Academic? Non-academic? Let’s talk careers

Maria talks about how she went from a full-time PhD in the humanities to a full-time non-academic job, what this shift has meant for her, and what she has learned about what a “career” really is

As I was finishing my PhD, I started to feel burned out — the World Health Organization has, in fact, recently recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon. And since I was burned out because of all the stress surrounding my early academic career, I began to ask myself in earnest whether I wouldn’t fare better in a non-academic career instead.

But, like many PhDs, I had started my doctorate with the idea that I would continue to conduct this research and share it with the world for the rest of my working life. Besides, how would I get a non-academic job, if all my experience “on paper” was to do with my hyper-specialised field? And would I find working a 9-to-5 job truly meaningful?

I knew only one thing for sure, and that was that something had to give before I truly burned to a crisp. So I intuitively took step number one — putting myself out there.

Step 1: Test the waters

I first started to look at various job ads that I thought I could manage. Since my main interests and skills revolve around writing, teaching, and research, I looked at all the jobs that could possibly fit them.

I also put the word out that I was looking for a change… and a job. I told this to my friends, family, and acquaintances and, sure enough, they kept me in mind and let me know about emerging opportunities.

Eventually, my chance came through one such opportunity signalled by a friend — I found a job in online media that appealed to me and which I thought myself capable of doing. But there was a catch: I didn’t seem to have the experience they were asking for.

Step 2: Rewrite your narrative

But was I really lacking the relevant experience, or was this all in my head? Doing a PhD means that we gain and perfect a whole array of skills through jobs that we don’t necessarily think of as “jobs”. However, that’s exactly what they are.

This includes teaching opportunities, formal and informal mentoring, writing, editing, research, data analysis, writing grant applications, organising and co-organising events.

My top tip? Start by listing all the things you’ve done over the past few years, and then identify the skills they helped you develop. In writing your application, talk about specific instances or contexts that helped you build your skills. Also think about how you can apply those skills more broadly, and how you could use them in the future.

Despite my misgivings, my application was successful. But then, more questions emerged: was being in a non-academic job a cop-out, and what would happen to my career going forward?

Step 3: Map out your real goals

It took a lot of self-reflection and brainstorming, but I realised that I was fixating on some unhelpful distinctions. “Academic” and “non-academic” are very restrictive labels, which seem to imply that if you want to be a researcher you can’t also do office work and vice versa.

Instead, I found that it was more helpful to focus on the “career” bit, and what that means. A career, I would argue, is not defined by a job or a succession of jobs. It is what your work allows you to be and do, overall.

So what I would suggest is to think really hard about who and what you want to be, at the core of your professional life. Draw a mind map including:

  • what you’re good at
  • what you want to do
  • what you want to achieve

Then identify the common threads. This might help you find out what your career is really about. After doing this exercise, I realised that I saw myself as a writer and educator, and this is what I wanted to continue being, in any possible shape.

After this, all my work — both “academic” and “non-academic” — seemed to come together more easily. I also started feeling much more motivated to do different kinds of work, because I could see more clearly how they contribute to my career goals.

So, if you too are struggling to decide what you want to do with your life after your PhD, I encourage you to simply sit down and identify the patterns in your professional history. Also, don’t forget that lateral thinking is important: don’t write off appealing jobs because it doesn’t seem like you have the experience. Instead, think of what you have done in the past that has equipped you with skills you could use in that job.

Finally, if you’re worried that being in a non-academic job wouldn’t fit your academic bent, read this eye-opening blog post by Anna Gasperini, explaining why non-academic jobs are not hell or a dead end.


What do you think a PhD student’s career options are and why? And how do you approach your own job search? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Maria Cohut recently finished a PhD in English and Comparative Literary Studies, and now works as a medical journalist. In her spare time, she writes poetry, weird fiction, and occasionally creates taxidermy pieces. You can reach her on Twitter, @mariascohut.


Cover image: New York / bdchu614 / CC0 1.0

Image 1: together now / johnschnoCC0 1.0

Image 2: a blank sketch book / m15kyCC0 1.0

Image 3: a map / dead____artistCC0 1.0


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