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How to prepare for non-academic work during your PhD

Only 1 in 3 doctoral students stay in academia after their PhD. Yet, preparing for non-academic work during your PhD is low on the priority list of most PhD students. In this blog, I provide some tips on how to learn more about non-academic work.

Image: Hudson Hintze

The environment you’re in

CBS wrote in 2020, ‘Of those with doctoral degrees, nearly 2 out of 3 are employed outside academia.’ Most who begin a doctoral program do know that there won’t be room for everyone at the university after the program ends. Yet, that doesn’t mean that doctoral students spend much time on job orientation. In my experience, having a small chance to stay in academia can actually increase the determination not to pass up that small opportunity.

What you need to do to stay in academia also seems very concrete: finish your dissertation, publish, network, apply for grants. And then actually also: teach, collaborate with others, speak at conferences and engage in valorization. That demands a lot from you. Not surprisingly, you don’t get around to thinking about alternative career paths. There is little time and space in your head to prepare for non-academic work during your PhD.

Sometimes you may meet someone from another field, but generally you work in a bubble of people who have stayed in academia.

Think for yourself: how often do you talk to someone who has gone on to do something else?

Getting out of your bubble

Working on your academic career requires a lot of you, so the question is how can you prepare for non-academic work without spending a lot of time on it? How can you do this in a way that is inspiring to you?

Drink tea or coffee

Have tea or coffee with someone you already know who works in a different field. Ask if you can pose a few questions about what kind of work he/she does. You don’t necessarily have to aspire to the other person’s job to start such a conversation. Think of it as a nice starting point for your exploration.

Go to a non-academic conference

Conferences are held in all kinds of fields where you can learn more about the work in that sector in an low key manner. From National Library Congress, to Coach’s Day. I do not mean a job fair, but conferences organised by a professional organisation. Just search online for ‘congress’ + a keyword focused on a field of interest to you.

If you would like to continue with themes from your research in your future work, you can look for conferences that focus on those themes.

Collaborate with non-academic partners

When you collaborate with someone, you learn more about the work they do. Maybe you can even pay them a visit? Your projects should lend themselves to do so, of course, but several things are possible. For example, you could ask to interview someone for a journal or write something together with them. That way it doesn’t cost you any extra time and you kill two birds with one stone. Other forms of cooperation can be: organizing something together (a lecture?) or having interns work at that other organization.

Research non-academic work

Find space to make your exploration of non-academic work part of your research. In your literature review, also write about what has been written about a topic in professional circles. Or explicitly include the processing of scholarly insights in non-academic circles as the subject of a paper. Another option is (when you are teaching) to have students work on interviewing professionals in an assignment.

In other words, be of service to your own search where you can.

In this blog, I have focused on how to prepare for non-academic work during your PhD as part of you current position. Of course, there are plenty of other steps you can take to find out what work or employer suits you:

You can explore what values are important to you in your work

Or what qualities and skills you like to use