How to tell a great story about your transition out of academia

How to tell a great story about your transition out of academia

When you submit your dissertation, a major chapter in your life comes to a close. What an awesome achievement – probably the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and definitely a cause for celebration! You deserve to bask in the elation of achieving such a major milestone for a while.

Sooner or later though, when someone asks you about your job plans post-PhD, what’s your 30-second elevator pitch going to be?

By the end of this post I want you to feel more confident about telling the story of your transition out of higher education and into a new sector of work. The bottom line is that you’ll need a clear rationale for your career change, because a lot of folks still think a PhD = academic. You’ll need to tell your story with confidence and convinction. You’ll need to tell it to yourself, to your friends and peers, and of course to future employers! So what will you say?

Stories and our sense of self

I was fortunate to attend a workshop with the storyteller Geoff Mead recently. Afterwards I read his fascinating account of his personal journey into storytelling, Coming Home to Story. In his book Geoff talks about the importance of stories for framing our lives and for shaping our sense of self. He uses one phrase in particular that really strikes a chord with me: ‘narrative wreckage’. This phrase, used originally by Arthur Frank, describes the point in our lives when we realise that ‘the familiar stories we tell about ourselves don’t make sense anymore’, due to illness, bereavement or separation for instance (p. 67).

The notion of narrative wreckage also feels very relevant to an all-too-common part of the post-PhD experience – the low that often follows the high of completion and handing in your dissertation. As mentioned above, after the initial elation of completing your PhD, you can soon be brought down to earth by the harsh reality of navigating the job market, either inside or outside of academia. Here are three reasons why it can be hard to tell a satisfying story about yourself and your situation post-PhD:

Reason 1 – Unemployment: ‘Everything I’ve done in the past decade has been with the intention of becoming a professor, but I just can’t get hired!’ If the plum academic job that you set your heart on doesn’t work out, you can be left feeling disoriented about who you are and where to go next.

Reason 2 – Under-employment: ‘I spent all these years in college, and I took on all this debt – I might as well not have bothered if I’ve ended up making minimum wage as an adjunct! And things are never going to improve for adjuncts!’ For many, the realities of low-paid and insecure adjuncting, taken as a stop gap, don’t fit with the desire for a decently-paid and stable job after so many years of hard work invested in the PhD.

Reason 3 – Self-doubt: ‘I’m a PhD, I’m over-qualified, what skills do I have relevant to business, who’s ever going to hire me?’ When thinking about making the transition out of academia, it can be a struggle to articulate your true value to a non-HE employer, especially if you’ve had no advice on how to market yourself.

Do any of these post-PhD voices sound familiar? To my mind all these examples fit under the heading of narrative wreckage – where the circumstances of our lives after the PhD don’t fit our life stories any more. In the case of those seeking academic employment and the tenure track, the scale of the disconnect between aspiration and reality continues to be huge.

In the case of employment in sectors beyond higher education, where there are many more opportunities to reinvent yourself, it’s easier to fashion a new story to suit your new circumstances. When I made the transition, I told the story of Chris Humphrey as a professional educator and an entrepreneur, someone who had great skills and enthusiasm for teaching, which they wanted to combine with the emerging technology and business of web-based learning. This simple story about the reason for my career change got me hired after my post-doc came to an end, and opened up a whole new career for me in business back in 2000.

So what was different about me when I interviewed at the e-learning company, when compared with my academic job-seeking self of a few months earlier? Absolutely nothing whatsoever, except for the story I was telling, backed up by a different CV and cover letter, and perhaps some extra excitement about a new challenge! The story of your transition is therefore the most important thing to get straight as you embark upon your post-PhD life.

So pay close attention to the story you’re telling about yourself right now. Are you feeling like you’re trapped in the wreckage of broken dreams? Maybe you’ve already got a clear idea of your story, which you just need to make public? Or do you need to draw upon your deepest resources and inner strength, in order to forge a new narrative to take your life forward?

Telling a great story about your transition

One of the many interesting things about PhD transition narratives is that they are so intensely personal. They must reflect your own situation, your skills, your intent and your passion. So make some private time for yourself and put some dedicated effort into crafting a compelling story. And practise telling it! You can draw upon support from career coaches or attend workshops to help with this, or band together with other folks in the same situation and help one another.

To get you started, here are some examples drawn from post-PhD interviews and profiles, which you can use as models and inspiration for your own story. If it helps, a simple classification is to think of your story in terms of one of three speeds of transition, where the road out of higher education has a fast lane, a middle lane and a slower lane (yes I did used to be a transport consultant!):

The fast lane: ‘I’m a professional X who’s got a PhD too’ The most powerful and confident transition story that’s being told is that higher education was just one stop along the way. These folks are saying that ‘my transition through academia was all part of my plan’. Their academic interests were important to the extent that they contributed to the overall career path of a professional X, rather than being an end in their own right.

There are some great examples of this frame of reference in the public profiles of PhDs who have their own business. Here’s Jessica Langer PhD talking about herself and her marketing company called ‘ideas in flight’, from her personal website: ‘ideas in flight is the brainchild of Jessica Langer, a digital marketing professional since 2001 – before “social media” was a common phrase. Over the past 12 years, Jessica has worked in marketing and communications in progressively more senior roles while at the same time earning a PhD’.

Notice how Jessica presents herself as ‘with a PhD’ rather than ‘as a PhD’. And how the sense of being a professional who is progressing through the marketing industry comes through so strongly. Browse the other pages of this site for more fantastic examples of how Jessica communicates both her professional and academic interests.

The middle lane: ‘I’ve moved on to something new after university’ Most PhDs looking for work outside of academia will use a story that acknowledges a smaller or larger degree of discontinuity between academia and their new employment sector. In effect you’re saying ‘yes there’s a break and here’s why’ or ‘I overcame a challenge and I’m better for doing so’. You’ve taken stock of where you are, repurposed your skills and deliberately set out on a new path.

This motif has great strength when you speak it with confidence and passion. It’s the most widely used post-PhD narrative and certainly the one that I’ve used after getting my first job outside academia. For instance, these days I explain to interviewers that in my late 20s I tried really hard to get a job in university research and teaching, but it didn’t work out, so I decided to switch into another sector. Once I got into business it gave me a new lease of life as I loved the teamwork and being able to put my personal beliefs about sustainability and social justice into practice.

I’m comfortable with this story and I think it has real advantages in an interview situation. Often there’s a dynamic in an interview where the candidate tries to present a strong and invulnerable front, while the interviewers chip away trying to find the weaknesses! In my case I hit them with transparency and frankness up front. In doing so I set the tone for the rest of the interview – I’m presenting myself as a passionate person who brings lots of skills with them, can overcome challenges, who is open about work issues and who is interested in their own growth and development.

You need to apply your own judgement about whether this story will work in your country, or in the sector you’re applying to work in. Once when I tweeted that I tell interviewers that my academic job search didn’t work out, some followers in North America tweeted back ‘really? Are you serious?’! But in the UK I’ve found employers to be very understanding and actually see this as a positive thing – that I had the initiative and guts to reject hourly-paid teaching and forge a new and better-paid career path for myself. In many ways it flips the wreckage story and conveys a sense of resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity.

Here’s another example of this kind of story from Alison Fisher PhD, a plant biologist who now works as a database developer and project manager, from the website PhDs At Work: ‘My career transition was not easy. After grad school I took a postdoc at a government agency that was perfectly aligned with my research interests. As that position was coming to an end, my husband and I decided we did not want to move from the Bay Area, so I started looking for non-academic positions. After working with a career counsellor and doing a series of informational interviews I came to realize that the skills in which I had invested were not in demand. It was heart breaking.’ Alison explains how she found a job outside academia using the skill-set she had developed inside academia, rather than her intellectual interests – a great example of the ‘moving on’ narrative in action.

The slower lane: ‘I’m in transition’ or ‘I’m taking a break’ A variation on the motif of moving on is the story that you’ve given up on the academic job search, but haven’t yet found your new vocation. Or that you never wanted an academic job at all, and now you’re figuring out what to do in your career. This process can take six months to a year or more, but that’s not to say that a slower pace of transition is necessarily a problem: it just takes as long as it takes! The important thing is to be making progress towards your new employment goals during this time. You can also cover off a period spent adjuncting, freelancing or temping after your PhD with this story – ‘I’m adjuncting/temping/freelancing while I figure out my next steps’.

For instance writer and career coach Jennifer Polk PhD self-consciously chronicled her post-PhD journey on her blog From PhD to Life. Jen explained her situation openly and candidly in her first post: ‘I defended and finished my dissertation in February 2012, graduated in June, and now we’re in December. It’s been six month[s] since I received my PhD, and I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life. And that’s ok. I wish the transition process was faster, but you can’t hurry progress.’ Whilst sceptics might think that this kind of public honesty was career suicide, Jen has moved on after a period of reflection to start her own business as a career coach; she also writes a column for University Affairs. Jen’s story for her coaching clients is a great variation on the ‘moving on’ theme – ‘I’ve moved on, and I can help you to move on too’.

Finally, here’s how Caroline Cakebread PhD describes how she decided to take time out from her academic job search in an interview with the blog Life After the PhD: ‘When I came back to Canada from the UK, I had a terrible time finding a job. Even though I ended up publishing a few chapters from my thesis, it wasn’t enough to get me in the door when it came to getting work. After months of rejections, I was pretty depressed and more than ready to take any kind of teaching job anywhere just to get some teaching experience. I felt like I had no control over my future — moreover, I had no job or money. My mother saw how hard that experience was on me and convinced me to try something else for a year — to take a break for awhile. Thankfully I listened to her (thanks Mom!).’ Caroline goes on to describe how she’s subsequently built a career as a financial journalist and business owner, following a contract job in investor education during her break … an awesome example of a PhD moving on!

The beginning, not the end

I hope this short introduction to post-PhD transition narratives has given you the confidence and inspiration to tell your own story! Once you find the right story to frame your future, you’ll delight in finding yourself catching fire, and coming alive again, as you start to unlock the opportunities of a lifetime.

Take action now: Your homework is obviously to write the story of your own transition! If you’re feeling brave, you can share it on the Jobs on Toast Facebook page, or email it to me and I’ll write back and let you know what I think.

Where to find more inspiring post-PhD stories

Back in May 2013 I wrote a blog post listing eight websites carrying interviews with PhDs working outside academia, which has been hugely popular – and I’ve since turned it into a free resource guide. You should check out all these blogs and websites for further information and inspiration! Since I wrote that post in May both Rebecca Schuman and Sydni Dunn have written great articles about the stories academics tell when leaving academia, so check those out too.

This post was updated on 6 February 2014 to include a reference to Arthur Frank.