Your PhD Career Transition Story: 4 Critical Times You'll Need to Tell It

Leaving academia made me feel ungrounded; the journey challenged my sense of self and my place in the world.

Who was I if I wasn’t an historian?

Why did I earn my PhD if I wasn’t going to use it to teach history?

What did I tell people when they asked, “So, what do you do?”

What is my place and purpose in society?

How did I introduce myself to people?

What did I say to friends and family who had been following my journey as a PhD student?

These questions are simultaneously existential and practical.

If you’re leaving academia, or considering a nonacademic career, you’re probably asking yourself similar questions. And you’re probably dreading the upcoming conversations with friends and family about your career transition. What do you say?

While these larger existential questions will be answered over time (you’ll find a new professional identity, and you can find meaningful work in other spaces), we need to solve the more practical question: telling your PhD Career Transition Story.

You’ll be asked “why are you leaving academia” at multiple moments in your job search (and not just from well-meaning but annoying family members). You’ll need to have an answer when you’re networking with new or potential colleagues, on LinkedIn, when you apply for jobs, and when you have that in-person interview.

You must take control of the narrative. This is marketing 101. If you don’t tell people a story that answers their question, they’ll fill in the blanks.

Telling a negative story about all the things you didn’t like about academia, or that there are no jobs, or being apologetic for choosing to put yourself or your family first (while honest), is a missed opportunity.

When someone asks you, “Why are you leaving academia?,”it’s an opportunity for you to generate a potential lead for a new opportunity.

People hire people. They hire people they know, or people referred to them through a trusted source.

And nonacademic employers value skills and experience above and beyond credentials.

So, when you are asked about leaving academia during your job search, you need to tell a PhD Career transition story that informs people about your values, skills, and interests, and your potential value to employers. You’ll want to tell a positive story about looking for new opportunities, and a commitment to life-long learning.

Why? Because that’s who people are looking to hire. They’re looking for talent to solve problems within their organization. They are looking for strong communicators, problem solvers, and strategic thinkers.

Rather than dreading that question, think of it as an opportunity to tell people what you are good at, what you love, and what you hope to contribute to your next job.

Here are four critical moments when you’ll need to tell your story, and tips for how you can explain your PhD career transition in a way that moves your job search forward.

You must believe your own story

The most important person who needs to believe your PhD career transition story is YOU. If you don’t believe it, other people won’t either. Employers want to hire someone with confidence.

So, you’ll need to be able to answer the “why are you leaving academia” question with a clear explanation. And you need to be clear (and unapologetic!) about your reasons.

There are plenty of reasons to leave academia:

  • A lack of opportunity. Only 23% PhDs in biological life and health sciences will end up in academia as a tenure-track faculty member. The humanities job market has collapsed. The academic job market was a slog even before the Covid-19 recession.
  • A poor fit. Maybe you started on this career path believing that being a scientist or anthropologist was the dream job, only to realize that you don’t want to teach or research or both. That’s totally fine.
  • You’re putting yourself or your family first. Maybe you live in New York City and love it and want to stay. Or maybe you want to move to Maine to be closer to family. Being close to family, deciding you love where you live, or wanting to move to a different location from your PhD, are legitimate reasons.

Whatever your reason for leaving, it’s your decision, and it’s a good one. Academia does not have a monopoly on creative jobs. Smart people work everywhere.

But, these are all push factors. What you also need are pull factors. Push factors are the things that are driving you to leave. Pull factors are things that are pulling you into new opportunities.

Here’s how you can begin to phrase the pull factors for leaving academia:

“What I loved most about my research was [insert something] and I’m looking for opportunities where I can do more of that. “

“What I found most energizing about my time in academia was [insert the thing] and I want to build a career where I can dedicate my time to more of that.”

Telling your PhD career transition story on LinkedIn

Once you have a compelling and positive career transition story worked out for yourself, it’s time to start telling your career transition story to the world.

The first place you’ll want to do this is in your About section on LinkedIn. Don’t worry if the rest of your profile isn’t complete to this point. There will be lots of opportunities to work on your LinkedIn profile as you network.

But, as you explore career options over the next weeks and months, you’ll be spending a lot of time on LinkedIn asking people for informational interviews. When you send the request, the person you ask will most likely wonder why you’re reaching out to them.

Here’s where your PhD career transition story will come into play. First, when you send the connection request, you’ll want to include one sentence about why you’re connecting with the person:

“Hi Jane — I’m wrapping up my PhD at the UNC Chapel Hill and I’m exploring career options. I’m interested in learning more about consulting, and would love to learn more about your work at Deloitte.”

Jane will probably look you up and read your About section. This is where you can tell people about what you’ve been doing in your career (emphasizing your skills and accomplishments over your academic subject matter), and what kinds of work you’d like to try next.

In your PhD career transition story, you don’t have to list specific career fields. But you can list things like “I’m looking for new opportunities to empower people with information, leveraging my advanced skills in research, communication, and strategic thinking.”

Explaining your decision to leave academia while networking

Our research at Beyond the Professoriate shows that networking is the most important way PhDs learn about career pathways, discover opportunities, and land jobs.

Your job search strategy should include a lot of networking. Just like on LinkedIn, people will want to hear your PhD career transition story.

If you focus on all the push factors (like how academia there are no jobs, or how your lab was a toxic environment) you’ll be missing out on a valuable opportunity to tell a potential employer or colleague about your amazing PhD skills.

Why are you leaving academia? You can answer that by saying, “I loved this about my work, and it gave me an opportunity to build the XYZ skills. I’m looking for a place where I can continue to do that work, and I’m really interested in consulting. It seems like a great career field for someone with my skills and interests.”

Now, the person you’re talking to knows what skills you can bring to help employers solve problems. They can make recommendations of career fields, positions, or other people to talk to.

By taking control of the narrative and telling a positive PhD career transition story that highlights your skills, you’ll advance your job search.

Convincing future employers to hire you

Some PhDs will end up applying for jobs in industries where a lot of PhDs already work, like in data science, consulting, or medical science liaison. In those situations, employers probably won’t directly ask you why you’re leaving academia. They’ll probably ask you why you’re a good fit for the job, or the company.

The vast majority of PhDs end up working in careers where a BA or MA is the highest degree earned. In some situations, a hiring manager might directly ask why someone with a PhD would be interested in XYZ.

Here, you’ll again want to tell a strong and compelling PhD career transition story that focuses on the the opportunity of working at that organization and how it aligns with your career goals and ambitions.

“While earning my degree, what I loved doing was XYZ. Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time researching and networking with people working in consulting. It is a field where the skills I’ve developed these past 5 years can really make an impact. I’m excited about this opportunity with your company because I’d love to bring my skills to help your organization achieve [insert mission of organization.] ”

Conclusion

Leaving academia and launching a new career can take time. Along the way, you’ll need to effectively communicate the value you bring to new employers. Nonacademic employers will value your skills more than they will value the specifics of your degree.

Your career transition story is a chance for you to reframe the conversation. RatherRather than framing it is a failure (and it is not!), it’s a smart decision rooted in your own personal values and goals. You don’t have to justify the decision to anyone.
But you will have to explain the career transition.

Whenever you have a chance to tell your story, you’ll want to tell a positive story that focuses on opportunities. However the person phrases the question, your answer should highlight the skills you’ve developed, the energy and excitement you bring to the work you do, and your sincere desire to build a new career in a new place where you can thrive.

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