For PhDs Seeking Jobs Outside Academia

With a new year and the new decade I am thrilled to be starting a new career with a new job in a new company, in a new industry. Below are some of the insights I gained from my job search.

Although this is written with PhDs in mind, I think that much of what I experienced and recommend will be applicable to folks outside academia as well.

The Stats


  • Aggressive and targeted job hunt lasted 11 weeks
  • Attended 30 networking events
  • Applied to more than 150 positions
  • Revised resume 22 times in six months
  • 22 phone interviews
  • 8 on-site interviews
  • 2 offers

I had several more onsite interviews and phone interviews scheduled in January, but these aren’t included in the above stats.

Job Searches Take a lot of Time

When I decided to take myself off of the adjunct hamster wheel I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to land my next job.

I knew I had meaningful skills (thanks, in part to The Professor Is In), I had lots of experience from my previous careers. And I knew where I wanted to work, and how I wanted to work (thanks, in part to What Color Is My Parachute). Those three things are crucial to setting parameters for your job search.

The BLS reports that the average duration of unemployment for folks in the States is about five months.

But another consideration is the amount of time that passes from being interviewed to being offered a position. Glassdoor reported in 2017 that it took an average of about four weeks in my city for a candidate to go from the interview phase to the offer phase of the hiring process.

My own search lasted eleven weeks.

Update and Revise Your Resume

When I was a professor I would tell my students that they needed to be cultivating a lifelong habit of consistently updating their CVs, at least once a month.

The academic industry is too cutthroat to be idle or to appear to be idle. This meant that my students needed to be creating or joining new projects every couple of weeks. Outside of academia it’s the same advice.

Between May 2019 and January 2020 I revised my resume twenty-two times.

Each of those revisions were intentional, and often tailored for specific roles I’d seen advertised, but they were not necessarily major changes. The major changes to my resume happened in three phases that reflected my progression through the bootcamp I attended.

Get the Training You Need

Earning a doctorate demonstrates that I am strategic in my planning and I have mastery of a range of tactics for accomplishing tasks I set for myself. When working through my various research projects I had to either budget more time so I could learn something, or I had to commit funds to acquire the personnel with the expertise I needed to get the job done.

I wanted to transition into user experience (UX) research and design. This transition makes a lot of sense given my background in both qualitative research and design, but I also recognized that I didn’t have some critical elements of how UXers do their work (like experience in Agile work methodologies, or creating clickable prototypes).

Most importantly for getting an interview, I needed to demonstrate to a hiring manager that I understand how to do the work and that means I needed a portfolio that visually demonstrates I can do UX work.

So, I scanned the horizon, saw the options in my city, and registered to take General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI). There I learned the coin of the realm, daily practiced the skills expected of a UXer, and I organized my life to support the habits needed for my new career.

Become a Strong Link in a Network

Becoming a strong link in a network means supporting the other folks in the network. That is the “work” of the network, the net is only as strong as the ties among the folks relating.

I believe this was the most important thing I did to land my new job in this new industry.

I learned about General Assembly (GA) through networking, I learned about UX through networking. I learned about both thanks to Christeene Alcosiba, a fellow former academic.

Thanks to Christeene I also learned about the various UX Meetup groups in my city.

Before I started General Assembly’s bootcamp I made it a goal that I attend one networking event every week. I participated in thirty networking events between May and December in 2019.

Get Busy

Although I might not have a job with an organization, there is no shortage of work to be done in my network and community.

In addition to applying for positions I saw advertised, I also made it a point to scan the various social media groups relevant to my new industry and to advertise among my network that I had skills that would be relevant to their projects.

With a UX certification I can now:

  • build a friend a website,
  • ensure graphic designs are within standards for the brand and also accessible,
  • help create a clickable prototype of a new game,
  • improve someone’s mobile application by conducting user testing,
  • or help optimize the copy for new products about to launch.

While going about my typical work (and an aggressive job search is a lot of work), I also made time to meet with folks who told me they needed some help. Sometimes those folks could pay me for my work, sometimes the value of being able to show that I could do the work was payment enough.

It’s a Numbers Game

It’s a truism for a reason: folks just don’t have as much time as they’d like to consider all their options on their terms. CareerBuilder reported (2014) that the majority of hiring managers gave resumes less than two minutes of their attention.

But keep in mind that these are the resumes that reach those hiring managers. It was the case that some of my resumes didn’t even make it to a hiring manager’s desk, thanks to ATS.

ZipJob recommends sending out ten to fifteen applications per week. In my eleven-week search I applied to about 150 positions.

Interview Often

I learned a lot about myself from interviewing and I think it’s important to make the most of every opportunity to be interviewed.

Practicing interviewing in a variety of media is crucial as well:

  • The resume is one medium,
  • the social media profile (especially LinkedIn) is another medium.
  • The phone screen interview with HR or a recruiter is another medium.
  • The in-person interview with the team or with leadership is a medium which requires certain performances that are very different from how to perform any of the above media.

Each medium deserves to be thoughtfully engaged—some elements of “who you are” can be better communicated when written, somethings will be better as a graphic (like a headshot), somethings spoken over the phone are better communicated in person, etc.

In my job search I had twenty-two phone interviews and eight on-site interviews.

I also took advantage of every opportunity I could to practice interviewing. Anytime I could attend a mock interview session, I did.

Be Kind to Yourself

Starting a new job is a life-changing event, so please don’t treat it lightly or get hard on yourself. Searching for a job is a full-time job and it’s an emotional rollercoaster.

There are days when nothing about the job search seems to be working. There are days when it seems like everything is going to be perfect.

There are interviews that are awesome and then they announce a month later they’ve selected someone else. There are truly terrible interviews where it’s perfectly obvious that neither party understand one another.

And then there is the perfect job for you: they want you, you want them, and the timing is right for this to work out.

I am really grateful to Dr. Sam VanHorn for the sage advice she gave me: there is a lot more serendipity in hiring than we often care to admit. This serendipity is a necessary condition for happiness.

“Happy” is a word I have used innumerable times, but it took me a long time to really understand what the word actually meant. I often went looking for happiness in other people, in things I could consume, in jobs I could do. But the word “happy” and “happiness” by extension has a much more profound meaning than the fleeting feeling of joy or positivity.

To be properly happy is to recognize that serendipity plays a much larger role in our lives than rugged individualism can tolerate.

The word “happy” intimates an at-onement with and appreciation of the proliferation of possibilities—independent of our individual, temporal desires—that conspire to make this present moment. That this moment is a gift.

Bon courage!