Many PhD researchers complete their programmes without the skills and experience necessary to get meaningful jobs. At the same time, you may be more employable than you think.

Academic, life, and career coach, Jennifer Polk of From PhD to Life,  takes us through the journey – how to best prepare for the world of work as a PhD researcher.

The employability challenge depends on the field and of course on the person, but many PhDs come out of their programs without the skills and experiences necessary to get meaningful jobs.

This is true of graduates who are changing careers; it is also true of new professors, who may not have received adequate training during their PhDs to tackle the challenges of working as a faculty member.

At the same time, you may be more employable than you think!

Putting together stellar application documents — a big challenge in itself — will prove it to you. You may still be missing a few things, though. If so, don’t despair.

Networking, professional development, and getting experience (in whatever ways you can) will help you.

What can PhD researchers can do while on their programmes to best prepare them for work/employment?

  • Keep abreast of what’s going on in your target industries
  • Learn the lingo, and
  • Talk to people.

You may be able to shape your research and other academic work to align closely with work you want to do in future.

If you can’t, you can still network throughout your grad school career, volunteer or take on part-time or freelance work to pick up different skills and experiences, and learn what to expect when the time comes to actively seek your next position.

Embrace your hobbies and so-called distractions, too.

All that time you spent on Instagram may be what gets you your next job!

I blogged about the local music scene and co-hosted a podcast on the same topic for a few years during my PhD.

I don’t do anything related to that now, topic-wise, but that writing and hosting experience combined with my work as an academic researcher and teaching assistant absolutely helped me be successful in my current career.

It may seem a hurdle to favourably compete in the labour market with others who may not have a PhD, but loads of experience.

However, it’s important to know yourself well, so you can communicate your professional expertise and interests to your contacts and in application materials.

Great communication goes a long way.

Ask people in your (growing) network for advice specific to your target industries, as general advice may or may not apply in your case.

But, in general, you might have more success getting employed in universities or research institutes, academic-adjacent nonprofits, and organizations that value research and learning. Smaller organizations may be easier to get into than larger companies, but much depends on your network.

Remember that people change jobs and careers all the time — this is extremely common nowadays. If you’re doing that, well, welcome to the 21st century labour market!

Some fields hire almost exclusively from within. Think: academia, or fields where there are clearly defined paths to entry including specific education/credentials. Others will more commonly hire from without.

Many employers also expect to train their new employees, and they hire based on talent and fit as well as skilled experience.

As a PhD graduate, you have high level skills in several areas, plus experiences in a wide range of other kinds of work. You are a proven learner. You can get employed. Keep talking to people and applying (selectively!) until you find a good fit.

Concerned about the future?

The beauty of networking — and learning in general — is that you can do it now, even if you’re years away from needing to look for a job.

Read more from Jennifer Polk on From PhD to Life. You can also follow her on Twitter.

Jennifer Polk photo by Nadalie Bardowell ©