What can you do with that PhD?: FAQs about non-academic jobs

As the school year winds to a close, another class of students nears graduation and will be asked the inevitable question: “So, what’s next?” This year, I’m one of those students, and like 61% of STEM PhDs, I’m leaving the tenure-track career path.

I’ve noticed a difference in how people react to my career plans versus those of my friends who are moving on to postdocs or professorships. When asked about their post-grad plans, my friends on the traditional path receive a quick congrats and the topic of conversation moves onto something else. On the contrary, I’ve found that people ask a lot of follow-ups about my career plans. If you’re interested in alternatives to traditional academic careers, read on for my answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.

Why are you leaving?

People mean well when they ask this, but it’s a very personal question; I don’t recommend asking unless you know the person well. Often, I’ve found that the asker wants to commiserate with you about the state of the academy. While I do think that there are major issues with the culture and structure of academia (the leaky pipeline faced by women in STEM and replication issues, among others), I’m grateful for the knowledge and skills I’ve gained through my graduate school experience.

Contrary to popular belief, students do not always leave the academy because they are disillusioned or have “failed” at finding an academic job. Many have genuine interest in consulting, outreach, starting a company, working on Watson, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, starting a bakery, or whatever it is they go on to do. Research is only one facet of life, and it need not be the only one. I’m leaving because I have always had other interests, and I want to explore those opportunities. During my time in grad school, I discovered that the part of my work I found most rewarding and enjoyable was communicating cutting-edge research to the public, so I’m trying out a career in science writing and outreach.

Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, has a Ph.D. in Political Science. She didn’t stay on the academic track, but she’s doing just fine.

Did you tell your advisor? How did it go?

To be honest, I dreaded having this conversation with my advisor. My fear – which is a common one – was that she would be disappointed, angry, or even “give up” on me by providing fewer lab resources and less guidance. I waited to tell her until I was sure I wanted a non-academic career. After that conversation, I felt like a weight had been lifted, and I wished I had done it sooner.

Advisors can be a great resource to connect you with others who have been in your position before. Plus, you may find that you and your advisor work better together if you’re honest about what you want – for instance, if you and your advisor both know that you’ve got your heart set on consulting, you may decide together that those five exploratory follow-up studies that would have made you a more competitive academic job applicant are no longer a productive goal.

I feel lucky that my advisor has been supportive of my decision, but unfortunately, not every advisor will be supportive of students who choose a non-academic career path. In that case, seeking out a faculty member who will support you can be helpful.

But what can you do with that degree?

I’m usually asked this question by students in my field who have been thinking about leaving the academy, and are hopeful I will mention some magical, previously undiscovered career path. Consider instead: what do you want to do with your degree? Sure, your degree may confine your choices to some extent – sadly, as a psychology PhD, it’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever be an astronaut – but students routinely underestimate the general skills they learn as a PhD that apply to most jobs. All those studies you’re juggling? That’s project management. The RAs you’ve trained to run your studies? That’s leadership and team management. Submitting manuscripts and writing endless emails? Communication skills.

A longitudinal study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between the ages of 18 and 46, the average person has 11 different jobs. Your job as a graduate student is just one of many you’ll have!

How did you find out about career options?

Narrow down the qualities of your ideal job. Do you enjoy teaching? research? working with people? Do you want something with flexible hours and projects, or do you do better with structure and deadlines? Do you prefer to work on teams or alone? These are just several questions to consider; if you’re at a total loss, check out AAAS’s MyIDP to help you start asking the right questions.

I’m also fortunate to work with Beyond Academia, a career education conference at Berkeley. We had our second annual conference in February, where we invited former PhDs talk about their experience transitioning from academia to the “beyond”. There were panels featuring speakers from a variety of industries (e.g. technology, science communication, and entrepreneurship) and workshops where students worked on specific skills (e.g. narrowing in on a career path, or how to create a personal brand). It was a great learning and networking opportunity, and students on other campuses are now lobbying their universities to hold similar events. Your campus may have a similar career education program, or at least a career fair. If not, consider starting one!

There are also a variety of online resources that can help you begin your search. Most universities’ career centers have websites with resources for students, though not all have sections specifically dedicated to post-PhD careers. Beyond Academia has begun compiling a list of resources here, which can be a good starting point.

Eric Schmidt, Google executive chairman and former CEO, is another former Ph.D. who has done quite well off the academic track.

What helped you in finding your career path?

Reaching out to others who understand your position can be both inspiring and educational. Take advantage of your personal network – talk to recent graduates from your department, or friends and faculty in your department to see if there’s anyone they know who has the type of job you’re interested in. Also remember that your university’s career center could be helpful for resources or alumni connections.

If you don’t have personal connections to your chosen field, the internet can be a massively powerful tool. Set up a LinkedIn profile and see if there’s anyone in your extended network who has your dream job. Twitter and blogging are also a good way to connect with strangers in your field. (On a personal note, I found out about a fellowship through Twitter and got a job interview due in large part to a blog post I wrote. The internet is a magical place!)

Also, be sure to try out what it is you want to do. Do you want to be a consultant? Join your campus consulting club. Your campus doesn’t have a consulting club? Start one! Other options to consider are summer internships, conferences, and workshops.

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If you’re considering an alternative career, get acquainted with your options as soon as you can. Start right now, if you feel so inclined. Use those time management skills you’ve learned in grad school to set aside a couple hours a week for career exploration. Like completing a dissertation, career exploration is a marathon, not a sprint; incremental steps toward your goal will get you there. Admittedly, seeking out these opportunities in addition to your duties as a grad student can be tiring, but finding the right career for you is a worthy reward!

If you have any additional resources to suggest, please leave them in the comments below.

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jane hu

Jane Hu is a Ph.D. candidate in the psychology department at University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on social cognition and learning in preschoolers. She is also an editor of the Berkeley Science Review and an organizer of the Beyond Academia conference. Follow her on Twitter @jane_c_hu, and check out her science blog: metacogs.tumblr.com

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10 Responses to What can you do with that PhD?: FAQs about non-academic jobs

  1. Bob says:

    61% leaving their career path sounds awful, but were all of those on that path to begin with? Don’t many people get STEM PhDs as steps toward other career paths?

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    • Jane Hu says:

      Good point — it’s not leaving if you never wanted to “stay” in the first place! There are many PhDs who come in without interest in the academic track, but – in my experience at an R1 university, at least – the default assumption is that grad students will (or at least should want to) become academics.

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  2. Abduljalal says:

    The issue is totally different in developing nations….!

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    • Jane Hu says:

      Interesting! As an American, I am pretty biased towards my experiences here in the USA, but I’d be interested to hear about your experiences if you’re willing to share them.

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