, and I would definitely struggle to communicate ‘The Dynamics of Urban Festal Culture in Later Medieval England’ to a non-academic hiring committee!  But at my first interview for a job outside of academia I talked confidently about how I won several grants in the early part of my career to fund my research, and how I delivered some major outputs, including two books, and how I taught and presented to an international audience in my area of expertise, including appearing on BBC Radio 4. This kind of summary created the bridge to the next step, where I said that having achieved everything that I set out to do in academia, I wanted a new challenge. With a strong personal interest in technology, I said that I wanted to make the move into web-based training, to use my expertise as a professional trainer and educator to reach wider audiences via e-learning programmes.

This was my ‘fellow professional’ play in action, at the start of an interview with the team leader of the e-learning design team in which I got my first job after academia. Notice how I didn’t even mention my PhD, just the results and outcomes of it. The fact that I had won my own funding for my work, delivered some big projects and was confident in teaching and learning all helped to sell me as a ‘fellow professional’, in the context of a start-up e-learning company. You need to carefully script your own story and rehearse it so that you can do it effortlessly. This is something you can practice with friends in your network for instance.

The third and final part of the experience piece is presenting your employment history on your CV. I’m an advocate of listing your PhD years in both the ‘Experience’ and ‘Education’ sections of your CV. Jen Polk of From PhD to Life has a great reframe for this: you’ve worked as a ‘self-employed researcher’ during your PhD. This is a very reasonable assertion to make – the PhD isn’t a permanent position, and therefore as a freelancer or contractor, you’re moving from one fixed-term role (your PhD) into another position (your target job). This approach fits very well if you’re applying for a temporary position for your first job outside of academia; and if you’re applying for a permanent job, you can explain that you’re now looking for security and long-term employment. The latter explanation is quite persuasive, given that the academic job market has become increasingly casual and contract-based! So you’ll always have one item of previous work experience on your CV and social media profile – the time you’ve spent as a researcher or research manager, working at a university. You can tailor this description to suit your target sector. You should also list your PhD as a qualification in the Education section of your CV, but the main way that it’s represented will be in the Experience section.

4. Qualifications and memberships. Depending upon the sector, it may benefit you to obtain industry- or skill-specific qualifications, or join professional associations. For instance, you can get yourself a project management qualification, and/or join a project management association, if you’re applying for roles in this area. Having the right memberships and qualifications is further evidence to an employer that you are someone who knows their field.

So in summary, whatever feelings you may be having during your transition out of academia, you’ll need a compelling narrative that explains your situation and your capabilities to prospective employers. Presenting yourself as a fellow professional who is changing careers or switching sectors will do just that for you.

Take action now: read my review of James Mulvey’s e-book on How to Find a Career with Your Humanities Degree for more great advice on changing careers.