Beyond the PhD: Facing and Finding Careers Outside Academia

Beyond the PhD: Facing and Finding Careers Outside Academia

French Library Reading Room Photo

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a graduate student in pursuit of a PhD must be in want of a tenure-track professorship. Or is it?

Although a PhD is closely associated with a career in academia, the increasingly competitive job market is leading more and more graduate students to look outside of the university following graduation. There are more PhD holders than vacancies at universities, and graduate students are aware that their degree, even from a prestigious university like Berkeley, is no guarantee of a professorship. 

This is especially true for specialists in humanities fields, as universities tend to reduce these departments first when experiencing funding shortages — something many universities are facing this year especially. For students close to graduation, as well as current postdocs, Covid-19-related hiring freezes have only made their prospects more limited. While many graduate students would like to pursue a career in academia, it is no longer practical to limit job searches to tenure-track professorship positions.

Despite an increased need for graduate students to expand their job search beyond the ivory tower, non-academic careers are a difficult subject to discuss with graduate students and faculty alike, especially at Berkeley. One graduate student I spoke with expressed her sense that the subject is taboo. When she told some of her professors that she is considering multiple career options, they questioned her intentions in getting a PhD. Another graduate student feels that his professors, while very knowledgeable about the world of academia, simply have little career advice for other professions. Even between graduate students, the subject of post-graduation careers often goes unspoken. 

Graduate students who decide to look beyond the academic job market face additional challenges — such as discovering what kinds of jobs are available and helping potential employers understand what skills a PhD brings to a job. One group at Berkeley hopes to bridge the gap between the academic world and post-graduation job prospects by being a resource for PhD students: Beyond Academia is a student-led organization, founded in 2013, “with the goal of empowering graduate students and postdocs to expand their career options beyond the traditional academic track.” Throughout the year, they host events such as the Beyond Academia Speaker Series, Negotiating Your Job Offer, and What I Wish I Did in Grad School. The largest event is the annual Beyond Academia Conference, which features two days of career panels, workshops, and keynote speakers.

Beyond Academia has remained active during this remote semester by hosting their regular events via Zoom, and they are still planning to host the conference this February. The virtual nature of the event will make it even more accessible this year, as students will not need to pay a fee. (Fees normally help cover the cost of renting out a space for the event.)

Through Beyond Academia’s career panels, students of all disciplines can discover the wealth of jobs available. For humanities students, publishing, museums, and policy institutes are common fields in which PhDs have pursued careers. Less obvious fields include tech. Beyond Academia also spotlights PhDs who took untraditional paths or found niche jobs, such as founding a startup or directing Kaiser-Permanente’s educational theater program. 

Finally, there are also jobs in the institution beyond the classroom. At Berkeley, the current director of the Institute for European Studies, the director of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, and major advisors in several departments completed PhDs in the humanities. 

Beyond Academia also holds professional profile clinics each semester, further helping students to market themselves to employers. Participants learn how to make their LinkedIn accounts stand out and receive networking opportunities. The program also invites professional resume reviewers from different career fields to provide individualized feedback on resumes/CVs. Skills gained in a PhD program have many real-world applications and a well-written resume, with the right keywords, can help future employers see the value in the degree. 

The reasons for pursuing a PhD extend far beyond job prospects. It is an unique, and frequently funded, opportunity for students to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. Many students embark on a PhD program to be challenged and expand their intellectual capacity. The culminating dissertation is the chance to contribute meaningfully to the discourse on a topic about which the student is passionate. The wealth of knowledge and skills PhD students obtain have a great potential to influence industries and fields outside of academia, and to contribute to the strength of the university itself.