We hear this question a lot from graduate students, postdocs and other recent Ph.D.s. They ask it because they are looking for a list of industries, organizations or job titles that suit their education and training. When it comes to work beyond the professoriate, we have no list of job titles or companies that we can point to and say, “Here’s where [insert discipline here] Ph.D.s are wanted.” You have to find your own opportunity, and it could be in any number of different areas.
A Ph.D. is a required credential to secure work as an assistant professor at many institutions of higher education. And there are highly specialized careers for STEM Ph.D.s, where doctoral-level technical and subject matter expertise is required. The same isn’t true of other jobs: a great many Ph.D.s go on to careers where the degree itself does not matter. What matters most to employers is whether a candidate can do the work they need done.
Employers evaluate candidates with a wide variety of work experiences and educational backgrounds during the hiring process. Through earning a Ph.D., running a lab, teaching university-level courses, participating in institutional committees, organizing conferences and applying for grants and awards, academics develop a broad skill set. That skill set includes strong writing, research and analytical chops that are rooted in academic disciplines. Depending on your field, you may develop technical or process knowledge that nonacademic employers need. Think of the social scientists businesses recruit to work as data scientists or UX designers, for example.
But the Ph.D. in and of itself rarely matters. Skills and knowledge gained from relevant work experience -- and not credentials -- are what will open doors and create opportunities for graduate degree holders.
Note that when we say “knowledge,” we don’t necessarily mean academic subject matter expertise. For many Ph.D.s, their scholarship does not directly relate to their nonfaculty career. Ryan Raver works as a product manager at a pharmaceutical company. He leverages his knowledge of biomedical science when communicating with scientists, marketers and vendors, but he seldom uses his academic expertise on his job. Keriann McGoogan does not draw on her dissertation research topic (lemurs) while at work at Pearson Canada. She does call upon her experience with academic writing, research and university-level teaching in her job as an acquisitions editor.
Both Raver and McGoogan found that they needed to supplement the skills and knowledge they developed while earning their Ph.D.s before they could successfully transition to work beyond the professoriate. While in graduate school, Raver took business courses and ran a small business so that he had a solid understanding of management practices to combine with his science background. McGoogan took night courses to learn about the publishing industry and then worked as an intern before landing her first paid position in publishing.
Raver and McGoogan leveraged their experience to help them land meaningful, rewarding jobs after their Ph.D.s. But here’s a key point: they did not secure those positions because of their graduate education. To build a successful, meaningful career beyond the professoriate, every Ph.D. must learn how to leverage their own distinct combination of knowledge, skills and abilities. While there is no long list of “Ph.D. jobs,” a very long list of jobs is held by individuals who happen to have Ph.D.s.
The good news is that there are many places where you can leverage your education. Speaking to Ph.D.s who work outside academe can help you learn what your skills are, where they are in demand and how to effectively communicate your value to potential employers.
Here are two useful questions you can ask yourself instead of “What can I do with my Ph.D. in my specific discipline?”
What Energizes Me About the Work I’m Doing Now?
Often when academics answer this question, they say, “I love teaching!” or “I am passionate about [insert subfield here].” That’s fine, but when it comes to leveraging your experience for work beyond the professoriate, think deeper. What is it you love most about teaching? One of us, Maren, loved teaching, but the aspects of teaching she found most engaging and rewarding were mentoring others and helping them achieve their goals. Those are interests shared by people who are successful managers, coaches, consultants and more.
Maren loved public speaking and delivering workshops during her Ph.D. studies and later as an instructor. Now working outside a university, she still speaks and presents, only to a different audience about different topics. Public speaking is a skill that is transferable to a wide range of employment contexts.
Maybe it isn’t your academic work that is energizing. What are you doing when you’re feeling most energized or successful? Is it volunteering at a nonprofit? Doing your own podcast? Think about what it is you’re excited to be doing. Follow that.
The other of us, Jen, co-hosted a podcast and was a music blogger for a few years during her doctorate -- activities she found highly engaging. While on campus, she most enjoyed running tutorials, which usually involved facilitating discussions among small groups of students. And she loved doing archival research and discovering answers to questions. It is thus not shocking that her postacademic career includes a significant amount of public engagement (blogging, Twitter), facilitating panel discussions, and individual and group coaching. Another history Ph.D. might hate this work, but for Jen, it’s awesome.
Now think about the parts of academic work you find least energizing. For Maren, those tasks included grading. She does not want to edit other people’s work. Jen isn’t interested in academic publishing. Tasks that drag you down are those that you want to avoid as much as possible in your next role. So for our work together now, Jen edits our writing while Maren conducts research.
What Are My Skills and Competencies, and What Will Employers Pay Me to Do?
You won’t be paid to do everything you love, and that’s OK. You can find other ways to engage your passions and interests. Rather than thinking of yourself as a historian, literary scholar or chemist, think about your key skills and core competencies. A key skill might be public speaking; the related core competency is oral communication. We recommend reading Robin Kessler and Linda Strasburg’s Competency-Based Resumes to become familiar with competencies versus skills.
Make a list of the things you do in the day, from answering student emails to editing your friend’s footnotes. Do this for a couple of weeks, and you’ll see you do quite a bit. That will help you reimagine yourself as a professional with skills in addition to being a scholar with deep subject-matter expertise. Then, organize the things you do into clusters of skills and competencies. Cross out all the things you hate doing and highlight the ones that energize you.
Next, learn about organizations and industries in the city where you live or want to live.
Read organization websites. Use LinkedIn to find employees that work there and review the skills and competencies they highlight in their profiles. Read job advertisements posted by companies of interest. Don’t worry about applying for these jobs -- you’re just doing research at this stage.
Then, reread your list. What skills do you have that employers want? What is your value to them? How can your skills and abilities help an organization be more successful?
Although your Ph.D. won’t necessarily open doors for you, many industries need people with your skill set. Seek out companies of interest, speak to people who have jobs that sound interesting, ask for help. Reach out to Ph.D.s who are working in nonfaculty careers and ask them for advice in making the transition. Check out our career panels to get started.
Organizations across industries and sectors are looking for talented individuals, and Ph.D.s have skills that are in demand. But, again, it’s these skills, not the credential, that matter. In other words, it’s you, and not your degree, that will be of interest to employers. So figure out who you are as a professional and then build a list of jobs, organizations and industries that match your skills and interests.