Non-Faculty Job Options for PhDs (Plus, Three Things to Do Right Now)

We’ve all heard that PhDs need to look at jobs beyond the professoriate. There simply aren’t enough faculty positions available for those who want them. And there are plenty of reasons not to want one even if you can get it: geography, the “two-body problem,” pay, workload, etc.

The good news is that there are many other possibilities! By now, you probably know this, at least theoretically. But this is where a lot of graduate students and academics get stuck: they know there are other things to do, but they have a hard time putting their fingers on exactly what those other jobs are.

Let’s say you’re a humanities PhD. Cool, me too. Not so cool is all the people asking, “are you going to be a professor?” and then looking disappointed when you fill them in about the academic job market. Ugh. So then your friend suggests you look in related fields. “How about writing, or editing? You could be a journalist!” Right, except those jobs aren’t plentiful and they tend to have career paths that involve training and experience you don’t have.

If you’re in STEM, you might be told to look for jobs in government labs — as if those were easy to land. Or maybe you could launch a startup! (I mean, you could! But it’s probably not the right move for most of us.) You get the point.

Here’s the thing, though: We know that PhDs are employed at extremely high rates. Government stats tell us this. Maren and I have lots of “okay, buts” to say about this, but the fact of the matter is that doctoral-degree holders (and master’s degree-holders) are smart, capable individuals and we can and do get jobs. It can take a good, long while — as it does for many other folks, especially career changers — but it does happen.

Here’s what it takes: Broadening your knowledge of what’s out there, a great deal of personal and professional reflection, networking (primarily by means of informational interviews), and then narrowing down the possibilities, applying to openings with top-notch job documents, and interviewing like a pro.

If you’re feeling stuck at the “but what else can I do?” stage, you can move forward. Here are three actions you can take right now:

  1. Take stock of your values, strengths, and priorities. The more you strengthen your inner resolve, the more able you’ll be to take risks, like networking in a new field.

  2. Reach out to someone you know from grad school who’s working outside of the academy. Send them an email requesting an informational interview. You’re exploring your options and curious about their career. Do this even if it’s been a few years since you connected!

  3. Start making a big, long list of every task you did during your PhD. Focus on what’s on your academic CV and what’s not there. What exactly did you do to get that publication, present that paper, teach that course, volunteer in that high school? It’s all about skills.

What action will you take to move your career forward?


Jennifer Polk earned her PhD in History from the University of Toronto. She is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate

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