See Ya! Thanks for the PhD
June 10, 2009 8:56 PM   Subscribe

I am getting a PhD in two years from a top research university. What I can I do now to help me get a job outside academia when I graduate?

I am a newly minted PhD candidate (just passed my quals last week!) at a R1 social science department. I love my dissertation topic, my adviser is great, my prospects for graduating in 2 years are almost certain ... but I want to leave academia as soon as I get my PhD.

Four years ago I entered the program fully determined to follow the standard path: dissertation, job, tenure. However, over time I have come to realize that I do not want the life of an academic. I want to be doing policy work, not researching it. I have nothing against a life of research, but it just isn't my dream life anymore.

If my adviser found out of my change of heart he would be very disappointed and probably pretty displeased. Needless to say, I haven't told him yet.

My question is this: What can I do now to maximize my chances of getting a job at a think-tank, government, non-profit, consulting company after I graduate in two years?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You need lots of friends in the space you're moving into. A perfect resume might possibly get you a second glance, maybe, but an ally in the organization can practically hand you the job by recommending you. I have seen more hires due to networking than I have due to any real assets on the part of the applicant.

I feel that this is one of the great injustices of our culture, but it's true. You need friends, or at least people who recognize you and wouldn't mind putting in a word for you (or even giving you the heads-up on an upcoming position.)
posted by Phyltre at 9:13 PM on June 10, 2009

Congrats for getting out of academe! (I'm enjoying it out here). A couple resources that I found helpful were as follows:

-WRK4US This discussion/email group is made for people who have a PhD in the humanities and want to leave the academic world. This website has several archived discussions by people who have left and entered goverment jobs, nonprofits, etc. I would peruse these discussions to learn how these people entered those careers, whatever format would be convenient for that person. Also, join the email discussion group and pose your own questions (I know there are several active members who currently work in...government, nonprofits, and I am sure they can give you tips and help you).

-I also left academe and I found that informational interviews really helped. Not for connections per se, but to to write a CV for that particular job, what employers were looking for, etc. I would make a list of these jobs that you are interested in and start may even want to google PhD and (job of choice) and (your local area). Email these people and ask if they would answer questions on the phone, meet with you for X amount of time, etc. Some people will ignore the email, but the ones who want to help will reply. Anyway, if you contact these people now, they can probably give you the best advice as to next steps you could/should take.

-If you can really narrow down a particular path, join an organization (ie, in my case, I joined the American Medica writers Association, and talked to members). You should find people in the field to give you tips, suggestions, etc.

-Can you join your alumni association now? Contact former graduates who are working at nonprofits, etc.?

Collectively, these people who are active in the particular jobs you are interested in can and will give you the best advice. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 9:29 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

The above is good advice: it's all about the connections, baby.

But my point is a little different: you may want to give your advisor the benefit of the doubt here. His job is to advise you, not turn you into a clone of himself. Even if he's disappointed that you're rethinking the academic route, he'll still have a lot to offer you, possibly including the exact kinds of personal connections you need, and probably better advice than you're going to get here. And do you really want to spend the next two years pretending you want something different than you really do? That would be a waste of everybody's time. Far better to just be honest about what you're thinking.

I know of what I speak, by the way - you're me, about a year ago. I talked with my advisor, he was more than cool about it, and his advice (and connections!) have been invaluable. Turns out, advisors like it when they can be helpful, and you're not letting them do that if they don't know what you really want.
posted by captainawesome at 10:06 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Go to functions that are related to the field you want to get into. Preferably, it has something to do - however obliquely - with the field you're pursuing a PhD in. Then, put on your red shoes and introduce yourself to people when it's time for coffee. Chat. Be amiable. Show your determination to move into said field. And: ask. Ask for advice, opinions, but above all: ask for help. Oscar Wilde once said that people who help you once feel an obligation to help you a second, third, fourth time (they want to be sure their initial help wasn't wasted on you). Abuse this tendency.

Often, when people in business see the words "PhD" on a resume, they stop in their tracks. I recently received one. However hard PhD'ers try to assure you that they have "leadership qualities", you know they don't have any experience, because they are book types and not people types. When they say "I understand business" and they include three references to studies they did on "corporate governance", "sustainable leadership", "leader preferences in a controlled setting" and stuff like that, a recruiter thinks: yep, sure.

So it won't hurt to start working on projects (volunteer work or other) where you can show some tangible, hands on experience
1. managing other people,
2. negotiating goals and methods,
3. obtaining results,
4. schmoozing and selling stuff.

Especially number 4 will be your friend. A PhD with an honest to goodness commercial flair will be hard to resist, because it shows that you have a brain but that you didn't seek refuge in some ivory tower.
posted by NekulturnY at 12:59 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sometimes the best path *out* of academia is *through* it. I'd suggest getting a tenure track job if you can and publishing very policy-oriented work in your early career. It's worked for numerous social scientists I know.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:09 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here is an article that the career planning folks at McGill (where I'm about to start a PhD) sent me about preparing for nonacademic jobs after graduate school.

Good luck!
posted by nosila at 5:59 AM on June 11, 2009

PhD here, working in an essentially policy-oriented job.

Everybody above has fantastic suggestions, especially the networking/schmoozing/contacts part. In policy, it's all about the networking. Not just to give you a job, but also as crucial sources of information in the policy process. Think of it this way; policy is kind of like doing fieldwork, and your contacts and networks are the gatekeepers to the information you need. Make friends with the gatekeepers, be careful not to piss any of them off, and act with respect and deference to them at all times.

All that being said (and please forgive me for inserting some dark clouds here), a great deal of jobs labelled as "policy officers" or the like are basically administrative jobs. The positions of power and authority that can actually feed into the decision-making process are extremely jealously guarded, because of the status they confer on the holder. As a newly-minted PhD, you will be starting at the bottom of the ladder. You will be a binder-lugger for quite some time, accompanying the bigwig to meetings, but not being permitted to speak. Your capacity to research and analyze data will be valued by your boss, and your opinion perhaps listened to behind closed doors, but please abandon any thoughts of being a "star" in the academic sense. You will work in obscurity, making a difference from behind the scenes. You will not be invited to speak, your boss will. But he/she will be looking to you to provide content.

Sorry to be so harsh, but I graduated from my PhD having been indoctrinated by the academic system into thinking that I was at the top of my game, and people should listen to me because of my degree (I was an expert, after all, wasn't I?). It ain't like that out there. If I can prevent someone else from suffering what I did, I'll sleep easier tonight.
posted by LN at 6:22 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you want to chat about policy work, please don't hesitate to mefi-mail me!

Good luck!
posted by LN at 6:24 AM on June 11, 2009

I went through precisely the same situation several years ago and was able to make a successful move straight from my PhD program into a consulting career. The suggestions above are excellent and need no reiteration.

However, you should definitely trust your instincts about whether to let your committee chairman in on your plans. Yes, he is your advisor but really only for your dissertation. He is not expected (nor is he probably prepared) to be a life coach or career advisor.

With that said, though, he will find out eventually and this will probably happen before you do your final dissertation defense. So be prepared to offer a thorough and compelling reason for your decision to pursue a non-academic career, to deflect any acts of retribution. (Believe me, I know whereof I speak when it comes to these matters.)

Best of luck to you!
posted by DrGail at 6:39 AM on June 11, 2009

If you're certain that you don't want to be an academic, I would start looking for summer internships in think tanks (or whatever) now. It may mean cutting back on the hours you put into the dissertation, but if you're not hoping to publish and earn academic prestige, I would suggest satisficing. It will take as much time as you let it.

If you're on the fence, why not look into jobs at policy schools? If you're excited about your dissertation project and reasonably certain that it will successfully place you in the field, seek out jobs at the KSG or Harris School or similar places.

Also, I'm not sure that the line between making policy and merely analyzing it is as stark as you suggest. In my field, it is common for people to do traditional academic work and consult on policy issues on the side. It can be difficult to see how much work variety there is while you're still in school.
posted by B-squared at 7:24 AM on June 11, 2009

Dunno what social science you're in. In political science, CRS and OMB hire analysts and methodologists pretty commonly, to the point of doing initial meetings/interviews at APSA sometimes.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:29 AM on June 11, 2009

you may want to give your advisor the benefit of the doubt here. His job is to advise you, not turn you into a clone of himself. Even if he's disappointed that you're rethinking the academic route, he'll still have a lot to offer you, possibly including the exact kinds of personal connections you need, and probably better advice than you're going to get here. And do you really want to spend the next two years pretending you want something different than you really do? That would be a waste of everybody's time. Far better to just be honest about what you're thinking.

I really think the wisdom of this advice is HIGHLY contingent on your university AND your discipline. At my tier-one school, it would be very, very foolish to turn to an advisor for advice about getting a job outside of academe. Sure, they aren't there to turn us into clones of them. But what they are there to do is to turn us into tenure-track junior scholars. And that's where their responsibility (and also, generally, their connections) end.

Best case at my department: they'd shrug and say they couldn't help you, then de-prioritize your work in favor of work by students who do mean to compete for tenure-track positions. Worst case scenario: they'd decide you're wasting time and resources taking up space in a prestigious program that is designed to produce academics and scholars (not simply degree holders), and you'd suddenly find it much harder to get your work read and critiqued, your defense scheduled, and your dissertation accepted.

(Of course, if you're an econ person, it's possible none of this applies. It's pretty common for economists to go out onto the job market, which is why those assistant professors get such big fat salaries if they decide to stick out the academic route. I'm thinking here more of sociology, anthro, history, and poli sci.)

I agree with someone above who suggested you slack off on your diss a bit, and focus on getting a summer internship at a think tank. It'll probably be unpaid, which blows, especially since you might already be in debt for your education. On the bright side, though, the people working for think tanks are the people who DO have the connections to get you an actual job that will help you pay off your debt.
posted by artemisia at 2:19 PM on June 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

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