The data on PhD students graduating and remaining in academia are pretty-stark. Depending on who or what you read as few as 10% of graduates remain in academia long term.
The road I have travelled – PhD to professional support role to business owner – is not necessarily typical (but I am not sure there is a typical pathway). However, I am hopeful others can find it useful in the context of options available to PhD students. The intention is to use the story to show others that there is a pathway. That there are people who can help. That changing careers or sectors is not bad, going to the dark side or weak. This blog forms one part in three covering:
- How I left academia (and set up my own business);
- The value of my PhD (to my business); and
- How you can transition out of academia.
Here, I’m focusing on things you can do to make the transition out of academia easier, and there are separate blogs for the other two topics.
In the blog on how I left academia I noted three things that helped me, as well as two other things that (on reflection) could have made the transition easier. Here (below) we’ll look at each in turn.
These are people you can talk to about the transition, your current work, what you would like to do, what you would hope to do or even changes to work-life-balance. They are people you can trust. Note, the plural (people) rather than singular (person). It is important you consider having more than one mentor. In theory, mentors are people who have been through a similar experience to you. Therefore, if you are thinking about different options you should have someone who has sufficient experience of the options to help you. Let’s say there are five career options:
- University academic - teaching and research, funded by the university, but expected to apply for and win grants as well as teach undergraduate students;
- University researcher - no teaching, surviving and/or justifying employment based on grants won, publications written, and PhD students supervised;
- University professional staff - supporting researchers or teachers in areas such as quality and risk, grants office, student admission, subject coordination;
- Industry researcher – performing research in a company (for profit not for grants);
- Industry non-research – not building on your PhD in a direct sense, but nonetheless using your newly developed (research) skills or subject matter expertise.
That might mean you have five different mentors (advisors at the very least) to give you an understanding on the different paths possible and what is required for each. In a given year, you might only meet or chat with each mentor 2-3 times, but they will provide you with key insights on the path you are about to embark on. Of course, as you focus in on what you want you might choose to let some mentors go, and gain others.
You could also consider the approach suggested by Pamela Mitchell in her book The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention – which includes having a reinvention board responsible for different aspects of reinventing you career (connector, colleague, drill sergeant, native, friend).
Most (if not all) PhD students understand a large proportion of what they do in a PhD is transferable to other (non-research) settings. However, what I think is missing are the opportunities to emphasise this. So, it is important to take advantage of (extracurricular) activities that highlight skills future employers are looking for. This might mean:
- Taking on conference organisation to demonstrate project management;
- Volunteering to speak on your PhD (or career) in various fora to demonstrate ability to speak; and/or
- Tutoring undergraduate students to demonstrate an ability to teach.
Of course, there are many more skills that are transferable and many more activities that will highlight them. The key to success, is in first identifying the transferable skill and then looking for opportunities to demonstrate it outside your research.
Supportive critical friends
Mentors may or may not be people you are otherwise close to. Supportive critical friends are people whose opinions you value, as well as being key people in your life (e.g. parents, or partners). They will likely have strong views on your career path. They will be regularly comparing the decisions you are considering to your earlier actions. Regularly asking themselves and you are the two congruent. Having people who are supportive, but nonetheless critical, is an important part of you finding your own way. Standing in your own conviction. This is in keeping with the advice suggested by Pamela Mitchell in her book The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention (having a reinvention board).
Experience within the industry or sector you are hoping to transition into will be a massive help in:
- Confirm that you like that particular industry or sector; and
- Gaining a paid role in that industry or sector.
Experience does not have to be paid, nor does it have to be long term. Friends, colleagues and clients have had varied combinations of two weeks’ summer (unpaid) work, through to years of casual experience at the periphery of an industry. In all cases the experience helped make a choice (“yes” I still want to move industries or sectors) and/or gain a paid role (I was dedicated enough to give up my holidays to work for free, or I have worked as a casual, now I would like to work fulltime). A great example of the later is a friend who worked in a pharmacy throughout her undergraduate years (rather than in fast food or a grocery store). When it came to getting a job in a pharmaceutical company not only was she familiar with the medication they sold and what it was used for, she knew many of their representatives, their competitors and how customers/clients viewed the brand.
Remember your roots
The research process is thorough. In many cases, it may well be too thorough for a role outside academia. However, borrowing key elements, including but not limited to:
- Establishing base line or controls when doing reviews;
- Publishing your work once complete;
- Referencing sources;
- Interpreting data
can enhance your success outside academia. This is particularly true when compared to workers who lack this experience and rigour. These things – and there are many others – are part of the competitive advantage of having completed a PhD. Make sure you use them.
Contact me if you'd like support on making the transition from academia.
Raven Consulting Group specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality. To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org) or subscribe to our newsletter.