How to Turn a Ph.D. Into a Nonacademic Career

If you want or need to explore successfully what life outside higher education could look like, Christopher Cornthwaite offers some firsthand advice.

April 29, 2021
 
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As my Ph.D. drew to a close in 2018, I had no plan. I had been living abroad with my spouse and our three children, completing a final fellowship that I was sure would make me a better candidate for academic positions.

It didn't.

Instead of heading off to a new post, our family moved back into my parents’ basement. It was an anticlimactic end to my academic career and, frankly, one of the hardest periods of my life. Many professors don’t appreciate how difficult leaving academe can be on their students who expected to be professors. It can be a devastating loss of purpose and identity.

From the darkness, we tried to put the pieces of our lives back together. We decided to move to the city of Ottawa, Canada’s capital, anticipating that it was probably the best option in the country for getting a nonacademic job with a Ph.D. (My spouse is a graphic designer and location independent.) I had been to the city once in my life and knew nobody there. We used the last of our cash to rent a small town house outside the city, with the pressure on me to find a job.

I’d never understood what I could do with my humanities Ph.D. outside academe. As I learned about the world of work, I was surprised by the options. I would email people with interesting careers or reach out to them on LinkedIn asking if I could talk to them. Sometimes I would connect through the networking app Shapr. Many of them were kind enough to take the time to talk to me.

All this networking led to a job running economic development projects for a think tank. It was a far cry from my religious studies Ph.D., but I watched my projects go through the Canadian news cycle and enter policy debates. My work was having an immediate and visible impact on my country. I eventually moved on from that job and worked for the government as a policy analyst, helping foreign countries explore and launch refugee programs.

When I left higher education, I imagined that things couldn't get much worse for my colleagues. Little did I know what the future had in store. These are especially difficult times -- many people have lost job or funding offers and need to explore what life outside academe looks like. Here’s the advice I have for building a career with your Ph.D.

Become the CEO of your life and career. I don’t know whom to attribute this idea to. I’ve heard versions of it from different sources but certainly something like it from Fordham University professor and author Leonard Cassuto in the academic space.

Personal agency is a powerful tool in building a career with any degree, but especially with a Ph.D. If you need to leave academe, you may not find anyone to tell you what to do or give you permission. (In fact, some departments or supervisors are actively hostile to alt-ac conversations.) You need to make the decision about what’s best for you and your life and can’t look to anyone else to make it for you. The onus is on you to learn how your skills apply in the marketplace and find somewhere you love applying them. So, stop waiting for permission and start building.

Recognize that networking is everything. Most Ph.D.s preparing to leave academe will start by working on their résumé and firing off job applications. For many, especially humanities grads like me, those applications disappear into a black hole. Why wouldn’t they? Unless your knowledge is in high demand -- as is the case for some STEM graduates -- employers can’t draw a line from your degree to being the employee they need.

The answer is networking. It’s the most transformational tool that Ph.D.s have at their disposal.

I know, you hate networking. Just about everybody does. But, unfortunately, the beautiful transformation that you are about to go through -- from grad student to career professional -- requires other people to help you make the transition. And if you don’t know anyone outside academe, it’s time to remedy that.

That doesn’t mean printing business cards and going to networking events. It just means contacting people who do things that intrigue you and asking them questions about their work, as well as for any advice they would have for someone in your position. Look for family and friends doing work that appeals to you. Check your alumni association. Ask your supervisor or committee if they know anyone doing interesting things outside academe and see if they’ll give you an introduction.

If you don’t have those options, you can do what I did and start messaging strangers on LinkedIn. (You’ll have the best chance of a response if you pick people it makes sense to connect to -- for example, those in your city, from your university or in a similar field.)

Be creative in meeting the people you need to meet. Recognize that each potential connection may lead to your career, and take the conversations seriously. This is far more valuable than sending résumés into the void. One of those people will inevitably change your life. They’ll tell you something you didn’t know or put in a good word for you somewhere that’s hiring. You just need one person to take a chance on you, and the rest will be history.

Create a brand for yourself. Developing a personal brand is especially vital for Ph.D.s. It may be an anathema for many students (and professors). But when paired with your degree, proper branding can transform you from looking like a grubby graduate student to looking like a leader.

Yes, Ph.D.s are perceived as leaders, even in the marketplace. But all too often, their command of their online presence and brand doesn't match the level of their skills. LinkedIn is a gift for Ph.D.s, an opportunity to present themselves to the world and control the narrative. If you’re not on there, I’d recommend creating a profile and sharing ideas. (I wrote a guide on how to do that here.)

Your new goal is to be seen and taken seriously outside higher ed. Write op-eds. Engage with people on Twitter if you are comfortable doing that. Leverage the technology and media at your disposal to build your presence and reputation. The more positive visibility you have, the more employers will want to work with you.

Learn nonacademic language. Being in academe is a bit like living in a foreign country. Academics learn a language to talk about themselves and their skills. That language makes perfect sense inside the academy. But speaking it outside higher education can be the kiss of death in a job interview.

It's not to say that you can't have intelligent conversations outside academe. But overuse of jargon and buzzwords, or droning on about the complexities of your research, will mark you as an outsider in the nonacademic world.

Remember, an employer’s first question is “Can they solve X problem for me?” If you seem to only know academe, they might be uncertain of the answer to this.

Instead, try to learn the language of whatever workplace you are exploring. You can take note of key terms during your informational interviews or while looking at job postings. When I became a policy analyst, I had to learn a lot of new lingo that came with it. This included government-specific language, acronyms and other ways of wording things that helped me operate in that world.

Translate your CV into a résumé. Many people know this is necessary, especially in North America, where the résumé is the industry standard. While I don’t think it’s the most important thing, or the thing you should be spending most of your time on, we usually do need résumés at some point.

Translating your CV will require a brutal assessment about what actually fits in a résumé. I had to delete my publications in religious studies, totally irrelevant to my nonacademic work, and replace them with a single line: “Two peer-reviewed articles in top-tier journals.” Ditto my fellowships, which I replaced with, “Grant writing and proposals won over $200k in funding.”

In fact, after reading hundreds of Ph.D. CVs and résumés over the past year, I’ve realized that a lot of the best stuff is often in the overlooked “Service” section at the end of the CV. It’s here that students have led committees, launched projects, worked on teams creating an edited volume or conference, and just generally done the sort of things that make sense outside higher ed.

Be creative with your career. The question I am asked most often is “What can I do with a Ph.D. in X field?” While there are lists out there (some of the best are at The Versatile Ph.D.), they should be thought of as starting rather than ending points.

Be creative about how you apply your skills and think about your career. Your Ph.D. will probably not fit into a single career box -- and that is great! Focus on topics that interest you, causes you are passionate about, issues that move you. That’s the way to build a great career with a Ph.D. and not simply drop into the first organization that will have you.

Oh, I know in the Ph.D. hierarchy of needs a paycheck can be the most important thing. I’ve been there. To pay the bills, you might need to take the first job offer you receive. But in the long run, you should develop a vision that goes beyond what you can do with your Ph.D. to what you want to do with your Ph.D. Because the sky is the limit.

Bio

Christopher Cornthwaite is the founder of Roostervane, a website dedicated to helping graduates with advanced degrees launch careers, find purpose and grow influence. After obtaining a Ph.D. in religious studies, he ran projects for a think tank and worked for the Canadian government before launching a consulting business in 2020. Chris speaks at universities around the world and in 2020 published Doctoring: Building a Life After a Ph.D.

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