Post-PhD careers plan B: Outside of (Traditional) Academia

Following on from last month’s post on what happens after a PhD and the more recent post in this section on What should an Early-Career Research Agenda Look Like? I thought I would take a more practical stance and look at different career strategies. In this post I will focus on careers outside of academia. If you look at the first Vitae publication on ‘what do PhDs do’ and subsequent publications on ‘what researchers do’ you can see we are a varied lot, with a wide array of experience that fits many sectors however, until these reports came along PhDs were a seemingly forgotten sector of the labour market and it appeared that nobody really understood. I still get a sense that amongst my colleagues, (i.e. the ones transitioning from PhD to Post doc or coming close to doing so) are still as confused. In view of this I spoke to the PhD Careers advisor at KCL about her work with PhD students to gain some insight into career planning for a life outside of academia and below are my thoughts.

Treat finding a job like a research project:

If you are considering a career outside of academia you firstly need to do your homework, this should be easy, if not obvious to any recently completed PhD. Treat your job hunt like a research project:

Break skills down – you’re not just a researcher:

As part of your research project you need to break down your skills into what you liked and didn’t like about your research and what could be done elsewhere and how. We are all more than just researchers, however, many of us style ourselves in that narrow form, I know I did. Many of the positions advertised in non academic contexts do not use the words we typically assign to ourselves. A top tip would be to find five words to describe yourself and look at how these key words can be put into different contexts. When I began to think outside of the box I could easily see that the skills I gained while undertaking my own PhD research in web design and the creation of social networking / online communities, blogging and digital research techniques were both enjoyable and useful. They made me unique.

Understand your USP and know how to sell it:

What makes you unique? In my case being a ‘digital researcher’ has been my USP. As well as understanding the theory behind the use and development of online communities, I have developed a wide range of practical technical skills and a portfolio of work for a range of organisations, such as my posts for social science space.

Making the most of ‘happenstance’:

Sometimes things just happen, and sometimes those happenstance moments bring with them unexpected opportunities. As I sit here writing this I am employed by KCL as an E-Learning Development Advisor in the Researcher Development Unit in the Graduate School, how did this come about considering I have a PhD in Geography? I approached the Head of Graduate Development about designing and facilitating some training courses on using social media in research and researcher development. I kept them informed of how I was exploring my idea and the different opportunities that arose and then two grant calls came up, we applied, we didn’t get them but in working on them illustrated my passion for my idea and the skills that I could offer to deliver the project. When the job was advertised I applied for it and got it and am now doing something I really enjoy but not at all what I expected I would be doing.

Academia is not just about teaching and research:

Academia is not just about teaching and research. There are a number of different roles within HE that social scientists can contribute to beyond teaching and research. My job comes under the Professional Services tag and is involved in supporting researchers both PhD and Post doc’s, undertaking teaching / training and working on my own projects examining the ways in which researchers interact and engage with virtual space. The nature of the projects are different, instead of making an intellectual case for things I am required to make a business case for what I want to do. They are more practically orientated and need to be delivered in shorter, finite periods of time. For someone who preferred the practical parts of my research to the deconstructive discussions of theory this is a great place to be, I’m still involved in policy issues but ones which focus on Higher Education as a whole and after 11 years as a student I have developed some serious views on how HE should be developed particularly in relation to the support given to PhD students.

There’s a great deal of choice out there for people post-PhD and as social scientists have a wide range of skills to offer the job market. Over to you what have been your experiences outside academia?

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Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Dr. Sarah-Louise Quinnell is the E-Learning Lead Technologist for Floream Partnerships she works on a portfolio of e-learning projects in partnership with Google, International Olympic Committee and the Institute of Digital Marketing.

She is also a researcher affiliated to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

All views are her own and do not necessarily represent her employer's views or policies.

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Rodriguez Benson

Should I do a PhD, is it worth all the time and effort? Many people I know, who are in the process of earning their PhD, all say that embarking on the endeavor was the worst decision of their lives. What I want to know is…has anyone acquired their PhD and is really glad that they did?

Academic Blueprint

As part of your research project you need to break down your skills into what you liked. Really agree with you here!


Some of the best research is going on outside the academia. But some of it doesn’t get published in formats that get indexed, so they are “lost” with time. For instance, research by large government agencies and the firms they hire can be as good as anything you’ll find in academic journals. As you note, this research is not likely to be as theoretical…but still, it’s a considerable amount of knowledge being created.

Susan Gallagher

3-C Institute for Social Development in Cary, North Carolina (USA), is a great example of an organization outside of academia where PhDs in psychology and other social sciences can pursue research, publish, and develop evidence-based programs. It’s a research and development organization focusing on social-emotional health. I’m sure there are other similar organizations out there.

courtney hughes

Thank you for this! I am a PhD student and I work part time as a public servant. I also teach sessionally at my university. I don’t know if academia is necessarily the path I want to take, despite loving teaching. I think a mix between academia and the public service, in a research capacity, is an excellent fit for me. Thanks for this! CH

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