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Searching for Non-Academic Jobs

There was  a time early on in grad school that I wasn’t completely sure I wanted a job that would require working evenings and weekends, always having that feeling of never being “done”, enduring pressure to publish and get grants, and other potential cons of an academic job.  Eventually the list of pros won out and I’m on the path for the tenure-track academic job someday (and not too worried about whether I’ll have a life outside of work).  However, I did do a little research, attended a few talks, and collected some materials on finding and applying for non-academic jobs that I will share with those of you that are considering an alternate career path.  I promise not to tell your advisor.

I must start off with a big THANK YOU to a few experts who were kind enough to answer a few questions about life outside of traditional academia and whose thoughts and insights are, I believe, incredibly helpful.  Dr. Anne Petersen is the founder and President of a philanthropic organization, Global Philanthropy Alliance, and has held numerous other positions outside of academia.  Dr. David Murphey is a Developmental Psychologist at Child Trends, a non-profit research organization.  Dr. Doug Granger is a Professor at Johns Hopkins University and created a company, Salimetrics, which supports salivary researchers.  Thanks to all!

If you’re anxious or insecure about your ability to join the non-academic workforce, remember how impressive it is to get your Ph.D. in the first place. We graduate students are or will be among the most well-educated members of society.  It’s an easy thing to forget when you’re on the inside and working with faculty members who’ve had such impressive careers and other grad students who are similarly talented.  Measuring yourself against the highly gifted individuals in academia is a good way to feel inadequate and may cause you to underestimate your value and skills that will be sell-able on the outside.  But you have learned important skills that employers in non-academic settings may find valuable.  On another note, it would be unwise to think that maybe you don’t need to complete graduate school and get your Ph.D. because you don’t want to go into academia.  In Dr. Anne Petersen’s experience, those of higher status in non-academic organizations often do have their Ph.D.  More avenues are open to you the more credentials you have.  And remember that you may someday decide you want to get into an academic job.  It would be difficult to do that without that Ph.D. So finish!

The first thing to know is that non-academic jobs for individuals with a Ph.D. do exist.  There are several possibilities for finding jobs in the non-profit sector, with think tanks, with the government, or there are non-tenure track opportunities in academic settings.  As some examples, RAND corporation was recently looking for an education policy researcher.  Former University of Nebraska grad students work and have worked for the Gates Foundation, the Department of Corrections in Wisconsin, other government jobs, etc.  If you don’t mind stats, it is certainly possible to obtain a data analyst position, as a friend of mine did, who works for a patent software company in Chicago.  Individuals who attended the recent SRCD Transitions to Adulthood conference had several non-academic affiliations including the Oregon Research Institute, the 3-C Institute for Social Development, The Urban Institute, Chapin Hall, the American Institutes for Research, the Decision Science Research Institute, and America’s Promise Alliance.  Dr. David Murphey, a Developmental Psychologist at Child Trends, suggests finding an organization (or several) whose work you admire and cultivating relationships with individuals who work there (in other words, network!)  Dr. Petersen recommends requesting an informational interview with someone who has the type of job you might want or possibly shadow someone.  Try to get experience while still in school if you can.  It’ll be much harder to explore different career options once you have a full time job.  And most importantly, learn from any experience you have.  All learning opportunities can be valuable.

A research or policy job is probably the most logical jump outside of academia, but there are other options, such as stats jobs. So the next step is to identify transferrable skills you have developed as a grad student.  It is true that outside of academia, potential employers may not be super interested in your in-depth knowledge of Attachment Theory, decision making abilities of adolescents, or the developmental mechanisms of ADHD (unless the potential employer has kids and thinks you might be able to explain a few things).  But believe it or not, we’ve developed other applicable skills as grad students.  For instance, we’ve honed communication skills (this one’s a biggie), problem solving capabilities, the ability to process technical information and large amounts of data. We’ve had to develop leadership and teamwork skills. And certainly none of us could have gotten through a Ph.D. program without a strong work ethic and initiative.   I believe the appropriate lingo here is “soft skills.”

So how can you prepare to go on the non-academic job market?  Dr. Murphey recommends emphasizing communication skills, both oral and written.  An important skill is to be able to discuss research in a way that is compelling without using jargon and without sacrificing scientific rigor and precision.  Also, think in terms of policy and practice while communicating about research.  Be able to answer the question, “What are the implications of [your research] for families/teachers/policymakers?”  If you think you might be interested in a business-oriented career path, get some experience with marketing or finance, says Dr. Doug Granger, who owns his own company.  In terms of finding a business-oriented job, most Ph.D. level job opening are filled by head hunters, so you’ll probably have to contact a recruiter to find certain types of jobs.

If you’re considering a non-academic career path, a helpful exercise is to make a list of all your activities as a grad student and be specific.  Don’t just put “teach”; put prepare lectures, grade papers, answer questions, hold office hours, prepare a syllabus, write and grade tests, create assignments, etc.  Then take a few of those items and list the transferrable skills that might be associated with it.  For example, for giving lectures, you have to engage in public speaking, understand your audience, convey new concepts in an understandable way, communicate with students (and a professor if you’re a TA or giving a guest lecture), have technical knowledge (powerpoint or other technology), have energy, and be able to think on your feet.  If you’re grading papers, you have to apply objective criteria to assess performance, provide feedback articulately and diplomatically, show attention to detail, and as anyone who has taught or TA’ed a large class knows, have some serious stamina and patience.   By the way, this might count as “work experience.”

Below are a few resources you can use to seek out more information on non-academic careers.  If you know of other resources or tips, please let us know in the comments!


Websites is a website dedicated to jobs outside of academia. The career link at the Chronicle of Higher Education has a link for organizations other than colleges. is a website where non-profit jobs are posted.


So What are you Going to Do with That? A Guide for M.A.’s and Ph.D’s Seeking Careers Outside the Academy  By Debelius & Basalla, 2001      

Outside the Ivory Tower: A Guide for Academics Considering Alternative Careers By Margaret Newhouse, 1993

The individuals who were kind enough to answer some of my questions gave some additional thoughts about working at non-academic positions, specifically what they like and don’t like about their careers outside of academia. Here are some tidbits:

          The work is more important than individual egos or careers.

          The potential audience is greater and is more likely to include more than those who read academic journals and go to academic conferences.

          There are more opportunities to expand your horizons and take on different roles.

          The pay is better.

          Focusing on translating ideas to products that are sold or matter to the economy in different ways.

          Funding can be difficult.

          Missed working with young people with their enthusiasm and fresh ideas.

          A corporate environment may not be comfortable for those used to academic environments.

No matter what career path you choose, it is important to do your research into what you think fits your needs and what will make you happy.  And whatever you end up choosing, your career will probably be entirely different than what you expected J  But at least you’ll be prepared!

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