Where Do PhDs Work Outside the Academy?

Plus, my favourite free resources for career exploration for graduate students and recent PhDs

One of the challenges many graduate students and recent PhDs — or later-in-their-careers academics — face when considering seeking non-obvious employment is lack of knowledge about where people like them work. (One big caveat here: Having a doctorate is only 1 way of categorizing individuals, and when it comes to careers, and particular non-faculty careers, it’s not a very useful categorization. But let’s go with it for the moment.)

So, let’s assume you identify as a PhD or a grad student or an academic. Where do people who share this identity work? If we were to brainstorm together, I bet we’d come up with a few quick ideas:

  • faculty member at a university or college, either part-time or full-time, permanent or temporary
  • postdoc
  • secondary school teacher, especially in private schools
  • research (or scientist) roles, whether in government, nonprofits, or industry
  • research support staff at universities, working with faculty members on grants
  • editors at scholarly publishing houses, including academic journals
  • student advising roles

Continuing to brainstorm, we might add jobs such as

  • science communication and outreach
  • museum curator
  • freelance journalist or writer
  • policy analyst
  • scientific sales
  • project coordinator positions in nonprofits

And so on.

But then most academically-situated PhDs will run out of ideas. Or, you’ll want a job that’s on your list, but you’ll know that these jobs are extraordinarily unlikely to be realistic for you. Yes, you can work as a historian for Parks Canada, but those positions are rarely open. You can absolutely make a go of it as a freelance journalist, but it might take many years to earn decent income doing so. Sure, you can work as an editor or in a museum, but there are professional pathways into those careers that you may not have, and can’t invest the time or expense in pursuing.

Ok, then what? Well that’s where I suggest spending a few hours reading some of the wonderful resources that are available on the internet… for free! Here are my favourites, with a focus on North America.

Before digging in, remember: Don’t get stuck thinking that only people with your exact degree will be useful to you. Not true. The majority of PhDs working in non-faculty jobs are *not* directly drawing on the high-level PhD content knowledge and expertise they acquired doing their degrees. They aren’t. (Nor are faculty members most of the time.) And humanities folk: This is true of STEM grads, too. We all have a lot more in common than you may realize. Ok, end Jensplaining :). The list!

1. Transition Q & As (From PhD to Life)

Yup, these are awesome! I ask individuals with graduate degrees to reflect on their experience by answering 9 questions. I love each and every one of these posts, which include honest information about what jobs look like day-to-day, advice about how to navigate a career transition, and other thoughts about the personal and professional aspects of managing a career. Fascinating! There are currently 57 posts you can read, with more to come.

2. PhDs at Work

Michelle Erickson’s marvelous website features the A Week in the Life series. She gets PhDs who are a few years past graduation to blog their work weeks! Yes! Amazing. The site includes doctoral-degree holders from a variety of different disciplines, all working in non-faculty jobs. Extremely eye-opening and completely fascinating, too.

3. Beyond the Professoriate

Want to sample a few dozen jobs and careers in the form of paragraph-long bios? Then check out all three years of my online career conference for PhDs. You’ll find the speaker information from 2014, 2015, and 2016 a great window into the variety of jobs that tertiary degree holders do.

4. Versatile PhD

You probably know about this website as the largest independent forum for PhDs based outside the so-called “traditional” tenure-track career path. But did you know that in addition to reading and commenting in the forums, you can search members? Not all will have filled out their profiles, but with tens of thousands of members, it can be a great place to start exploring where PhDs actually work. I just searched “life coach” and hey: I’m not the only one! Looks like I have some networking to do…

There are many other sites where you’ll find similar profiles and Q&As, plus other content written by, for, and about PhDs working beyond the professoriate. What are your favourites? Are there any great ones that I missed? Let me know so I can add them to my Resources page.

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