Transitioning out of academia

Have you thought about running your own business after finishing your PhD?

Shari Walsh worked as an expert PhD career counsellor when I first met her, around 5 years ago. Now she runs her own business called ‘Growth Psychology’ and specialises in helping PhD students develop a successful post-PhD career both inside and outside of academia, amongst other things. In this post Shari shares her own transition story and offers you the benefit of her expert advice – for free 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 4.28.34 pmIt’s been over five years since I graduated from my PhD – wow, how time flies. I remember often thinking I would never make it and then, suddenly, it’s all done and there are lots of questions to face…

How do I get used to the empty space in my head where my research used to be? What am I going to do with my time…? Do I want to continue to build an academic career or focus on being a practitioner in my discipline? Typically for me, I was dabbling with them both throughout my PhD and for a couple of years this continued.

When I completed my PhD, I worked as a sessional academic as well as in a professional (non-academic) role within the university. I felt quite comfortable within the university world, I knew the language, the environment, it was safe and comfortable. However, that wasn’t enough for me!

Three years ago, I left the university and opened my own business – a psychology practice. While it was pretty scary, I found so many of the skills e.g., time and project management, self-discipline, I developed during my PhD really helped me with this transition.

I still remain linked to the academic environment by consulting to universities and providing psychology and career services to PhD candidates and Post-docs as part of my business. Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, my PhD was the gateway to all the opportunities I’ve had in the past 5 years and for that I am grateful.

Here is some of what I have learned over that time.

Post PhD life is what YOU make it – it can be scary, exciting, daunting, challenging, disappointing and rewarding all rolled into one. Disillusionment can run high in the post-submission period as having a PhD does not guarantee a job, respect or even feeling better about yourself. All of that is down to you as being awarded the PhD is recognition of the hard work and accomplishments you achieved during your research project.

Yes, feel proud, but do not feel entitled.

Just like anyone who is undertaking a form of career transition, there can be hurdles which need to be jumped. It is rare for the ideal position to be waiting just for you. Not to say it doesn’t happen sometimes, however, in my experience it is rare. The people who do manage to achieve it have generally been really proactive in developing their career during their PhD by building academic and industry ready skills and developing links within various communities to broaden their career options.

While I was completing my PhD, I volunteered and worked part-time outside the university in my profession to develop practical skills in my discipline. I also applied for and received an industry-based research grant, tutored throughout my degree, co-supervised students, and wrote publications in order to keep my academic options open. I know many other past and current PhD candidates who do similar.

It is worth remembering that not many people, outside your research area, understand what your research is about and, to be honest, not many in the outside world actually care. This can feel pretty disappointing as, after all, you have lived and breathed it for years.

Learning how to simply explain your research and how it applies to the non-academic world is pretty important if you are ever asked about your research and if you want to be able to talk with people outside your research area. While it may feel like you are ‘dumbing it down’, it is a key ingredient to maintaining relationships during your PhD and afterwards.

My approach was to have a few simple dot points about my research prepared just in case someone asked and then I’d expand further if they showed interest or asked questions. I learnt very quickly to recognise that glazed eyes are a sign to change topic and to not take it personally!

When you are engrossed in university life, it can be difficult to realise that very few people, outside academia, know how you ‘do a PhD’. I seriously think that the majority of people, including employers, think that you just sit around talking in depth about nebulous topics rather than actually doing any ‘real’ work.

It is up to us, PhD candidates and Post-doc’s, to correct this misperception. There are so many skills you develop over the course of your research that are highly valuable and if you want a career inside or outside academia, learning how to articulate these skills is vital.

One of the activities I do as part of my Resilient Researcher program and with individual clients is skills auditing and mapping so that there is an awareness of the skills being developed and any requiring development. I am always surprised at how few skills participants thought they had prior to the activity and the increased confidence they demonstrate afterwards. This information is key to enabling you to build a broad and adaptable skill set which is transferable to multiple environments.

I thought that once I got my PhD I would automatically feel comfortable with being a ‘Dr’. However, it can take a while to step into the shoes. There was a sense of loss and adjustment when I no longer had my PhD as a reference point.

It took me at least 12 months to stop reacting with shock and surprise when people called me ‘Dr’ and to actually feel I owned the title. Even though I am more comfortable with it now, there are many times I don’t mention I have a PhD if it is not relevant information or could lead to people stereotyping me based on their expectations.

A few years ago, I was interviewed for a position. Following the interview I was told that the main reason I was selected was because they had never interviewed someone with a PhD before and wanted to see how I would go. Apparently, the panel were surprised that I could speak simple English and they could understand what I said!

I have to admit I do miss aspects of the academic and research environment. I never thought I would say that, but I do. I miss the solitude; the ability to focus on a task; to really, really think about an issue; to identify a research question; to develop an hypothesis and then to test if it is true; and the opportunity to debate and discuss with like-minded peers and colleagues. It really is a unique environment.

There are also lots of things I don’t miss; however, that’s another story!

Thanks Shari! How do you experience the world ‘outside’ of academia? Do you think people really understand what doing a PhD involves? How to you explain it to non-academics?

Related posts

Academic on the inside

Four more reasons people quit the PhD


27 thoughts on “Transitioning out of academia

  1. Jenni Hyde says:

    Reblogged this on Early Modern Ballads and commented:
    Today has been an unusual day: I went to help out the PTFA of my children’s primary school with the refreshments for the Key Stage 1 sports day. (Bear with me – I promise this post really is work-related). It proved to be an interesting social experience, because although these were people I meet regularly at school and at church, I’ve rarely had the time to stop and talk to them. So much so that one of the ladies that I’d been saying hello to for 3 years actually asked me what I do – after all, I’m usually the one on the school run morning and evening so it’s reasonable to assume that I don’t work. Generally speaking, my response to questions about what I do for a living is “I work from home” – it’s simpler and avoids the ‘glazed eye’ issue that Shari Walsh mentions in her blog post. But as there was plenty of time, tea, cake and sunshine, today I responded with “I’ve just finished my PhD”. The conversation that followed was eye-opening:
    “How long did that take?” [3 years]
    “And did you do it by distance learning if you were at home?” [well, no, I was full time but it just happens that the project I was researching I could do mostly from home, without an hour and a half’s commute in each direction and I could still be the main carer for the children]
    “So was it towards a career you wanted?” [erm, no, I just wanted to do it. It was only after I started that I had the misfortune to discover that I loved it and there was no way I could give it up after three years! Now I’m trying to find a job, but my scope is rather limited by where we live!]
    “So you’re not really working now, are you?”

    At which point my eyes widened in horror…. Not working? Not working? Of course I’m working – I just haven’t found anyone to pay me for it! I’m doing what I suspect many of us are doing post-phd: I’m working at home for nothing (or doing something unrelated to bring in the cash and researching when we can fit it in) in the hope that in the long run, it will pay off somehow. Shari Walsh recommends getting as much experience as possible while doing your PhD in order to maximise your chances of employment, in whatever field, upon completion. I’d agree. Except that in my case, I couldn’t. I chose to put my family first. If you’d like to know why I have, as yet, no journal or book publications to my name, read on.

    Last Sunday afternoon, I sat down. I didn’t do anything, I just sat down. It’s incredibly rare. And I did it because I even I could tell that I was exhausted. A normal day runs something like this:
    Up at 6.30. By 7am I’m already doing housework, and by the time we leave for school it’s safe to assume that I’ve already been on the go for an hour and a half, not just doing the housework but simultaneously supervising 3 children getting ready for school, practising instruments, reading their reading books, feeding the pets and learning their spellings. I get back from the school run by 9, at which point I start the academic work that I continue non-stop until I have to pick the children up from school, make the evening meal and then run people to their various after-school activities, before putting them to bed and reading bedtime stories. I started writing this blog post at 9.40pm. I had JUST sat down. But I never manage to switch off. Part of my brain is constantly turning over the things that I’ve read; the ideas that I want to develop; the papers I’m in the process of writing.

    I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily any different for working mums and dads the world over, whatever they do. But academe isn’t conducive to a high quality family life, and the life of an early career academic even less so. I can think of one acquaintance who has decided she can’t have children if she wants an academic career; another has left the university system despite wanting an academic job, because the short term contracts of an early career academic don’t provide the stability that you need to start a family. For me, it was more a case of not wanting to cause the family I’d already got any more upset than necessary. They are settled in their schools, and I wouldn’t be doing them any favours applying for jobs that meant we had to move every year. During my PhD I couldn’t maximise my experience because I had to be there to collect my children from school. I didn’t have the extra hours it would have needed to complete a really high quality article for a journal if I wanted to get my thesis finished on time. Actually, I didn’t want to get my thesis finished on time, it was IMPERATIVE that I got my thesis finished on time. We couldn’t afford it to be any other way. The fact that I didn’t teach was down to a conscious decision on my part, from the start of the PhD, that I wouldn’t risk teaching in my final year, not just because it was crucial that I finished the thesis but also because of the distance I would have had to travel to do so for a comparatively low rate of pay. Having been offered teaching in my second year, it was withdrawn because the department was overstaffed. So I finished up with none. Unless, of course, you count the fact that I’m a qualified teacher.

    Life can be tough as an early career academic. Life is, I think, especially tough if you are an early career academic who has caring responsibilities. I am reconciled to the fact that in order to get an academic job, I need to find an employer who is prepared to support someone whose career route hasn’t been exactly ‘normal’ (whatever normal might be!). And the chances are slim, because I’m not prepared to move house and I’m up against people who, on paper, look far more promising than I do. I can understand that. One way or another I will have to find a way to make ends meet, and I hope that somehow I’ll be able to carry on doing the research that I love. In the meantime, I’m working just as hard as ever on another couple of chapters for the book that I’m confident that someone somewhere will want to publish; writing papers for upcoming conferences and reading, always reading. So yes, I really do work. Honestly. I might be at home and I might not be writing all the time, but I’m always thinking. And my goodness, it’s exhausting.

    • Trisarahtops says:

      I feel exactly this way as I enter the last few months of my PhD with no academic job, or any job in fact, lined up for October. I had a brush with employment when I came in as a reserve for a teaching fellowship, but alas-the job was given to a man who was ‘more confident’ at interview. I have to say I’m looking forward to being unemployed although as a single parent this will be financially hard, not no harder than my last (unfunded) year where I paid more in childcare than I got in benefits.

      I’m struggling to find academic jobs that won’t require me going off on trips and working evenings and weekends and I’m currently at a crossroads. I know I’d be happier and have more free time if I get a part-time job outside of academia that allows me to do school run, yet at the same time I’ve been studying for 12 years and I have ideas for postdoctoral projects that I’d like to pursue. This route would make me happy in some respects, depending on whether the research could be funded and carried out part-time. But above all else, in the current climate of academic jobs, or lack thereof, post-PhD job opportunities aren’t so much dependent on what we want, but on whether the jobs come up in places close by (Like you, I can’t move as my son is starting school and I’d lose support network). I don’t really agree with the statement alluding to the idea that post-PhD life is what we make of it. And I don’t think anyone is naïve enough to feel entitled to an academic job, apart from hopeful new starters who’ve been living in a cave perhaps!

    • definitivesanna says:

      I know what you mean – academia is a brutal place to try to make it at the best of times. I remember going to a career talk during my PhD, where the advice was that for the first five years post-PhD you just have to be very flexible and go where the work is, and then in the mid-career period start thinking about settling down, having a family etc “when” you find the permanent job. So there I was: married, pregnant, mortgaged to the eyeballs thinking “Well, this clearly isn’t for me.” And yet I did the publishing, the teaching, the conferences – because to *not* want to be an academic seemed like a waste, or a disappointing plan B.

      Since finishing the PhD I’ve alternated jaunts as a professional staff member with short lecturing contracts – and as great as teaching is (or as enticing as the mirage of an academic career somewhere in the distant future might otherwise be) it just doesn’t compensate for the sheer lightness I get to feel at home, having left my ‘professional’ work in daylight hours without feeling I still owe the university my time and intellectual labour well into the night.

      I don’t mean to say it’s something that would work for everyone, and if the research truly gives you meaning then go with it, but I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’ve forgiven myself for no longer pursuing academia and I couldn’t be happier.

  2. lindathestar says:

    How do I feel post PhD? My thesis is still in the final few weeks of being signed off by the relevant University committees so it is all very new still, and I’m not quite an official Dr, yet I feel a huge pressure to get on with the next thing. I still get quivers of excitement and stand up taller when I remember that I have a PhD, yet a week after submitting my amendments found myself feeling like an underachiever. Intellectually I knew that was ridiculous, given what I had achieved, yet all the things I’d been putting off doing while thesis focused crowded in on me. I hadn’t written personal blog posts, or enough journal articles, or attended to my garden, or sorted out my finance records from the last conference I went to, painted the bathroom or exercised enough. Friends scolded me for not giving myself credit for what I’ve done and being too hard on myself. I’ve taken a two-week holiday and am now attending to the neglected writing. That is familiar, and easy to get into. The non-academic tasks are harder and the taboo attitude on them is hard to shift. Plus I have to earn a living. I’m busting with knowledge, skills and experience and really want to use them to make a difference. I’m worth a decent salary, not casual teaching crumbs.

    The word I’m using now about how I feel is ‘floundering’. What do I want? My dream job is still to teach sex and sexuality across the lifespan to preservice teachers, health or social workers (or as professional development post qualification) so they first understand themselves, and secondly do no harm to the people they work with. As far as I know that job does not exist, so what do I do? A post-doc? Apply for one of the few academic positions, knowing how unhealthy academia is? Try harder to make my own business as a sex educator viable? Maybe I should consult a career counsellor like Shari Walsh and get some professional help with finding direction.

    Thanks Inger for posting this blog at a time when it was so relevant to me. You rock, and your work is really valuable.

  3. the (research) supervisor's friend says:

    This is a great example of PhDs leading to non academic careers. Shari has made a very successful transition establishing this practice and growing it with her astute awareness of what it is like for students undertaking PhDs but also transferring that knowledge to new industries.
    Well done Shari!
    Geof Hill Birmingham City University

  4. Victoria Lister says:

    Thanks Shari for these insights. I’m right at the start of my HDR experience (I’m a Masters by Research student) and I’m part-time so still engaged in work and other projects – but can see how absolutely critical it is to maintain all these activities, skills and self-belief.

  5. Tracy Stanley says:

    Hi Shari, Your highlighted a lot of the challenges doctoral students face: dumbing down your PhD to make it easier to explain to others, but then worrying that it seems too simplistic; justifying why I am spending three years doing research in the first place and wondering when, if ever, I will confidently call myself Dr. I am on the home stretch now – and have started reflecting on all the obvious and more subtle things that I have learnt. These changes have broadly been in my thinking and communication skills. I will pen some thoughts on this in a little while. Thanks for a great post (and for helping students find their way to their next thing).. Cheers Tracy

  6. eleanor says:

    This post is unbelievably timely for me as I was just hired (last week) for a national managerial position in an education team at an NGO. I graduated with my PhD a year ago and have been working close to double full time with casual teaching contracts at three universities for 6 years. My new role will require me to do many of the same things I was doing before but with the added and huge advantage of being on salary and therefore not feeling like a second class citizen as I have often felt as a casual (the lowlight being having a key to an office that I can’t use because all the desks belong to others. Is it a magic key? Does it open a portal to a desk filled alternative reality??) So I’m very happy and excited about all this but also sad and confused. I’m not an academic even though I’ll still be a researcher, curriculum writer and teacher. What am I now??

  7. Agnese says:

    I have still some months of hard work to finish my thesis, but I’m already thinking about my professional future. I would really like to work in academia, but I’m not sure to be ready to the personal sacrifices and the professional uncertainty of academia. Create my own business could be another interesting professional path, but with a PhD in the humanities I don’t know what I can offer to society!

  8. thegrailquest says:

    I sometimes wonder if having a PhD may not be a disadvantage when seeking employment… Yes, many people have stereotypes, and either think that Drs are superhuman or that they are just useless and can only function in universities. Why don’t you go to teach at the university? – I was asked during my first job interview. I wondered whether I should not have included PhD in my CV then…
    But the skills I acquired while doing the PhD, and the ways of thinking and managing projects, and meeting deadlines and presenting at conferences – it has all been immensely useful.

  9. Jonathan Downie says:

    At the moment, I live in this strange Shroedinger-style place that is both academia and industry, writing about research for academia and industry, getting to do talks at academic conferences and webinars for professionals. It’s weird. It’s fun and there don’t seem to be too many people there. It might be something others could consider. Why choose one world when both are entirely possible.

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