live Q&A: Alternative Career Pathways After Your PhD

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What can I do after my PhD? It is a difficult decision for any PhD student on whether to pursue a career in academia, or consider alternative careers. In our dedicated live Q&A, we brought forth a panel of experts who have moved outside of academia, to share their top tips and advice on alternate career pathways following PhD studies. 

Meet the panel:  

- Dr Chris Humphrey founder of Jobs on Toast  

- Dr Katie Wheat Training and Resources Development Manager at Vitae  

- Lee Milligan Senior Talent Attraction Specialist at Novo Nordisk  

- Pablo Dominguez Andersen Online Marketing Manager for De Gruyter  

- Arathi Kizhedath early stage researcher at Newcastle University


Q1 – Which career path should I take: academic or industry? 

The panel discussed their tips for widening your experience and opening up your options for career paths including: 

  1. Job shadowing 
  2. Work placements 
  3. Identifying personal strengths and motivations and looking for a career that fits these 
  4. Avoiding seeing this decision as a ‘one or the other’ decision and considering paths that bridge the gap between academia and industry, for example, portfolio, policymaking or consultancy careers. 
  • View your career as a series of decisions made throughout it and stress the importance of learning through trial and error. Trying different things lets you see for yourself which type of work suits you. For Pablo, his first job involved a difficult transition from academia but was able to find support from counselling and training. Getting an outside perspective is important so talking to friends can really help.  
  • Ask yourself: what have my peers gone on to do? Go to careers fairs, find companies you are interested in and take the opportunity to put your questions to representatives to learn about that industry.  


Q2 – What tips do you have for finding out about jobs? 

  • Vitae is a resource that allows you to look at your peers’ stories and get inspiration for your career. Getting in touch with alumni in your discipline could also provide you with valuable connections who may be willing to help or offer advice. 
  • Simply signing up to job sites and searching jobs that are relevant to you can be an effective way of seeing only the jobs you are interested in. 
  • Think more deeply about job titles and how you and your skills/experience fit around specific titles, instead of focusing too much on your degree and/or area of discipline.  
  • Asking contacts outside of academia. 
  • Using social media by following relevant hash tags around desired careers or other academics thinking about their options after their PhD. 


Q3 – If we train ourselves to be academics, how do we transition into a non-academic sector? 

  • When applying for roles, emphasise the responsibilities you have had during your PhD. It is important to translate your experiences into a language employers are familiar with.  
  • Match your experience to the job specification for each role you apply for – analyse every job advert and tailor your application. 
  • Don’t be put off if you don’t meet every elements of the job specification – often the perfect candidate does not exist. 


Q4 – If people don’t have a lot of work experience, do employers view it as a barrier? 

  • You should frame your PhD as professional experience in its own right. List it under work experience as well as education to emphasise you are not a student being told what to do. 
  • Never call yourself a ‘PhD student’ – you should think of yourself as a professional ‘x’ and it is up to you what the ‘y’ value stands for. In other words, think about what your profession is and present yourself accordingly.  
  • Don’t shy away from junior positions. Often, you can transition to a more senior role in a short time. 
  • Answer questions before they are asked. For example, prepare an answer for why you want to transition from academia and be positive about it. It’s about what you can offer the company and why you have passion for that company.  
  • During your PhD, try to find opportunities to undertake a secondment or professional training courses to widen enhance employability. If you are not on a programme with ‘built-in’ experience, be proactive, find internships etc – but don’t wait until the end of your programme. 


Q5 – How can I adapt my academic CV? 

  • Separate the skills on your CV into two sections; technical and personal.  
  • Each CV should be tailored to each company and job.  
  • Try to make your CV ‘easy on the eye’. 
  • Include examples of the required skills. 
  • Utilising Vitae’s CV examples, look at how other people based in your industry present their CVs. 
  • Think of your CV as being rooted in the past – what you have done – while your cover letter should look to the future and state what you can do for the organisation. 
  • Have someone proofread your CV. 


Q6 – What tips do you have for starting your own business? 

  • Start with a small idea and look within your university for the resources to start-up 
  • Find entrepreneurs at conferences and ask them questions about their business ventures 


Q7 - Why would an employer hire a PhD or postdoc over an undergrad? 

  • Be more positive – think about how your experience is unique. You may have more specific examples to use in backing up your CV than an undergrad, so utilise these in your applications and at interviews. 
  • For Chris, his first employers outside of academia were a start-up company trying to secure investment and so were impressed by his ability to write persuasive applications for grants and funding – only a postgraduate has the skills.  


Q8 – Should I maintain a blog? 

  • Writing in new styles, different to the academic style of writing, can improve your academic writing. It can be nice to take a break from technical writing and you can maintain a network through social media after meeting people at conferences, so a blog is also a good way to promote yourself and your work. 
  • You may already have your departmental profile – so, after you leave, a blog can be a great solution if you want to save the work you have put in to maintaining that profile and ensures you are keeping a visible presence. 
  • Be proactive in your online profile as employers will search for you. Having a strong profile on LinkedIn is important and is the main resource employers use to check your online persona. Getting recommendations from LinkedIn connections can boost your employability too. 


Q9 – Did you know what you wanted to do before your PhD or did you change your mind during it? 

Keep other interests alive as you don’t know for sure what your path will be until you’ve gone down it. You can often look back and tell a strong story from your career and make sense of it even though, at the time, you didn’t necessarily have a plan. A combination of being proactive and chance meetings at conferences play a role in how you decide on your next step. 


Q10 – How difficult is it to come back to academia after leaving industry? 

  • The experience gained from working in digital communications/marketing have helped Pablo get a position within academic publishing; ironically, this brings him closer to the topics and the world he came from without actually having pursued a career in academia.  
  • People who have experience of both marketing and research, for example, are quite rare, and Pablo’s academic knowledge has been useful in marketing titles and products in his current role.  

To hear more from the panellists, watch the full YouTube video Q&A. Our panellist Arathi Kizhedath has also written a LinkedIn post, summarising what PhDs can take away from the Q&A on preparing for an alternative career while studying. 


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