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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

3 Things Every PhD Needs to Know About Getting a Job Outside Academia

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OK, so you’re a PhD candidate who’s suddenly realized they don’t want to work in academia—and thinking about making the switch into a completely new role is giving you the sweats.

Well, you’re preaching to the choir, because I was just like you once. But in the eight years since I completed my dissertation, I’ve worked successfully in three different nonacademic jobs in two different industries—I’ve been a career counselor, a recruiter, and am now a career coach and an entrepreneur. I’ve even found surprising new ways to use my Boolean keyword search skills from my PhD when I source candidates for the jobs I’m helping to fill.

Based on my experience, here are three things everyone in a PhD program should know about transitioning into a nonacademic job.

1. You’ll Have to Ask for Help

It’s so simple, but worthy of a reminder: It’s OK to ask others for help when making this change—in fact, you should.

For one thing, you don’t have to go through this alone. There are plenty of people out there who’ve probably made the same transition and can offer you advice. But for another thing, networking will be your best friend in finding roles outside your specialty.

Stumped on how to find the right people? If your department keeps track of alumni, reach out to those in a similar field and ask for an informational interview. Or, invite former students to give a talk about their career paths to your graduate student groups.

If your internal network isn’t as robust, use LinkedIn and social media to build connections with people who work outside your college (here’s how to send that cold email to just about anyone). Read blogs or follow accounts by people who’ve made the transition successfully and use those tips to drive your decisions.

2. You’ll Have to Be Prepared to Tell Your Story

Earning a PhD takes a high level of commitment. As you start discussing your plans to seek nonacademic work, you’ll get questions from family, friends, colleagues, and, most importantly, hiring managers about your decision to pursue an untraditional path with your degree.

Whether you need to explain the brutal realities of the academic job market to your uncle or talk about how your research skills will benefit your future employers, you’ll tell the story of your career transition a lot. Start practicing the many stories you’ll tell those audiences. The more you rehearse them, the more confident you’ll feel and sound.

Start practicing answers to questions like:

  • What new careers or jobs are you interested in?
  • How did your PhD prepare you for your new career?
  • What is your research about? (Tip: Learn to answer this without using jargon.)

Here’s everything you need to know to nail down your elevator pitch.

3. You’ll Have to Figure Out Your Values and What Kind of Work Culture You Need

Nonacademic workplaces have their own cultures that are distinct from those in academia.

That’s neither bad nor good; it’s just different. If you love wearing jeans to work but you take a job where business formal attire is required, or you love working collaboratively across teams but you’re in a workplace where people are individual contributors, you might find yourself unhappy or unfulfilled.

An essential part of your career transition is learning what you value most in a new job and work environment and what you will compromise on. This may take trial and error to figure out, but you can start by looking at the things you do currently as a PhD student.

Ask yourself: What energizes you, and what makes you cranky and impatient? What tasks do you avoid or put off doing, and what projects do you actively seek out? The better you know who you are and what you want, the easier your transition will be (and the easier it’ll be to convince hiring managers you’re worth taking a chance on). For more ways to figure out if you and a company are a good match, read this.

The one thing to remember is that you can make the switch. It may be intimidating, but you’re a lot more qualified for a nonacademic role than you think (if you’re not convinced, read this). And if I can do it, you can, too!

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