It’s becoming more and more common to enter a PhD and then to realize halfway through that a career in academia is not for you. This can happen due to a variety of reasons: bad experiences, a mismatch in expectations, realizing the insane amount of competition for very limited spots or the fact that the ‘ivory tower’ is a real thing. When this happens, you might find yourself in a bit of a pickle. A PhD was originally meant exclusively to train people to become academics – independent researchers who would advance the field, theoretically. But with all the aforementioned reasons, more and more PhD students are not continuing in academia and are now pivoting towards industry (e.g. corporate, government, non-profit). But how do you really do that?
There is the sentiment that the training you receive and experiences you go through as a PhD student are only valuable when staying in academia. And it is true that explaining what a PhD is, is much easier when talking to an academic than to someone who has barely heard of a PhD program. But that doesn’t make it impossible. In the grand scheme of things a PhD trains you to become an independent researcher. Being an independent researcher comes with a certain skillset. Yes, you will be well-versed or an actual expert in a single topic, but for corporate, that is likely the least interesting part about you. What is interesting is this skillset. So let’s define yours. What is the method that you applied during your research? Are you an ethnographer? A data scientist? Which sub-methods did you use? Are you someone who does computational modelling in Python? This stuff matters. Most companies when hiring these days prefer people they can immediately put to work. Someone who still needs to understand how banking works (topic) but knows Python is far more employable than someone who knows the entire history of the monetary system, but cannot even open an analytics program as basic as Excel (assuming we’re looking at data-oriented positions). This matters. Now you’re going to have to do this for every aspect of your PhD. Your entire methodological application will be a skill set consisting of several core skills. But there’s more. A key part of research is its dissemination. How did you communicate your findings? Where? When? And to whom? What was the impact of this dissemination. Companies love impact measures. For each conference you went to, dive into exactly what you had to do to make it happen to get there. From the funding applications (getting money to do anything is a skill), to everything required for the research, to the writing, to presentation/poster creation (creative skills matter too!), and maybe even stakeholder management if you ran projects with multiple other people/departments/organizations. If your PhD was tied to an industry project and you had to balance both your academic supervisors and industry partners, well, that sounds like stakeholder management for high impact research to me! And that’s another thing. PhD students are often the one in charge of their own research and responsible for making it happen. So really, you’re also a project manager. Look at that list of skills just growing.
You might think I’m pulling your leg as I’m just throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. But the issue here is that I don’t know your individual PhD and therefore cannot give you exact and detailed advice. But this approach should give you a foundation on where to go and at least go somewhat towards reducing your anxiety that you don’t have ‘any experience’ to take into corporate. Because you do. It just needs some rephrasing. To summarize: break down every task, approach and action you did, or are still doing, in your PhD. Boil it down to what it is in more general terms (e.g. cognitive modelling using Python) and that is skill 1. For your actual research projects, and including teaching, phrase things in terms of impact. You didn’t just teach undergrads about Game Theory and Marketing (I did, it was so much fun). No, you “Delivered over $800k in instructional services. Prepared course materials and provided written feedback for 400+ students. Received an evaluation rating of 4.5 out of 5 across 8 courses.” This statement is a direct copy from advice given by Ashley Ruba, PhD who also gives excellent advice about how to leave academia (she went into UXR and now works for meta). It’s not that your skills don’t matter, it’s just that they need to be ‘sold’ different. So chin up. Being able to conduct research independent is an amazing skill and if you can hack it in a PhD I know you can hack it outside of one! Now, if you like to know more about what doing a PhD is really like, and how you can make it the best experience ever, read my new book “The Ultimate Guide to Doing a PhD”, available through Amazon and via World Scientific [and just sent me a message for a discount code!]. Happy reading!