How to transition out of academia (and why) once you get your Ph.D.

So you got your PhD ... great! Now, here's why and how to transition out of academia ... photo by CC user majkowska on flickr

Traditionally, the Ph.D. is intended to prepare students for a career in academia. Most Ph.D. students hope to obtain a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship, followed by a tenure-track professorship, upon graduation. But The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 76 percent of the academic labor force consists of adjunct professors who can’t qualify for tenure and make about $2,700 per course.

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t earn a PhD. Earning a doctorate gives you critical thinking skills, teaches you how to collaborate, and bestows a level of expertise in your field that employers place a premium on. A Ph.D. can still lead to a lucrative career path, as long as you look for opportunities outside of academia upon graduation. You just have to learn how to market yourself, and you may want to seek advice from other Ph.D.-holders who have successfully navigated the transition out of academia.

Decide What You Have to Offer Non-Academic Employers

The smoothest career transitions out of academia belong to those who hold Ph.D.s in STEM fields — industry has long valued experts in science, mathematics, technology, and engineering. But you don’t have to hold a STEM Ph.D. in order to have a lot to offer a company. Ph.D.s in all fields impart some of the following qualities:

  • Strong communication skills
  • The ability to express complex ideas in a way that is easy to understand
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Self-direction

Translate the academic skills you learned while doing your Ph.D. into marketable job skills. You may have little industry experience, but if a company wants two or three years of experience, you can argue that work you did in the course of earning your doctorate required some or all of the skills needed for the job. Be specific about which of your skills meet the company’s job requirements. Customize your CV and cover letter to each position.

Allay Recruiters’ Fears About Candidates With Ph.D.s

Companies often fear that Ph.D.-holders will be too introverted, won’t be able to communicate with “regular” people, or will get bored with an industry job if they don’t feel intellectually stimulated. Let recruiters and interviewers know that you’re personable and down-to-earth, with great communication and people skills. An industry job can be just as intellectually stimulating as degree work or an academic position; make sure you can convey a genuine excitement about the job for which you’re applying. Point out that, in many Ph.D. fields, you need to be a team player in order to complete research or teach classes.

When you do a Ph.D., you’re essentially seeing a long and challenging project through to completion — play up that fact in interviews. Make clear that while you’re capable of working well with others, you’re also capable of working independently without a lot of supervision. Draw attention to your sense of accountability and remember, just because you have a Ph.D., you’re not inherently smarter than any of your future colleagues. Don’t act as if you’re owed a position.

Talk to Others Who Have Left Academia

You’ll have an easier time transitioning into an industry position if you complete a Ph.D. that prepares you for work in industry, especially one with strong, expected growth. But if you already have a Ph.D. in French, Russian literature, history, or some other field that appears to have a solely academic focus, don’t worry. You can translate any Ph.D. into a well-paid job.

Start by joining a professional organization for Ph.D.-holders who want to work outside of academia, such as Versatile Ph.D. Versatile Ph.D. sponsors nationwide networking events and more casual meet-ups for Ph.D.s who have, or want to, pursue careers outside of the Ivory Tower. You can discover more about your career options, find job listings on the group’s website, and get advice from other Ph.D.-holders about how to find jobs outside of academia. Registration is free, and members of one of the site’s many subscribing institutions can access premium content designed to help them find jobs.

Though the Ph.D. is traditionally meant to prepare students for a career in academia, the skills it teaches can be useful across a range of industries. Don’t feel that your Ph.D. limits you to teaching at the university level. In fact, it can open doors to lucrative, stimulating, and fulfilling careers in all kinds of industries, no matter what your field of study.