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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Get Real-Life Career Experience During Your PhD Program

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Everything you do as a graduate student is building toward that time when you finally go on the job market (kind of like when you were in college).

And maybe you’re looking for options outside academia because you’ve heard how tough landing a tenure-track job is. Or, maybe you’re not sure what type of career you’d like and want to see what else is out there.

That’s why now is a perfect time to get some experience outside of academia. I know you might be thinking, That’s ridiculous. Between my research, course work, teaching, and the rest of my life, I don’t have time for that!

But consider this: I thought the same thing when I was wrapping up my graduate school program, and I ended up landing a role that lasted for a decade. Turns out, that was a much better move for me. And, I was able to make that choice because I’d gotten some traditional work experience during my time in school.

The truth is that you never know where you’ll end up and what’ll ultimately interest you. I know, you think you found your thing, but just in case you haven’t, getting a little bit of “traditional” work experience can make all the difference.

And the good news is that you don’t need to run out and get a full-time job. You don’t even need to get a part-time job. Below are ways to start getting some non-academic experience—from less-time intensive to most.

Start a Blog

Starting a blog can be very flexible, and you can control how much time and effort you invest in it.

Perhaps you like baking bread and posting pictures of the results on Instagram, so you start a blog with tips on how to take professional food photos. In just one post, you’ve already tried writing for a non-specialist audience, a skill you’ll need outside of academia, believe me. (Read this for more blogging tips.)

Take an Online Course

The beauty of online courses is that you can fit them in around your crazy schedule. And you don’t need to worry about grades! If you’ve started that blog on professional food photos and you want to up your design game with a little HTML and CSS, you can learn to code without leaving your couch. (Read this for some great online class recommendations.)


This could be walking dogs at your local Humane Society, for example. Maybe that humane society also needs someone to write some marketing content for their website or take photos of a local event. Or, they need someone to help organize their volunteer database. Suddenly, you’re learning more than just how to keep a dog on a leash.

Volunteering can be flexible and short-term, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a contribution and grow your skills at the same time.

Join a Committee or Offer to Lead One

I was president of my department’s Graduate Student Organization, and in that role I learned tons about event planning—skills I used a lot in my first post-ac job. Helping set policy through an advisory board, helping your department decide who to admit to your program, or planning workshops on professional development give you leadership skills you can use in academia and outside it.

Present to a Community Group

Is a community group interested in your research? Or, maybe people love your Instagram bread photos and want to learn how to gain more followers for their own feeds.

Giving a talk to a group outside of academia helps you hone your presentation and public speaking skills because you learn to think of new ways to communicate to different audiences.

Create a Webinar or Email Class

Do you know how to use data mining tools? Are you great at teaching other people how to use them? You could create a webinar or an email class to get your tips out there for people to use. If you’re interested in careers in creating or managing content, or you’re interested in being an entrepreneur, this is great way to get experience.

Apply for an Internship

No, internships aren’t just for undergraduates—and yes, it’s possible to balance one with everything else you have going on. There are organizations that offer paid internships for PhD students, and some universities even provide funding for graduate students who do them. You may also be able to design your own internship and work with your department to get credit for it.

Find a Part-Time or Full-Time Job

A job can help you get hands-on experience very quickly while offering you a paycheck and, possibly, benefits. You might even find a fabulous post-academic career through part-time or full-time work.

The tradeoff is the time commitment. I wrote most of my dissertation while working full-time, and it was challenging to balance both. Unless you need extra income to help cover your expenses, only take a full- or part-time role that helps build the skills you need to land that fabulous non-academic job.

Getting non-academic experience while you’re still in a PhD program takes work and strong time management skills. Yes, you’ll give up some very precious spare time.

But imagine this: walking into your first post-ac job the week after you file your dissertation. Or, working with your first client in your new business. You can be successfully and happily employed post-PhD, and working on it now will help you find your next step more quickly.

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