Updated March 6, 2023
A question that I get asked a lot at Roostervane is how to build non-academic experience. There’s nothing wrong with academic experience, and I’ve talked in other posts about great skills your degree gave you.
Today I want to give some ideas for how you can actually create non-academic experience while you study, boosting your resume and making it easier to step out of academia.
And since the vast majority of PhDs will work outside of academia, it really makes sense to try to maximize your non-academic exposure.
Disclaimer #1: Remember, some degree programs have stipulations for how much work and what type of work you can do. It’s worth checking these. And even more importantly, if you are studying in a foreign country on a student visa, it is up to you to figure out if you’re allowed to work and how much. Please don’t get yourself deported!
Disclaimer #2: Your personal time and mental health are important. This is not a command to side hustle at all costs, but rather some ideas for those of you who have the time and energy to build something on the side.
Here’s how you can build non-academic experience.
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1. Get a job
Damn, it seems so obvious. But let me tell you, almost zero PhDs that I meet have any sort of non-academic work on their radar, at least while they’re studying.
And, to be honest, it makes some sort of sense. A PhD is labor-intensive, all-consuming, and an enormous undertaking, so if it’s all you have time and energy for, I get it.
This is not me telling you that you should go get a job on the side no matter what. But for some of you, it might be a good fit.
Other than actual limitations on programs or your energy, there are a few other blocks that stop people from getting jobs while they study for a PhD.
First of all, there’s the expectation that the only respectable work for a PhD student to do is TA, RA, or teaching work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, they are certainly the norm to prepare you for an academic career.
But most PhDs won’t have academic careers.
So what if you put that energy towards a non-academic job instead? What if, instead of bringing in TA dollars, you worked as a policy advisor or bench researcher, or another role that would help you launch forward a non-academic career?
Most PhDs that I meet never think about it.
The other thing that holds people back is the mistaken idea that only a finished PhD translates into a job. Not true. Some other degrees work like this, you can’t go work as a doctor on the side before your MD.
The unfortunate reality is that most PhD holders will be competing in labor against people with less education. Therefore, we shouldn’t treat a PhD like it’s a certificate that needs to be achieved before your life can progress.
For most of us, it’s just not true. You can start job hunting tomorrow.
I’ve written a lot of posts about non-academic job hunting, and most of the advice will apply here. Start networking, applying, and just tell potential employers you’ll be completing a PhD while you work.
It’s likely they won’t care. In fact, for some organizations that don’t need someone full-time, you might be a godsend.
A non-profit, for example, that has a budget for a part-time researcher probably can’t hire someone of your caliber if most researchers are looking for full-time work. But a part-time research job might be the perfect fit, and it will look great on your resume next to your PhD.
If you have a PhD that has a really obvious market application, like hydraulic engineering or machine learning, have a chat with some companies in your field about working part-time.
If your PhD is more general, like a humanities or social sciences PhD, look for roles that will allow you to use your transferable skills as you grow your experience. You might look for writing or editing roles, research, or public policy.
2. Put up a consulting shingle
Consulting is similar to getting a job, but opening your own consulting practice on the side might be the perfect PhD side hustle. Believe it or not, the fact that you’re a PhD candidate already carries weight. People will be impressed by it; employers will be interested.
If you can put together a package of what you do in the marketplace, you can probably make money as a consultant on the side as you study. The great thing about consulting is you have the freedom to choose work or turn it down, and you can simply structure your consulting work to fit your academic calendar. So, for example, if summers are less busy for your program, this might be the time to ramp up consulting work.
3. Organize a conference
I know that organizing a conference is technically an academic activity, unless you organize a non-academic conference. But conference organization in academia translates really well outside. It’s a really great piece of non-academic experience.
It gives you project management and event organization experience, both of which are common skills to show your leadership abilities outside of academia. In my first non-academic role, I was organizing policy projects and conferences. There’s a lot of need for this skill set, and it will serve you well.
And you know what’s great? Organizing a conference is a huge undertaking, but it’s often a one-time thing. You can get the experience then get on with your life.
4. Volunteer off-campus
If you’ve got some time, why not volunteer it? Volunteering can be a fantastic way to give back to causes you care about, nurture non-academic interests, and can still look great on a resume.
Now, I don’t want to be too prescriptive about what sort of volunteer work you can do, but here’s something to think about.
Try to find volunteer opportunities that will actually grow your non-academic resume. Look for things that give you leadership responsibilities, or a budget to manage, or relationships with donors to build. Be realistic about the sort of volunteer work that actually grows your non-academic experience.
Another great way to use volunteer experience is to gain exposure to an industry you are interested in eventually moving into.
For example, volunteering on a political campaign would be a great start to building a career as a political advisor. Volunteering at a non-profit gives you a great sense of what working in one would be like.
Pro Tip: Set clear boundaries around your volunteer work. I meet too many students who end up trapped in cycles of volunteerism for organizations that would never actually give them a job. Show up and work hard. But when your allotted hours end, stop working. And don’t volunteer for an endless period of time. Set a date when you will finish and make it clear that you’d expect a salary if you were to continue. I might sound like a jerk here, but I’ve been volunteering for things my whole life. Many causes will take all the energy you can sink into them until you have nothing left to give. As the expression says, why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?
5. Work in student government or organizations
Volunteering for student government is one of the extracurricular activities that can also be a really good way to build non-academic experience. It exposes you to structures of leadership and decision-making, as well as important actions like campaigning, setting a vision, and representing people’s interests.
In some schools, like my alma mater, the of University of Toronto, student government means representing thousands of students. But no matter what size your institution, these types of non academic activities are great leadership prep.
You could also consider getting involved in campus associations or organizations. These will likely take some organizational chops, but perhaps even better, they may give you the opportunity to build connections beyond the academy.
For example, if you join the computer science association, you might be bringing in cool speakers from industry. Become the person to call and invite that speaker and build a relationship with them. In doing this, you can build your non-academic network as well.
And believe it or not, developing these apparently non-academic skills, or transferable skills, that can set you up for success after your degree!
6. Non-academic workshops
Why not sign up for a workshop on the side to grow your knowledge and skill set? It’s a great non-academic experience, but the right workshop will also help to build your network too.
If you want to run your own business someday, you might choose to take some business courses or bookkeeping courses on the side while you study. If you suck at public speaking, maybe take a public speaking course or join Toastmasters. Even Warren Buffet attributes his massive success to a public speaking course he took in the 70s. Nurturing these non-academic interests can set you up for major success after your degree.
7. Pick up a hobby
When I interviewed Chris Caterine, PhD, author of Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide, he told me that a lot of academics focus on school at the expense of everything else—imagining that single-minded devotion to academia will make you more successful. It won’t. He tells of how refreshing it was when he started hanging out with a craft beer brewing club in New Orleans—exposing him to different worldviews and ways of life.
Let’s kill the myth.
There’s nothing wrong with having non-academic interests. It’s healthy.
And picking up a hobby can be a fantastic non academic activity, both for the change in perspective it gives you from academia and for the people you can meet. Plus, there’s the mental health benefits of the hobby itself.
One interesting way to fill a gap in your career-preparation is to intern. Not all internships are created equal, some are employers exploiting free labor out of you while some are valuable, career-building opportunities.
Do your research and explore programs, and see if you can get into one that will help your career. There’s a list of the 10 best college internships here.
I was involved in two sports while I studied. The first was hockey; I played in a regular pick-up hockey game with current and former students of a few humanities departments. The second was rock-climbing. Neither of these two things were great non-academic experience, although both did expose me to lots of people working beyond the academy in interesting roles.
But if you got involved in a sports team, say coaching a junior team or even working a job with a college team, it would create some valuable leadership skills. (BTW college sports is big business, and you could build a whole career there if you wanted to.)
Now if you’re doing all 9 of these, you’ll never get your PhD done. So forget about doing it all! But pick a few areas that are interesting to you and build some non-academic experience on the side while you study! It will make the transition out of academia so much easier, and your resume will look so pretty with some of these things on it. Good luck!