A PhD is an achievement, not an activity

A PhD is an achievement, not an activity

‘What do you do?’ is a question we’re often asked when we meet someone new. How do you answer? I’m doing a PhD? I’m a researcher? I’m in academia?

Actually, you don’t really ‘do’ a PhD at all. I know we say this to our fellow researchers, as a kind of shorthand. ‘I’m doing a PhD on medieval festivals, and their influence on the balance of power in English towns in the Middle Ages’, I might have once said!

But think about it: you actually ‘do’ a whole range of highly skilled tasks in the pursuit of your research topic. You carry out research, present your work, write grant applications, publish articles and reviews, defend your arguments, conduct fieldwork, organise conferences and manage experiments. You do all of these activities in order to develop your dissertation and prepare for your viva defence.

So strictly speaking, a PhD is an achievement that you earn, not an activity that you do. Your PhD is the outcome of a sophisticated research and communication process, in the same way that a novel is the outcome of a creative writing process, or a bridge is the outcome of a complex engineering process. 

Take action now: Find a form of words for talking about yourself which avoids scholarly and academic types of language. Notice when you use expressions like doing a PhD, studying, dissertating, writing a thesis, in grad school or still in university to describe what you do. Try the following ways of talking about your profession instead:

  • I manage a grant-funded research project on behalf of [name of funding organisation]
  • I’m working on a cure for [name of disease]
  • I analyse changes in culture and society and help policy makers to make better decisions
  • I’m a conservationist who specialises in [name of specialism]
  • I help the public to understand the heritage and history of [name of country, region or culture]
  • I’m training the next generation of [name of profession e.g. chemists, engineers, English teachers] and I help them get better at [your research area]

I’d love to hear how you’ve chosen to describe your work – please leave a reply below, or a comment on the Jobs on Toast Facebook page, or tweet me (an even harder challenge, keeping it to 140 characters)!

Further reading – marketing yourself

Applying for jobs outside academia – from PhD to fellow professional, by Chris
How to tell a great story about your transition out of academia, by Chris
How to recognise and overcome the failure story after your PhD, by Chris
Feeling like a failure? 4 strategies for beating the post-PhD blues, by Chris

How to introduce yourself to employers outside academia, after your PhD


Question: When an employer asks me why I’m leaving higher education after my PhD, what do I say?
Answer: Introduce yourself as a professional who’s decided to change employment sectors.

One of the most common challenges researchers face when looking for work outside of higher education is knowing how to introduce yourself and your change of career. As regular readers will know, I recommend that you present yourself as a fellow professional who’s made a clear decision to change employment sectors. I believe this is a powerful and convincing strategy, and it’s certainly one I used myself when transitioning out of academia.

For some researchers, this narrative will come easily and they’ll have no trouble articulating it. Other researchers will find it very difficult to verbalise a convincing story. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like a failure who’s leaving academia behind, when actually you need to be positive about yourself and your skill set. So in this post I’ll give you a detailed method for creating a confident statement to introduce yourself to employers.

If you can tell a joke, you can deliver a great introduction!

I was fascinated to find out recently that many jokes follow a common formula. I was listening to an interview with Kevin Rogers, a former stand-up comedian who switched careers and who is now a professional copywriter. In his interview Kevin explains how he used to write jokes according to a four-step formula: Identity – Struggle – Discovery – Surprise. Let’s see how this formula works with an old favourite:

‘Waiter, Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup …’
‘Don’t shout too loudly madam, otherwise everyone will want one’.

So the first sentence introduces the identity of the protagonist (a diner), and the struggle they are undergoing (contaminated soup) following an unpleasant discovery (the fly). The response of the waiter plays on the sense of discovery, but rather than fixing the problem, the waiter asks the diner to keep quiet instead (the surprise). Think about some other jokes you know and you’ll see this formula at work, or listen to Kevin explain it further in episode 116 of the SPI podcast.

How did Kevin make his successful transition into copywriting and advertising? He found out that he could adapt his joke formula to write great advertising and marketing copy, by replacing the element of Surprise with the element of Results. Think for example of the Remington razor advert: a guy likes the convenience of an electric razor, except that it doesn’t give him such a close shave as wet shaving. He then discovers a model of electric razor which gets the same results as a wet shave, making him happy at last (so happy he bought the company). Once you know it, you’ll see this formula at work in all kinds of adverts and marketing campaigns.

It struck me while listening to Kevin that job hunting is another area where you use a story to convince an audience. I could certainly relate what he was saying to my personal experience of marketing myself when applying for my first jobs outside of higher education. For instance, this is how I introduced myself when applying for jobs in the sector of e-learning and web-based training, as my post-doc drew to a close (bear in mind this is 15 years ago, before MOOCs were even invented!):

‘I’m a professional researcher and educator. I’ve won three separate grants against tough competition to fund my work over the last 8 years, enabling me to complete my ambition to write a book. As I’ve seen the Internet grow, I’ve become more interested in technology, and especially its potential to democratise learning and bring education and training to a much wider audience. That’s why I now want to move into the private sector. This job will enable me to put my skills to work developing high-quality e-learning courses for your clients.’

So you can see how the first sentence establishes my IDENTITY (according to Kevin’s formula), while the second sentence describes my STRUGGLE and how I’ve overcome past challenges, while hinting that I’m also looking for a new challenge. The third sentence introduces my DISCOVERY of a new opportunity and passion, and the fourth sentence explains the RESULT, both for me and for the employer.

The message to my future employer was ‘I’m a professional who’s changing employment sectors’. There’s no mention of me being ‘a PhD/post-doc who’s leaving academia’! In fact you can see why describing yourself as a PhD leaving academia doesn’t work as an introduction, even though it’s literally true. You’re only presenting an identity and a struggle when you introduce yourself this way. There’s no personal story for the employer to relate to; and a busy Human Resources Manager sorting through a pile of CVs, or meeting scores of candidates at an event, doesn’t have the time to solve your career problems!

That’s why it’s so powerful to contextualise your career change in terms of a discovery, and back this up with a clear statement of the results you can deliver. You want to establish a human connection and the beginning of a professional relationship with the interviewer, not burden them with your troubles! You want to draw your interviewer into the story of how you’ve overcome past challenges, and help them appreciate the value you’ll bring to their organisation. Telling a personal story with a positive outcome helps you to build this feeling of trust and rapport. No wonder researchers find it difficult to move on with their careers while they keep talking about themselves as a PhD leaving academia …

I want you to use these insights to develop a statement that enables you to introduce yourself, confidently and convincingly, to an employer in business, government or the charity sector. So take action now:

1. Craft your introduction: On a sheet of paper write down Kevin’s four headings at intervals on the page: Identity – Struggle – Discovery – Result. Underneath each heading, write out some statements from your personal experience that fit into that category. Refine your statements until you have a clear four or five sentence story to introduce yourself to future employers. Once you have a basic story, you can customise your introduction for specific job opportunities.

2. Get the book: After listening to the interview with Kevin, and writing this post, I discovered he has a 50-page book called The 60-Second Sales Hook. In his book Kevin shows entrepreneurs and freelancers how to apply his 4-step method to marketing their products and services, by telling a powerful story about themselves. But a lot of what he says is directly relevant to  job applications too, because as we’ve seen in this post, applying for a job is the very essence of selling yourself! So download a copy of Kevin’s book for free (email address required), or buy a copy from Amazon to learn more.

3. Share your story: I’d love to read the introductions that you come up with after reading this post! Feel free to post your introduction in a comment on this page. Maybe you have an even better approach to creating introductions? Then drop me a line through my contact page today.

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