Have you reached ‘peak academia’?

Have you reached 'peak academia'?

Many people believe there’s a correlation between the length of time spent studying and the job market – so that the longer you study for, the more your employability improves. I’ve heard this equation repeated by several researchers I’ve spoken to.

Unfortunately it’s only true up to a point.

Speaking from the perspective of an employer outside of academia, I’m interested in hearing about your relevant work experience, as well as about your qualifications. And the longer you’re in academia, the less direct work experience you’ll have, by definition.

That doesn’t mean you have *no* relevant experience, it’s just that you have less experience in my industry, and more experience of working in universities. Which means that both you and I have to work harder to determine how your qualifications and experience are relevant to the vacancy I’m seeking to fill.

So the (correct) assumption you had while you were in high school – that getting a first degree will improve your employability overall – doesn’t necessarily hold for subsequent degrees.

It’s better to think in terms of ‘peak academia’, when you have about the right balance of qualifications and work experience (e.g. part-time jobs and internships), for many graduate-level jobs. Go past that – in my opinion past Masters degree level – and there are diminishing returns for your employability outside of academia (for many subjects, at least).

That’s not to say that researchers aren’t eminently employable, as of course they are – but in my opinion the ‘halo’ effects of education start to diminish, the longer you’re in it (and many employers do see a PhD as education rather than as a job).

Think about the other candidates who’re applying for the same jobs as you, who are in their mid-to-late twenties or older – they’re going to have a nice track record of responsibilities and achievements in that industry. Which proves to the hiring manager that they can already do the job well. It’s this relative lack of direct work experience that starts to count against researchers, the longer they stay in academia – and qualifications don’t make up the deficit.

So let go of the idea that more degrees means improved employability. If you’re doing a PhD or post-doc, you need to start investing time and effort in a wider range of activities, to build up your employability. This can involve:

– Getting relevant work experience;

– Conducting informational interviews to understand more about your target industry; and

– Networking with the right people in that industry.

Check out my five-step process for finding a job outside of academia, for more details about the steps you should take.

5 work experience options for PhDs and post-docs


Gaining work experience is the second most important thing you can do to improve your job prospects during your PhD or post-doc (networking is top). Having relevant work experience on your resume demonstrates clearly to an employer that you’re ‘one of them’. You know their business, their customers and how to fit into your future role.

Here are five options for gaining work experience during or after your PhD:

1. Freelancing and self-employment

Freelancing is a great way to get work experience, earn money and build up a network, all at the same time! Some well-known post-ac bloggers like Jennifer Polk and Jessica Langer worked for themselves during their research, hiring their skills out to businesses.

You can get started by thinking about your strengths and the types of  jobs that organisations need help with. What are you good at doing: organising events, designing, researching, selling, training, coding? Then consider the target job sector where you want to find work after you complete your PhD. This should give you some ideas about how to market yourself, and the kinds of organisations you want to target.

You can advertise your services or approach organisations directly, or hire yourself out through an online freelance community like Upwork or Airtasker.

Pros: lots of flexibility; good income potential; highly regarded experience.
Cons: can take a lot of initial effort to find clients; variable amounts of work.

Link: Check out this great Storify article on Freelance work with a PhD from Jen Polk, who writes the blog From PhD to Life.

2. Become an assistant

You are an intelligent, articulate, literate professional. Lots of busy people working in organisations would love to have your help to get things done!

So think of the job role you want outside of academia, and then think about who might typically support someone in that role. For instance, if you fancy being a book editor, consider openings as an editorial assistant for a publisher. If you want to run your own business, can you work as a personal assistant for a local entrepreneur, shop owner or trader?

Pros: direct experience; fair income; excellent opportunity to network.
Cons: you may need to commit to a job for a longer period of time.

Link: read how Adam Capitanio used his experience gained as a editorial assistant on academic journals, to land a permanent job with an academic press just before his dissertation defence!

3. Start consulting

A consultant is someone who hires out their expertise in order to solve problems for organisations. They usually combine a deep subject matter knowledge with great interpersonal skills, and have the confidence to work with senior people to solve challenging problems.

You might think ‘that’s not me’. But being a consultant doesn’t have to mean being a stereotypically brash hot-shot. The best consultants are empathetic, listening carefully to their clients’ problems before recommending solutions or advice. I was a full-time consultant for six years, and I loved being able to help my clients to deliver a big project or solve a tricky problem.

Pros: highly regarded experience; good income; great networking.
Cons: lots of competition; harder to do for shorter periods of time.

Link: read this fantastic article on consultancy, principles and profit by Lauren Tedaldi.

4. Get an internship

An internship is an arrangement which gives an employer an extra pair of hands to get some work done, whilst giving the intern valuable work experience (and pay)!

Typically as an intern you’ll spend a fixed period of time working at an organisation. You may be put onto quite routine work, perhaps helping to cover staff absence during the summer or over a busy business period. Or there are also more interesting kinds of internship where you get to do a specific project or piece of research for the organisation.

Pros: a structured way to gain work experience; great for your résumé.
Cons: lots of competition; timing may not fit in with your research schedule; lower pay; may be aimed at more junior candidates.

Link: check out this helpful page on internships for PhDs from the London School of Economics, which also has a handy PDF on writing speculative applications for internships.

5. Explore Knowledge Transfer Partnerships

In the UK some universities have teamed up with businesses to create a special kind of work placement under an arrangement called a ‘Knowledge Transfer Partnership’ or KTP. The KTP post typically lasts 2-3 years and pays a salary, with participants completing a specific piece of work for a company or university, after their PhD or post-doc.

Paul Yeomans, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships Team Manager at the University of Nottingham, told me that ‘they are a great way to turn academic skills into industry application, and they tend to have a very positive impact on the associates’ employability.’

Speaking about the Nottingham KTP scheme, Paul said that ‘about 75% of KTP associates are offered a full time post by the host company […] we haven’t had a KTP associate end a project without at least one job offer from somewhere else.’ That’s a pretty impressive track record!

You should definitely find out if your university runs a KTP scheme. You can also discover what KTP posts are available across the UK by downloading the jobs.ac.uk app, or go to their website. Do a search for KTPs and you’ll get a list of current vacancies with salary details and the closing dates for applications.

Pros: salary; great work experience; 2-3 years in length; training budget for development.
Cons: competition; longer-term commitment.

Link: Read about How a knowledge transfer partnership could boost your career from The Guardian.

Take action now: Choose one or more of the options described in this post and set about gaining relevant work experience. If you start early enough, you should be able to rack up two good stretches of work experience during your PhD or post-doc. This will look great on your non-academic CV!

Further reading – getting the right experience

5 Ways to Gain Valuable Skills Outside of Your Academic Training, by Ryan Raver

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 jobs.ac.uk 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.