Don't Know What Job You Want? 4 Important Questions to Ask

Let’s be real here, the non-academic job search can be quite a disorienting experience for many grad students and recent PhDs.

You’ve spent the better part of your life in academia. You’ve lived and breathed partial differential equations or postmodernist literary theory. You’ve walked alongside the leading minds of your field.

Then, suddenly, you’re plunged into a non-academic world for which you were neither adequately trained nor mentally prepared.

“What job do I want? What do I want out of a job?” These are not self-evident questions, and it’s easy to feel totally lost on the job search and have no idea what job you want.

Trust us. We know.

Actually, “lost” doesn’t quite describe the sensation. Someone who’s lost knows where they’re trying to go, even if they’re not sure how to get there or where they are right now.

By contrast, many grad students and PhDs leaving the academy for the first time have no idea where they’re going. They know they need a job, but have no clue what they’re qualified for or what job they even want out of a non-academic career.

Do you feel totally aimless and lost on the job search? Are you wondering how to discover what kind of job you actually want?

This article unpacks the “Discovery” phase of your PhD career transition. From finding out what you need out of a job to examining your preferred work environment, we’ll walk through 4 crucial questions to ask yourself in your non-academic job search.

If you’re looking for more advice, including concrete suggestions and guidance on what to do next in your non-academic job search, please try our new career assessment tool!

1. What Do You Need Out of a Job?

“Wait, isn’t this whole article about helping me find out what job I really want to do?” you may ask.

Well, yes! But this question isn’t about what you want. We’ll get to that. It’s about what you need.

What do you absolutely need in order to be happy in a job? Reach down to the bottom of your soul and examine what really matters to you.

If you’re anything like most PhDs we talk to, you probably need three basic things out of a job:

  1. To deploy your skills and experiences in a meaningful way (i.e. your PhD skills are not wasted).
  2. To make a positive impact on the world in some small way (i.e. the job is not total BS).
  3. To earn enough to support yourself and your family (i.e. duh).

Sure, technically you can do a job that doesn’t hit all these criteria. But you won’t like it. And you certainly won’t be able to put in the effort and commitment needed to do it well.

So, think hard about this. What do you need out of a job? Finding out what you need is the first step towards finding out what you want.

Incidentally, “what do you need out of a job?” is a fairly common interview question. Always have a good answer in your back pocket ready to go.

2. Which Matters? The Work or the Cause of the Work?

Next, before deciding what job you want to do, you have a crucial decision to make. When contemplating career paths, which is more important to you? The work? Or the cause? Would you rather:

  • Do the kinds of tasks and activities you enjoy and are very good at, but for an organization or cause you don’t particularly care about?


  • Do tasks and activities you would normally have no special interest in, but for an organization or cause that you care about, enjoy being involved with, and aligns with your values?

Obviously your ultimate goal should be to do both, to land a sweet non-academic job right smack in the middle of the Venn diagram.

But, short of that, which would you choose? Is the work itself valuable to you? Or is it the cause, the purpose of the work that matters most?

Academics rarely grapple with questions like this. That’s because, in academia, scholarly work is treated as an end in itself. We are passionate about our research (it’s assumed) and we’re prepared to go anywhere that hires us to do that work.

Most academics and PhDs are never compelled to think about the cause or purpose of our work. So, think about it! What cause do you want to support? What positive impact would you like to have on the world?

Learn to think this way, and you may notice a dramatic shift in your perspective on non-academic careers and what job you want. You may find that the purpose of the work, more so than the work itself, is what truly matters to you.

3. What is Your Preferred Work Environment?

Here’s another question academics rarely, if ever, consider before embarking on their post-academic job searches.

What is your preferred work environment? Do you prefer to work alone or in a group? Are you more productive at the office or at home? Can you concentrate best early in the mornings? Or in the dead of night?

“Environment” should not be confused with “workplace.” A workplace refers to the specific organization at which you work. Environment encompasses the conditions under which you work.

No matter what all those productivity-pumping self-help books tell you, there’s no one ‘correct’ way to work. The 8–5 office drudgery isn’t for everyone. Different people work differently.

There’s only so long you can deal with coworkers you can’t stand, or work or under conditions you find intolerable.

Some people will foist the “Do What You Love” narrative on you and insist that certain kinds of work justify all manner of discomforts and sacrifices.

Don’t fall for it. The conditions of your work matter quite a bit. Figure out what work environment you can be happy in. Find out what job you want to do and also what environment you can comfortably do it in.

4. What Kind of Job Do I Want?

Okay, now it’s time to circle back and figure out what job you want, not just need or can tolerate. It’s time to figure out what job falls in the precise intersection of your needs, work preferences, values, and habits.

If you’re like us, or like the other academics and PhD students we interview, what job you really want to do will come down to the following criteria. Your ideal job will:

  1. Allow to you exercise your hard-earned academic skills and experiences in a non-academic context.
  2. Make a real, meaningful, positive impact on the world, however you choose to define that.
  3. Pay enough to support yourself and those you care about.
  4. Provide intellectual stimulating work through a variety of responsibilities and tasks that you enjoy and are good at.
  5. Serve a cause/purpose that matters to you and aligns with your personal values, even if it is far-removed from your academic field of study.
  6. Have an environment that accords with your preferred work schedule and habits.

You will almost certainly add or remove a few criteria from this list. But this is a pretty good outline for most academics and PhDs to start with.

As you can see, finding out what job you want to do means balancing needs and desires.

You need to make money. You need to do work that fits your skill set. But you want to do something interesting and intellectually engaging, at a place that means something to you personally.


In a way, beginning your non-academic job search is like moving to a foreign country. You don’t know anyone there, don’t speak the language, and don’t know where to go or what to do next.

It’s normal to feel totally lost on the job search. It’s normal to have no idea what job you want.

If that’s the case, learn how to balance what you want with what you need. Think about what kind of job would allow you to meet your basic needs while also providing a sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction.

No one said it was easy. In fact, figuring out what job you want is probably the single hardest part of leaving academia and entering the private sector.

No matter where you are in the process, know that there are resources available to you.

If you still feel lost and are looking for more job-searching advice, please check out our career assessment tool. It’ll show you what stage of the process you’re at and what you should do next.

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