There are a number of myths about temporarily, or permanently, pursuing a non-academic job after the PhD. In today’s post, Anna Gasperini dispels some of these myths and talks about her own journey of stepping outside of academia…
During my PhD, I read plenty of articles about “non-academic work experiences from hell”. Perhaps there were articles about positive experiences, but they never came under my radar. Furthermore, I felt there was a sort of taboo about working outside academia, especially for a Humanities person: “if you step outside academia”, people around me would say, “it’s not so easy to come back!” This did not help when, after submitting my PhD thesis in Victorian literature, I found myself, to all intents and purposes, unemployed.
Thankfully, a friend told me that there was an open entry-level position at his company. I was concerned about my lack of experience, but he described the job to me and ensured that, provided I had basic computer skills and took the training seriously, I could learn it, so I applied. I was invited for an interview. They hired me. I worked for the company for one year: a positive and rewarding experience, which I interrupted only because I had to relocate. In the meantime, I was able to work on conference papers and articles in my free time, keeping in touch with academia.
I wish someone had told me a story like this when I was doing my PhD, hence this article. I will tackle four of the darkest myths about taking a non-academic job after submission, to try and take the doom-and-gloom down a notch!
#1: I did my PhD in the Humanities; therefore, I cannot work corporate
In the Humanities, we tend to think we would be utterly useless at any job not involving our subject, and/or teaching, and/or books. The truth is that my managers were not necessarily looking for someone with previous experience in the sector, but they did need someone who was:
- A fast learner
- Able to manage her own work
During our PhD, we naturally develop these skills: learning to set and follow deadlines, workload and targets is part of the job. Furthermore, we process and learn incredible amounts of data, often in unfamiliar fields, which makes us fast and flexible learners. In short: you are not as unfit for it as you may think.
#2: If thou darest stepping out of academia, thou shalt never come back!
This is both false and detrimental. Working is necessary to our physical and mental health; we all know that a position in academia may not become immediately available after a PhD. I wished to stay in touch with academia, but to do so I had to go to conferences (which suddenly became very expensive) and publish. My job allowed me to do this. It was not easy, but I did it: every day after work I went home, I made myself tea and I put down a solid couple of hours’ work on articles and papers. I sacrificed a lot of my free time (and of my holidays to go to conferences) but it was worth it: I “stayed in the loop” and networked, while money was not a concern.
#3: Your PhD prevents you from getting a regular job
During my interview, I could sense my prospective managers were surprised that a person with a PhD was applying for the position. I therefore addressed the topic openly, explaining that, even though my CV looked untypical, I was committed to learn and apply myself to the job, should they decide to hire me. I conveyed how I seriously was taking the opportunity and, since they did hire me, I think this is what mattered in the end.
#4: The average corporate environment is hell for academics
The second day of work, I had to take the day off to have my PhD Viva; a few months later, I had to ask for time off for my proclamation. In neither occasion did my manager have a problem with it, nor did my team. In fact, they were supportive. I want to stress that these were perfectly normal people in a perfectly normal office, and not a selected team composed solely of yogis and saints. There were tough days at work; however, the fact that my main previous work experience was in academia did not prevent me from finding my place in the team, learning new skills, making new contacts and friends, and coming out of the experience enriched.
In conclusion: do not feel forced, after your PhD, to stay unemployed until a chance comes by to work in academia. A non-academic job can coexist with publishing and attending conferences, if that is what you want – it will be tough but not impossible. You may decide that you’d like to settle with your new job, or it may be a transition towards the next step of your career, academic or not. Either way, take your chance and try: it is worth it.
Have you considered a non-academic career? What sorts of skills do you think PhD students can offer a corporate employer? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.