I’m really happy with the job I do now, working as an Education Manager for Science for Cheltenham Festivals, a charity known primarily for creating four festivals each year (Science, Music, Jazz and Literature) but that also has multiple year-round education programmes. I am responsible for organising the year-round science education projects, as well as the schools programme at the science festival. The organisation helps show young people the wonder, creativity and relevance of science, and encourages and empowers them to explore the subject. Since my work is primarily behind the scenes, rather than doing the teaching itself, I get to see the bigger picture and impact of the organisation, which feels very different from (what felt like) always focusing on the tiny detail of a research project. There are many other benefits that are more general to jobs outside academia, too. For example, I appreciate having clear goals, regular feedback on my work, and a balance of working independently and as a team. I also love the security of a permanent contract and defined working hours so that I no longer feel guilty for having time off. Nonetheless, my decision to find a job outside academia was held back, in part, by some common misconceptions. For anyone else with a similar dilemma, here are some of the concerns I had, and what I think now, looking back on them.
‘Your skills are useful only within academia’ – FALSE
Certainly, there are skills that I gained during my PhD that I no longer use; there is no need to perform statistical analysis using R in my current job, for example, and nor do I need to be able to handle seabirds or use a telescope. However, I still need to write concisely for reports, present results, persuade financial backers and keep up-to-date with current research. Other, perhaps less obvious, skills gained during my PhD that I still use include critical thinking, managing a budget, motivating others, and thinking creatively to solve problems. I still need to adapt, change ideas and continually learn new skills, just as you do during a research project. Even aside from specific skills, the resilience, self-motivation and independence I developed are invaluable in any role.
‘If you leave academia, your PhD was a waste’ – FALSE
Several academics said this to me when I was discussing what to do next. However well-intentioned (or otherwise) they might have been, they were wrong: a PhD is never a waste. For a start, there’s the whole ‘contribution to knowledge’ element, which is inherently part of any successful PhD, as well as the skills and qualities that you get out of it (see above!). I’m also frequently struck by other, less obvious ways in which my PhD was worthwhile. For example, as a woman with a PhD in science who continues to work in science, I am continuing to help overturn the stereotype of what a scientist is. Finally, it’s worth remembering that, outside academia, people change jobs all the time: it’s seen as a good thing to take what you have learned from one organisation or role and apply it to another. Why would it be any different, switching from a PhD to any other job?
‘Jobs outside academia are completely different to those inside academia’ – FALSE
Obviously, this depends a lot on the job. However, even though I am no longer doing my own research, I am constantly learning new concepts and skills, finding creative ways to overcome issues, and primarily working under my own steam. I still read research papers and attend conferences, except now they are about the education system rather than about animal behaviour. Even some of the practicalities of the job are more similar than I was expecting: my job still has flexible hours, and I can work from home when I need.
‘If you leave academia, it’s because you’re not good/strong/resilient/clever enough’ – FALSE
I think a large part of why I was reluctant to accept that I didn’t want to stay in academia was because I thought it meant I wasn’t good enough to stay in academia. Looking back, I can see that this wasn’t the case for me, and it won’t be the case for you either. By finishing a PhD, you have proved yourself to be strong, resilient, and good at your subject. Ultimately, it just comes down to whether the good bits of an academic career outweigh the bad bits and whether there is something else (anything else!) you want to try. For me, I know that I am happier now than I would have been if I’d have stayed in academia, and that is the best and only reason to find an alternative job.
‘Your CV must be no longer than 2 pages’ – TRUE
Okay, this one is true. And yes, you do need to re-do your CV for every job you apply for. There is loads of advice out there, but I didn’t find a blog that really lays out how to convert an academic CV into a non-academic one. A friend who worked in recruitment for years kindly shredded my CV, and it improved astronomically. Here’s his advice on laying out a CV:
Working out what I wanted to do after my PhD wasn’t easy. I had a disastrous interview for a job I thought I would walk into, and an awful experience in a job I thought I’d love. There are, however, lots of jobs in which you can be creative, contribute to society, and feel fulfilled – I just had to spend a lot of time looking at jobs that I thought I wanted to do before I began to find ones that were closer to what I actually wanted to do. If you feel that there may be something else that you would like to do outside academia, then I highly recommend that you go for it.
*Taking a job that is not academic research is generally referred to in these terms, but I think this feels quite negative. It’s not really about ‘leaving’ academia, it’s about finding an alternative job you want to do.