grad skool rulz #25.3: getting non-academic jobs

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I’ve been asked by multiple people about getting jobs outside the academy. How does one go about it? What do you tell your adviser? When do you tell them? I’ve done a little private consulting work, but most of my adult employment has been in education. So I tread lightly here. If you feel I’ve missed something important, please tell me.

First, most professors are programmed to believe that non-academic jobs are a sign of failure. This belief is mistaken and very misguided. There are many great ways to spend one’s life and academia is just one of them. Still, you have to be careful when raising the issue of non-academic jobs. Some professors will be very sympathetic, while others will immediately start ignoring students who aren’t on the academic career track.

Second, you have to be fairly clear about your long term goals. Some students will temporarily go into other areas and come back. For example, economists might work in the policy world before returning to the academy. Engineers might go to Silicon Valley for a while. In other cases, it’s clear the person has no interest in ever working in the academy. If you are in the first group, you will choose jobs that will maintain ties to the academic world.  If you are in the second group, you don’t need to do that. If you can’t tell what jobs generate ties to the academy, look at the CV’s of your professors (if any) who have managed careers combining academic and non-academic work.

A few words about job searching. In most areas, employers do not seek out Ph.D. students. They are simply off the radar. However, employers often come to big research universities to scout talent from the undergraduate college and the professional programs. If you are interested in consulting, for example, it’s not too hard to go the meetings held for the MBA’s. Many universities are located in metropolitan areas, so you can also access labor markets with relative ease.

Professional conferences are a good way to make contacts as well. Most of the big annual social science conferences have employers around. The ASA, for example, usually has a booth from the Census Bureau and there are usually other state and policy groups around.

Then there is the issue of timing. There is no set rule here. Sometimes, a student knows early on that they won’t go into the academic track. My advice: the sooner the better. If you still wish to complete your degree, wrap up your work and just give your completed PhD/MA thesis to your adviser. Many folks will be reasonable. If you have a complete work that’s in decent shape, many advisers will sign off on it.

Other students don’t know if the academic market will work for them. So they are judging multiple options. If you still have a desire to go into the academy, my advice would be to “wait and see.” If you have your heart set on the academy, give it your best shot. For many people, this may mean multiple years on the job market. I’ve seen people get outstanding offers after one or two job market cycles. Take the extra year to get more published and increase your chances. Most PhD programs will let you stay an extra year or so if the market doesn’t work out. If you still can’t get a job after a few job market cycles, at least you can tell yourself that you did your best, and that’s respectable.

If you are at the point where you’ve decide to work the non-academic job market, tread carefully. At some point, hopefully after you’ve investigated your options well, you’ll gently tell your adviser that you want non-academic employment. Assuming you have a civil relationship with your adviser, make it clear that you’ve enjoyed your time and that you’ve learned a lot, but that you’d prefer a different career path. You harbor no ill will. I think that if you’ve given it your best effort, most professors will respond well. And who knows? Maybe they can help you find that first job outside the academy.


Written by fabiorojas

December 2, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Posted in academia, fabio

14 Responses

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  1. “Other students don’t know if the academic market will work for them…. If you still have a desire to go into the academy, my advice would be to “wait and see.” If you have your heart set on the academy, give it your best shot.”

    Would be interested to hear feedback on the following question:
    What if you have given it your best shot and are unable to get an academic job? What then? How do you convince non-academic organizations (besides the ones that obviously hire quantitative sociologists; say you’re a qualitative soc…) that spending all this time and energy on a PhD was worthwhile and they should hire YOU over people who have MBAs, law degrees, policy degrees, or – gasp – work experience?



    December 5, 2010 at 3:14 am

  2. Buzzy:

    Well, if you’ve been on the market two or three times and nothing comes up, it is definitely time to consider the options.

    Most of the people who I know that have switched were quantitative, so it is easier for them than the qualitative or humanities folks.

    Here’s my general advice:

    – every time an employer shows up on campus, do an interview. Even if they aren’t looking for PhDs, but ’em anyway. Do a lot of face time.

    – network like nuts. if you are the type of person who got a PhD, chances are that you have lots of friends in management, law, consulting and the like. use facebook, make connections.

    The idea isn’t to go head to head with JD’s or MBA’s. The idea is to exploit weak ties to find opportunities that aren’t obvious. Use your phone. Using my own networks, I know people in fancy law firms, politics, non-profits, and software. I bet if I were to ruthlessly bug people, I could get some decent leads.

    In head hunting, the rule is that for every $10k you want to make, it will take you a month or so to find that job. So a decent entry level job in the types of organizations that academics find appealing may take up to minimum 4 months ($40k) or more.



    December 5, 2010 at 3:42 am

  3. Fabio,

    In the UK, a PhD is 3 years; then you have to graduate, whether you have a job or not. Since there is little funding available for PhDs in the humanities and social sciences, many of us are self-funded and could not afford to continue beyond 3 years even if we were allowed to. Hence by the beginning of our 3rd year, we need to have non-academic options planned and ready in case we don’t find an academic job before graduation.

    This is clearly very different from the American system. Would you care to attempt an economic analysis of a system in which students can apparently stay in a fully-funded PhD programme indefinitely, until they find jobs?

    Also, neither I nor any of my friends who are PhD students “have lots of friends in management, law, consulting and the like”. We all have lots of friends who are PhD students like us, or post-docs. Perhaps you’re making the mistake of universalising your own experience, which may be unrelated to your academic career.


    Benjamin Geer

    December 5, 2010 at 1:36 pm

  4. Benjamin: Is it really true that *all* of your friends from high school, college and otherwise all got PhDs?

    I think this is my point. In academia, we tend to live in a fairly closed world. We think that our social world is composed entirely of academics. If I were trying to find non-academic jobs, at the very least, I would try my personal networks.

    To give a few examples: a guy I met at a friend’s wedding works at google; another guy from high school works in fund raising for non-profits; a guy I met from my high school reunion works in hedge funds in Europe. I doubt these folks could directly get me a job, but you’d bet I’d be on the phone getting information about how you get entry level jobs.


    Fabio Rojas

    December 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm

  5. As I’m sure you know, social science has demonstrated that the value of personal networks depends heavily on social class and other social factors.

    I’ve kept in touch with very few people from high school and college; for the most part, we all went our separate ways. Of those who I’m still in touch with, one is the manager of a hedge fund (a field I could never get a job in and wouldn’t want to, anyway), one is a freelance computer programmer (a field I’ve worked in and could probably get back into without help from friends) and one is just starting a law degree after years of working as a typist following a Master of Fine Arts degree. I have a few friends who work at NGOs, where paid jobs are extremely scarce and you normally have to do a lot of unpaid internships before you can get hired. Many of my friends are struggling or unemployed in Egypt, where there’s no way a foreigner like me could find the kinds of jobs you’re talking about, even if they existed.

    I think your evidence of the value of social networks in getting jobs for PhD students is anecdotal and US-centric at best. My own experience suggests that you paint an excessively rosy picture of non-academic job opportunities for people with degrees in the humanities and social sciences. As a social scientist, don’t you think it would be better to have real empirical evidence before making such sweeping claims?


    Benjamin Geer

    December 5, 2010 at 4:05 pm

  6. A further thought: Maintaining social networks takes time. As a PhD student, trying to finish my thesis while teaching at my university and spending a great deal of time applying for academic jobs, I barely have time to sleep, let alone keep in touch with friends.

    Also, I can see that my social networks have suffered because I’ve moved around a lot. Having grown up in the US, worked and studied for years in Europe, and spent several years in Egypt doing MA and PhD research, I find that the people I’m best able to maintain friendships with are the ones who happen to live near me. I see the same thing happen to a lot of people I know who have similar lifestyles: we end up losing touch with people we were close to when we lived in other countries. This has been exacerbated by the time pressures of being a PhD student.


    Benjamin Geer

    December 5, 2010 at 4:32 pm

  7. Benjamin: A little context here. First, I never said that finding a job would be easy for anyone. Nor did I say that *every* contact would lead to easy, high paying jobs for PhDs. In fact, the PhD searching for a job faces many of the same problems that everyone else faces. My intention was never to paint an the picture of an easy path to a good job.

    However, I do stand by what I wrote and I think it applies to people in many situations. Universities are places where employers show up all the time. When I was in graduate school, I seriously considered dropping out and actually did attend a number of recruiting sessions. Honestly, it wasn’t hard. If you are at a PhD granting institution, chances are that employers are on campus pretty frequently. Show up, even if you aren’t invited (ahem).

    Second, regarding social networks, I think you over read what I wrote. Of course, people from wealthier backgrounds will have better networks. But there is still a lot of good information in *most* people’s networks. The people I mentioned above I did not meet at an Ivy League school. Two are high school acquaintances and I went to a high school in a farm/beach town. Sure, of the 200 people I graduated with, most are in working class jobs, but many also went down other paths.

    Also, you don’t need to be very close to people. I have found that most people will tell you about their job and how it works. None of the three contacts I mentioned I consider close friends, but I bet if I called them, they’d give me time and chat for a few minutes to tell me about how their business works.

    Third, if you are a PhD, you are one of the most elite people on the planet. You have spent many years in universities, which are in the middle of all kinds of networks. The key is to aggressively network. Easy? No. But it’s what most people do who are serious about finding a good job.

    Finally, I’ll admit to being US centric and I never claimed to have a one size fits all approach to finding a job. But I don’t think there’s anything I wrote that a job searching coach would disagree with. And of course, it’s just an application of weak ties theory.



    December 5, 2010 at 5:51 pm

  8. Maybe your university is a place where employers show up all the time, but mine isn’t. In the past year, the handful of employers who have come to my campus have clearly been looking for graduates in the relatively marketable fields of finance, law, or (occasionally) development studies, rather than my field of Middle East studies. Oh, and there was a local supermarket. In any case, regardless of which employers show up on campus, this doesn’t support your argument about the value of personal social networks in finding a job.

    It’s not that I don’t know people who are working outside academia. It’s that all those people are working in places and/or fields where jobs are extremely scarce (e.g. journalism and NGOs), or where I wouldn’t have anywhere near the right qualifications. As for the ones I’m still in touch with, I don’t need them to tell me about “how their business works” (a phrase that seems to assume that they’re in a position of authority, which is false); I already know about their constant struggle to find stable employment and to make ends meet, despite being much more qualified to work in their field than I would be. In recent years, particularly since the economic crisis of 2008, I’ve seen many of my friends and acquaintances give up on the job market and enrol in PhD programmes. I don’t think they’re going to be of much help in finding a job outside academia.

    As for being one of the most elite people on the planet, it depends on you mean by “elite”. Sure, I’m more educated than most people, but I’m also poorer than most. And being a PhD student certainly hasn’t put me in contact with anyone in a position of power and influence outside academia, i.e. the sorts of people who could help me get non-menial jobs.

    I strongly disagree with your claim that universities are “in the middle of all kinds of networks”. My experience is that universities, in the fields I have degrees in, are extremely isolated from non-academic life, and that doing a PhD is even more isolating than doing an MA, partly for reasons I’ve mentioned above. Once again, I think you’re erroneously generalising from your own experience, and lack real empirical data to back up your claims. You might want to start with the figure I mentioned in my first comment in this thread. Did all those people lack social networks?


    Benjamin Geer

    December 5, 2010 at 6:22 pm

  9. So, my counter-hypothesis: if you studied the humanities or social sciences (particularly the qualitative kinds), and you don’t have well-connected parents, your social networks are likely to consist of people with whom you have elective affinities, i.e. people with similar interests, who are likely to be trying to pursue similar career paths. These are among the least marketable career paths outside academia, particularly since the last economic crisis. Hence your social networks are likely to be useless in finding a job.

    Side note: I was a social outcast in high school — precisely because I had the sorts of interests that would lead to academic study in the humanities — and I don’t remember the names of more than 4 or 5 people from my high school graduating class, all of whom are struggling like me, for the same reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    Benjamin Geer

    December 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm

  10. I think that the status of social sciences & humanities in the UK stands in stark contrast to that in the US – which is where I think some of the disconnect in viewpoints have arisen above. If you think americans don’t value social science, you’ll be shocked at the mix of mirth and mockery with which the british view the social sciences and humanities (apart from economics, maybe).



    December 5, 2010 at 8:14 pm

  11. I’m not convinced the US is any different. After getting a BA and an MA in humanities subjects in the US, I found that my only marketable skill (in New York City) was touch typing. At least my social network helped me get typing jobs through temp agencies.


    Benjamin Geer

    December 5, 2010 at 9:19 pm

  12. The humanities are the least marketable areas in the university. It’s going to be hard for the humanities phd no matter what. The bottom line is that humanities phds simply can’t depend on their department or university to do much for them. Period. That’s why it is especially important to be very aggressive in job searching.



    December 6, 2010 at 5:34 am

  13. […] grad skool rulz #25.3: getting non-academic jobs ( […]


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