7 Steps for Building an Amazing Career With Your PhD

In the spring of 2018, I was stuck. The rejections from academic job applications came rolling in, and I didn’t know what I was going to do next with my PhD.

My mom made a few too many jokes about me being a barista—it started to sting a bit. And I was lacking direction.

The darkness pushed on me–some days it felt like it would crush me. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was lost and it was terrifying. 

I was mad at my supervisor, mad at the university, mad at the world. I was all-too aware that I was now 34, had way too much student debt and almost no savings, and had spent 5 years on a degree that (it seemed) would take me nowhere.

***

On an evening in November of 2018, eight months later, I found myself at a work event in downtown Ottawa–representing my new company. Dressed in my finest, a glass of champagne was in my hand. I stood chatting with a high-profile Canadian senator and a former premiere of a province (the equivalent of a state governor in the U.S.). The sun was setting over the green roofs of the Canadian Parliament buildings, refracting orange and red light over us as we stood and chatted about their backgrounds in journalism and politics.

They asked about my research and I explained that I had studied religion and migration, and they seemed genuinely interested.

As I drove home in my rusted-out 2006 Saturn Vue, a realization dawned on me. I could do anything I wanted to in this town. Nobody looked down on me for my PhD.

It was the fruition of a kernel of hope that was planted in the darkest times at the end of my PhD. I determined that I would fight to be whatever I wanted to in this world. If the tenure-track job wasn’t going to happen, I decided to find a path that was even more meaningful. And—above all—I had determined that if I figured out how to do it, I would come back and tell others.  

What follows is my first attempt at creating a roadmap to reinvention. It’s far from perfect, and my journey’s just beginning. But here’s what I know you need to do to build a career with a PhD.

1 – Examine your mindset

This is where I start.

Every day.

If your degree has you worried about unemployment, or you’re feeling lost, you don’t actually have a skills or career problem. You have a mindset problem.

So many people go through degrees and exit with closed minds, full of fear and self doubt. I was like this too.

The closed-mind mentality, the broken sense of self that plagues so many at the end of their degrees, these are so difficult to overcome.

So before you start anything else, start getting inspired. Get your mindset on track—believe that you can do anything. Because small-mindedness, doubt, and fear become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You need to cultivate hope.

You need to hold on to the knowledge that you’ll be okay. Be open minded about what the world has in store for you. And tell yourself that you have something bigger to give than you ever imagined.

You just don’t know what it is yet.

To Read More (Articles open in a new tab):

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What nobody told me about building a post-PhD identity

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Why failure is one of the greatest gifts academia gave me

2 – Rediscover your purpose

What’s the hardest thing about leaving academia?

The loss of purpose.

I spent five years learning to speak the language of my field, networking, and meeting scholars I admired. I believed I’d be spending my life working alongside them.

Then it all came crashing down. I didn’t know who I was. And, if I can say this without seeming too melodramatic, I didn’t know what to live for.

I don’t mean I was suicidal (I know some are), I just meant that my life lacked any sense of direction or meaning.

It wasn’t just about a job or an income, although that was a part of it.

I didn’t feel like I had a mission on this earth. It felt like I was going to contribute nothing to humanity, as the one path I thought I had available to me—the research life—refused to accept me.

I needed to take the slow, painful steps towards rediscovering my purpose. I don’t necessarily mean purpose in some cosmic, metaphysical, divine sense here. I really just mean finding where I belonged, people I could serve and help, and a cause I could devote myself to.

For a while that went away.

Life without purpose is a painful thing. And I decided that I wasn’t going to live a life without purpose.

I just needed to go out in pursuit of a better one than academia could give me.

And it meant rediscovering what was possible for me outside of the academy.

To Read More (Articles open in a new tab):

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3 – Explore careers

So what can you do with a PhD or master’s degree?

The better question is, What can’t you do?

When I started using the hashtag #altac on Twitter, I discovered that it actually began as a way to talk about alternative careers inside of the academy for academics.

That’s what I thought a career with your PhD was. I thought it was going into university admin.

Now, there are some fantastic jobs in university admin that, frankly, pay much better than a tenure-track position. So if you want to start going there, cool.

But I couldn’t bring myself to go and work for the beast that lied to me, and that continues to lie to other students, to perpetuate their degree programs. I couldn’t imagine the insult of going to work for $45,000 a year in the financial aid or admissions office at the same institution that sucked my money for years with the promise of a great tenure-track job, only to eliminate the jobs I was being trained for.

Nope.

I needed to cut and run.

Fortunately, I discovered that the PhD is a building block for a fantastic career outside of the academy. You can do just about anything you’d like to with a PhD, short of entering a regulated profession you’re not trained for.

Otherwise the sky is the limit.

To Read More (Articles open in a new tab):

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4 – Build your network

You may wonder why I don’t have a whole section of my site designated for resumes.

In fact, it’s because resumes are not the primary tool that is going to build you a non-academic career.

I’ve been to the trenches, so I know what I’m talking about. Jobs do not go to resumes. Jobs go to people. A resume is for those people who can plug their skills into a very specific niche in the marketplace, and even then it’s not the thing that gets jobs.

Relationships get jobs.

Especially if you don’t look like you can do anything on paper (which was true for me).

You have a lot of academic accolades, but employers don’t usually care about these. They care about whether you can solve a problem for them and their customers. They care about whether you can add value to what they do, or perhaps make their lives easier.

And the best way to convey this is networking. I don’t even tell people to network with the hopes of getting a job. PhDs usually just need to start meeting people, intentionally. Go out for coffee with 20 people. If you don’t have a job offer within those twenty, I’d be very surprised.

This isn’t rocket science, but it can be scary and draining for people who are introverts. For those of you who are extroverts, you’re going to love it! You’ll come away energized and excited.

But there’s no way through it.

Networking will build you an amazing career in a way that nothing else will.

To Read More (Articles open in a new tab):

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5 – Polish your LinkedIn

I dedicate a lot of time and energy to LinkedIn, since it’s a networking and job-searching tool. While it may eventually be replaced, for now it’s the market leader in this. And it’s a powerful social network.

LinkedIn is a place where you can meet people, expand your network, apply for jobs, and build community. And if you’re trying to get into a non-academic job, LinkedIn will probably be a part of your transformation.

We even started a LinkedIn group for PhDs to support each other with building non-academic careers!

If you’re not on LinkedIn, why not get on there this week?

Here are a few posts to help you.

To Read More (Article opens in a new tab):

I reviewed 53 academic LinkedIn profiles. Here’s what I saw

6 – Learn about money

I talk about money. Yeah I go there.

I don’t love it. It makes all my awkward British sensibilities tingle—but I think it’s important.

Grad students are in a weird money space. They’re poor and exploited. They’re reading lots of Marx and complaining about neoliberalism and capitalism. All fantastic and important things to do.

And then they get exploited and financially ruined by the neoliberal university that operates under a very capitalistic framework. They forget that their supervisors who are teaching them all that are raking in $160K a year and have well-funded retirement plans.

So I talk about money. This includes debt and building wealth.

Because I want a world where PhD graduates are building wealth instead of collecting food stamps.

To Read More (Articles open in a new tab):

How to be worth $100k with your PhD

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How delaying your post-PhD career can cost you +$500K

7 – Understand entrepreneurship

Last but not least, some PhDs will become entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship can look like a lot of different things. Some PhDs may start companies. Some may join startups. Some may work for years in a career and occasionally do a bit of consulting on the side.

I’ve been reading business books for years—a bit unusual for a Humanities major. But I’ve always been curious about how it works.

So when I got a consulting offer for 2020, I decided to jump in and try my hand at it.

I think more PhDs need business skills, even if you won’t be an entrepreneur. Understanding business basics have paid off big-time in each career I’ve had since my PhD. So why not learn as much as you can now? You never know when opportunity might arise.

To Read More (Article opens in a new tab):

 My favourite resources for PhD entrepreneurs

Conclusion

This is the beginning of a road map. If you’re feeling desperate, like I was, know that you have all the power to reinvent yourself.

Nobody’s going to do it for you.

You get to do it.

That’s pressure, but hopefully it’s also a little bit exciting. You get to control what happens in your career. So what are you waiting for?

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