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!