Career crossroads: Expanding your career search beyond academia

“A career path is rarely a path at all. A more interesting life is usually a more crooked, winding path of missteps, luck and vigorous work. It is almost always a clumsy balance between the things you try to make happen and the things that happen to you.”

–Tom Freston​

Blank street crossing sign

The nature of work continues to evolve, and so too does the demand for a highly-skilled labour market (PDF). PhD production has increased significantly since the early 2000’s, but academic appointments have not risen to meet the demand for them. Recognizing the difficulty in securing a tenure-track appointment, PhD students have expressed uncertainty in their labour market outcomes as graduation approaches. However, there are a growing number of careers beyond academia that PhD graduates are well-suited to pursue. Despite this, many students are unaware of available resources to prepare them for careers outside of academia, as discussed by Jelena Borovac, Jonathan Turner, and Rosanna Tamburri, among others.

Those who are aware of non-academic career opportunities may be unsure of how to repackage their skills outside of academia. For this reason, there is significant value in fostering students’ professional development for careers in all sectors. Doing so doesn’t require an overhaul of PhD programs or the skills they impart. PhD students are already equipped with the necessary skills needed to thrive in these sectors. Instead, these initiatives need to demonstrate to students how to translate their skills in a way that is of interest to employers outside of the academic realm.

In order to aid PhD students in their career transitions, some institutions have undertaken initiatives designed to increase awareness and preparation for versatile career paths. At the University of Waterloo, one such initiative is the Non-Academic Career Conference, presented by GRADventure. My previous attendance at this conference has had a significant impact on my career preparation since then.

What I felt was one of the greatest strengths of the conference was its ability to break large-scale concepts into manageable tasks. Participants were shown how to translate our skills to non-academic audiences by converting our CV to a résumé, practicing our “elevator pitch (PDF),” and explaining how to conduct an informational interview. These sessions inspired me to reinvent my résumé, search for careers beyond academia that are of interest to me, and conduct informational interviews with employees in these positions.

Doing so has shown me how well-suited PhD graduates are for a multitude of career paths. Some non-academic careers are tightly linked to the academic sector, employing many of the hard skills we foster during our PhD. Examples include: a familiarity with research ethics, statistical competencies, grant writing experience, and so forth. Other careers may be highly differentiated from the academic sector, but PhD’s remain well prepared for these positions because of the soft skills we have developed. Skills such as project management, critical thinking, and time management are highly marketable across employment sectors. However, graduate students must know how to (re)package these skills in a way that’s of interest to employers in order to sell ourselves and our experience. 

No matter what students’ career aspirations are, I highly recommend they make use of the non-academic career preparation initiatives available. Doing so has made what may seem like an unsurmountable task, at times, much more manageable.

Brittany Etmanski is a PhD Candidate in the department of Sociology & Legal Studies. Her SSHRC-funded doctoral research focuses on the versatile employment outcomes of recent PhD graduates. In particular, it aims to demystify available career pathways beyond academia, and identify the experiences that aid graduates in obtaining these positions.

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