December 28, 2013

On non-academic careers

At the History of Science Society 2013 I presented the first results of my historical research on wheat research in India in the 1950s and 1960s. I also attended many academic sessions, but my favorite was one called, ‘Happiness Beyond the Professoriate.’

As I get closer to defending my dissertation and graduation (in 2015), I’m seeking a job in policy, non-profit work, non-tenure track at a university (such as with extension), or even the private sector. I’ve already informed my advisor and most of my committee about these plans, which I had expressed since starting my PhD. Perhaps because going into my PhD program I was already interested in non-academic jobs, I chose a graduate program and advisor that were more supportive of this choice than a traditional disciplinary academic department.

The session featured a panel of speakers who focused on three things: 1) types of jobs that PhDs can do; 2) how to improve your chances of getting said job; and 3) changing the academic culture that sees non-academic careers are failures. The first and second themes were interesting and helpful, but it was the third point that affected me the most. Like I said, although my academic program and mentors have been supportive of a non-academic career, it’s difficult to escape the general stigma of getting a PhD without going on to an academic job.

I learned a lot in this session, and I’m going to report the main points here.

1) On non-academic jobs that PhD’s can do, there are many! The ones discussed were policy, consulting, museum jobs, university administration, editing and publishing, and professional associations. Many of the panelists stressed going to your university’s career counseling program, even if it’s outside your department or aimed at undergraduates.

2) One of the panelists had experience in hiring people with PhDs for non-academic jobs, and gave us some advice from that perspective. To him, PhDs can be a risky hire for several reasons. They might see non-academic jobs as “Plan B” and not have their heart in it, or might be stuck in the academic headspace of their dissertation. They might not be able to synthesize and communicate information quickly and concisely. And they can sometimes act like they’re the smartest person in the room.

In order to contrast these faults (real or perceived), PhDs can do a variety of things to make their application more successful. One way is to be able to explain, quickly and in lay-man’s terms, why you did your dissertation but why you’re moving on from academia. Some of the panelists mentioned the website, Versatile PhD, as a good resource. I agree, as I've browsed the discussion boards and the panel topics.

The other thing stressed by the panelists is to have non-academic work experience on your resume. They recommended doing internships or jobs while still in grad school, that shows your potential employer that you have skills and experience relevant to the workforce. One of the panelists recommended completing an “individual development plan” to assess what skills you have and what you need to work on. This seems like a good idea for anyone to do, because even you go into academia, organization and communication skills are very important.