Careers Outside Academia

An increasing number of graduate students are pursuing careers outside of academia.  Some graduate students have made the decision based on the academic job market, while others have determined that they are not interested in a career in academic research or teaching.  Deciding to pursue a non-academic career path is not an easy choice for all graduate students; for some it is an emotional decision that can generate feelings of fear, confusion, or even failure.  UCS Staff are available to work with you in an individual appointment to explore the feelings that are impacting your career decision making process.

So What Do You Want To Do?

There are many career options for PhDs outside of academia. Before you begin applying to job openings, the first step in a successful job search is self-assessment. The self-assessment process allows you to gather information about your skills, interests, values, and motivations that ultimately influence your career decisions.  Self-assessment will also help develop the language to market your academic training and subject expertise to potential employers. UCS offers several formal assessment tools to aid in this process, including the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and Strong Interest Inventory.  In addition, there are many self-guided assessment activities you can pursue, including brainstorming your strengths and weaknesses, and reflecting upon the skills you have developed throughout your academic career.

Non-academic work environments may emphasize skills and experience over academic credentials.  As the job seeker, your task is to articulate to prospective employers how the skills you have developed through academic research and study will be an asset in their non-academic settings.  Through your graduate student career, you have developed strong transferable skills, which are useful in many different settings.  To convey your message confidently and clearly, you first need to identify them yourself.

Skills Employers Value in PhDs

  • Problem solving
  • Leadership
  • Personal initiative and motivation
  • Gathering and synthesizing information
  • Data analysis
  • Collaboration
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Perseverance
  • Oral and written communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Maturity
  • Creativity
  • Ability to teach and train others
  • Project management
  • Leadership and independence
  • Comfort with abstract concepts
  • Knowledge of technical software

Recruiting Process and Timeline

The process of securing a non-academic position can take time.  It is common to underestimate the amount of time and energy required to successfully obtain a position, so begin planning for your job search at least one year prior to your degree completion date.

The reason the job search for graduate students may take longer is because there are differences in the recruiting process.  While there are plenty of employers in all industries interested in hiring Northwestern graduate students, many do not actively seek out graduate students to fill their positions through the same channels they use to recruit undergraduate students (e.g., on-campus interviewing, on-line job postings).  In fact, most job opportunities at the graduate level are never posted online. Additionally, some employers are simply not aware of the added value your advanced education would provide them.

As a result, you must be very proactive and use creative strategies to connect with employers and to learn about potential job opportunities.  Networking is essential to the graduate student job search.  As you begin your job search, connect with your supporters and share your career plans with them.  This includes advisors, mentors, family, friends, faculty, former employers, contacts from informational interviews, alumni— anyone who can assist with your job search!  Employers are more likely to interview a candidate who comes from a referral, so networking can open up your employment possibilities.

Learn more about Networking.

The Application and Interview Process

Employers differ in the type of materials required to apply for each position so make sure to pay careful attention before you apply.  Most non-academic positions require a one or two page resume, which will require you to transform your curriculum vitae into a shorter document. Once you decide not to pursue academic employment, you must determine the skills employers are seeking and revise your resume to highlight how your degree(s) and experiences fit with what potential employers seek. More information about this process can be found at this link:

Learn more about CV and Resume Writing.

The interview format will range considerably for non-academic positions. Some companies will offer a series of very formal interviews with multiple interviewers, while other positions will have a shorter selection process and only require you to meet with one person.  Be prepared to answer questions about your motivations for careers outside of academia and how your academic training has prepared you for that particular position.  Leaving the academic setting requires a transition and it is important that you have as much clarity as possible regarding your potential responsibilities and expectations. Your goal is to find a good fit with what you have to offer and what the company needs.

It is not uncommon for graduate students to experience their first professional interview during their job search for a post-graduation position.  If this is your first interview, or if you haven't interviewed in some time, it is highly recommended that you meet with a UCS practitioner for a mock interview. During a mock interview, you will practice interview questions and learn what is expected during the actual interview. UCS staff can also assist with job-search techniques, resume and cover letter preparation, and resource referrals/recommendations.

Learn more about Preparing for Interviews.

Resources for the Non-Academic Job Search

Where to Find Information on Non-academic Careers 

Recommended Reading:

"So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius

Leaving the Ivory Tower by Barbara E. Lovitts