Nicole Barbaro, Ph.D.

Jan 4, 2020

10 min read

My Advice for PhD Students on the (altac) Job Market

by Nicole Barbaro

Like many soon-to-be PhDs, I entered my doctoral program with all the hopes, dreams, and intentions of landing a tenure-track professor position after graduation. Like more soon-to-be PhDs, I actively pursued — and landed — a great ‘alternative’ job outside of the ivory tower. For those in the academy that know me personally, most were surprised at hearing of my decision to not sacrifice everything in order to become a professor. Most professors that I know told me that I would likely land a tenure-track job given my publication and presentation record, service to the field, and doing all the other things that I was ‘supposed’ to do in order to have a ‘strong’ application on the academic job market. But I chose to look elsewhere as I entered my 5th year of graduate school.

My decision to actively pursue altac jobs (alternative academic jobs, or non-professor jobs) was made in consideration of three primary factors: Living where I wanted to live (rather living where random University X was located), solving the two-body problem (rather than either one of us making a major career sacrifice), and the odds of having a job following graduation. Each of these factors pointed to the solution of being open minded and seriously exploring what the altac job market had to offer. Because aside from a massive dose of luck, I knew that it was extremely unlikely that I would land a tenure-track position coming out of a R2 state school PhD program given geographical constraints.

Graduate students, professors, and anyone with any connection to academia knows how outright dismal the tenure-track market is for those of use not coming out of an Ivy League or top-ranked R1 program. The fact of the matter is: There are not enough jobs. Each year, thousands of PhDs are awarded for only a few hundred tenure-track jobs per field worldwide. Then, it comes down to fit with the department, program, and university. There are many(ish) tenure track jobs in psychology, for example, but the majority are looking for someone who does research outside of my specific area.

To be successful on the academic job market, one needs to sacrifice a lot because the best way to land a job is to play the lottery and apply to upwards of 100 jobs a year, and even then, it takes on average 3–5 years of application cycles to land a job. As a demonstration of this, in psychology the Society for Personality and Social Psychology shared the results of their annual survey of the academic job market and found that the two primary predictors of landing a tenure-track job were the number of applications submitted and the impact factor of the journals you publish in. Other research finds that “Traditional benchmarks of a positive research track record above a certain threshold of qualifications were unable to completely differentiate applicants with and without offers.” So, aside from a massive dose of luck, there is little control over getting a tenure track job if you want any sort of autonomy over a massive life decision: where you want to live. This and many other reasons, are why PhDs are choosing to leave academia.

I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my autonomy. Instead, I prioritized my life. And the best decision for me was to go on the ‘regular’ job market. During the process of job searching, there were a lot of ups and downs, and the experience was much different than I expected it to be going in. Below, I share some key aspects of my experience and suggestions that I think could help other graduate students who are making career decisions. My advice to anyone who seeks me out for advice, though, is to get advice from as many people as possible. So, take this as just one — or rather, 10 — pieces of advice in your arsenal of advice to make your best post-PhD career decision.

  1. Figure out what you actually like to do. I wanted to be a professor. That’s why I got my PhD. But what about the job did I actually like? I thought really hard about this. I liked project planning, writing, presenting, teaching, science communication. And, I liked the academic environment. Based on these things, I decided to pursue various academic and education roles, just not professorships. Universities are huge and there are a lot of things to do there that don’t come with the title of “Professor”. Think about the parts of your graduate training that you really like, and then work from there. Professors are not the only one doing academic-type things.

2. Spend time reading job ads in your desired industry, company, or city. What are places looking for? It was difficult to figure out what job title might fit the type of job that I would be happy with, so I spent a lot of time exploring all job ads at a company or university to see what was available. Don’t limit yourself to only one job title. Job titles are really flexible outside the professorship, and by searching for only a specific job title may cause you to miss out on an interesting job.

3. Identify the skills that you have. Industry and non-professor academic jobs are more interested in what you can do, rather than your content knowledge per se. What programs do you know? What analyses are you comfortable with? What types of writing can you do? Can you manage projects? Manage people? Your PhD is not going to get you the job. What you’re capable of doing will get you the job.

4. Pick where you want to live. This may come as a shock to most academics, but there are a bunch of jobs all over the place, and most companies wanted to hire someone yesterday. Industry wants you. You are no longer at the mercy of where the job is (and if you are, then you’re choosing to be). My partner and I decided that we wanted to make our life in one of two cities, and so we applied for jobs only in those places. Picking a city (if this makes sense for you) will also help narrow down companies and universities to search at, too (see point 2).

5. Talk to people (i.e., non-academics). Networking is a huge component to landing a job outside the professorship. You need to talk and make friends with non-academics. This piece of advice also happens to be great mental health advice in general for PhD students. During my time on the job market, I knew several academics that had went straight from PhD to tech, and others that left the tenure-track for industry. I emailed them to set up a phone call to talk about their jobs and their experiences outside the ivory tower. These conversations were invaluable. Also, follow Beyond The Professoriate for consistent altac advice, links, and uplifting content!

6. Understand how your PhD is perceived by industry (hint: it’s not as cool as you think). There are perceptions of PhDs that you need to overcome, especially during your initial interview. First, there is a general perception that we PhDs work slow. In most of my interviews with tech companies, the HR (human resources) representative or hiring manager will say something like “it’s a faster paced work environment” or will blatantly tell you that they “work faster than academia.” You’ll need to polish a good response to this. Second, if you, like me, only worked in your PhD lab in graduate school, you have no direct industry experience. This is hard to overcome. You basically must convince the hiring manager that despite no experience they should hire you. This is why point 3 is so important.

7. Know what you need for applications. A huge bonus of the non-tenure-track job market is that applications are short. Most include just a resume (1–2 pages max) and a cover letter (1 page max). But this means you have little room to convince HR or a hiring manger that you (with no experience) should be interviewed. This also means that you need to put together a resume (not a CV). Your resume needs to show what you’ve done in your previous roles, and as noted, will be much shorter than an academic CV. Relatedly, you need a LinkedIn profile. Recruiters and hiring managers will look you up on LinkedIn (not necessarily your personal website). Make sure you’re present. Overall though, the application process is so refreshing relative to the professor job market, and it does not take weeks to craft 10 documents and statements that a committee may just skim.

8. The ‘regular’ market is happening all of the time — there is no “season” like in academia. This has a couple implications for finding a job. First, you need to give yourself time, but not too much time. Because I was coming from academia, I couldn’t leave my lecturing duties until the end of the semester. One of my first interviews tanked because my available start date was four months out. Most companies don’t want to wait this long. As the HR rep told me “Well, we usually need people yesterday.” A sweet spot seemed to be me applying and interviewing about 2–3 months out. When you apply, most places will reach out for an interview within a month, and then go through several interviews over the course of a couple weeks.

Second, you need to be looking and applying for jobs all of the time. There is often no ‘deadline’ for applications like professor positions. When you see a job, you need to have your materials ready to submit your application. Applicants are reviewed on a rolling basis and if you wait a couple weeks to submit your application, its likely they are already reaching out to candidates for initial interviews.

9. Be prepared for variation in the interview process, and ask questions about your interviews. Something that I learned the hard way was that initial interviews vary widely by company or institution. At big companies it’s more likely you’ll be ‘phone screened’ by an HR representative first. They will do a lot of the talking, selling the company to you, and getting a feel for your fit to the role. This is also a great opportunity to ask questions about the role and the company.

Academic administrative roles and smaller companies may put you on the phone initially with the hiring manager for the position (this is often the person you’ll be working under and reporting to). If this is the case, the interview will be more structured, and they’ll be asking you a lot of questions about your experiences and skill set.

For any initial interview, it’s important (and okay) to ask the person who is setting up your interview (usually via email) questions about the interview itself. Who will you be speaking with (name, individual vs. committee)? What is the format (phone, video interview)? Do you need to have anything prepared? I learned this the hard way in my first video interview. I assumed I would be speaking with the hiring manager who set up the interview, but when their video came on it was a conference room with a committee of several people, and they had a list of job-specific questions for me. Don’t be like me. Ask questions. Be prepared.

10. The altac market is not a backup. It’s important to not think of the non-professor market as a ‘back-up’ plan. This can be difficult because PhD programs are filled with advice and career training from… a bunch of professors. This is why point 5 is so important. You need advice, guidance, and connections with people that are not professors so that you can be as successful as possible on the altac job market. It’s important to make your career goals clear with your committee so that they can best help you, too.

And — to be completely honest — the non-professor job market is tough, a lot harder than I expected it to be. Just as much planning and effort needs to go into obtaining an altac job as a professor job, but the main differences being you have a lot more autonomy over the final result, and it’s far less depressing.

My experience on the altac job market was more dynamic than I had anticipated going in. My confidence levels were all over the place for months. Landing initial interviews, then getting rejected (at least the regular market is kind enough to send you timely rejections!). Getting excited for interviews and possibilities only for them to not pan out. The stress of my partner and I both job searching simultaneously, then planning a cross-country move in the middle of my job search (because, shock, as an electrical engineer with years of experience, he was able to find a new job much more quickly than me, a psychologist!).

Overall, though, I had much better luck than I did applying for tenure-track jobs. Over the course of two years (year 4 and 5 of my PhD), I applied for 17 tenure-track jobs that resulted in one initial interview, whereas I applied for 21 altac jobs and landed 6 initial interviews (with no direct experience, remember)! In the end, I accepted a Research Scientist position at WGU Labs where I get to conduct research focused on improving student outcomes in higher education — a great meld of my love for higher education and my skills that I obtained during my PhD — in a city I chose to live in, and where I am happy. I hope that my experience can be in some way beneficial to other PhD students going on the altac market.