Leaving academia after your PhD or postdoc, where to start?

Hi! Are you a PhD or postdoc and thinking of your next career step, maybe leaving academia? To start with the good news: almost all professionals with a PhD degree in the Netherlands are employed! On the other hand, although many PhD students start with the ambition of an academic career, only twenty percent finds employment in the academic world. Of whom even fewer become full professor…

Along the road quite some PhD students and postdocs realize that they will be happier with, or better suited for, a career outside the university. However, your supervisor mainly knows the academic world or is focused on research only. In the end, career orientation is not always getting the attention it deserves. So what to do if you would like to or if you’re forced to find a job outside the university? Here I will share some tips on where to start when planning to leave academia after your PhD or postdoc.

You’re not the only one leaving academia

The numbers above tell it all. About eighty percent leaves the academic world, and only a few percent makes it as a full professor. And still, quite some people think that they are alone in their struggles about what to do… But no, you are not! You just don’t know of the others. Therefore it is good to share your thoughts about leaving academia with your colleagues, friends or in the PhD association. In this way, you won’t feel as lonely, you can learn from and support each other and celebrate successes.

Professional skills

Your PhD title is not getting you a job. Employers outside academia (companies, government, education etc.) value the professional skills you most probably have gained as a PhD student, for instance working independently, project-based working, written communication skills including writing scientific papers, and presenting. In addition, they often regard your research skills, obtained by working on a really specific topic, as important. You can start making a list with your skills, and ask colleagues and friends if they can add more to that. Often we think that our strengths are ‘normal’ and not worth mentioning, while at others we value them way more.

Your training program

You can strengthen these professional and scientific skills even further by doing some courses. These are often offered in the training program of your university. In this way you might get a head start over the others applying for the same job. You might also think of developing new skills by following courses about for example guiding students, giving feedback (because these are relevant for collaborating), planning, project management etc. Moreover, these courses will also help you to get more insight in the type of tasks and work you would like to do.

If you’re an international working in the Netherlands (or any other country) and you are planning on pursuing your career in that same country, it might be useful to learn the language.

Know what you have to offer

The skills mentioned above are often called transferrable skills. You can use them in a variety of situations and jobs. In addition to these, you will also have more content related skills and knowledge: in depth knowledge about a certain topic, procedure or method. Or think of skills for building a certain set-up or programming a robot.

Last but not least, there is the group of self-management skills (qualities or strengths in other words ). Here you can think of being open, honest, communicative, dedicated, detailed, humorous, adventurous, observant, idealistic, quick learner.

Knowing about your skills and strengths makes it easier to see if a certain job will fit you. On the other hand, it will also give you a good basis for job interviews, as you can more easily answer the questions of the employer.

Explore new worlds

There are many more options for fulfilling careers outside academia than you initially might think of. Check your LinkedIn feed for ideas, and start with noticing the organisation other people work for. If it makes you curious, read more about that organisation and what they do (and how).

You might also notice the variety of jobs people work in, for instance research and development, marketing, consultancy, production, services, education, management, sales, policy making, communication etc. There are many non-research jobs at universities as well.

At career fairs you get the chance to talk to employees from several organisations quite easily and with a relatively low investment of time. It will also help you in broadening your network – more about that in the next paragraphs! And although the impression you get there might not be the complete picture, it will give some directions.

Your network has lots of knowledge

You might not always really realize it, but your network is larger than you might initially think. It is not only about colleagues at work or collaboration partners, but also neighbours, family members, high school friends, and team members of your sports team. They know about their own jobs and employers, and have an additional network of themselves. They will very likely be happy to share their experiences with you. A first step could be making a list with all people you know.

Did I already mention your network?

Let me be clear. I myself am not a huge fan of going to drinks and exchanging as many cards as possible with whoever you will meet. It doesn’t fit me, and I also don’t think it has too much use either. However, getting in contact with people that I can help, or who can help me, based on shared interests, that I do like. It has brought me lots of good stuff, like knowledge, projects and new clients.

Getting into contact with professionals who can help you is not that difficult. You can ask a shared contact to introduce you, or you send them a message yourself. LinkedIn is a great platform for this. A short and kind message or email, with a clear reason, question or goal of your request is key. And if you go for coffee or lunch, be the one that pays for it 😉

If the above didn’t convince you, be aware that these days about only about thirty percent of all vacancies are advertised in the ‘conventional’ way (job advertisements in the newspaper, on the internet, LinkedIn etc). About seventy percent of the vacancies have been filled in other ways, often network related. You won’t know if you will be one of those lucky ones, however when people do not know about you and your career wishes, you will miss the boat for sure.

You are not your work

We tend to say: I AM a researcher, I AM a PhD student or I AM postdoc, but actually you WORK as a PhD student or postdoc or researcher. Your job is obviously connected to who you are, but it is not the same. So when you are going to change jobs, or need to re-adjust your career wishes, and you are afraid of what people might think when you would leave academia: please don’t worry too much. Because you will still be a nice and valuable person and a good friend/partner/child/… And probably soon enough you will be a very good employee with nice colleagues as well.

You are not your work. This also implies that that there are many more jobs you can do. Therefore thinking of all the skills (both self-management and transferrable) and knowledge you have is a way better starting point.

Start today

As you might have concluded from the above, career orientation takes time. Doing some research, meeting people, doing a training and reflecting on who you are and what you can do, it all will take time. In the last year of your PhD, while finishing your research and writing your thesis, that’s exactly the thing most people do not have. Also when you’re at the end of your postdoc contract and as a result want to finish as much as you can, time is probably not your best friend either… So start in time, better today than tomorrow, and make some time for it!

EXTRA: Ten important questions when considering an important career step

In this blog I share ten important questions to guide you in your self-reflection. It is a short and sweet list which can headstart and help structure your search on what you like in work, both contentwise as well as practically. A download can be found here.

Do you want to read more?

I’ve published more blogs about career, personal development and burnout. You’ll find them here. You can also follow me on LinkedIn.

Do you need some support?

Do you have questions about your personal development or career (maybe thinking about leaving academia?) and do you want to learn more about how I can help you with that?
Or do you experience burnout or other stress related symptoms?
Please contact me to plan a thirty minute introductory meeting (without obligations and free of charge). This will give you an impression how we could work on your questions or goals. After this meeting you can decide if you like to start coaching with me or not.

On my English page you can read more about career coaching and burnout coaching and my way of working.

I’m looking forward to meeting you!

Photo Leaving academia after your PhD or postdoc: Ross Findon via Unsplash

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