“Non-Academic” Jobs: more academic than you think?

‘My industry life doesn’t look that dissimilar from my academic life, to be honest.’

Abby Bajuniemi, PhD

Sections from this post also appear in the University of Birmingham’s Postgraduate Researcher Development Blog.

Nicknames at work can be telling. My partner’s work nickname happens to be ‘The Professor.’ He thinks it’s the mad-scientist-curly-hair that draws comparisons from Einstein to Harry Styles and everything in-between. I, however, know better. He has a PhD, and does some occasional university teaching on the side, but his full-time job is in medicine. He’s often surrounded by smart people, but there’s something about the way he operates at work that has bestowed on him this erudite moniker. The thorough approach he has to medical practice: his ability to reference the literature; his deep appreciation for the intricate pharmacological goings-on behind his patients’ treatments. There’s just something so… academic about it.

In her excellent book Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, Katina Rogers puts the point I’m getting at here better than I can. She observes that many people with higher degrees working across a whole gamut of sectors:

tend to see their work through the lens of academic training, and incorporate scholarly methods into the way that work is done. They engage in work with the same intellectual curiosity that fuelled the desire to go to graduate school in the first place’

Rogers 2020: 13.

In other words, lots of people with PhDs working in sectors beyond academia approach their apparently ‘non-academic’ jobs with an ‘academic’ mindset, thus blurring the boundaries between what are often unhelpfully dichotomised as ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ jobs.

In my experience many us with higher degrees can feel dissatisfied and underused if we’re not able to bring this rigorous, ‘intellectually curious’ approach to our post-PhD work. What Bajuniemi’s and Roger’s observations show, however, is that there are many roles to which we can apply this approach that are by no means exclusive to academic research and teaching in our subject area.

In fact, Bajuniemi’s quote comes from her essay ‘You Never Know: From Professor to (UX) Professional’ (in Fruscione & Baker (eds.) 2018, p.115 – 126) where she explains her transition from academia into UX Design. Here, she describes how she applies methodologies from her linguistics background to examining how users interact with her company’s medical device products, and how she presents on her approach at industry conferences.

Her comment about what her industry life thus ‘looks like’ got me thinking as I dug out the only three ‘work’ photos I have on my home computer:

Photo 1: Receiving a copy of a book in which I’ve written a chapter

Photo 2: Giving a plenary keynote at a conference (yes, my keynote shoe game is excellent, thank you)

Photo 3: The stack of work-related books with which I’d like to be spending more alone time

From those photos, what does my professional life ‘look like?’ Publication, conferences, overly-ambitious reading lists… why, at a glance you could be forgiven for thinking I was an academic.

So, if you’re struggling to pinpoint your professional purpose post-PhD, it may well be worth dropping the pressure to think about job titles or companies you might be interested in for a moment, and just… daydream: What does your preferred professional life ‘look like?’

  • What types of things do you see yourself doing?
  • Who do you see yourself surrounded by?
  • What impact do you see yourself having?
  • What types of problems do you see yourself solving?

If you envision your post-PhD career to involve things like tackling research questions, communicating research, and so-on, then academia isn’t the only place that can give you that. Just because you envision yourself instructing a room of people doesn’t mean that has to equal academic teaching. Just because you see future-you solving difficult data problems doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing that in a dry lab. Before we get to some suggested options though, let’s note some important caveats.

  • Caveat 1: My own post-PhD professional life hasn’t always looked like this. To claim that it has would hide a good 4 years where I spent more time than I cared to behind a desk, had to do my pretend-smile to a lot of sales people, and brought home marginally more than I had on my PhD stipend
  • Caveat 2: If research and teaching are what we know, it makes sense that we can easily visualise our future selves doing these things. After all, it’s tough to envision ourselves doing other things if we don’t know what those other things look and feel like. Hence, keeping an open mind and getting involved in some ‘other things’ beyond your research (if you can) can help widen your ‘envisioning’ capacities
  • Caveat 3: Sure enough, there are some roles in industry where a rigorous, thorough approach isn’t appropriate. Sometimes, especially in fast-moving industries like pharmaceuticals and engineering, work is governed by tight time and budget restrictions. Here, we need to show employers that we can ‘let go’ of our scholarly rigour a little when we need to, in favour of getting the work done and preserving the integrity of the company

Now the disclaimers are out of the way, here are some ideas for you if you want to explore how to continue some of your academic ‘threads’ even in work beyond academia.

Firstly, if you still see research as part of your post-PhD work, there’s plenty to go at here. According to a survey of STEM PhD graduates undertaken by Melanie V. Sinche for her book Next Gen PhD (2016), nearly three quarters of respondents were in ’employment that requires research as a primary activity (94).’ Sinche adds the proviso that this research ‘may or may not be in the field in which these PhDs trained’ (ibid.). Hence it’s worth asking yourself (like we did two posts ago with teaching): is your enjoyment of research necessarily tied to your academic subject, or is it also derived from the wider process of researching? Are there times when you’ve relished applying your ‘researcher brain’ to problems or questions outside your subject area? I remember one researcher telling me how they got a similar ‘energy’ from scoping out potential wedding venues as they did from researching concepts of masculinity in early-Victorian poetry.

If this sounds like you, there are many places where research-based work happens; for example, Chris Cornthwaite’s comprehensive list of 11 research careers from grads with advanced degrees. Anecdotally though, whilst I’ve seen many PhD graduates move into research-based roles linked to their specialism, I’ve also seen others branch out. I’ve seen someone with a geography background go to work for a private research agency doing outsourced research on transgender rights for a government department. I’ve seen a physics PhD work for an educational think tank and produce research reports on the career aspirations of PhD students. Jobs like these often mean you have less autonomy over your research topic than in academia, but you still get to work that researcher brain.

Moreover, it’s not just in jobs with ‘researcher’ in their titles that you can exercise your research muscles. Undertaking research is part of a whole host of roles that might mean little from their titles alone. Study job descriptions carefully, and have a conversation with the person named on the job advert about what percentage of your time is likely to be dedicated to research activities.

Next, if it’s links to the university environment and relationships with academics that you want to keep, there’s a whole micro-labour-market lying at the intersection between academia and what lies beyond. In the UK, organisations like the Catapult Network bridge the gap between academic research and industry, whilst companies in the AIRTO network transfer knowledge between research, industry and government policy. A whole range of organisations including professional bodies and membership organisations have roles dedicated to university liaison, whilst academic funding bodies employ people to act as their liaison with business, industry and academics. In these professions, your understanding of how academic research generally ‘works’ can be a real asset.

Finally, if bringing a more general scholarly approach to your work appeals, there are lots of jobs to which you can apply your academic flair. If a type of job has a postgrad-level professional qualification or accreditation attached to it, chances are it has a good deal of theory behind it and can be approached through a range of lenses or models. In addition, it’s also likely that continued professional development (CPD) is a crucial part of that profession, meaning that lifelong learning is also on the cards.

My job in career guidance is one example, where I might use social learning theory to design a career development e-learning course and present this at a conference run by my professional body (wearing excellent shoes, obvs.). Other examples could be marketing, counselling, academic librarianship, learning design (to name but a small few)… where there’s space to design campaigns, interventions or programmes supported by evidence, data and theory.

After a PhD, the last thing you may be ready for – mentally, emotionally or financially – is more study. However, there’s nothing to say that you have to invest in that professional qualification up front; a more entry-level role in the sector could even pay you through a qualification, whilst doing your own reading can in itself show knowledge and investment in the field at application or interview.

I want to end with a thought from Melissa Dalgleish in her essay ‘Ten Things I Wish I’d Known During My PhD.‘ In it, she says:

‘You are not an academic. You are an interesting, intelligent, flexible, creative person who at the moment does academic work. And if you end up doing other work, you’ll still be all those things’

Dalgleish 2018: 21

I hope this post has helped show just some of the ways that your future professional selves can still ‘be’ academic at heart, if that’s your bag.

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