Friday, September 20, 2013

Deciding who to work for: finding employment outside academia

This guest post is from Chris Humphrey at Jobs on Toast, a post-academic career advice blog. Check it out!

‘Who do you want to work for?’ and ‘Where do you want to work?’ are two questions that you’re unlikely to hear in any discussion of the current academic job market! Given the desperate state of the market today, with many more candidates than posts, the idea of a new PhD having a choice about their first post in academia seems crazy. People are resigned to going to places where they can get a job, even if the position and location aren’t a particularly good fit (adjuncting in North Dakota anyone?).

If you ask these two questions in the context of jobs outside of academia however, you get a very different response. Try it yourself! The sheer amount of options can be quite overwhelming at first: ‘You mean, I get to CHOOSE who I work for, and where?!’ Well, obviously you still have to apply for and get the job! But you definitely have more control over your employment terms (salary, workload, work-life balance, location) in comparison with your options inside higher education. So let’s look at the abundance of career opportunities outside academia, with a view to helping you choose your first job post-PhD.

Careers outside academia

We might mistakenly imagine (from inside academia) that PhDs can only venture out of higher education as far as publishing houses, or into research labs. The reality is that PhDs are enjoying successful careers in a broad range of organisations outside of higher education. I recently listened to a radio profile of Angela Merkel, a PhD in quantum chemistry, who as Chancellor of Germany is running the biggest economy in Europe! There are a number of dedicated websites where you can go and read interviews with PhDs who are working outside the academy. Just take a look at PhDs At Work ( for instance. This fantastic site has profiles of PhDs who are employed across a range of sectors, from coaching to environmental health to film and the arts (look out for me!). They are succeeding on the back of the skills and experience gained through their doctoral research, not in spite of them. You can check out my blog post on ‘Life after the PhD’ for a list of the top websites which carry interviews and profiles with PhDs employed outside academia.

Who do you want to work for?

So, who do you want to work for? You might decide that you actually want to work for yourself! An increasing number of PhDs are doing this, setting up their own businesses in fields like marketing, consulting and coaching. Being your own boss may not be that different from being a PhD – a lot of the same skills are required, such as time-management, self-motivation and dedicated hard work.

If you decide you want to work for someone else, you have three main options – non-profit, government and business:

1. Working for a non-profit, you are going to be using your skills to support the organisation’s mission. This mission could be health-related, environmental, artistic or may involve helping disadvantaged groups in society or in another country. This is a great way to put your expertise to work, in a research capacity (e.g. with a medical charity) or as a subject specialist or an administrator.

2. Your second option is to work in local or national government. In local government you’re going to be responsible for the delivery of a service to the public– this could be heritage, libraries, schools or planning, to name just a few of the options available. I know several PhDs who’ve gone into museum management for instance – they are now heads of their own collections! If you go to work in national government, you can find a home for your research skills in a policy unit, or perhaps further afield as a diplomat. One of my contemporaries from the University of York is now the British High Commissioner to Kenya!

3. Your third option is to work for a company. From the perspective of academia, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to business, and think that you have to sell your soul to work in one. Actually, there are many companies which are doing a great deal of good in the world. I would strongly encourage you to do some research into small and medium-sized companies with an ethical, social or sustainable mission. Companies in the ethical and green sectors tend to have an open-minded recruitment policy, and want to employ people who are aligned with their values – ideal if you want to change the world!

Where do you want to work?

Having spent a long time living and working in a university town or city while completing your PhD, it can be quite a wrench to have to up sticks and move for the sake of a job. Certainly for new PhDs, it would be quite unusual for a suitable academic position to come up locally, so relocation is a very likely prospect. When considering your career options outside of academia however, the ability to stay put can be a nice perk. Why not start your business in the location you know best – your home town or city? Or go to work for a local employer who’s looking for someone of your calibre and potential? While the offices of big employers like Google or Microsoft may be located hundreds of miles away, you may find that one of their subcontractors has an office just down the road …

On the other hand, if you fancy a change of scenery, a job outside of academia can be your passport to a dream location. Very few jobs will come up at the University of Hawaii for instance, but if you look for work outside of higher education, and are prepared to be flexible, an opportunity may present itself!

It’s your choice!

If you follow any commentary on the academic job market, you’ll know that it’s currently dominated by feelings of scarcity, compromise and under-employment. PhDs are taking temporary, low paid teaching work in universities in the hope that by ‘staying in the game’, something more permanent will eventually come up. This is an understandable strategy, but realistically the odds are stacked against you, and you have no control over when or where you’ll finally get a job. By contrast, we’ve seen how you can get back a degree of choice and self-determination, if you opt for self-employment, or if you go to work for an organization locally or elsewhere. I would love to hear your answers to the two questions posed at the beginning of this post – please leave your comments below!

Dr Chris Humphrey is the founder of Jobs on Toast, a blog dedicated to helping masters students and PhDs find fulfilling careers outside academia. Chris obtained his PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of York (UK) in 1997, and he is the author of The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England. Since leaving academia in 2000, Chris has worked in a range of project and programme management roles in the areas of sustainability, transport infrastructure and training. Chris regularly gives workshops at UK universities on the subject of marketing yourself for a career outside academia, and he will shortly be launching an online directory of paid-for products and services benefiting doctoral researchers.

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