How to gain work experience for jobs outside academia


Question: How can I gain work experience during my PhD/post-doc, that will strengthen my future applications for jobs outside of academia?

Answer: Start early! Develop and implement a clear plan for gaining work experience during the period of your research.

‘Relevant work experience’. Three words to strike fear into the heart of any researcher looking for employment beyond higher education! When you’re already so busy with your research, publishing, teaching and administration, it can feel impossible to find the time for work experience on top.

And yet the reality is that for professional roles beyond graduate entry level, employers want candidates with prior experience of their industry or sector. Doesn’t a PhD give you experience? To some degree yes. You may have set up experiments and analysed results for example, which is certainly practical experience. But have you done that in a commercial environment, with all the accompanying pressures of time-to-market and sales targets?

The bottom line is that prior work experience on your résumé gives an employer a feeling of confidence in you and a connection with you. So for instance, as a project manager looking to recruit into my team, I’ll prefer a candidate who has experience of the business sector I’m working in. I want them to hit the ground running. I want them to work with minimal supervision. I want them to be credible in front of my customers. Rightly or wrongly, prior work experience is a shorthand indicator for all these things.

Gaining work experience doesn’t have to mean working for someone else. A great way to get experience in business is to start your own business. This is a convenient option if you’re studying in a location where local employment opportunities are scarce! You can set up and run your own online business for example, or tender your services through a freelance community like Elance or oDesk.

Work experience: it’s *just* another project!

The best way to approach work experience is to treat it like a mini project. Break it down into a series of small chunks to make it less daunting and more manageable. Here are four steps to help you develop your own work experience plan:

1. What work experience do you need? You may already have a clear idea of the career you want after your PhD or post-doc. If you’ve made a decision to seek a new career outside academia, then it’s a no-brainer to gain your experience in that specific sector.

If you’re set on a lectureship or professorship, you should be aware of the likely odds of success of landing a permanent academic post, and understand the risks of taking ‘temporary’ part-time teaching while waiting for your dream job to come up. You would do well to gain some work experience in the area of your Plan B, or if you don’t have a Plan B, at least gain some generic non-academic experience in case your academic career plans don’t work out.

Step 1: Decide on one or more employment sectors in which you’re going to gain work experience. For instance, Dr Lydia Harriss knew that she wanted to work in science communication after her PhD, so she gained work experience by volunteering at science festivals and helping at museums during her PhD. Lydia now works at the Wellcome Trust and you can read her profile on the website.

2. How will you find the time? If you’re starting early, you can earmark periods such as the summer months as opportunities to gain work experience – this is a time when companies may need assistance to cover staff on leave for instance. If a placement requires you to work full time, you’ll need to block out a fortnight or longer away from your research – this may affect when you carry out your research work, such as field trips or long-running experiments.

You do have the (slightly riskier) option of gaining your work experience after you complete your PhD or post-doc. Also think carefully about any relevant work experience that you’ve acquired prior to starting your research.

Step 2: Decide on how you’re going to acquire work experience within your overall research schedule. During, after or both? Have you got prior work experience that’ll stand you in good stead too?

3. How will you gain the buy-in of key people? A common fear is that if you get work experience outside the academy, it’ll make it look like you’re not committed to academia. Won’t your supervisors be concerned that you’ll lose focus or be less willing to back your academic job applications, if they hear you’re working outside academia?

To be honest, you need to find a way to firmly and politely manage the expectations of those around you. It’s your life, it’s your future career. You need to maximise your chances of gaining professional employment in one or two years. Work experience is a vital part of that. So share your plan with your supervisors, get their buy-in, show them that you’ve thought carefully about how you’ll balance your workload and get your research done.

Step 3: Pick a date to talk with your supervisors and once you’ve had ‘the conversation’, you’ll feel much better!

4. How will you find out about and apply for opportunities? If you want to gain work experience in a large organisation, there are likely to be plenty of openings in companies and government departments, but lots of competition. Where positions are formally advertised, this will mean applying many months ahead (that’s why it’s best to start early). A google search will help you to find them.

Another approach is to target organisations directly yourself. Some companies won’t actually advertise their openings, preferring to fill work experience posts informally through their employees. So make contact with the Human Resources Departments of prospective companies, introduce your aim to gain work experience in their sector, and be ready to explain what you can offer.

To help you find suitable organisations, try asking around your friends and family (thanks to Rachael Durkin for this great suggestion via Twitter!). They may know of a paid opening or a chance to volunteer, and can make an introduction on your behalf! If your university has a business school, join its consulting club to get access to consultancies and consulting work. Or sign up for local entrepreneurs meet-ups, or a toastmaster group (thanks to Ravi Elupula for these suggestions via Facebook!). For instance, my old university has an entrepreneurs’ society called ‘Fish on Toast’ (although I was never a member)!

Step 4: Take year-to-view a calendar and mark out three broad blocks of time – the first to scan for opportunities, the second to make approaches and applications, and the third to actually do the work experience placement. For instance, in the second year of your PhD, you could assign four months to each activity. If you want to gain experience by working for yourself, you’ll need to do a mini business plan, covering how you’ll find clients and what products or services you’ll offer.

Take action now: Work through the four steps outlined in this post. Develop a plan to gain work experience relevant to your new career after academia. Then put it into action and let me know how you get on! In a follow up to this post, I’ll explore five different types of work experience opportunity in more detail, and consider the pros and cons of each.