For many PhD graduates the realisation that, after all, an academic career may not be the right thing, can come as a surprise and raise some fundamental questions: “What career do I want?” “What options have I got?” “How do I convince a potential employer that I have something to offer outside of my area of expertise?”
Making a career decision…
The rewards and challenges that motivated you to undertake doctoral research are also available in non-academic sectors. Increasing your self-awareness will help you to make sense of these options. If you were, for example, inspired by collecting, critically analysing and interpreting data during your research, then a career in data analytics, operational research or software engineering may appeal. If you excelled at conferences and enjoyed engaging with and influencing an audience as you presented a paper, a career utilising your communication and presentation skills in consultancy, marketing or public relations may ideally suit you/meet your requirements. Understanding what motivates you, your skills and values, as well as the opportunities that exist in the graduate and post graduate labour market is a good starting point.
What options have I got?
The short and not particularly helpful answer is, a lot! There are recruiters in quantitative finance, for example, that specifically target PhD graduates for the unique skill set and expertise that you can bring. You could start your career in a graduate programme. Although this may feel like a step backwards, there is evidence that PhD recruits progress through a graduate scheme more quickly than other candidates. The good news is, that far from the stereotypical view of the PhD graduate as an academically institutionalised ‘lone wolf’, research commissioned by CFE Research (‘PhD Career impact and Career Tracking Survey’) indicates that doctoral graduates are considered ‘business critical’ by many employers. The research found that employees with a PhD can make a creative impact in the workplace which influences their co-workers and that they are also high achievers and innovators. There can often be a significant salary premium and greater security of employment enjoyed by doctoral graduates, compared to their contempories with a first degree or equivalent qualification.
How do I market sell myself to a non-academic employer?
This will require a different mind-set and approach. Remember that you will be submitting an application to an employer who may have no understanding of your area of expertise, or of how his or her business might benefit from your subject knowledge. You may not be asked about the nature of your research in an interview and indeed you may find it difficult to explain it to a non-specialist. The employer may, however, value your skill set. How you articulate the transferability of the project management, analytical, problem-solving, communication and research skills that you have developed and enhanced to a high level during your research will determine the success of your application. Danielle Deveau argues that:
“Translating your skills for a non-academic audience is key to your success in the private sector job market. You cannot simply list intellectual accomplishments and knowledge sets and expect the individual reviewing your resume to equate these abstract skills with the more applied work that they often require.” (‘Articulating academic experience for the non-academic workplace’, 2013)
The importance of highlighting the transferability and relevance of the skills you have demonstrated in your academic career, to the specific role applied for, is emphasised by Chris Humphrey in his ‘Jobs on Toast’ blog where he describes this process as
“The ability to present yourself and your capabilities in a language that your prospective employer can understand and relate to.”
Consider how your experience as a researcher can evidence the skills and attributes an employer requires. If you had a difficult relationship with your supervisor or other researchers you may have collaborated with during your research, you can demonstrate effective negotiation skills. Successfully organising an academic conference could highlight the planning, organisational skills and attention to detail an events management company would look for. Completing your PhD is testament to your ability to work on your own initiative with little supervision and to deliver a project on time – a skill set arguably of value to all employers across every sector.
Making the transition from academia to employment – some tips…
- You may have never experienced a work environment other than academia. Try gaining experience through work shadowing, volunteering, part-time work or extra-curricular activities. This will evidence your skills in a non-academic environment to any future employer as well as informing your thinking about the type of career you want.
- Highlight your expertise to employers – present yourself as an effective project manager, an analyst, an innovative and creative problem-solver.
- Change the emphasis of your CV and cover letters – remember that you are not making an application for a post-doc and an employer may not understand the relevance of your research and publications record. Evidence the particular skills that the employer requires as described in the person specification.
- Use the networking skills you have displayed at conferences and with your academic peers to find out more about job roles and to discover potential opportunities.
- Your intellect alone will not be a sufficient reason for an employer to make you an offer. You have to describe your academic career in a convincing way that demonstrates your potential and suitability – take the opportunity to have a mock interview to practise ‘telling your story’.