PhD Career Opportunities: 3 Steps from Humanities to Private Sector

(Watch the full career interview below)

Ah, the private sector. Two perfectly innocuous words that instill within many academics and PhDs an impalpable sense of dread.

We sometimes talk about the private sector like a faraway land beyond the blank edges of the map. Here be dragons! Or, at least, here be no career opportunities for scholars such as us!

This, as you hopefully know, could not be further from the truth.

As of March 2019, private organizations have employed just as many PhDs as schools and other academic institutions. And the numbers have surely grown since then.

Far from uncharted territory, the private sector abounds with PhD career opportunities. 

How do you find them? That’s what we’ll be discussing today.

This article provides basic advice and coaching for academics looking to begin exploring career options in business and industry. These tips are drawn from real humanities and social sciences PhDs who successfully made the leap from academia to gainful private-sector employment.

We’ll begin with how to explore your options and break into your career path of choice. Then we’ll look at some key strategies to help humanities and social sciences PhDs showcase their hard-earned skills and finally land a non-academic job.

1. Deciding to Leave Academia

How does one finally clinch the decision to leave academia and pursue PhD career opportunities in business and industry?

There’s no one answer. We’ve written extensively on the arduous emotional journey of walking away from academia when it was your dream job.

Some humanities and social sciences PhDs understandably cite the gaping chasm of academic career opportunities. Others are turned away by the intense social isolation academic research so often requires.

Still others, of course, never had any intention of staying in academia. They entered their graduate program with one eye trained towards post-ac career opportunities.

But to those of you who were dead set on becoming tenure-track faculty members, know this: a common sentiment among PhDs we interview is that, in hindsight, they never really wanted academic careers to begin with.

To many graduate students—especially those who went straight from undergrad to grad school—becoming a professor is just, you know, the thing you do with a PhD.

And, technically, that’s correct! No other jobs explicitly demand the credentials a humanities or social sciences PhD bestows.

This creates a false perception that an academic career is the only option. Grad students are told that being a professor is their dream job without really knowing that for themselves.

(Wow, it’s as if academia is some kind of insular and isolated social group, almost like a … cult of some sort.)

Our point is, think critically about whether academica really is the best career path for you. Reassess your interests and goals in life. 

Even if you’re not necessarily leaving academia by choice, understand that there are many great PhD career opportunities out there.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. You really don’t know what you’ll like until you try.

2. How to Explore PhD Career Opportunities

While everyone knows that there are lots of PhD career opportunities out there, finding those opportunities requires a fair bit of work on your part.

That’s right, you know what’s coming: networking.

The very word “networking” can be quite intimidating to a lot of humanities and social sciences PhDs. It doesn’t exactly come naturally to a lot of us.

But guess what? That’s okay!

After all, this is the digital age! With resources like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Zoom (not to mention good, old-fashioned emails), networking has never been easier. You don’t even need to put on pants.

If you need concrete examples of post-academic PhD career opportunities, LinkedIn truly is a gold mine. Spend a few minutes scouring LinkedIn and you’ll find plenty of kindred spirits who made the leap from academia to business and industry. 

Be aware that different industries network in different ways. Programmers and data scientists, for example, are all about Meetup groups. Learn the norms of your target industry and network accordingly.

By networking, you’ll both explore PhD career opportunities in the private sector and boost your chances of getting a job once you’re ready to begin your career transition.

“I had applied to a thousand jobs, and the one job I ended up getting wasn’t even one I applied for,” one humanities PhD told us.

Networking is what makes this possible.

Please check out our recent blog post for more academic networking tips.

3. How to Market Yourself to Employers

In the quote-unquote ‘real world,’ employers look for skills.

Skills, skills, skills. Hard skills. Soft skills. Interpersonal skills. You’ll be hearing these terms a lot as you explore post-ac PhD career opportunities. Make sure you know what they mean.

This can be a jarring cultural shift for a lot of academics and PhDs. All your fancy-pants degrees and publications mean nothing to employers if you display “poor communication skills” during the phone interview.

To market yourself to employers and unlock genuine PhD career opportunities in the private sector, you must talk about what you do instead of what you know.

For example, DO NOT talk about your dissertation topic. Instead, write on your resume that you “managed a multi-year research project that resulted in an X-page dissertation with Y citations and Z footnotes.”

See how this works? Downplay your knowledge; highlight your actions.

Here’s another example. Did you publish an article in grad school? If so, say that you “published X articles in peer-reviewed journals while balancing multiple priorities and tight timelines.”

Look over everything you’ve done in grad school. How are they actionable? How can you transfer the project management skills you developed writing your dissertation to the industry job you’re applying for?

You MUST get VERY good at explaining this. On your resume. In your cover letters. During interviews.

If you can do this, whole new realms of PhD career opportunities will be revealed to you.


Let’s conclude by reemphasizing a crucial point.

Everyone’s post-ac career transition is different. Different people work in different industry jobs that align with their own personal interests and values.

There’s no ‘yellow brick road’ from academia to the private sector. Half the journey of changing careers lies in charting out your own, individual path.

And yes, as you’ve surely noticed, serendipity plays a huge role. You might meet someone on LinkedIn who, by sheer coincidence, has a friend whose roommate knows a guy whose uncle is hiring for a job you’d be just perfect for!

It can and does happen! But it’s not dumb luck. You have to do your homework, network like crazy, and set the stage for this final stroke of luck to occur.

It’s a long and winding road. The key is to keep an open mind and stick to it.

Looking for more advice on breaking into the private sector? Please check out this recent blog post.

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