‘The biggest challenge you’re likely to face […] is the perception that you’re overqualified for entry-level positions, but underqualified for more senior listings. This double-edged sword threatens most academics as they depart higher education.’
If I could ask a Careers Adviser Fairy Godmother to grant me a simple, practical answer to one PhD careers challenge, it would be THIS. Before I get distracted with composing a detailed character profile for my Careers Adviser Fairy Godmother (the only thing I have right now is that she’s definitely wearing a cardigan), let’s see if any of this sounds familiar to any of you.
In academia, the next ‘level’ up from PhD is postdoc. The clue’s in the name. But what if you’re looking beyond academia? You might see ‘graduate jobs’ advertised… but with a PhD, do you still count as a ‘graduate?’ Or will ‘graduate’ employers consider you a strange creature just arrived from the alien plains of academia? Then turning to roles looking for a current ‘professional’ rather than a fresh graduate, lo and behold, everything seems to ask for five years’ experience and a professional qualification. Where does this leave you?
Christopher L. Caterine sums the frustration up well with this Catch-22 from his compelling book Leaving Academia (2020) quoted above. Caterine argues that PhDs can overcome the perception of being either overqualified or under-experienced by emphasising ‘how you study rather than what you study’ (89): that is, moving away from presenting yourself as a ‘subject-matter expert’, and instead presenting yourself as someone who has managed projects, organised events, successfully juggled myriad competing deadlines etc…. and hence has skills that will interest the employer. Knowing the confusion this Catch-22 can cause, though, I wanted to try to devise some kind of framework that might help even a handful of people with PhDs navigate this conundrum.
Here is said vain attempt.
Part one: The Background
As is the Standard Careers Adviser Response to Everything, there really are no hard and fast rules as to what level of job you can apply for following a doctorate. The answer will almost certainly depend on your individual circumstances and the sector to which you are applying. I do, however, think that we can look at some real-life examples for a few guiding principles.
First, Person A: a PhD biochemist with no formal industry experience, applying for a Senior Scientist role in a large pharmaceutical company. This level of role typically asks for postdoc experience. However… Person A has worked extensively with biochemistry techniques relevant to the role. Their PhD crossed over with very early-stage drug discovery, meaning they have experience of methods used in this area of the industry, like compound profiling. They get the job. P.S. their cover letter was stunning.
Next, Person B has just finished a Classics PhD. They’re going for roles in several industries including higher education and publishing. During their PhD, they helped their supervisor edit an essay collection, involving a lot of liaison with, and giving feedback to, humanities academics. From a time when they were considering postdoc fellowships, they’ve also got a decent knowledge of the main funders of humanities research and their requirements. They’re offered a Research Support role in a university, helping academics in humanities subjects identify and bid for research grants, on the same job grade as a postdoc.
Finally, Person C has been doing a PhD in Sports Science: a clinical study looking at the benefits of cardiovascular exercise on a certain patient group. They’ve done bits of fundraising with a student society but have never had a paid role in the charity sector. They apply for many roles in charities and land a Fundraising Officer job with an outdoor-pursuits-based charity. The role is one grade up from the lowest entry level (Fundraising Assistant) and has previously been done by someone with a Bachelor’s degree.
Part two: The Framework
None of the people above had full-time, salaried experience in the sectors they moved into (pharmaceuticals, grant administration and charity fundraising). However, we can see that:
- They all ‘went in’ at different levels;
- The jobs they went into all differ in ‘distance’ from their existing experience and their PhD work.
Let’s look at point 2 more closely now, by breaking each person’s job down into four main aspects of ‘difference’ from what they’d been doing in and around their PhD:
- ‘Subject area’: the academic subject(s) associated with the job and its context (if any);
- Work activities: the things you actually do in the job day-to-day;
- Work environment/ sector: the occupational sector you work in and type of workplace;
- Mission: the main motivations or the ‘cause’ behind the role/ organisation.
Now let’s apply this framework to our examples:
- ‘Subject area:’ Very similar. It’s a ‘biochemistry’ job
- Work activities: Very similar to their PhD (using same lab techniques etc.)
- Working environment: Somewhat similar. Still a lab-based, research-focused environment. They’re now in an industry lab though, which will operate differently and probably at a faster pace than academia
- Mission: Somewhat different. The mission of their current company is to “develop medicines that make a meaningful difference to patients’ lives,” so compared to the PhD there’s more focus on the product and patient than just on the science itself
- ‘Subject area’: Somewhat similar. It’s a ‘grant admin’ job, but still based in the humanities
- Work activities: Somewhat similar not to their actual PhD work, but to things they did ‘around the edges’ of it (the liaising with academics and editing their writing)
- Working environment: Similar. Still in a university environment, surrounded by humanities academics
- Mission: Different. Their mission is now to support academics bringing in funding rather than doing the research themselves
- Subject area: Some slight similarity. It’s a ‘fundraising job’ linked to PR and marketing, but it applies these things to a context of sport/physical activity
- Work activities: Different. Their PhD days were spent doing physiological tests on participants and collecting and analysing data. Now, they spend a lot of time organising sponsored expeditions to raise money for charity
- Working environment: Different. They’ve gone from clinical to a mixture of office- and outdoor-based work, working for a small non-profit
- Mission: Somewhat similar. Their research examined the benefits of exercise, and the mission of their new employer is to encourage young people to lead active lifestyles.
These examples seem to suggest that the larger the differences in subject, activities, environment and mission between someone’s PhD (and/ or other experience) and a job, the lower the entry level needed to ‘get in.’ If we try to make a ‘triple jump’ (i.e. go for a job that involves significant changes to three of these aspects) then it’s likely that we need to aim at a more entry-level role than if we’re making a ‘single jump’ where we’re only significantly changing one (or slightly changing a few) of these aspects.
Let’s now try to put this into some context by using research and higher education as our reference point. Bear with me.
Let’s start by hugely over-generalising and say that a postdoc Research Fellow role at a research-focused university in the UK is usually somewhere around ‘Grade 7’ level, where grades go up to 9 or 10. If we map that across to the non-academic roles in that university, ‘Grade 7’ tends to be broadly equivalent to an established professional, or standard ‘manager’ level, like a Project Manager or Marketing Manager.
Now, a postdoc role would likely have some significant similarities in subject, work activities, work environment and mission to a PhD. So, if we’re changing more than we would change if we were moving into a postdoc in a related research area then we’re effectively making a kind of career change. So, the rule seems to be that we need to look at a lower entry level than that Grade 7 equivalent (e.g. look at ‘Officer’ or ‘Assistant’ level). If we’re looking at a role with high degrees of similarity across subject area, activities, environment and/or mission (like Person A), we might be able to aim at Grade 7 equivalent or above, at a ‘Manager’ or ‘Senior’ level role.
Part 3: The lessons, and an apology
I acknowledge that this model has limited use in some sectors, including those which offer PhD-exclusive routes to change career (e.g. strategy consulting) and those that expect heaps of voluntary experience for even an entry-level role (I’m thinking heritage, museums and galleries, NGO work etc.). I also acknowledge that no sooner have I tried to devise a model than I am already apologising for it (analyse that, if you will…). Whether that’s helped, or just flummoxed you even further, just be sure to:
- Figure out the work activities, environment and mission of the job in question. How big of a ‘jump’ are they from what you’ve been doing in and around your PhD/ current job/ other experience? If you don’t know, do some research into the organisation and role. Even better, talk to people who work there or are currently in a similar role. A careers service or alumni office can be a useful sources of ‘warm’ alumni contacts.
- Address ‘under-qualification’: Work out the non-negotiables. If you find a certain type of job that you’re looking at consistently asking for a professional qualification or X years’ experience, reach out to people working in that industry to check if those requirements really are set in stone. Frame your experience positively: for example, if it’s an editing role asking for 2 years’ ‘relevant experience’ and you’ve been co-editor of a postgrad journal for 2 years, you may not have been paid but you’ve probably learned a lot about editing. So if you’ve got some slightly different evidence that still shows you’d be able to do the job well, tell them about that.
- Address ‘over-qualification’: If it’s likely you’ll be targeting more entry-level roles, anticipate that the employer might think ‘why is someone with a PhD applying for this… won’t they run as soon as an academic job comes up?’ If you really want/ need the job, this means constructing a convincing case as to why that job is a conscious career choice for you. To do this, work those points of similarity: if the job involves very similar activities to things you’ve done before, emphasise these. If it’s connected to a ‘mission’ that you’ve been working towards in your research, volunteering or activism, express this. More on this in future posts; in the meantime here’s how not to do it, as demonstrated by yours truly.
- Suss the hierarchy: Use job boards that focus on the sector in question to get a sense of the job titles used and how they correspond to each other in terms of seniority. Use LinkedIn alumni search to find out at which level or job title other people with backgrounds similar to you have started.
- Make the most of recruiters: If you’re seeking positions in a certain sector, having a tailored professional conversation with a consultant from a recruitment agency specialising in that sector can help. Recruitment consultants are well connected in their fields and often have detailed knowledge of recruitment practices on issues from the level of role feasible for someone with your background, to which hiring managers have a track record of employing candidates with higher degrees.