How can you ‘use’ your PhD in your future work? Options for Arts & Humanities PhDs

A piece of paper showing a question mark written in pencil.

Now, Bob Dorough and many people after him have tried to convince us that three is the magic number. For me, for some unknown reason, it seems to be six. Perhaps that comes from my innate tendency to make everything twice as complicated as it needs to be, but in my last post I looked at how people with STEM PhDs can break themselves down into six ‘themes,’ to see how these themes might map across to different types of post-PhD work. The themes were:

1) Subject-specialist knowledge
2) Techniques or technical skills used in the PhD
3) Analytical, data and computational skills gained in the PhD
4) General scientific training
5) Equipment and materials used during the PhD
6) Skills and interests beyond science

This might sound all well and good for people coming from areas like engineering and science… but where does it leave those of us from arts and humanities backgrounds? I know, for instance, that after my PhD in English Literature and Cultural Geography, I wouldn’t have identified myself as having any stand-out ‘technical skills,’ or any notable ‘data and computational abilities’ over and above the odd bit of (mediocre) Excel and PowerPoint.

As for equipment and materials, if you’ve spent your PhD analysing and handling lightweight titanium alloys, it’s not difficult to see how that could be useful in the automotive, aerospace or medical sectors for instance… but if your main materials have been the deliberative speeches of Demonsthenes, or Anglo-Saxon maps of 7th-Century Norfolk, the applicability to jobs beyond academia can feel much more obscure.

So, how can we arts and humanities folks use our PhD skills and experience in our future work, and how can we map out our potential career options? To attempt to address this, here is the equivalent post I promised for all you non-sciency-types!

I don’t know whether you’d consider this a positive or a negative, but this model is based overwhelmingly on my observations of the kinds of work that graduates I’ve worked with over the past 10 years have moved into following PhDs in arts and humanities subjects. And once again, you’ll be glad to know… there are six main ‘themes’ at play (I’m nothing if not consistent…). So, here are the top six ways I’ve seen arts and humanities PhD graduates ‘use’ their PhD experiences to find their next steps beyond academia:

Subject area passion and knowledge

For many arts and humanities PhDs, it’s passion and interest for our subject that led us PhD-wards in the first place. Whilst academia might be the obvious place for work that’s immediately related to your specific research topic, there are other places where you can undertake work that involves displaying and promoting a passion for your more general subject area. Some examples are:

  1. Working for societies or membership associations linked to your subject area. You may have been a member of one of these societies during your PhD, as they often run conferences, journals and other projects linked to those fields. These kinds of organisations sometimes have roles involved in increasing awareness of (and access to) their focus subject areas; an example would be the Egyptology PhD who went into an education and public engagement role with the Egypt Exploration Society.
  2. Working for cultural organisations linked to your area of passion and interest. These could be in heritage, art, literature or other fields: think of places that visitors go to for cultural experiences. An example would be a English Lit PhD graduate who went into a lecturer role for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  3. Specialist consultancy. Has your PhD helped you develop knowledge and expertise that would be valuable to certain kinds of industries or organisations? An example would be the person who did a PhD focused on narrative and suspense in horror films, and now works as a story-telling consultant for clients in the media and film industries (I know… cool, right?).
  4. The obvious one… teaching!

Your understanding of how research works

Having done academic research, worked alongside academics, and even perhaps had experience of things like peer review mean that you understand the jiggery-pokery that takes scholarship from conception to publication. You might also have an insight into how research is funded, and have bid competitively funds yourself. A range of employers value this type of experience; including:

  1. Research funders, like research councils or other funding bodies. These kinds of organisations employ people to promote and manage their funding schemes, to make sure they’re in line with wider policy, and to support applicants and recipients of their grants. An example is the person who moved from a Medieval History PhD into an advisory role with The British Academy.
  2. University research support. This is where you help academics to identify and bid for sources of research funding, as well as other things like broaden their research impact and reach new audiences. An example would be the Italian Studies PhD graduate who moved from academia into a role as a Research Facilitator, helping humanities academics to articulate to funders why their research is worth investing in.
  3. Again a more obvious one… Academic publishing.

Your understanding of the PhD experience

I’ve heard it mooted that only something like 1.4% of the UK population has a doctorate. That’s a pretty small pool of people to call on when universities (or other employers) advertise jobs that involve empathising with the PhD experience, and supporting people who are undertaking graduate degrees or early career research. Examples of where your experience might come in handy for these kinds of roles include:

  1. PhD/ Postgraduate/ Graduate Student support. An example would be the person whose PhD focused on a specific area of modernist poetry, who went on to take an engagement role in a university graduate school, running community-building, social and well-being projects to support PhD researchers.
  2. Researcher Development. Focusing on training and development for academic researchers, an example of this type of transition is the person whose PhD research focused on early modern material culture, who now works in a university role designing and delivering professional development training for academic researchers.

Your research skills, methods and populations

Could you find work that would value, and allow you to keep on using, your research skills or your experience with certain participant groups? Chances are, if you can apply your curious, analytical ‘researcher brain’ to your PhD topic, you can apply it to other areas and problems as well. Examples include:

  1. Private research agencies and consultancies, like the Byzantine Studies PhD who went to work as a researcher for a consulting firm, doing interview-based research projects for clients like OXFAM and UNICEF.
  2. Government/ Civil Service research, such as the Theology PhD graduate who became a desk researcher for the Cabinet Office.
  3. Charities/ non-profits that value your research skills or understanding of certain social groups or issues. This could be for research-related, policy-related, or other roles. For example, the history PhD whose project looked at the impact of certain legislation on young people, who moved into a research role with a children’s charity.

Your causes and values

Your PhD idea may have grown out of your desire to address a specific social or cultural issue, or may even have stemmed from your activism in a certain field. Alternatively, during your PhD you may have taken on other roles to further causes you believe in, like volunteering, involvement with a union, or becoming a postgrad ‘rep’ to represent a certain group of your peers. Your commitment to, and knowledge of, these causes and issues could lead to potential next steps, like in these examples:

  1. Relevant charities, like the history PhD who developed a passion for equality of access to higher education through outreach experience during his PhD, and went on to work for a charity focused on helping disadvantaged young people into university.
  2. Representation: The gender studies research masters grad who acted as his department’s EDI rep during his masters, and now works as an EDI Officer in local government.

Your wider skill set

You are SO MUCH more than your PhD. I’ve talked before about how academia is actually lots of different types of work all rolled into one. I’ve already gone into detail about this in a previous post: writing; editing; teaching… what are your favourite ‘bits,’ and what types of work would let you do those things most of the time? Could you apply your writing skills to content creation or marketing? Use your teaching experience to segue into training and mentoring? There are too many possibilities to cover!

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. We haven’t event touched here on the many Arts & Humanities grads who go into something completely unrelated to their PhD topic or PhD-related skills. For instance, the Philosophy PhD graduate who took some free coding classes ‘on the side’ of her PhD and now works in software engineering; and the Ancient Historian who retrained in audit and accounting through applying for a graduate scheme. But the main point here? That you don’t need to move into a job based within your specific research field to put your PhD skills and know-how into action. You are SO MUCH more than your PhD! And although the ways in which your arts and humanities experience might ‘map across’ to jobs can feel fuzzy at times, I hope the categories above help to show that there are myriad rewarding career options out there for humanities folks beyond academia.

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