Non-'academic' Careers for PhDs: Lessons from a Transitioned Life
For some time now, education analysts have observed a gap between the numbers of PhD graduates and available opportunities in universities across the world. (Please note the hyperlinked article references the US.) They have also remarked industry's skepticism toward hiring PhDs based on perceptions that they lack relevant technical skills and are too disconnected from the world. While we remain convinced that getting a PhD is a good thing (read more about that here), despite some of the challenges associated with doing a PhD in Africa, we are less persuaded that every PhD is destined for tenure track life.
These are some of the considerations that led Doing A PhD in Africa to organise an e-session on 21 May to discuss how more PhDs can transition from academia into other career trajectories. The discussion was animated by Dr. Ines Pousadela, senior research specialist with CIVICUS. This short piece presents key lessons from her career and insights from the exchanges among other participants.
Be market savvy
Ines' pathway into her current career as a civil society expert was mostly circumstantial. It was fueled partly by a mix of personal and professional factors but she has come full circle from university teaching to civil society research back to part-time academic teaching based on her current work. The key point here is that in her hiatus from academia, she developed a niche that led to an invitation to teach her knowledge at a university.
This spurred other participants to share on the importance of enhancing the visibility of your work by publishing it in different formats on various platforms, academic and otherwise (examples include Researchgate, academia.edu and Kujenga Amani).
PhDs are political
Ines shared that one of the reasons that she left academia had to do with the politics of working with global south degrees and experience in North America in those days (roughly 20 years ago). In contrast, she observed, people from the global south who acquired foreign PhDs, especially from prestigious universities, tended to have choice jobs when they returned home to the Global South. This was to say that dual politics of identity and location influenced access to university work. It's hard to say authoritatively what the situation is today without empirical data, but it stands to reason that where you advertise your PhD has some bearing on your chances of finding university work in different contexts.
Do you really need a PhD?
Not to discourage you, but depending on your career goals, you may want to rethink whether you actually need a PhD. As Ines indicated, some career options are more flexible than others (worth regard to entry requirements) and some industries are prejudiced against PhDs. Know the requirements before you start seeking work anywhere.
To succeed outside academia, you need at least two things: linkage and leverage. You can obtain linkage in a number of ways, including through your networks (see next point) and internships/experiential attachments during your PhD that give you a sense of what working in your desired industry might be like.
For leverage, it is important to foreground the skills you gain from PhD training—being systematic, disciplined and approaching things logically, among others, to make the case for why you should be hired. In interviews, show these skills rather than talk about your qualifications which will be evident from your CV. Take advantage of flexible talent hiring formats to highlight your strengths in an accessible way. If you do get hired, be subtle about how your training informs your work. Don't bully others with your credentials.
This can't be emphasised enough: Build solid social and professional networks. You can do this by reading the latest work in your field and connecting with the authors online or in person. Conferences are also great places to meet others and make yourself known. If you're active on social media (and you should be!), be sure to follow the accounts of organisations whose work interests you. This makes it easier to see what they're working on, when they're hiring and enables you to engage in ways that draw attention to your profile.