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What to do When Leaving Academia with a PhD
Obtaining a PhD is a multi-year process where you read thousands of pages, write hundreds of them, attend numerous conferences, work like a professor without getting paid like one, and then earn a degree at the end of it that puts you in esteemed company. And typically, the route after a PhD involves academia, which can be both a blessing and a curse. But like the mafia, how do you exit the academia world and still make use of your PhD?


This is a bit of a vague heading, as research can involve anything from working in a lab on university property (without actually teaching or studying) to working in a hospital, for a pharmaceutical company, or think tank. Essentially, you’d be hired because of your specialized skills and knowledge, and paid to analyze data in a very specific subset.

You’re also valued because of your proven ability to write and orally explain what you’ve found, as well as being self-motivated. One of the most difficult things about getting a PhD is staying on track year after year, never giving up even though you’ve devoted countless hours to the same task. Research companies want someone who can show that dedication, and you have that in spades.


Another vague job title that inspires blank looks and “huh?” reactions, consulting can cover as wide or narrow a swath as you want. But as with research, you’re being utilized for your critical thinking, reading and writing skills, as well as having spent years in a dedicated field to become an expert in it.

Going the private route is definitely more profitable, although public service can offer a tempting package of benefits. For example, if you worked in a consulting aspect for the government, you’d likely get a nice expense account, decent holiday time, excellent job security, a good healthcare package, and a generous retirement package. Plus, the cache of having been employed federally makes you immensely hireable if you ever decide to work in the private sector.


Although you may have decided to exit the academia world, that doesn’t mean you have to be completely uninvolved in it. One of the great things about the American education system is its many divergent paths, allowing you to teach in just about any area and at any level.

Your previously mentioned skills that you picked up while pursuing your PhD make you an invaluable resource in the classroom, especially because you’ve been on both sides of the fence: you’ve spent years dedicated to the pursuit of one academic goal, and also had both feet in the “real world”. These are tips and pointers you can pass onto your students that’ll give you more authority than “just” a teacher who got an undergrad degree.


Why box yourself in and work on someone else’s schedule and demands when you can set your own? You’re a certifiable expert, you’ve got the papers to back it up, and your competition is a lot smaller than people will less advanced degrees.

Set up your own firm or business, and do exactly what you love to do but keep the following in mind:


  • Start networking an amassing a group of clients before you leave academia so the transition will be smoother, and you won’t be facing months and months of little to no work
  • Make sure you have a multi-month nest egg in place just in case you do face dry months, and you need a bit to see you through

    Leaving the world of academia with a PhD under your belt gives you a huge step up in the workforce because you’re incredibly educated, you’ve experienced a multitude of different work scenarios, and you’ve become deeply skilled in areas that are valuable to employers. It can also be a little nervewracking because academia tends to not break from the ordinary very much, but the experience can also be hugely liberating, too.


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