Transitioning from academia to other careers – advice from three PhDs

One of the hot topics at Congress 2014 was the discussion about the future career prospects of PhDs in Canada. Many graduate students want to consider options outside of academia – alternatives to traditional paths. 

What do working PhDs say about their own career planning? We asked three PhDs for advice on careers and job hunting outside academia.

1. What was the most helpful thing you did in your first year or two of job hunting?

Biochemist / neuroscientist PhD Laurence Meadows, now working in business development, said identifying skills he’d need outside academia was the key:

“I was fortunate in that I was still in academia whilst searching for a job so I had time to look into possible career options. Just knowing what alternatives are out there is half the battle. My first step was asking my former classmates what they were doing outside of academia.”

“I then asked them what do they did on a daily basis and what skills they needed to be successful in that role, and then sought to acquire them myself.”

Rachel Bennett, PhD in English, now a marketing director, said she learned from working in small organizations:

“I relied on skills built in academia – editing, teaching, and writing – to find work with two different organizations even before my defense. 

“Both were small companies, and the nice thing about a small company is that you get to know people and the roles they have – roles I’d never even heard of. As well, people get to know you and what you can do, so you can help out in different areas. I did four or five different ‘jobs’ in my first two years. That built my experience and taught me what I liked and didn’t like – where I wanted to go next.”

Jeremy Gawryluk, neuropharmacology PhD, who now works as a project manager, advised to network and reach out to companies early:

“The most important thing to do prior to your job search is to build a network of colleagues, both academics and people who have only worked within industry.

“If you see potential positions with a company, request an informational interview with someone senior to ask general questions and get to know the company culture. Companies tend to hire individuals whom they already know and/or have a respected employee vouch for them.”

2. If you had one piece of advice for a PhD student considering career options, what would it be?

Laurence said passion should drive career choices:

“Jobs pay the bills, but a career is what you build your life around. It is important to find out what you are really passionate about and use that to explore possible career opportunities.”

Rachel advises to try different options early on:

“Focus on organizations, industries, and fields, not specific job descriptions, which can be really off-putting. And particularly for humanities graduates, I’d say to resist the urge to feel you need to go back to school for more training. Trying some different things now – even part-time if you’re teaching – will help you make that decision down the road.”

For Jeremy, it is keeping an eye on the big picture:

“If you are driven to excel in your work and can see the big picture, you can make it anywhere. Don’t worry about what other people think, follow your passion. Don’t be frustrated by the competitiveness for funding or industry positions.”


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