Branching out: careers for PhDs outside academia

For many researchers who are reaching the end of their PhDs, a difficult decision may be looming: do you pursue a career in academia, or consider your options elsewhere?

There are more PhDs completed each year than there are tenured positions available within the academy, so it’s not a surprise that giving serious consideration to a career outside academia is a reality for many PhD students.

But it’s not just out of necessity that researchers are taking their careers in a different direction – it’s often a conscious choice to seek work in a new field. And there’s an appetite for information; many conference programmes now feature sessions discussing this exact topic.

What are your options?

So how do you decide which direction to take?

It pays to think outside the box when considering your next career step. While it’s true that there are opportunities within or around higher education (research offices, public engagement, publishing), there’s also scope to apply your skills further afield.

Kate Murray, Careers Consultant at Kings’ College London, advises in our recent podcast that researchers ask themselves: ‘what change do you want to see in the world?’. This can be a great guide to seeking out the right path. Researchers have a lot of passion for their work, and it’s crucial to find a career that inspires you in the same way.

A useful strategy can be to find internships, or take opportunities to shadow people across a mix of roles. This will help you discover what the job will involve on a day-to-day basis, and if it will engage you enough to leave behind the aspects of academia that you enjoy the most. This kind of experience will also help you stand out in a crowded job market.

Why should an employer choose you?

If you do decide to take that next step, it’s likely that you’ll have lots to offer an employer, even if the job doesn’t require the specialist knowledge you’ve been developing in your subject area. As well as being able to research effectively, you’ve been building an enviable set of skills that are extremely desirable in the workplace.

Researchers are:

  • Self-starters
  • Project managers
  • Communicators
  • Leaders…
  • …and team players

In order to sell yourself to a prospective employer, think about how these skills can be adapted to suit them.

Can you run a seminar? Use the same skills to run an effective meeting. Have you made a case to secure funding or buy-in from peers? Writing persuasively is a key skill for marketing and communication roles.

And make sure you take the time to tailor your application depending on the role you are applying for. Your PhD doesn’t always have to be front and center, if other skills and experience are more relevant.

Whichever direction you decide to take your career, seek out support. Speak with your institution’s careers service, find others working in the field you’re interested in and discover what they value most in their colleagues. Just like in academia, a strong network is invaluable in any career to help you get to where you want to be.


The ideas in this post are collated from a 2017 Modern Language Association Convention session entitled Careers beyond the Professoriat for Humanities PhDs: The Employer’s Perspective, featuring John Paul Christy, Alison Cuddy, Fuzz Hogan and Brian Whalen, a 2017 Biophysical Society Annual Meeting session entitled The World Outside the Lab: Many Ways to Use Your PhD Skills, featuring Stephanie DeLuca, Lesley Anson and Engin Serpersuand, and a Taylor & Francis podcast produced in collaboration with Vitae, the international program which champions professional development for researchers.