How to get help and advice when applying for jobs outside academia


As a PhD applying for jobs outside academia, getting help and advice with your job search can be a real challenge. While PhDs looking for academic posts can ask their supervisors and careers staff for assistance, those of us wanting to work outside of higher education may find ourselves with no-one to turn to. Feelings of isolation, low self-confidence and failure can often creep in. But when we’re starting out on the journey and adventure of forging a new career, we ought to be feeling positive, energised and upbeat about what we can offer the world! So in this post I’m going to lay out five ideas you can use to develop a network of supportive peers and professionals around you.

It never fails to amaze me how much a simple conversation can change your mood when you’re feeling stuck or low in confidence – there’s something so powerful about sharing your situation with another person! You immediately get a different perspective, you get empathy and emotional support, and with the right person, you can get feedback and advice to take you forward. I regularly get emails from Jobs on Toast readers who are stuck and ask me for some help – and through a bit of dialogue we can usually decide on some next steps to move them forward. Something I’ve learned from this correspondence is that everyone’s needs are different: some readers need quite in-depth help, with creating a non-academic résumé for example, while others just want a quick chat and one or two answers. So it’s important to spend some time reflecting on what kind of assistance you need. Once you’ve done that, you can set about finding people either in person or online who can help you out.

1. If you really don’t know where to start and you feel you need to spend some serious time considering your next steps, it can be worth paying to go on a dedicated course or workshop. Making this time for yourself and your future may be exactly what you need to unlock your ideas and boost your confidence. In a workshop environment you’ll be guided by tutors and coaches through exercises designed to help you identify possible careers, and to build your confidence and self-knowledge. Here are the courses that I’ve come across to date: please mention Jobs on Toast when enquiring about or applying for courses!

  • The Lilli Research Group Boot Camp for Post-Academic Job Seekers is a month-long course of 12 modules, delivered online. It’s the only course I’ve seen that’s specifically tailored to the post-academic job search and a place costs $550.
  • In the UK Eyes Wide Opened offers a London-based training course designed to help graduates and folks who are early in their careers to find a sense of purpose. Watch their video testimonials to find out more. In the past there’s been a free no-obligation evening course that you can attend: the cost for the 4-day course is around £700.
  • Also in the UK, Vitae runs its GRADschools programme, which is open to both UK and overseas PhDs. Doctoral researchers from their second year onwards can sign up for the 3-day learning and development programme, which includes a component on careers and career experiences. The cost is £695+VAT (with thanks to @FromPhDtoLife for letting me know about GRADschools).

2. If you want help to identify your transferable skills and suitable job areas for someone with your background, or get help with résumés and cover letters, try speaking with a career coach. If you’re lucky your university may offer this service for graduates, but you can also sign up with a commercial career coach. Many coaches offer a free no-obligation chat, so you can find out about how they can help you. Coaches who specialise in helping PhDs and academics include:

You’ll pay per hour for coaching sessions, but you can save money if you join a group coaching session, and this can be a great way to meet other people and share experiences. Check out Jennifer Polk’s offer of group coaching in September 2013 for instance.

3. If you want to find out how to break into a specific business or charity sector, try speaking directly with professionals in that area. This is a harder option initially, but it can be the most rewarding in terms of getting direct help and advice. You can attend a meeting of groups of professionals in your local area for example, to get an insight into that sector, as mentioned in my previous post on How to research your target job sector (point 4). Another approach is to attend conferences where you can network directly with professionals working in that area, and find out who’s hiring. For example, I know of a graduate who wanted to work as a researcher in the area of child protection and the Internet, but who wasn’t sure where to start. Was it worth going back to university to get a relevant qualification first? Actually she attended a conference on this topic, and then spent time networking with the delegates to find out about the ‘career journeys’ for getting into this area. She talked about her dissertation topic to some of the attendees, including professors who’d secured research grants and were looking for research assistants. A great recommendation which she took away was to break into this field by starting as a research assistant on a larger project, building up experience and expertise that way. Finally, look out for conferences and events which are specifically aimed at PhDs, such as the PhD to Consulting Conference, London 2013.

4. If you’re just starting out, or looking for general hints and tips on job hunting outside higher education, you can benefit from joining one of the many online chat forums or social networking groups. You’ll get the chance to learn from other PhDs who are further down the road on their non-academic career journey, as well as careers advice professionals, and maybe make a few friends too!

  • On twitter, search for hashtags like #postac, #altac, #ecrchat, #adjunctchat, #postphd, #phdchat and #phdforum and check out the people, groups and organisations using these tags. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and start a conversation, as most twitter users will be only too pleased to help!
  • Take part in an online forum where you can post questions or read discussions relevant to your academic background or desired career. Check out the members-only forum on the Versatile PhD website, and the dedicated public website Postgrad Forum.
  • On LinkedIn join the groups Alternative PhD Careers and PhD Careers Outside Academia, so that you can ask questions and read the advice posted by fellow PhDs, academics and career professionals. PhD Careers Outside Academia has over 35,000 members! In my opinion the group Alternative PhD Careers has more advice and information around making the transition out of academia … or maybe it’s just easier to find, as PCOA has lots of non-career related material posted too.

5. If you’re fed up with working on your job search or resumé on your own, get yourself a buddy! There’s an old saying that a problem shared is a problem halved, and having a partner can help you overcome the knock-backs and rejections that go with looking for work. So why not find someone else who’s in a similar position to you, either at your institution or elsewhere, and make some plans together? Agree to check in with each other every week for a chat, share any resources you’ve found and congratulate one other on progress made! Leave a comment below if you’re looking for a buddy, or try tweeting the hashtag #phdbuddy!

So I hope that these tips have given you some inspiration for getting out there and getting the support you need!

How to search for your ideal job outside academia

If you’ve already started looking for a job in academia, do you use Google to find available lectureships and research posts? Probably not, since in the UK at least, you’ll go straight to the Times Higher Education Supplement. You can check the hard copy or web versions of the THES for available jobs each week. The pool of academic posts is likely to be small enough for you to carry out a manual search within your area of specialism, or you can have matching jobs sent to you by email.

Starting a non-academic job search can seem quite daunting by comparison. ‘What do I google?’ is the first question most PhDs ask. Something like ‘jobs + PhD + [your degree name here]’?! Well you could try, but unfortunately very few employers will be including your PhD subject area in their job vacancy descriptions! In fact the academic job search method doesn’t suit a non-academic job search, because in other areas of employment, jobs aren’t advertised by areas of academic knowledge.

Instead they are advertised according to the functional job roles that exist within organisations. Therefore you initially need to concentrate on two or three specific areas of work that interest you, and note down key words and phrases from these areas, which you can use in your subsequent job search.

To take an example from my personal experience: back in the year 2000 I’d begun to develop a career ‘Plan B’, in case my academic job search didn’t work out. I’d realised that I was very interested in how new technologies like the internet could help people to learn faster, better and at a distance from their teachers and trainers.

Doing some basic research on Google, I discovered that there was a fast-growing industry springing up in the area of web-based teaching and learning, requiring specialist course designers, software programmers and training analysts who could make learning materials accessible. After my fifth unsuccessful academic job interview, and as the funding for my post-doctoral fellowship ran out, my Plan B kicked in! I took the keywords ‘e-learning’ and ‘web-based training’ from my initial research, and I typed these keywords into some mainstream job site search engines such as to find suitable vacancies.

After a couple of months of putting in applications, I landed a job in June 2000 as a Content Analyst with the UK start-up arm of a Swiss-based e-learning services company. The company had vacancies for people who could rapidly adapt learning materials for online delivery, within their Education Design team. Our clients hired us to turn their existing classroom-based courses into modules that could be studied online, in areas ranging from basic IT skills for employees, through to the technical details of new products coming onto the market for retailers.

This example shows how, by starting out with a good sense of my personal interests and passions, and through some basic research into specific work areas using Google, I was able to find a ‘niche’ with good employment prospects. Using selected words and phrases from this sector as keywords on job websites, I identified a range of vacancies, one of which led to a job offer. My PhD in Medieval Studies wasn’t relevant for the search terms I used to find my job.

To show you how it works at the job search engine level, I’ve listed 5 common keywords that I’ve used in the past when looking for work. Click one and explore the vacancies that come up. Depending upon where you’re looking for work, you can filter by country, state and city. Add other keywords to further narrow your search:

  1. E-learning
  2. Researcher
  3. Consultant
  4. Trainer
  5. Coaching

Take action now: Use the method described in this post to identify two or three public and business sector areas that interest you. Make notes about them and capture the key words and phrases. Then track down suitable vacancies by taking these keywords and putting them into job search engines like