Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of speaking on a PhD alumni panel at the Institute of English Studies (IES) at the School of Advanced Study – University of London, discussing career options outside of academia for English PhDs .
In 2018, I obtained a PhD in English and Comparative Literary Studies from the University of Warwick with a thesis on 19th-century literature and visual art. For the past five years, however, I’ve been working full-time as a journalist and science communicator for a medical science website with a global audience.
I shared my journey from English PhD to professional science communicator, in brief, at the IES event, and many questions ensued around the process of applying for jobs outside of academia, and what it takes to get them.
Q: Why might a PhD be perceived as a negative by prospective employers?
A: Some employers may view the PhD as a specialised qualification, but not as work experience, and given that a full-time PhD may take 3-5 years to complete, that period could appear as a blank or a work gap on the CV. That is why it’s important to outline on your CV any employment or volunteering experience that you may have had in connection to your PhD.
Have you taught seminars or given lectures? Have you organised conferences? Have you been involved in any sort of community outreach work? Have you completed any creative projects? List all of that work experience on your CV – in order of relevance. It’s important to highlight the work experience and skills that are most relevant to the job that you’re applying for.
Also highlight these skills in your cover letter, with examples. For instance, how does your teaching experience qualify you to work in the field that you’re currently targeting? What are the skills that you picked up while teaching, and how do they apply to the job spec of the role you’re applying for?
Another issue might be that a potential employer may want to better understand why you’re leaving academia to transition into a non-academic role. You have to be prepared to answer that question, focusing on why the role that you’re applying for is the best next step for you.
Q: How did you address your non-STEM background in the application/interview for a role that ideally required a STEM background?
A: Incidentally, I had previously taught a module on “communicating science” to Chemistry and Physics undergraduates, and I was able to cite that experience to my advantage. Since the role that I was applying for was effectively a science communication role, my ability to explain scientific concepts clearly, for a large, diverse audience, was more important than whether or not I had a STEM background in terms of my formal education.
I also talked about my personal interest in STEM topics, which was reflected in some of my hobbies, the books I was reading etc.
I would say that what’s most important is to highlight the way in which a humanities background can be relevant to the STEM-oriented job you’re applying for. For example, you may have a better understanding of how systemic inequities affect that field and how this issue can be addressed, or you may have the skill of “translating” complex concept for wider audiences.
Q: Where did you find your job opportunity?
A: I found out about the role through friends, who had seen the opening promoted elsewhere and immediately thought I might be a good fit. Never underestimate the power of just telling people that you are open and looking for fresh job opportunities. Different people have different networks, so they may see different opportunities being shared around.
Other good places to look at, in general, might be region-specific job sites, LinkedIn, and the websites of specific employers. If there are certain companies, organisations, or institutions that you could see yourself working at, it’s always a good idea to check their “Careers” pages. Sometimes, they don’t advertise openings as widely as they might, so it can be helpful to go straight to the source.
Q: What experience (beyond transferable skills) would you recommend PhD students to gain in advance of applying for journalistic roles?
A: Having some sort of online presence, and specifically an online portfolio, is very important. If you have a blog where you post interesting content, that’s good. If you have written guest posts for other blogs – such as the postgraduate blogs of various research societies – that’s also good. Even better if you have published more diverse content online: webzine articles, reviews, short- or long-form features in magazines…
From my experience “on the other side” – that is, recruiting new writers – I can confidently say that seeing they can write well, that they can engage the audience, and that they can cover a varied array of topics with confidence and authority is incredibly important.
Q: I’m curious as to how you answered the question “Everything is on fire all the time; what do you do?” in your job interview.
A: During the panel talk, I mentioned that, in my job interview, the interviewer asked me what I would do if everything was on fire all the time. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I emphasized how, during a PhD, everything’s always on fire anyway and you learn to just handle it.
As for the specifics, I believe I mentioned reassessing the priority levels of the competing tasks, so I could deal with each in order of absolute importance. I also mentioned establishing clear communication with team members and managers, so that I might access support if necessary, and so that they would have a good understanding of the tasks’ real status and delivery timeline.
Q: What training you did whilst doing your PhD that has proved most useful in your post-PhD working life? Was there training you wished was available but wasn’t?
A: Unfortunately, I don’t remember receiving much in the way of casting my net more widely and applying for non-academic jobs. I can see that the situation has been shifting over the past few years, that more and more universities and research institutions are offering more complex career events, and I’m glad for it.
I wish I’d had access to an event like the one organised by the IES at the end of March 2022. I would have loved to hear from people who had successfully transitioned into non-academic jobs.
In terms of training, I wish I’d had some job interview prep, and more advice on how best to highlight my skills and work experience in my CV, in such a way that employers outside of academia would immediately see my potential.
Q: I’ll be nearly 40 when I finish my PhD and I have lots of journalism experience and intend to go back to journalism, so will employers wonder why I did the PhD?
A: They might, but that doesn’t have to be a problem. As long as you can explain how your PhD has helped you further your skills and your career, then I don’t see why that should be a drawback.
In my job, I work with writers of all ages, whose careers have meandered a lot, and none of that is an issue. In fact, I’m glad for the writers with more experience, whose articles are clearly and beautifully written, and who don’t have a hard time adjusting to the deadline-heavy atmosphere of journalistic work.
Q: As far as getting experience outside of the PhD, what do you recommend as far as work “opportunities” that aren’t well compensated or where the remuneration is low? Do you consider these on a case-by-case basis? How do you know when the experience outweighs the low pay?
A: I am not a fan of “pay through exposure or experience,” and I think everyone should get paid real money for their efforts. Rent and costs of living do not get covered through “exposure,” as we well know.
That said, I do sometimes do work on a voluntary basis, when said work is important for me on a very personal level. I don’t do it for its CV value, I do it because I want to, I can afford to, and I have the time.
I am in a very different place now, however, compared to my PhD days, since I am in a full-time, permanent role, with a stable income. Most of the unpaid work I undertook during my PhD consisted in writing invited blog posts for postgraduate blogs, which I thought of as something that would go into my online writing portfolio.
In general, during my PhD I opted for part-time, temp work that aligned with my own interests or values in some way. For the most part, that amounted to teaching and (paid) involvement in widening participation programmes, since education and communication are two of the areas that I have always wanted to be a part of, one way or another.
There is no easy, straightforward answer when it comes to considering the importance of remuneration, since I believe it comes down to each person’s individual means. If you don’t know where next month’s rent is going to come from, you may not want to take very low-paid jobs, or too many “exposure-only” opportunities.
At the end of the day, I think what’s most important in your CV is to show that you have been in employment, and that you’ve learned something in every job.
Remember that you have done your best with the resources that were available to you. It will be up to you to highlight this to prospective employers, but if you can write an 80,000-word thesis, you can write a good cover letter, too. Good luck!