Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable.” ~The Future of the PhD
Today, there is something that is holding a lot of PhD students back. Fear. What happens is they never really come out of their shell, and they feel that if they do there will be disapproval from their advisors and professors. You will be marked as the “oddball” or the person who spent years getting a PhD only to “waste” it in a field that isn’t fully utilizing the degree. This couldn’t be further from the truth!
The reality is that “non-traditional” or “alternative” PhD careers are not so uncommon anymore and are becoming traditional. In fact, the more that we hammer away at the issue and try to promote awareness about graduate education reform and the need to accommodate alternative PhD careers, the more we realize that these types of careers are deemed “acceptable.” More importantly, there are very satisfying careers outside of academia that fully utilize your training, skills and knowledge. You can apply your PhD training to other fields and be very successful. There are thousands of PhD’s that made the transition years ago, and are working in fulfilling careers with good career prospects and bright futures.
PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.
I can relate to the apprehension and fear of pursuing industrial careers because of how your PI will take the news. In all honesty, you have to look out for yourself. And, if that is what is truly BEST FOR YOU, then you shouldn’t hesitate being clear and up-front about your intentions.
I flat out went to my PI during my final year as a PhD student and stated that I was not going to stay in academia or do a post-doc. You can back this up with informational interviews as well: tell your PI that you researched this position and feel that it would better play to your strengths and future opportunities. It looks more impressive to justify the want and need to go into industry (or whatever field you had in mind) when you base it off something concrete. And this is simply by seeing first-hand what real-world experience looks like and internalizing this to channel your direction.
So here is how you can approach your supervisor and broach the subject:
1) Come up with a plan beforehand
Instead of going to your Professor and simply saying, “I don’t want to stay in academia or become a Professor,” you can phrase it in a way that plays to your advantage. First, I would not recommend approaching your Professor unless you have done the necessary networking and informational interviews to get to this point. Why? Because once you have done this, it gives you a justification and reasoning for pursuing a career outside of academia. You are basing this off what you have done and learned (i.e. real-world examples), and ultimately what uniquely matches you. And, you also created potential opportunities on your own in the process.
We have known for a long time that the career prospects in academia are not favorable (only 14% of those in the life sciences land an academic position within 5 years of finishing a PhD based on a NSF survey). But this is NOT the reason that you want to pitch to your Professor. It is not a valid reason and lacks depth. One resource that I highly recommend that you should check out is MyIDP. It will personalize and pinpoint what careers are a good match for you! Once you take an online self-assessment test, your test results will show which science careers to pick from and may be a good fit (over 20 science careers are featured and ranked based on your skill set and interests).
A “plan” means that you have gone out into the world and talked to scientists or PhD’s who have transitioned into alternative careers. You can set up informational interviews with someone who is two years out of their PhD. This will give you a fresh perspective on how they made the transition, and they are more likely to be able to relate to your current situation. The more you learn about these positions, the more you are able to fit your plan to your career goals and identify your strengths and weaknesses. What happens is you are able to see the opportunity that lies ahead of you.
For example, let’s say you did informational interviews with a business manager in biotech industry. Let’s also say that this manager had a certain path that you learned about: PhD, post-doc, working in industry at the bench, then moving away from there (worked his or her way up into a management position). A lot of people that have these career paths just happened by chance, promotion, or opportunity that opened up for them. They may not have had a career plan like what you are attempting to lay out ahead of you.
In other words, you know the “jumps” you wish to make ahead of time, as it also validates the value of a PhD, how you can effectively utilize it, and explains the need to leave academia WITHOUT hesitation, fear, and/or doubts. Therefore, this is putting YOU at an advantage.
You are taking hold of your own future and at least knowing the REALISTIC and necessary steps that one needs to take in order to transition out of academia. “Realistic” is defined as what your network (via informational interviews) lays out for you. In other words, they are going to tell you based on your current interests and skill set, which entry-level positions are going to be obtainable for YOU (if you were to apply for a job right now, what are you chances and what is a good match for you?).
So instead of reading about what positions you THINK would be a good fit for you, get out there and start creating opportunities for yourself! Nothing beats face to face interaction. So simply googling and reading blog articles about what kinds of PhD careers are out there won’t really get you anywhere. This is something that I call “PhD complacency” where the need to network and learn about career opportunities on your own isn’t viewed as “necessary.” Many PhD’s think that everything will “just fall into place” or just “happen by chance” someday. If this is your attitude you need to change it now.
Knowing what you want to do ahead of time will get you there much quicker and will be more focused. It will be a better use of your time and energy. Think about it. If I told you that you could skip an academic post-doc and go right into an alternative career in a different field wouldn’t you (if you knew ahead of time that is truly what you wanted to do)?
Just as I respect those who wish to stay in academia, they also need to respect those that wish to branch out from this field. That is why you must become numb to any reactions from those within academia and stick to your decision regardless of what other people think. 5 years from now when you are established in your career, it won’t even matter what people in academia used to think of you.
I also do not disapprove of the decision to take on a post-doc. However, there are also academia post-docs and industry post-docs. So I do disapprove if you are doing a post-doc and you don’t have a career path in mind or even know what field you want to be in. And I can almost guess that a lot of PhD’s took on a post-doc or stayed in academia simply because of fear that their thesis advisor would view them as a disappointment, would not be supportive, and may give a poor reference for a career OTHER than what lies within academia. Also, many PhD’s stay in academia simply because they didn’t network or create opportunities outside of academia.
The whole point is that you may not have a complete and totally clear career path laid out in front of you (let’s say over the next 5 years). But what can happen is you at least can justify to your Professor why you wish to pursue a career outside of academia. And the best way to pitch this is that it better plays to your strengths, interests, potential opportunity, and career plan.
2) Open dialogue: Know what to say
Approaching my professor about pursuing a career outside of academia was one of the hardest things I had to do. Here is why:
I was offered multiple internship opportunities during my 4th and 5th year of my PhD. During my 4th year I didn’t jump on it because I was afraid that my Professor would say “No.” The more informational interviews that I did and the more unemployed PhD’s that I saw, the more I realized that I needed to create and jump on any opportunities which presented themselves. Therefore, getting over this fear is a very key part of being a successful PhD student. Beyond the PhD is really what matters, and if your Professor cares about you and your future, they will RESPECT your decision. Therefore, when another opportunity presented itself the last 6 months of my PhD, I jumped on it.
I said something like this:
Based on what I have been doing over the past year by talking to PhD’s in the field, I have come to realize that I wish to pursue a different career path vs. obtain a post-doc or stay in academia. I feel that based on my strengths and interests that I would like to pursue other opportunities. I hope you will support my decision as I truly appreciate my time here and the scientific training that I have received. I feel that I can better use my education in other fields and this is what will truly make me happy. So with that said, an opportunity of a lifetime in the biotech industry has recently presented itself as I have been made an offer. I would like to jump on it with your permission.”
You have to look out for yourself. If you don’t, conflicts will only arise later on in your career. If you do not wish to stay in academia, why are you doing an academia post-doc? Are you buying yourself time until you figure it out? If you already are a post-doc, the same rules apply. You can still approach your Professor in the same way.
Here is the response I received:
We will always have different definitions of science. I am disappointed that you do not wish to stay in the field and become a scientist. BUT, I want you to do what is truly right for you and what makes you happy. I want to see you be successful. I want to see you get your PhD and utilize it however you see fit. I want to see you in a career that you truly want to be in. So, I guess that it’s OK and I’m fine with it.”
I took the heat. So one day went by where I was coined a “disappointment” or whatever else you want to call it. But your Professors need to care about your well-being. Even the Professors that DO NOT support alternative PhD careers almost have to care about what happens to you beyond the PhD stage. Why? It is a reflection on them. If you end as an unemployed PhD, this reflects not only poorly on you but them as well.
That is why, if you do the proper planning ahead of time and “take the heat,” you will be ten steps ahead of anyone who sits back in fear and pursues a post-doc only because that is the “expected” thing to do.
And chances are that you may be surprised. Different Professors will react in different ways. Some may be supportive, others may not. It doesn’t really matter if they are supportive or not. What matters is that you help yourself, seek out opportunities, and build your network outside of academia. Don’t expect your Professor or anyone else to do this for you.
3) Execute your plan and jump on created opportunities
So you’ve done your informational interviews and networked to learn about the types of positions outside of academia that interest you. You’ve told your Professor and others of your intentions of wanting to pursue a career outside of academia (either before or after an opportunity presents itself). Now what? You need an action plan.
Chances are if you started networking and adding value to yourself and others, an opportunity will present itself EVENTUALLY (either during or hopefully right after your PhD). If you have read my 3 part series networking guide, you will see that at the end of an informational interview, I suggest that you ask for your resume or CV to be reviewed for feedback purposes (constructive criticism).
This will help to identify “gaps” and steps/actions needed to fill those gaps, get your name out there, and demonstrate a potential unique skill set that may add value back to the person who is reading/correcting it (One example-they might think: “Oh I had no idea this person ran their own business on the side. Or did this in lab. Or has this unique “niche” skill set. Maybe we should meet to discuss further ideas or collaborations”). I will be expanding on how to add value to others in a future post.
If you truly wish to pursue a certain career outside of academia, you will do whatever it takes to obtain the necessary steps and jump through whatever hoops you have to. The problem is that many don’t know the steps that they need to take to make this happen. And without a doubt, networking is the first and most crucial step that many PhD’s are missing or try to skip altogether.
Let’s say you wish to be in Business Development in Biotech Industry. You aren’t going to be able to crossover straight from academia unless you are really lucky. There are two jumps that you have to make. Academia to Industry. Then, Science to Business. If you can do it all in one jump that’s great, but that is not being realistic. And this is exactly why you need an action plan to execute once your professor is aware of your intentions.
In order to be able to crossover, you still may need a set of unique skills or related work experience. This is the number one problem and complaint that I hear from a lot of PhD’s. They don’t have the marketable skills to be able to crossover. You need to obtain the experience in any way that you can. This means you should be open to doing internships. If you can leverage a summer internship during your PhD or your post-doc, you need to jump on this opportunity. If you doubt that this opportunity can be created, you haven’t networked nearly enough.
When I say “Action Plan,” I mean plan ahead before you finish your PhD. The problem that I see OVER and OVER is that many PhD students are too overly focused on finishing the degree. While it is important to be a successful PhD student, learn about things you wish you knew before staring a PhD, stay motivated, write your thesis, and defend in a timely manner… This is only part of the equation. Getting the PhD is only the beginning and is not the end-game. Why do you think there is a book called A PhD Is Not Enough? It is MORE important to have a career plan laid out in front of you. If you think that getting the PhD is all that matters, you need to read what matters beyond grad school.
Here is what your Action Plan should look like (from start to finish):
- Identify your unique interests, matches, and career possibilities by using Science Careers MyIDP
- Start creating opportunities by building your network, adding value to others, doing informational interviews, and learning about alternative careers (pick your top 5 from MyIDP).
- Put yourself out there in any way that you can. Find out ways to stand out from the crowd that is UNIQUE to you. Think about starting a Professional Science Blog. Establish your online reputation.
- Overcome your fear and do not hide your intentions.
- Approach your Professor (as outlined above). It is up to you whether or not you wish to approach your Advisor before or after an opportunity presents itself. If an opportunity doesn’t arise, you need to keep networking and be patient. Think about how you can add value to others (this will be another one of my future posts).
- Look for continued support. Assuming by now you have a network that you have created outside of academia (in addition to your own Professor that is aware of your situation). PhD’s should be aided in their job search.
- Jump on an opportunity that presents itself whether before or after your PhD and make the cross-over.
- Be proud of your decision. Move forward and never look back.