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What Nobody Tells You About a Non-Academic Career

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One morning last October, I put on my dress pants and dress shirt and climbed onto the bus into the city. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the last of the fall leaves, and there was a light haze hanging in the early-morning glow over the Ottawa River.


I sat in darkness darkness on the bus typing away with the computer on my lap. Most of the other passengers seemed to be asleep.

This was the one-year anniversary of my first-ever day of my non-academic career. Life after a PhD.

Life actually felt pretty great one year into working with my PhD. In that year, I learned a lot about the world and my place in it. It took time, but I don’t read academic job postings anymore. I’ve found a lot of peace in my post-PhD life, and my PhD is now just one tool in my belt for building a pretty fantastic non-academic career.

I remembered how I felt as my PhD drew to a close: scared, hopeless, feeling worthless, and I want to tell myself it’s going to be okay. Because if I knew then what I know now about the world, I wouldn’t have worried.

Here’s what I nobody told me about a non-academic career.

The jobs aren’t what you think

If you’d asked me to name non-academic jobs when I was still in academia, my list would have included: university administration, teaching in a high school, and writing for a newspaper. My ideas were as limited as my knowledge of the world outside. 

I thought academia was the only place you got to do the things like thinking, reading, writing, traveling, and speaking. I was wrong.

Now my list of possible non-academic career titles is much bigger. It reads more like policy advisor, stakeholder engagement manager, government relations/advocacy director, comms director, founder, manager, and president.

People routinely ask me for lists of jobs you can do with a PhD. And I have yet to compile one. Because the truth is that you can do just about any job. You just need to find a way to leverage your skills into your dream career if you have one. And if you don’t, you just need to try some stuff. But either way, you have so many options it will blow your mind… and exhaust my wrists if I tried to type a comprehensive list.

Check out the related posts (Links open in a new window)

3 Amazing and Well-Paying Career Paths for PhDs

Three More Amazing Non-academic Jobs for PhDs

The impact is greater

And the work itself? 

I always thought that university was where you got to do valuable and world-changing work. But in my one year of leaving, I’ve run multi-stakeholder, national projects on indigenous reconciliation, watched another one of my projects on Canada’s economy go through the Canadian news cycle, and watched representatives from foreign governments and the UN not just read, but compliment, things I’ve written. In fact, I drafted a document supporting refugee sponsorship and it was signed by cabinet ministers from six countries. I’ve met senators, politicians, ministers, foreign dignitaries, CEOs, and every other type of leader there is.

In one–yes only one–year I’ve done all of this and more. Life has been a crazy adventure that I never would have had if I was in a post-doc right now.

There are struggles

The biggest struggles coming out of academia haven’t been finding a job (that came relatively quickly) or having enough money or doing things I loved. The biggest struggle is just that for years I attached a certain value onto being an academic.

It took some time to unlearn that.

This doesn’t mean I regret leaving academia. I’ve not once wished that I’d applied for post-docs, adjunct positions, or precarious work—especially as my student-debt count drops and my net worth grows.

There are a few moments—when I’m feeling really down–that I look at the academic job postings. Then I remember how good I have it!

Seriously, the biggest struggle is just re-imagining yourself as a different person than the one you thought you’d become. That takes time and sometimes makes you a bit sad. But you won’t regret it.

I’ve reflected on this journey in other posts:

Check out the related posts (Links open in a new window)

Leaving Academia Means Rediscovering Your Purpose. And It’s Crazy Hard

This Is the Single Hardest Thing About Leaving Academia

The money is better

I’m going to talk about money for a minute.

Sorry if that makes you a bit queasy.

But I’m 34 years old. I had no retirement savings until recently. I had way too much debt. And somehow I’d bought the lie that 15 years in higher education shouldn’t elevate me to some serious earnings.

Do you ever stop and think about this?

Imagine your high-school guidance counselor telling you that there’s this great career option for you–you’ll study for 15 years and then make $60-80k a year at a tenure-track job. Then imagine them saying that you’d probably have to work precariously for 5 years before you could actually land that tenure-track job.

What if they told you that you’d have to put off having a family and buying a house because, even with all of this education, you’ll live in poverty.

Did you read the article about the life-time adjunct who died penniless and couldn’t afford her medical bills?

Maybe you’re not driven by the money. That’s cool. You absolutely don’t have to be. If you’ve got a cause–say you want to run a little charity and make $60k a year–go for it!

But if you want to earn—you’re well placed to earn.

I used to think most PhDs in non-academic careers made less than professors.

Last year I had a “paying my dues” year for my first year out of academia. I worked jobs that were frankly more entry level than I would have liked—although as you may have gathered from above, they were still pretty cool.

I always thought that “paying my dues” meant a free internship for six months or working for $15 an hour.

Last year “I paid my dues” and made $70k. With a PhD and some experience, this is going up significantly as we speak. If I’m not making at least $130k five years from now I’ll be doing something wrong. I know some altac PhDs who make between $150-and $250K a year in their mid career.

If all this talk about money is a little crass, forgive me. But I share this to give you a sense of what’s possible, AND TO SHOW YOU WHAT YOU’RE WORTH!

Yes, the money can be a part of the picture if you want it to be.

Check out the related posts (Links open in a new window)

How to Be Worth $100k With Your PhD

What Phds Make in Their First Non-Academic Job: Results From a Very Unofficial Twitter Poll

You won’t regret leaving

I live in fear of regret.

It was terrifying to close the door to academia. I was scared that I was closing a door I couldn’t go back through.

That’s sort of true, although the boundaries between a PhD and the “real world” are much more porous than most PhDs realize—both during and after your PhD.

A lot of people jump back and forth.

If you leave academia for a non-academic career, it will almost certainly take some time to get your feet under you. It will take time to learn what your options are in the new world. And it will take you time to build a new, amazing vision for your life.

Be prepared for this. It’s a period of darkness.

Once you put in this initial time, I doubt you’ll regret leaving. I certainly don’t. I put out a twitter poll this week on the subject:

Of course, I can’t guarantee whether you will or not. I was determined to build a life that was so great that I wouldn’t regret it.

And I’m working on it.

I don’t regret it. And with time, you won’t either.

Check out my book about leaving academia– Doctoring: Building a Life After a PhDnow available on Amazon.

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