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Non-Academic Careers for PhD Holders

Working in academia isn’t for everyone, but there are plenty of non-academic careers open to PhD holders. The skills you gain during a doctorate will be well-valued in many jobs and sectors and you’re certainly not limited to your research discipline.

This page will introduce some of the main PhD jobs outside of academia in both STEM and non-STEM subjects, as well as providing tips for anyone hoping to make the transition themselves.

Why leave academia?

There are lots of valid reasons why you might not want to stay in academia after finishing your PhD. In fact, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) just over 70% of PhD holders are no longer working in academia three and a half years after finishing their PhD. You certainly won’t be in the minority if you decide that this is the best route for you.

During the course of your PhD, you may have gained knowledge and specialist experience that is valued by a particular industry and could lead to a lucrative career path outside of higher education.

You might find yourself surprised by the direction that your research leads you in – perhaps you’ll end up developing an original business idea and become a entrepreneur.

Alternatively, there’s no shame in simply deciding that academia just isn’t right for you. It can be an incredibly competitive sector to work in, with tough competition for funding and positions.

Whatever your reasons for looking for a non-academic job, it’s likely that you’ll have developed plenty of transferrable skills and knowledge during your PhD, which will serve you well when it comes to finding employment.

PhD careers outside of academia

You’ll find PhD holders in all walks of life, from the banking sector and pharmaceuticals to the public sector and the legal industry. These professionals have made the successful transition from academic research either after their PhDs or at a later stage of their academic journey.

These are some illustrative examples of where a PhD could lead you:

Non-academic PhD jobs
PhD subject Job / industry
PhD in the Arts Publishing, events management, digital marketing
PhD in Biological and Medical Sciences Pharmaceuticals, genomics, clinical care
PhD in Business and Finance Accountancy, data science, consultancy
PhD in Chemical Sciences Chemical engineering, patents, food technology
PhD in Earth Sciences Construction, environmental protection, mineral surveying
PhD in Engineering Management consultancy, finance, aeronautics
PhD in Humanities Civil service, content production, editorial
PhD in Law Investment, teaching, public engagement
PhD in Maths and Computing Finance, investment, web development
PhD in Physical Sciences Software engineering, data science, sound engineering
PhD in Social Science and Health Social work, public health, epidemiology

Now, while you may be inclined to apply for jobs relating to the subject of your research or previous studies, a PhD is a versatile enough qualification that you can often transcend your discipline area when making the transition from academia.

Non-academic jobs for PhDs in STEM subjects

A PhD in a STEM subject can be used in a broad range of non-academic contexts, from industrial research settings to the public sector. If you’re not interested in laboratory work, science communications can be a great way to use your specialist knowledge in a less technical arena, conveying complex messages to a wider audience.

Industry-based careers for STEM PhD holders could involve intellectual property, regulatory matters, big data, pharmaceuticals or consultancy.

Non-academic jobs for PhDs in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

If your PhD is in an Arts, Humanities or Social Science (AHSS) discipline, the skills you have to offer – and the kinds of career that are open to you – differ slightly to those belonging to STEM PhD holders.

In some ways, your aptitudes as a AHSS PhD graduate are likely to be better suited for industries and career paths where excellent communication skills are required. While undertaking your research and writing your dissertation, you’ll have had to process, explain and analyse large amounts of complicated information. This ability to research and write about complex topics will be in-demand across any number of companies and sectors.

Even though your talents might not be as technical as those of a STEM PhD holder, AHSS doctoral students have a different skillset that is no less valuable.

How to make the transition to a non-academic career

You should invest some time during your PhD for personal and professional development (this is true if you want to stay in academia too!).

Even if you attend none of the formal courses offered, your PhD itself will provide you with many skills. The challenge, when going outside of academia, is to translate your skills in a way that makes sense to your chosen sector. Think outside the box and take stock of what you are good at or have experience in.

For example, if you conducted interviews for your research project, this may have given you the following skills and attributes:

  • Questionnaire design
  • Experience in qualitative and / or quantitative analysis
  • Sensitivity and confidentiality (particularly relevant in the post-GDPR world)

Meanwhile, simply writing a dissertation shows that you’re capable of presenting and organising large amounts of information in a clear manner. And, if you were able to publish book chapters and papers, or present at an academic conference, this is evidence of your ability to communicate information across a wide range of formats. There’s always a way to link your academic experience to the commercial world, so be prepared to do this in any upcoming job interviews.

It’s also a good idea to move away from the long, multiple page academic CV that you might be used to. Employers won’t read them and they won’t be particularly interested in scanning a lengthy list of articles. Instead, you should mention that you’ve been published multiple times (rather than providing specific details of each instance – you can always provide more information on request).

Last updated - 08/04/2021

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