Transitioning out of academia



It’s been over five years since I graduated from my PhD – wow, how time flies. I remember often thinking I would never make it and then, suddenly, it’s all done and there are lots of questions to face…

How do I get used to the empty space in my head where my research used to be? What am I going to do with my time…? Do I want to continue to build an academic career or focus on being a practitioner in my discipline? Typically for me, I was dabbling with them both throughout my PhD and for a couple of years this continued.

When I completed my PhD, I worked as a sessional academic as well as in a professional (non-academic) role within the university. I felt quite comfortable within the university world, I knew the language, the environment, it was safe and comfortable. However, that wasn’t enough for me!

Three years ago, I left the university and opened my own business – a psychology practice. While it was pretty scary, I found so many of the skills e.g., time and project management, self-discipline, I developed during my PhD really helped me with this transition.

I still remain linked to the academic environment by consulting to universities and providing psychology and career services to PhD candidates and Post-docs as part of my business. Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, my PhD was the gateway to all the opportunities I’ve had in the past 5 years and for that I am grateful.

Here is some of what I have learned over that time.

Post PhD life is what YOU make it – it can be scary, exciting, daunting, challenging, disappointing and rewarding all rolled into one. Disillusionment can run high in the post-submission period as having a PhD does not guarantee a job, respect or even feeling better about yourself. All of that is down to you as being awarded the PhD is recognition of the hard work and accomplishments you achieved during your research project.

Yes, feel proud, but do not feel entitled.

Just like anyone who is undertaking a form of career transition, there can be hurdles which need to be jumped. It is rare for the ideal position to be waiting just for you. Not to say it doesn’t happen sometimes, however, in my experience it is rare. The people who do manage to achieve it have generally been really proactive in developing their career during their PhD by building academic and industry ready skills and developing links within various communities to broaden their career options.

While I was completing my PhD, I volunteered and worked part-time outside the university in my profession to develop practical skills in my discipline. I also applied for and received an industry-based research grant, tutored throughout my degree, co-supervised students, and wrote publications in order to keep my academic options open. I know many other past and current PhD candidates who do similar.

It is worth remembering that not many people, outside your research area, understand what your research is about and, to be honest, not many in the outside world actually care. This can feel pretty disappointing as, after all, you have lived and breathed it for years.

Learning how to simply explain your research and how it applies to the non-academic world is pretty important if you are ever asked about your research and if you want to be able to talk with people outside your research area. While it may feel like you are ‘dumbing it down’, it is a key ingredient to maintaining relationships during your PhD and afterwards.

My approach was to have a few simple dot points about my research prepared just in case someone asked and then I’d expand further if they showed interest or asked questions. I learnt very quickly to recognise that glazed eyes are a sign to change topic and to not take it personally!

When you are engrossed in university life, it can be difficult to realise that very few people, outside academia, know how you ‘do a PhD’. I seriously think that the majority of people, including employers, think that you just sit around talking in depth about nebulous topics rather than actually doing any ‘real’ work.

It is up to us, PhD candidates and Post-doc’s, to correct this misperception. There are so many skills you develop over the course of your research that are highly valuable and if you want a career inside or outside academia, learning how to articulate these skills is vital.

One of the activities I do as part of my Resilient Researcher program and with individual clients is skills auditing and mapping so that there is an awareness of the skills being developed and any requiring development. I am always surprised at how few skills participants thought they had prior to the activity and the increased confidence they demonstrate afterwards. This information is key to enabling you to build a broad and adaptable skill set which is transferable to multiple environments.

I thought that once I got my PhD I would automatically feel comfortable with being a ‘Dr’. However, it can take a while to step into the shoes. There was a sense of loss and adjustment when I no longer had my PhD as a reference point.

It took me at least 12 months to stop reacting with shock and surprise when people called me ‘Dr’ and to actually feel I owned the title. Even though I am more comfortable with it now, there are many times I don’t mention I have a PhD if it is not relevant information or could lead to people stereotyping me based on their expectations.

A few years ago, I was interviewed for a position. Following the interview I was told that the main reason I was selected was because they had never interviewed someone with a PhD before and wanted to see how I would go. Apparently, the panel were surprised that I could speak simple English and they could understand what I said!

I have to admit I do miss aspects of the academic and research environment. I never thought I would say that, but I do. I miss the solitude; the ability to focus on a task; to really, really think about an issue; to identify a research question; to develop an hypothesis and then to test if it is true; and the opportunity to debate and discuss with like-minded peers and colleagues. It really is a unique environment.

There are also lots of things I don’t miss; however, that’s another story!

Author Bio: Shari Walsh runs her own business called ‘Growth Psychology’ and specialises in helping PhD students develop a successful post-PhD career both inside and outside of academia, amongst other things.