Leaving Academia, but Sticking it Out for the Degree
June 20, 2014 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Assuming nothing goes catastrophically wrong (which might not be a good assumption to make, unfortunately), I should be getting a PhD in about 18 months. I'm about 90% sure that I don't want to stay in academia. What steps can I start taking now to have a smoother career change?

For various reasons that aren't really relevant here, I'm disenchanted with academia and don't think continuing in it is a viable option, but I like my research well enough and my adviser and I agree that I could finish in 12-18 months. I've kind of flirted with burnout ever since quals (two years ago) but I feel reasonably confident that I have the fortitude to see the project through, and I'd like to.

Being less than two years out from graduation also means that I have to start thinking about what comes next, and while I have a pretty good idea what that would entail if I wanted to continue in academia (post-doc --> tenure-track --> bullying and exploiting the next generation of scientists), I don't really know what it looks like to get into a different career.

I think I'd be most interested in something related to science policy/advocacy, but I'd also be open to science/technical writing, or even something that is more technical/hands-on, but outside of the academic world. I'm a pretty strong writer, and my particular research experience is heavy on transferable mechanical/electrical/electronic troubleshooting, and I do enjoy that aspect of it. Don't have the right personality for sales. My dream job, at this moment, would probably be something like working for CRS--sifting through large amounts of scientific news/developments and analyzing them and (ideally) being able to contribute to more informed policy sounds actually like the greatest job ever, but they don't seem to get very frequent openings in their science division, so I'm not counting on that.

Obviously this question is at least in part "what kind of jobs should I look for", but I'd also really particularly like to know what kind of things I can do in the next year, under the constraints of being in the last stretch of grad school (i.e., "take off 3 months to do this internship across the country" is not really a viable suggestion, "start making contacts/saving money to get into this program after graduation" is. I'm not against going back to school for a MPA/JD/other degree eventually, but I'd want to work for a few years first), to move into a non-academic career. I'm particularly keen on input on how to get into technical writing or policy analysis, as I have a (slightly) better grip on how to move into academic-support or industry positions.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
It would be handy to know what your field is. Applicability to medicine confers a very different set of opportunities than applicability to geology, for example.
posted by amelioration at 10:45 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're in the US, then get on USAJobs.gov. Policy is ultimately a governmental thing so it sounds like that might be your wheelhouse. Also, Think Tanks and government contractors might be other options.

I put Ph.D. and Policy in the search at USAJobs, and I got 318 jobs. Something might click. Does USDA or CDC sound like an agency that makes sense for you?

Go to conferences. Present or help presenters at conferences. Meet people, suss out what's going on in your area of expertise. Find out what titles other attendees have and connect with them to find out how they got their jobs.

But yes, fill us in, what's the specialty?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:51 AM on June 20, 2014

If someone at your university organizes career seminars, that is one of the best places you can learn about other options and get a better idea of what these other careers are like. If no one does, that leaves an opportunity for you to do it yourself, which would provide a networking opportunity. MySciCareer (partly run by MetaFilter's own easternblot) is another good place to learn about scientific career options.

I don't think you should dismiss the idea of an internship now so easily, assuming that the only reason you don't want to is because it will delay completion. Doing an internship lets you figure out whether you might enjoy an occupation and build experience and contacts at the same time. That will put you in much better stead to know what you want and to find jobs for when you finish.

You should especially look into the American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellowship programs.
posted by grouse at 11:00 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came here to recommend the AAAS fellowships. Several of my friends from grad school have done one of those. Some have returned to academia, one is a government scientist, and two continue to work in policy in DC. Several other academic societies have congressional fellowships as well--my dad applied for one with IEEE a million years ago--so you might also look at what your current professional societies might offer or consider joining other societies that have policy wings in DC.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:26 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're in the U.S. (and a U.S. citizen), consider any/all of the positions you'd qualify for under the governmental Pathways program.

Given that you're finishing a Ph.D., the most obvious one would be the Presidential Management Fellows program. Designed for individuals that have recently finished graduate degrees, the PMF program gives mid-career professionals a head start into a career in federal service. I re-joined the federal government as a PMF after getting my Ph.D. in 2011 and can't say positive things about the program.

As a PMF finalist, you are eligible to non-competitively be appointed into any position that you qualify for in the federal government, short-circuiting what can be a lengthy and difficult hiring process for both the hiring officials and the job-seeker. You are eligible for faster than normal promotions and with a Ph.D., eligible to be converted at a grade as high as GS-13. You can be appointed at either a GS-9 or GS-11, be promoted to a 11 or 12 during your second year of service, and convert into permanent service at a 9/11/12/13.

The program has changed a bit in the last few years. First, you can apply for several years after you finish your graduate degree (and for others reading the thread, any graduate degree makes you eligible for this program). Second, though you will be eligible to be converted into a permanent position at the end of the two-year program, the PMF program no longer requires agencies to convert all PMFs. Functionally, this hasn't changed much in my agency. All PMFs that finish the program and want to be converted (and are somewhat flexible about what and where they go) find a permanent placement. But, this should make you carefully consider the different agencies and their perspectives on the PMF program before accepting a PMF appointment.

I couldn't be happier with my experience with the PMF program, and highly recommend it to folks considering a more applied path after graduate school. The vast majority of PMFs are MBAs and JDs, but a handful of other degrees move through the program each year.

A few things to keep in mind if you do opt to apply:
1) The process changes slightly every year, and you need to keep a sharp eye on dates. Generally the application window is open for a few weeks in September, but I would start looking in August on a weekly basis.
2) Once you apply, you need to get through the initial hurdle of becoming a finalist. This changes depending on the year, but often includes a online test aimed at identifying future federal leaders as well as in-person interviews and problem-solving exercises.
3) Once you are selected as a finalist, the process is far from over. As a finalist you may be selected for a PMF appointment, but annually half (or more) do not get an appointment. You should be extremely proactive, contacting people from agencies you're interested in the moment that you are selected as a finalist. Be prepared to move decisively once you have a job offer - at the job fair often finalists are put on the spot and given five minutes (or less) to decide whether they want to accept a position.

Good luck! Feel free to contact me if you want to talk more about the PMF program or other Pathways programs.
posted by RachelSmith at 11:29 AM on June 20, 2014 [12 favorites]

Get to know your campus careers office. They might have someone on staff who's worked with students at your stage of the process before. They'll definitely have a calendar of events that you should keep an eye on. Career panels, job fairs, resume workshops, etc.

Have your resume tarted up in a few different versions: with a focus on writing, or on lab work/equipment/electronics, or on scientific maths and software, as well as a general well-rounded version. When you hear of a careers fair, go out there and talk to any company that's vaguely related, not just things that sound ideal; you can use contacts who you're less invested in impressing as sounding boards for getting feedback on your resume.

Start a Linked-In profile. As you meet people (at the career events), connect with them there, start building a group of contacts. One way you might use this network is to get in touch with people who have jobs you'd like and backgrounds similar to yours, and send them message/connections requests "Dear Ms X, I am a contact of Mr Y, and I was hoping I might be able to ask you a few questions about your career. I see that you (do stuff) at (cool organizations), and you list your degree as (degree); I was wondering how your background in (stuff) affected your entry into the field. As a student of (my stuff), I was wondering if you had any advice for building my resume in preparation for jobs like (dream jobs)."

The academic mindset biases toward thinking of jobs as being a super-important irrevocable step down a particular path toward your one true dream job; in practice, things are much less linear, and most jobs have a lot of different things that could be considered a "good preparation" in a previous step. My point being don't stress out too much about the far horizon, just optimize for the current situation. Choose a job that will make you happy for the next few years; and if you're wrong and you don't like it, try again. Iterate, and before long you'll be doing something awesome.
posted by aimedwander at 11:41 AM on June 20, 2014

There are some good communities for discussion and even job-searching:
Versatile PhD has stuff for both humanities/social science and for "STEM" PhDs.
Beyond Academe is oriented more toward humanities PhDs.
posted by dhens at 1:29 PM on June 20, 2014

I was really impressed by my
school's career advising program - they have regular workshops that provide tons of information on how the "real world" job market works. I also suggest a book called "So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:59 PM on June 20, 2014

Just a thought (and probably not a good one). What about science journalism. I listen to TWiV (a weekly virology podcast) and one of the hosts is a science journalist who did his PhD in virology. If you go to the TWiV (twiv.tv), you should be able to get to Alan Dove's website where you can probably contact him. He seems pretty approachable from listening to his podcast and reading his (mostly) off again/on again blog.
posted by kathrynm at 5:17 PM on June 20, 2014

I re-joined the federal government as a PMF after getting my Ph.D. in 2011 and can't say positive things about the program.

That should have read I can't say enough positive things about the program!
posted by RachelSmith at 5:34 PM on June 20, 2014

Who ,if anyone, supports your academic department? If it runs on grants, look to the grant-givers for inspiration.

My father was a PhD Chem engineer, and worked for a major chemical company. My son has PhD in computer science and works for Google.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:08 PM on June 20, 2014

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