What can I do with my PhD? Jobs outside academia
A PhD is recognised by employers across a range of sectors as a sign that you will bring a distinctive skill set to their organisation. There are also opportunities where your subject-specific skills and knowledge will be in demand. Do not, however, limit yourself to applying for jobs which specifically require a PhD. Unless a PhD is a prerequisite for the job, employers won't necessarily mention it in their advertisements.
Sectors and types of work likely to match the skills and aspirations of PhD graduates include:
- Education (teaching): opportunities to gain relevant teaching qualifications and to teach your subject in schools or to lecture in a further education (FE) college.
- Education (administrative and professional roles): non-teaching roles in universities and other educational institutions. In universities, for example, PhD graduates are valued for their administrative skills and understanding of the research environment.
- Public sector: roles within the Civil Service, government agencies and local government where you can use your analytical, research and communication skills.
- Industry research and development: opportunities exist to continue your research in commercial and industrial environments, for example in the medical, pharmaceutical and engineering sectors.
- Healthcare sector and medical research: the health sector is a relatively common destination for PhD graduates who wish to continue or build on their area of research in the NHS or public research institutes.
- Business and finance: jobs are available in areas such as investment and retail banking, insurance and pensions. Specialist quantitative and statistical training and high-level analytical and communication skills are particularly valued.
- Consultancy and think tanks: your ability to work on projects and to devise novel solutions to problems are of value in a range of management consultancy and policy analysis contexts, such as business and finance, technology and IT.
- Publishing: the analytical and writing skills developed preparing papers and writing a thesis are essential skills for the publishing sector. You may be well-placed for editorial roles.
- Intellectual property (IP): jobs are available for science, engineering or technology PhD graduates who are looking to put their skills in lateral thinking and writing into practice, in roles such as patent attorney work.
- Not-for-profit sector: research and policy opportunities in charities, voluntary and non-governmental organisations.
- Entrepreneurial activities: whether developing a spin-out from your PhD or doing something completely new, the independence, problem-solving and creative-thinking developed during your PhD mean that you may be suited to starting your own business.
Although some jobs which attract PhD graduates offer a relatively high starting salary, this is not always the case. A significant number of posts which are open to both first degree and PhD graduates will have the same starting salary for all new employees. Once in post, there is typically scope for PhD graduates to progress to management and senior management positions.
Skills and characteristics that are attractive to employers
Employers will be looking for evidence that you can demonstrate competency and achievement in relevant skill areas, for example:
- analytical thinking and problem-solving abilities;
- ability to bring new ideas, curiosity and innovative approach to the organisation;
- ability to solve complex problems;
- project management and organisation skills;
- leadership potential;
- ability to work independently and in a team;
- excellent communication and client facing skills;
- motivation and the ability to meet deadlines.
Improving your chances
Work experience, internships and placements
Completing some kind of work experience can help you gain relevant skills, practical experience and contacts for your chosen career path. Employers will want to see that you have had experience in environments outside of academia.
Find yourself a mentor, ideally someone who is working in the field you are interested in. They will talk through your options, help with decision making and provide you with an insight into their work.
Work on campus
Paid work can provide extra income during your research and help you gain a range of skills and experience. Teaching experience, for example, can provide valuable transferable skills even if you do not stay in education beyond your PhD.
Taking on leadership roles and other responsibilities
Whether you are captain of a sports team or head up a student-led committee, such activities will provide you with concrete evidence that you have achieved in leadership roles.
Raising your profile
Consider how to get yourself known in circles outside of academia through, for example, setting up a blog or presenting at conferences relevant to the sectors you wish to work in.
Build contacts and widen your networks by connecting with people in the area of work you are interested in. Be systematic about keeping records of people you have met and use professional networking sites, for example LinkedIn, to stay in touch.
Applying for non-academic posts
For non-academic posts, you need to sell your PhD and broader experience to potential employers. Demonstrate your competence, skills and achievements in line with what they are looking for. Examples include:
- Problem solving: the whole essence of your PhD is about problem solving, and you will have developed a set of strategies for analysing a problem and approaching its solution in various ways.
- Project management: don’t forget that your PhD is a large project with many elements and calls on your time. Give specific examples of the tools you used to manage this project and its multiple priorities.
- Time management: techniques you used to manage your time efficiently during your research, such as identifying tasks that can run in parallel, delegation and working with others.
- Management of self and others: techniques you have used to manage yourself and make yourself more organised.
- Communicating with different people: giving lectures or tutorials, taking part in outreach programmes, giving presentations at conferences or to your research group all require different methods of communication.
- Networking: meeting people at conferences and other events means that you have some networking skills. Talk about how you keep a record of who you have met and how you follow it up.
- Writing skills: outline the different kinds of writing you’ve done: journal papers, thesis, progress reports and anything else you’ve been involved with, such as communicating with the media and the public.
- Understanding and analysing information quickly: as a researcher, you will come into contact with a huge amount of data and will become skilled at understanding and analysing it quickly.
Written by Fiona Christie, University of Salford, September 2014