4 reasons why every PhD should consider a career in the private sector

By L. Maren Wood, PhD | Founder of Beyond the Professoriate

I spend a lot of time each week on the phone advising graduate students and postdocs about jobs for PhDs outside of academia. From these conversations, and my research interviewing PhDs who have successfully launched meaningful careers beyond the professoriate, I know that we PhDs share a common definition of career success: 

We want to be doing work that has a positive impact on society, keeps us intellectually engaged and inspired, and connects us to people and projects that matter.

Often times, PhDs assume that if we want a meaningful career, we should stick to jobs in higher education, non-profits, or the government. It’s why so many of us are drawn to higher education in the first place: we feel that the work we do as academics is moral, ethical, and just. 

We worry that leaving academia will mean leaving behind all the things we find satisfying about our work and life.

Smart people work everywhere. So do good people

While it is certainly true that careers in higher education, or other non-profits, can be meaningful and impactful, it is wrong to assume that private sector jobs for PhDs are not. Impactful and meaningful careers can happen in any sector, including in for-profit companies.

Perhaps you’re thinking: sure, some PhDs could probably be happy working in the private sector, but I won’t be. I get that. When I was first considering a nonacademic job, I looked at jobs in non-profits and higher education administration. I had a lot of negative assumptions about business, industry, and corporations.

But that’s just it. They were just assumptions. Now that I’ve been working as an entrepreneur for the past 4 years, I can tell you just how wrong I was. I love the work I do at Beyond the Professoriate. And I get to have an impact every single day helping PhDs find nonacademic careers.

When I was leaving academia, I was worried I wouldn’t have the life of the mind; but every day I’m intellectually challenged and engaged in my work.

I worried I wouldn’t work with smart people; but everyday I collaborate with the Beyond the Professoriate team to build programming, events, and resources.

I thought businesses were just about making money; but for so many entrepreneurs, business is about solving problems and making an intervention in society.

Yes, a business needs to generate revenue (and extra revenue is profit). But non-profits need revenue, too, to pay their staff and deliver programming or resources. One sells goods and services; the other has grants and asks for donations. It’s just a different way of raising revenue. 

Because without revenue, the organization doesn’t exist.

For-profit and non-profit is just a tax status

Here’s the thing: for-profit and non-profit are just tax statuses.

They don’t tell us anything about the mission or contribution of the organization, nor about the people who work there. The tax status of an org doesn’t tell us if the work will be rewarding or if we’ll have an impactful and meaningful career.

Yes, there are large companies that do terrible things, and non-profits that do terrible things. And in-between, there are a range or organizations full of smart, creative people who are trying to solve problems.

Non-academic jobs for PhDs are the better choice

O.k. so what is my point? Why write a blog post about this?

Because too many PhDs are being held back from rich, rewarding, and well-paying jobs because of false assumptions about the private sector. And it stops them from leaving academia.

Too many PhDs remain in contingent, low-paying dead-end jobs within academia when they could and should be moving into private sector jobs that will be intellectually engaging, challenging, and meaningful.

Here are 4 reasons why every graduate student or postdoc should consider nonacademic careers in the private sector.

1. Small businesses are the engine of the American economy

If you’re job searching during Covid-19 it is more important to consider jobs for PhDs in the private sector.

Small businesses are organizations with less than 100 employees, and they make up over 95% of all businesses in the United States.

In fact, 89% of all businesses have less than 20 people. And, these small businesses generate jobs and are creative and innovative spaces.

After the Great Recession, small businesses generated 62% of all new private sector jobs. Economists expect that will be true for the Covid-19 recession recovery.

So, if you’re looking for a PhD alternative career, think small business and private sector. Most of the job growth will be in businesses with a couple dozen employees.

2. Public and non-profit sectors are hurting

Universities are facing 20 – 30% budget cuts  and have announced hiring freezes, salary cuts, and furloughs. This will impact not just faculty jobs but also nonacademic careers — staff and administrative positions on university campuses.

Governments, too, are cutting jobs: lost tax revenue from shuttered businesses, fewer commuters on public transit, costly Covid-19 bailouts, and an increased demand for unemployment benefits are squeezing local, state, and federal businesses. Governments at all levels have announced hiring freezes, furloughs, and layoffs.

This has a trickle effect for non-profits that rely on government grants. And with high unemployment rate and a volatile stock market, middle and upper-class people are less likely to donate money. Revenue is down, and so too are PhD job opportunities.

So, nonacademic jobs during and after Covid-19 will be in small businesses.

There are, and will continue to be, great jobs for humanities PhDs in marketing, communication, instructional and UX design, consulting, and project management. All of these jobs can also be great STEM PhD careers, in addition to more traditional jobs in R&D and research science jobs.

3. It’s easier for PhDs to get jobs at small businesses than at large companies

A lot of PhDs struggle to find their first job beyond the professoriate. We have lots of skills, but we lack the linear work experience that employers are looking for when they fill positions.

Over and over again, PhDs who have launched successful nonacademic careers tell us two things: networking was key to landing their first career outside of academia, and their first job was at a small organization.

Why? Consider the hiring practices of large organizations, like universities. They have elaborate HR systems, and are more likely to use resume scanning software. They’re going to be looking for someone with a lot of direct experience. It can be tough for a graduate student or postdoc to get a break.

At a small business, networking can play an important role in getting your resume out of the pile and read by the hiring manager. If I meet you, or if you’re referred to me by a friend or colleague, I’m much more likely to bring you in for an interview.

So network, network, network, and focus on small businesses!

4. You can change jobs without blowing up your entire life.

Staying in academia requires PhDs to make enormous personal and professional sacrifices. If there are no tenure-track jobs where you live, you’ll have to consider relocating — often across the country or even internationally (if you land a tenure-track job at all).

Your options are so limited in academia.

And leaving academia can be a very difficult process. You feel like you’re losing your identity, your life work and purpose, and perhaps your friends and community. I remember all of those negative emotions very, very, well.

But that’s what is so great about a nonacademic career.

You can build it where you live, in a city or country you choose, and work with smart, creative people. You don’t have to blow up your life if you want to pursue a new job at a new company.

If you leave academia and become a digital marketer, or a UX researcher, or a medical science liaison, there are many, many, many companies where you can find work.

You’ll have options. You’ll have choices.

Conclusion: Your next job won’t be your last job, it’s just what you’re doing next.

A lot of the graduate students and postdocs I talk to are worried that they’ll be choosing the wrong PhD careers outside of academia.

I remember feeling like that, too.

When I was in the process of leaving academia, I was incredibly depressed. One afternoon, my husband came home from work to find me (yet again) on the couch in tears.

He asked me what was wrong, and I said, “I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I wanted to be an academic and never imagined what a nonacademic career might look like for me. And I doubted that I’d find a meaningful career doing anything other than teaching history.

My husband said, “Nobody knows what we want to do for the rest of our lives. We just try new things until a better opportunity comes along.”

Remember that. You don’t have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life; you just need to find something you’d like to try next.

If you don’t find a career in the private sector as rewarding as you’d hoped, you’ll be able to transition to something else.

And when hiring picks up in higher education, non-profit, or government, you’ll have developed a range of new skills that you can bring to your new nonacademic job.

You’re not trapped.

You can be happy in many different kinds of jobs.

Denver - Boulder Colorado headshot photography

L. Maren Wood, PhD, is the Founder of Beyond the Professoriate. She earned her PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel hill

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