Making the transition from an academic to a non-academic career involves confronting stereotypes about academics. When I was contemplating my first non-academic job I interviewed people in the profession I was considering to discover how to effectively make the career switch. During one interview the person I was interviewing told me, “You don’t sound like someone with a Ph.D.” When I asked for clarification, she said, “You talk like a normal person.” I didn’t get defensive when she said this. She wasn’t trying to be rude -- she was just reacting to her perceptions of Ph.D.’s. And when I conducted other informational interviews I heard other commonly held perceptions of Ph.D.’s. Ph.D.’s seeking employment outside of the academic world need to be prepared to respond to the inevitable questions about their academic background and degrees that are sure to arise during their job search.
People assume the only reason to earn a Ph.D. is to become a professor to the exclusion of all other careers. They don’t realize there are at least three categories of Ph.D. candidates looking for work outside academe: 1) those who have no intention of seeking academic work, 2) those who thought they wanted to be academics until they experienced graduate school, and 3) those who wanted to be academics and maybe still do, but market forces conspired against them. If you are in group 1, responding to these questions and concerns will be less difficult. If you are in group 1 you probably earned your Ph.D. in a field like biology or economics where enough doctorate holders enter the business world that it’s not that unusual. If you fall into groups 2 and 3 it may be a challenge to craft strong responses. See my previous article  for ideas on how to mentally prepare for this process. Here are some tough questions to consider as you prepare:
Why aren’t you applying to academic jobs?
You need to be prepared with a solid reason for why you are seeking a non-academic position, a reason that sets the interviewer’s mind at ease. Interviewers don’t want to hear that your graduate school experience was so bad you had to leave academe or that you’re doing this because you can’t get an academic job. You need to present this move as a conscious positive choice you are making to meet your career goals. You also need to address the assumption behind this question that you will continue secretly seeking an academic job. And if you can confront academic stereotypes in your answer, so much the better. For example: “During my graduate studies I focused on how to apply what I was learning to a real world setting. I’m looking for an opportunity to use my knowledge in a practical way and this job provides that opportunity.” Or, “Based on my graduate school experiences and talking to people in the private sector I discovered my goals and values are more aligned with industry. I want to make a direct and immediate impact. I value teamwork, and I work well with concrete deadlines.”
Most of your co-workers won’t have Ph.D.’s, so how are you going to effectively communicate with them?
Those without Ph.D.’s tend to think people with Ph.D.’s are ineffective communicators. They think you’ll correct their grammar, use big words they don’t understand, be condescending and generally aloof. You need to demonstrate, not just in your responses but in your overall approach to the interview, that you are not that different from those you will work with and for. The purpose of an interview is to answer the interviewer’s main concern, do I like you and do I want to see you for eight hours a day, five days a week.
The way to get interviewers to say yes is to convince them through your verbal and nonverbal behavior that you are approachable and collaborative. Most of us practice for the verbal part of the interview by preparing responses ahead of time. But few people really analyze their nonverbal presence. Part of the challenge is that we can’t see ourselves, or hear the tone of our own voice. The best way to prepare for the nonverbal part is to be videotaped and then watch yourself, preferably with someone who can give you an informed and accurate assessment of how you appear to others. While you are watching yourself on tape also analyze the content of your responses. Are you using language common to the field you’re entering, or language common to your graduate program? If there is a more direct and succinct way to say something, choose that option.
For example, in an academic interview one might say, “The rhetorician Kenneth Burke talked about using identification to connect with people and that’s what I do. I create enthymemes to involve my audience and create a didactic.” A preferable statement in a non-academic interview would be: “I’m very skilled at adapting my message to the person in front of me. For example, I know how to explain my dissertation to people who have a lot of knowledge about my topic and to those who know nothing about it in a way that’s understandable to them.”
How are you going to be able to work in a team environment?
A common stereotype of academics is that, at best, they prefer to work alone. At worst, they will refuse to or won’t be able to work well with others. And an underlying assumption of this question is that you’ll want to be the leader at all times. If coming from a STEM field or social science background you probably have specific examples of group work you did during your graduate studies. When choosing which experience to discuss, try to use an example that shows you know when to lead and when to follow. You want to put to rest fears you will take charge of every group and not let others be active participants.
If your graduate school experience included little or no teamwork, you need to mine your other experiences for examples. Perhaps you got involved in student organizations, search committees and volunteer work that will provide you with examples. If you are struggling for strong, specific experiences you may want to consider confronting the issue as a reason for entering a non-academic position. For example: “Academic work tends to be more solitary than I prefer. I really enjoy working as part of a team and do my best work when collaborating with others. This position will allow me to be part of a dynamic team, and that’s why I want the job.”
How did getting your Ph.D. prepare you for this job?
If your focus during your graduate education was on becoming a professor you might be at a loss for how to respond to this issue. The main objective of a graduate education is to produce strong researchers and, secondarily, teachers. You’ve been conditioned for 5 to 10 years to define your skill set in terms of research and teaching. If you haven’t yet done a self assessment, create a list of transferable skills you developed during your graduate education.
Take your list and your work history and think about the story they tell about you. For instance, I recently worked with a Ph.D. candidate who worked in his field for one year after receiving his master’s and that experience is now five years in the past. In preparing him to interview we discussed how he could create a story arc that begins with his studies for his bachelor’s degree and identifies what happened during that time to inspire him to get the master’s, then what experience during his job inspired him to get the Ph.D. ending with him now reentering the private sector, all presented as a well-thought-out series of events that led to this destination.
Remember, you are the author of your own story. Whatever you say needs to express your desire to work for this employer at this time and show that everything you did during your graduate program was leading you in this direction. You need to present your background as a benefit to the employer: you bring skills and experiences they can’t get from someone less educated and you have a dedication to completing long term goals. At this point it’s all about the marketing, so sell your assets.
Christine Kelly is the graduate student career consultant in the Career Center at the University of California at Irvine.