Launch Your Non-Academic Job Search: 20 Things PhDs Can Do RIGHT NOW

So … you’re stuck at home.

You’ve binge-watched The Queen’s Gambit, reorganized your wardrobe for the fifth time, and finally scrubbed that salsa-and-cheez-whiz stain out of the couch.

Now what?

“This is it! I’m gonna read Infinite Jest! It’s been on my bedside table for two years … today’s the day!” 

Yeah, uh, no. Not gonna happen. Sorry 🙂

Instead, why not get a head start on your non-academic job search?

This article presents 20 specific, concrete, actionable steps PhDs can take RIGHT NOW to begin looking for non-academic job opportunities.

These are all things you can do at home, during quarantine, without so much as putting on pants.

Even if you have NO IDEA what kind of non-academic job you want, these steps will help you assess your current situation and begin the long, arduous process of changing careers during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

Ready? Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

1. Make a LinkedIn Profile

Are you on LinkedIn? If not, make a LinkedIn profile now.

You don’t have to fill it with information just yet—we’ll get to that part. Just make sure you have your LinkedIn profile ready to go.

There are a ton of job sites out there, but LinkedIn is the one everyone uses. Check out this post for more on the importance of LinkedIn for PhDs.

2. Take a Nice, Boring, Professional Headshot

Throw on some business-casual clothes, grab your phone, find a blank wall, and take a few self-portraits.

Pick the best one, adjust the light/color if you like, and make it your official professional headshot. Use it for your Google account, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and anywhere else you might look for jobs.

Remember, boring is better! Don’t risk losing a job because your profile picture rubbed a recruiter the wrong way.

Check LinkedIn for examples of what a professional headshot looks like.

3. Google Yourself

Open an incognito browser window, type in your name, and hit Enter.

Did anything unexpected come up? If so, take care of it immediately. Remove outdated personal information, embarrassing photos, or anything else you don’t want employers to see.

This is also a good time to add your new headshot to all your various online profiles.

4. Connect with Colleagues on LinkedIn

Using your shiny new LinkedIn profile, connect with friends, colleagues, and alumni you know from your university.

These will most likely be fellow graduate students from your department or from other departments you’ve worked with.

Why is this so important?

Because the best way to learn is by example.

If you’re not sure what kind of non-academic job you want, check out what other academics and PhDs have done. Looks for ways to replicate their success. No need to reinvent the wheel here.

Even better, send your old colleagues a message and ask to speak to them about their jobs! You’ll both gain valuable advice and let them know that you’re open to career options and opportunities.

As a graduate student or recent PhD, you have a valuable alumni network. Use it!

5. Create a “Non-Academic Job Search” Spreadsheet

Make an Excel or Google spreadsheet. Create several tabs. Call it “Job Search Sheet” and save it somewhere you’ll remember.

This spreadsheet will be your central repository for all information pertaining to your non-academic job search.

Here you’ll keep track of your skills, experiences, answers to interview questions, professional references, and more. See steps 6–8 for further details.

6. Make a List of References

In your spreadsheet, add a list of professional references along with their email, phone number, current job title, relation to you, etc.

These can be both academic and non-academic references. Try to have a healthy mixture of both. Include anyone who can speak to your skills, abilities, reliability, and work ethic.

Don’t forget to ask their permission before listing them as a reference! It’s the cool thing to do.

7. Make a List of Skills

In your spreadsheet, create two columns: Hard Skills and Soft Skills.

Under Hard Skills, add things like:

  • Academic Research
  • Grant writing
  • Technical Writing
  • Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint
  • Adobe Creative Cloud
  • HTML & CSS
  • Learning Management Systems

Under Soft Skills, add things like:

  • Commitment to accuracy & technical details
  • Critical thinking
  • Multitasking
  • Managing long-term projects
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Public speaking & oral communication
  • Writing for diverse audiences
  • Passion for teamwork & collaboration

Depending on your work experience and the kinds of non-academic jobs you’re looking for, you might add further categories like Teaching Skills or Programming Skills.

The point is to list out all your skills in one place. When the time comes to tailor your resume, you can mix and match just the right skills for each job.

8. Make a List of Professional Achievements

In your spreadsheet, list your professional activities and achievements. These can be from academia and from any non-academic jobs you’ve had.

The key term here is “achievements.” Forget about what you know. Focus on what you’ve done.

Your achievements should take the form of short sentence fragments with an action connected to a demonstrable result. The first word should always be a verb.

Examples from graduate school might include (verbs in bold):

  • Collaborated effectively across disciplines to complete a multi-year research project that culminated in an X-page dissertation with Y sources and Z footnotes.
  • Published X scholarly articles and reviews in peer-edited academic journals.
  • Demonstrated excellence in communication and grant-writing by winning over $X in fellowships and research grants from national and international organizations.
  • Designed and directed in-person and remote courses for the X department at the University of Y.
  • Managed and developed learning objectives for over X students. Instructed and guided them in analyzing and synthesizing  evidence to form original interpretive arguments.
  • Mentored undergraduate students in successfully completing senior research projects.

Like your skills, these achievements can be dropped directly into your resume when the time comes.

9. Write Your Executive Summary

In your spreadsheet (or wherever), write an executive summary explaining your professional persona in 3–5 punchy sentences.

This will go atop your resume and on your LinkedIn profile.

If you know what kind of non-academic job you want, write your executive summary with that role in mind. Highlight whichever skills and achievements are most suitable for that role. 

If you don’t know what you want out of your non-academic job search, it’s okay to write a more generic summary focusing on your academic background and skills. But, as soon as possible, start tailoring your executive summary for specific career paths.

When describing yourself, don’t be afraid to use cheesy, clichéd phrases like:

  • Enthusiastic
  • Mission-driven
  • Detail-oriented
  • Down-to-earth
  • Passion for success

You would, of course, never catch verbiage like this on an academic CV. Academic CVs are purely factual lists of achievements.

But a professional resume is more than a list of facts. It’s purpose is to persuade employers to hire you. To that end, a little emotional substance goes a long way.

Finally, as with most tips on this list, if you’re unsure what an executive summary looks like, LinkedIn is a goldmine.

10. Build Your Resume (Not a CV!)

Using your spreadsheet, build a professional resume that highlights your most important skills and accomplishments. Stick your executive summary at the top, under your name.

Do not ‘convert’ your CV into a resume! If you try this, you’ll be tempted to stuff your resume with way too many academic details. Non-academic employers don’t care about every article you’ve published or every award you’ve ever won.

Instead, build your resume from scratch. Try to keep it to one page; two pages absolute max.

Not sure what the difference is between a resume and a CV? Check out this post.

Of course, if you’re serious about a job, you’ll want to tailor your resumes and cover letters to that specific job posting. That comes later. For now, you need a nice-looking ‘default’ resume that encapsulates your professional record as it stands now.

For added style points, Canva has lots of free resume templates!

11. Fill Out Your LinkedIn Profile

Now that you’ve compiled your spreadsheet and written a professional, non-academic resume, the time has come to fill out your LinkedIn profile.

This part’s easy. A lot of information can be simply copy/pastes from your spreadsheet.

Think of your LinkedIn profile as your master online resume. Unlike your actual resume, which will highlight specific details relevant to the job you’re applying for, your LinkedIn profile is much more extensive. All your professional experience is neatly listed in one convenient online location.

12. Request an Informational Interview

On LinkedIn, find someone in your area with the kind of non-academic job you’d like to get. Send them a ‘connect’ request alongside a brief and polite message asking for an informational interview.

The message might go something like this:

Dear [Person]

Hi! My name’s [Name]. We haven’t met but I’m really interested in potentially working at [Company] as a [role]. Is there any chance you’d have time for a quick call to discuss your work in more detail? Thanks a lot!

It feels awkward contacting strangers out of the blue. We get it (really!). But it’s not that bad. Trust us, you’ll be surprised by how many people say yes.

Chances are, they did informational interviews themselves in their younger years. They know the drill. Most will be happy to help.

13. Send a Thank-You Message

After your interview, shoot the person a quick message thanking them for their help.

After all, they’re doing you a solid by taking the time to speak with you. There was nothing in it for them. Say thanks!

After that, ask them to ‘keep you in the loop’ about potential non-academic job opportunities. Now, the odds of them actually remembering you five months from now when an opening pops up are slim. But it never hurts to ask! 

Get in the habit of doing informational interviews. Make a plan to do, say, one per week. Heck, you could even send another LinkedIn connect request right now!

14. List Potential Employers and Set Up Job Alerts

In your spreadsheet, make a list of potential employers and jobs you’d be interested in.

Now that you’ve started networking, you should slowly be getting a sense of what kinds of non-academic jobs you’d like to have. The jobs on your list should be both:

  1. Interesting and/or meaningful to you (i.e. more than just a paycheck)
  2. Realistically attainable for someone with your background

Once you’ve nailed down some potential employers and jobs, set LinkedIn job alerts for each one. Visit the “Jobs” tab, do a search, then click the “Job Alert” switch at the top of the results page. 

Be warned! If you’re too vague in your criteria, LinkedIn will quickly start inundating your inbox with ads. Be specific with your job alerts wherever possible.

15. Research Professional Societies in Your Area

Look up professional societies for the career field you’re trying to break into. See if they have a chapter in your local area.

If they do, sign up! (Assuming there’s not an exorbitant fee, of course.)

And if they’re having a meeting in the near future, go to it!

Attending a professional society meeting—usually done over Zoom these days—is like doing 10 informational interviews at once. If even one of the people you meet is able to give you a good lead, it’ll be well worth it.

Here’s a gigantic list of professional associations by industry.

16. Write Your Career Transition Story

Write a 5-to-10-sentence spiel explaining why you are leaving academia to pursue non-academic job opportunities.

This is your career transition story.

Of course, the real reasons you’re leaving academia are surely many and varied. The abysmal academic job market. The social isolation. The lack of career stability. The inability to choose where you live. The list goes on.

These are all ‘push factors’ drawing you away from academia. These have NO PLACE in your career transition story.

Instead, focus on ‘pull factors’ drawing you towards a non-academic career. What do you like about the company? What attracted you to this or that non-academic job?

Your career transition story must explain all this in a way that non-academic employers will find interesting and compelling.

17. Rehearse Your Career Transition Story

After writing your career transition story, rehearse it. Out loud.

Line up your stuffed animals like a makeshift hiring committee and recite your transition story. Do it over and over until you can get through the whole thing without pausing or stumbling.

After all, “why do you want this job?” is probably the single most common interview question. You must be ready to answer it with confidence and conviction.

18. Compile Some STAR Stories

In your spreadsheet (or wherever), create a collection of STAR stories: short story nuggets comprising a situation, task, action, and result.

Why? To answer those pesky “tell us about a time …” interview questions.

You know the ones! “Tell us about a time …

  • You managed a complex project
  • You organized tasks effectively
  • A manager was dissatisfied with you
  • You had a conflict with a coworker”

There are dozens of these, and most employers draw from the same list. You will be expected to answer these questions in the form of STAR stories.

At minimum, have two well-practiced STAR stories in your back pocket:

  • One that demonstrates your work ethic by recounting a complex project or task you handled.
  • One that demonstrates your people skills by recounting a difficult student/coworker/teacher/manager and how you navigated the situation.

Employers value soft skills more than ever these days. STAR stories are, in effect, how you ‘prove’ your soft skills to employers.

A word of caution: employers don’t always say “tell us about a time” when asking these questions. For example, when the recruiter asks “how do you organize tasks?” what they really mean is “tell me about a time you effectively organized tasks.”

19. Volunteer!

Okay, now that you’ve built your spreadsheet, established your LinkedIn profile, and started networking and preparing for interviews, the next big step is to expand your non-academic job skills and experiences.

Volunteering is a great way to do this.

Look up a local organization you’d be interested in volunteering in. Find something you can do that will also let you build some skills.

There are tons of options here. Even something as simple as answering the phone at a food bank will let you add “positive customer-service experience” on your resume.

Likewise, take over your graduate department’s Twitter handle for a semester and bam! You’ve got “social media experience.” Feels good, huh?

(This step will, unfortunately, require you to put on pants. Sorry…)

For more tips on acquiring non-academic job skills, check out our recent post on academics working in industry.

20. Freelance!

Check out freelancing sites like Upwork or Contently, make an account, and try to snag some non-academic (and entirely remote!) freelance work.

Now, freelancing is, understandably, a touchy subject for some.

After all, Upwork imposes hefty fees that, arguably, border on exploitation. Full disclosure here: freelancing starts slowly, and takes quite a while for the money to be worth the effort.

If you’re not in a situation where you can afford to freelance, that’s completely understandable.

But, if you can make the time and budget, freelancing is a useful way to acquire some non-academic skills for your job search while you’re in-between full-time jobs.

As with volunteering, even simple freelancing work can add several lines of non-academic job experience to your resume.

Conclusion

Whew! This was a LOT.

If you ever feel overwhelmed, just try to take your non-academic job search one step at a time. As in all things, the key to success is slow, steady progress.

Still not quite sure how to begin your job search? Please check out our new career assessment tool!

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