It can be tempting to spend your time in graduate school focused exclusively on research, writing and publishing, and teaching. But doing so may not set you up for Ph.D. job search success outside academe.
Nonacademic employers consider a candidate’s work experience and ability to perform the duties of a job -- their skills, abilities and knowledge. From an employer's perspective, past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, so they want to know if a potential employee had similar responsibilities in previously held positions.
If you are interested in a nonfaculty career, it’s important to use your time in graduate school to explore career options and gain experience, paid or unpaid, that you can leverage alongside your education. Here’s how you can do that.
Develop a plan. Create a plan for your career early in your graduate studies. By doing so, you’ll be able to make better, more strategic decisions about how you spend your time to help you navigate your degree and what comes next. Don’t delay such planning until graduation. It’s a lot of work to sort out what you want to do and turn yourself into a viable job candidate. Do yourself a favor and start early.
Begin by exploring career options across industries and sectors and learning what employers value in employees. Consider this a research project. Use informational interviews to collect data. They are key to the exploration process, so speak with a variety of people in different jobs at a range of organizations. You want to learn, in part, about the common skills and competencies employers are looking for. Make a list.
You’ll then want to think of strategic ways you can develop those skills. Create opportunities for yourself to learn and practice so that you can provide concrete examples of times when you clearly demonstrated these skills.
Understand that transferable skills aren’t enough. You acquire transferable skills during your Ph.D. program. Those skills are important and useful, but they aren’t enough to land you a job. Employers want job candidates to provide them with evidence they will be successful, productive colleagues. That means you need to be able to demonstrate work experience through concrete examples. What’s your evidence of success?
For example, project management is a competency valued in any sector. When changing careers, Ph.D.s often refer to their dissertation as a project they successfully managed. Unfortunately, that claim can be a stretch: graduate school might not afford Ph.D.s the opportunity to learn up-to-date, work force-ready project-management skills.
So before you make such a claim, learn about project management as it’s practiced in the organizations and industries you hope to join. What different theories and strategies do project managers employ? How can you implement what you’re learning to more effectively manage your own time and work as a graduate student? What tools can you use, not just to move forward your dissertation research and writing, but also to complete other projects, such as teaching a course, drafting a chapter to submit to your committee or publishing a journal article? If you work in a lab, bring project-management techniques to the lab. What does that mean you should be doing?
By thinking about your work as a graduate student as professional experience, and using tools and strategies employed by individuals in your chosen career field, you will be able to demonstrate to employers that you have what it takes. When you leave graduate school, you will be able to share concrete, relevant examples of past behavior with potential employers.
Recognize the value of your knowledge. The dissertation gives you the opportunity to develop researching, writing, analytical and technical skills. But you should also consider how your subject-matter expertise can set you up for career success outside academe.
Who would find value in your research, other than fellow academics at your annual professional association meeting? Think about what your knowledge offers potential employers. What problems would it help them better understand and solve?
We often hear from people who struggle to find opportunities outside higher education because they do not have relevant subject-matter expertise. Help yourself by choosing your research topic with an eye to where it can lead you next.
Many of the Ph.D.s we know who leave academe do so because they want their work to have a greater or more immediate impact. But why wait? Begin with your dissertation. Understanding how individuals, organizations or society as a whole can benefit from your research can be invigorating and help move you through the difficult writing process. You can still do intellectually rigorous research that contributes to your academic discipline. But if you have a clear idea of how your subject-matter expertise can help organizations solve problems, so much the better.
For example, one former graduate student we know earned a Ph.D. in anthropology and then transitioned to a career in technology in user-experience research. What’s the connection? One is that her dissertation was on women and software, which meant she had useful contextual knowledge to bring to a career in the tech industry. Think about designing your research to help you move into other fields after earning your degree.
Make your research public. Blog posts and online articles are often of greater interest to employers than academic publications. Your ability to write well and succinctly, and in a way that’s accessible to a broad audience, is a skill that employers value. Share your research on social media to reach -- and teach -- a larger number of people. The same goes for presentation and public speaking skills -- give public lectures or talks through continuing education programs or at your local public library or senior center.
Whatever you do, link it back to your overall career plan of cultivating skills nonacademic employers value and creating concrete examples of how you’ve used those skills to achieve specific goals.
Professionalize and vary your teaching experience. You can leverage teaching experience to show evidence of a wide range of skills and competencies. If you’re a teaching assistant and have an opportunity to teach your own course, consider doing so. Try to teach different kinds of courses. Teach in-person and online courses. And don’t forget the professional development available to you on your campus: attend teaching workshops to learn about curriculum design, development and pedagogy. If you enjoy teaching, you can draw on your knowledge and experience to design training programs and facilitate workshops within or far beyond higher education.
Teaching experience may be readily available to you, but don’t neglect other kinds of work. Do an internship or part-time job on or off your campus. You’ll learn valuable skills and more about career options beyond the university lab or classroom. Academe doesn’t tend to look like other workplaces. Any professional experience you acquire will come in handy later on.
Don’t just do academic work. You may feel pressure to give up your personal passions and hobbies to focus exclusively on completing your academic work. But being a well-rounded person will make you healthier and happier, allow you to develop new skills, and provide you with new connections and experiences. Employers don’t always care if the experience you have is from paid work; they may be impressed that you have run marathons, published poetry chapbooks or been a fitness instructor.
In fact, one Beyond the Professoriate community member, Libby, highlighted her work as a fitness instructor in job applications to demonstrate that she had the right personality for consulting -- she was personable, energetic and able to help people meet their goals. She was not “just” a data scientist; she was a data scientist with the right temperament for the job. Another data scientist one of us spoke to recently, a chemistry Ph.D., discovered that nonacademic employers were impressed with the blog posts and articles he’d written over the years about the science of running. Demonstrated strong communication skills are always in demand.
In short, finding a career that suits you and your goals can take a long time. Help yourself by planning ahead and treating graduate school as an opportunity to develop broadly applicable skills and acquire a variety of work experiences.