This week’s letter addresses a common question of PhD students considering leaving academia – where does one even start exploring non-academic career options? The letter reads:
I'm months away from completing my Ph.D. and truly believe at this point that this path was not the correct one for me - but I still 'play the game' and do things that prepare me for looking for academic positions, positions I think I'm not interested in having, but I haven't a clue what else I could do outside the academy or where to start looking, so any advice on how to make the actual change would be helpful. I also fear telling my advisor this because once she knows that I'm not thinking about an academic position I think she won't be as supportive with my work, nor will she want to write me letters of reference if I ever do later find a position in the academy that I would want.
--Madeline*, from a Canadian research university
Congratulations on getting to the end of the long road to the PhD – that’s a great accomplishment. I think it’s smart that you’re playing it safe by keeping your doubts under wraps right now and keeping your academic options open.
My suggestion for you is to start “playing the game” on the other side of the tracks, too. That is, get yourself to your campus career counselor (there is a great one dedicated to graduate students at your university – as there are at most Research 1 universities throughout the U.S. and Canada) and start exploring other career possibilities beyond the tenure track.
You can certainly do this as you also pursue the academic jobs – I worked with several graduate students at UC-San Diego covering their bases this way. You want to give yourself other options besides “junior academic position or vast, scary unknown.” And, I promise, if you put in the time, you will have other options.
Here’s the basic outline of how the process generally works:
1. Skills & Values Identification: What you first need to see is that you have gained a host of valuable skills during the PhD process that are transferable to many other professions. As a graduate student, you’ve had to build analytical, communication, organizational, even entrepreneurial skills to get to where you are. It’s also time to do some self-exploration, consciously defining your personality and values to help target the kinds of jobs and organizations that best suit you.
Two good books that can help get you started are The Pathfinder  by Nicholas Lore (which I’ve found appeals to the left-brained, structured types) and Zen and the Art of Making a Living  by Laurence G. Boldt (which tends to work better for the right-brained creatives). You also must read So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide to Career Changing for M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s  by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius.
2. Career Research: One you’ve identified your skill set and personal values, you can start exploring jobs and organizations that align with you. One excellent online resource for career research is the annually-updated Occupational Outlook Handbook,  which has complete descriptions of careers, including training, salary, advancement, and work conditions. Let your imagination go, and read about any of your “maybe” careers there.
Also, this is the time to start talking to people – any people – your friends, relatives, yoga teacher, next-door neighbor, about their careers. Ask people how they landed in their jobs, what they like and don’t like about them, what they did before. Most folks love to talk about this stuff if you just ask.
3. Professional Materials Creation: Next in the process, you will transform your CV into a professional résumé and learn to write professional cover letters. This just takes a small shift in thinking – from “the longer the better” of academic sentences and CVs to the mostly “short and to-the-point” of the outside world.
It can be a bit of a grieving process for some, learning that your dissertation title and long list of conference presentations will likely not go on your résumé (not in list form, at least). But it can also be incredibly liberating to see on paper that you’ve built skills and experiences that have prepared you to jump right into other careers much more than you may think.
4. Make Connections & Apply for Jobs: Once you have a résumé, you can begin some formal informational interviews with people in jobs you’re curious about and organizations you’d like to crack. These conversations are invaluable, both for making connections and for finding a career next step that fits.
From there, the ball is rolling. Through the connections you are making and job postings (although the majority of professional jobs are not actually posted), if you decide to go this route, you will be able to start applying for non-academic positions and start practicing your professional interviewing skills.
So, in short, Madeline, keep doing what you are doing on the academic side, and add to your plate the task of starting the non-academic career exploration process in earnest. It is more than doable, and you have resources on your campus and beyond to help get you there.
Once you have a more concrete idea of your options outside the tenure track, you can better make the decision for yourself what your next career step will be. Then you can have a conversation with your advisor with more confidence and a clearer idea of what you actually need from her.
I hope, no matter what you choose career-wise, that you can appreciate the process – both of your great achievement in completing your PhD and of exploring yourself and your options beyond it.
Wishing you your own vision of success,
* Not her real name. I won’t use real names or university names of letter-writers.