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Non-academic Careers for PhD Holders

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

I was going to entitle this article “Alternative careers to academia for PhD holders.” Then I read an interesting piece which made an excellent point - considering that in the UK (although this is also true in Australia, the USA and increasingly China), less than half of PhD holders go into academia, other careers are not really “alternative” anymore, but are becoming more of the norm. Having realised that, I couldn’t agree more that all post-PhD career options should be considered as equally valid opportunities. The difficulty is that the main sources of career advice for PhD students are their supervisors and other students, and the majority of them have known no other working environment.

At a recent conference hosted by the UK Council for Graduate Education, it was clear that while academia (i.e. academic research) is still the preferred career destination for PhD students, 80% of them are aware that it may be hard to get a job as a post-doc or junior research associate and secure a lifelong academic career.

Reasons to leave academia

Aside from the fact that many countries produce more PhDs than their higher education sector has the capacity to cope with, there is a multitude of positive reasons for deciding to look for a job elsewhere. It is not a failure if it is a well-thought through, proactive decision. For example:

  • You have gained knowledge and specialist techniques that are valued by a particular industry.
  • You find yourself better placed to help others do the research than doing the research yourself.
  • Higher education isn’t really for you as a work sector and you know you can translate your skills to other jobs.
  • You have a business idea or you have met private sector people and want to use your entrepreneurship in that sector.

Making the transition – How to go about it?

First and foremost, you should invest some time during your PhD (or postdoc) for personal and professional development (this is actually valid if you want to stay in academia too!). The good news is that students who engage in skills courses at their university are more likely to complete their doctorate in time than those who don’t. Anyway, 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.

PhD task or activity


I wrote a 50,000 word thesis.

Ability to present and organise large amounts of information in a clear manner.
Fluency in Microsoft Office packages.

I had 3 supervisors or my supervisors didn’t get on.

Negotiation skills.

I analysed loads of data.

Analysis of complex data and presentation of emerging conclusions and concepts.

I conducted interviews for my research project.

Questionnaire design (if applicable).
Experience in qualitative and/or quantitative analysis.
Sensitive to the needs of others.
Diplomacy and confidentiality.

Experiments or theory testing didn’t work but I found out why and tried again.

Problem-solving skills.

I published papers, book chapters and presented at conferences.

Ability to communicate complex ideas effectively in a range of formats.

I completed my PhD in three years.

Ability to plan a project and deliver it to agreed timelines.

I did a PhD.

I am able to work with minimum supervision as well as part of a team.

I organised a conference.

Event planning skills.

My research group was international or I spent some time abroad for my research.

Ability to interact with colleagues from diverse professional backgrounds to successfully work towards common goals.

I took part in science communication or public engagement events such as science festivals, visiting schools to explain your research, etc.

Ability to communicate effectively to a range of audiences.

I was in charge of a piece of equipment or I set up a research seminar series.

Initiative and self-reliance.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of what skills’ translation is like. This isn’t blagging your way through, it is an honest way to describe your qualities to prospective employers using terms they understand.

The other thing is to move away from the eight-page academic CV. Employers will not read them and they are unlikely to be thrilled about a list of bamboozling articles you wrote. So you’ve got an article in Nature (assuming you are a biologist), what does that mean for the employer? They could be impressed by the fact you have a range of articles in prestigious publications under your belt, but they don’t need the details (you could always make the publications available on request).

Some other things to consider:

  • Be realistic about your job prospects and don’t aim too high or too low.
  • Be aware that you may not be treated differently than colleagues who have “lower” qualifications. They may have more relevant experience.
  • Know the keywords and buzz words of the sector you want to go into.
  • You might not be paid more because you have a PhD.
  • Moving from academia is a transition and while you may have had a lot of freedom to organise your days and weeks when you were doing research, in other sectors things might be more structured.
  • You may miss academia!
  • You’ll probably have to work on other people’s priorities but you can shape the job you’re in thanks to your experience.

Career choices

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

I don’t mean that it is always a PhD in finance that will lead to banking, or that you have to have a PhD in social policy to work in policy. The transition from academia can transcend your discipline area.



PhD Linguistics

Public Engagement and Science Communication

PhD English Literature

High School teacher

PhD Pharmacy

Investment banker

PhD Chemistry

Analyst in financial sector

PhD Biology

Science writing

PhD Law

Government department advisor

PhD Geology

Head of Student Service in University sector

PhD Biochemistry

Patent lawyer

PhD Nutrition

Scientific advisor in Contract Research

PhD Molecular Biology

Editorial writer (This one is my own example!)

While I could list a long list of examples (OK, I just did…), I think the best way for you to see what other PhD holders have gone on to do and how they got there is to look at case studies and there are great sources of information for that:

Other good sources of information are discussion groups or blogs online:

Jobsites for PhD holders

Once you are ready to approach your search for non-academic jobs and you have reworked your CV there are several ways to go forward. You can use your networks of contacts, approach organisations you would like to work for (although you would have to be clear about what work you are proposing to do), agencies (unless they specialise in PhD graduates, they may not fully understand your attributes so be selective) and job listings as follows:

Final words

Remember, whatever you decide to do, you have not failed! Many PhD graduates have very successful and enjoyable careers outside of academia, so, good luck!

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