Career Options Job Hunting Tips The Industry Mindset

Career options for non-STEM PhDs.

Transitioning from a PhD to industry is hard enough as it is. This can feel ten times harder if your PhD is in a non-STEM subject. This post discusses how career change away from academia, and really optimise the value of your non-STEM PhD.

Doing a PhD is one thing as it gives you a vast set of knowledge specific skills that can be really useful in a range of contexts. Typically, doing a PhD is often viewed as over-specialisation in a particular field or subject matter. For STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) the knowledge gained may feel more versatile or relevant. In some instances, STEM subjects actually translate into industry better. There are a lot more jobs available where a ‘PhD in a STEM subject’ is a requirement for the role. However, non-STEM careers feel a bit more open ended. Given that the majority of research funding is allocated towards STEM PhD’s, non-STEM students are underrepresented when it comes to career advice and guidance. Non-STEM careers for non-STEM PhD students aren’t as widely discussed which subsequently creates this false narrative that non-STEM subjects might not be as relevant or applicable to industry – the world outside of academia.

This post is going to help you guys out. Non-STEM careers come in abundance and it’s important that we spend some time talking about what they are and how to get one. The thing is, when we try to approach this issue you actually get lost in the unlimited possibility. Because non-STEM subjects apply to a whole host of subjects and disciplines, it’s actually very difficult, if not impossible, to provide a tangible and clear career path. This ambiguity is where a lot of non-STEM PhDs feel overwhelmed and stuck. Rather than perceiving this as a problem, it actually highlights the limitless opportunities you have. Because non-STEM PhDs cannot be grouped or clumped into a particular box, it means they have a lot more freedom to be flexible, have social mobility and explore a range of career options. To really get a sense of this possibility it’s essential you spend more time thinking about what you’ve done to successfully complete your non-STEM PhD as opposed to what your non-STEM PhD is in. For instance, rather than thinking about how relevant a PhD in the “ecological advancement of 20th Century Britain” is, you should focus on the duties and responsibilities you’ve completed as part of your PhD. In essence, this comes back down to the transferable skills you acquire as part of your non-STEM PhD programme. This blog constantly refers to transferable skills as these are your golden ticket into any career. You just have to work out what they are.

To really get a sense of your transferable skills, spend time looking back through the post on transferable skills. Also spend some time thinking about how certain things you’ve done apply to other contexts. For example, teaching during your PhD can carry over to certain aspects of management, people skills and communication skills – necessary for a whole host of non-STEM careers. These skills are just the tip of the iceberg and depending on the nature of your non-STEM PhD, you’ll have plenty more to add. Looking at this more broadly, your merit lies not in the fact you’ve specialised in a particular field, but actually because you possess a range of competencies that can be applied to a range of contexts. In the world of industry, there’s significantly less focus on specialised knowledge as people seek to obtain and retain candidates who demonstrate adaptability, willingness to learn, intelligence, organisational skills and the ability to manage others. These are skills that almost every PhD acquires, not just in non-STEM subjects but in STEM PhDs as well. From a purely business perspective you may not have necessary business-specific knowledge in the first instance, but you can learn it quicker than anyone else, and once you do, you’ll be a force to reckon with. Not only will you learn things quicker, but you’ll also be able to draw upon the transferable skills you’ve gained from your non-STEM PhD into the workplace. Over time, you make a more valuable employee. It’s a no brainer that for a business to maximise its return on investment with regards to its workforce, is to employ someone with a PhD. Certainly, this is the true value of having a PhD, whether it’s STEM related or not.

PhDs are known for their helpful problem solving capabilities.

‘But where do I start?’ Another classic question for non-STEM PhDs. You want to leave academia; you’ve decided, or at least considered that you shouldn’t do a PhD post-doc and you want to move away from academia due to a range of reasons, but what do I do is another hard question to answer. Again, the reason for this being so difficult in the first place comes down to two things. Firstly, you have unlimited potential and so could actually be successful in a range of different roles. It’s a lot easier to be only good at one thing, or have one true passion, because then your choices are made for you. Instead, you have to actually decide how to best position yourself within your career as there might be multiple things you’re good at or enjoy! It’s what’s known as being a multipotentialite! Again, this isn’t a bad thing, it just requires you to take some time to think about what you want. If you look through this blog’s post on how to identify a post-PhD career, more information on how to align your skills and life values with a particular job is discussed. The second key stumbling block is knowing what actually exists out there. Yeah sure, you might know you’re a great communicator or writer, but what official ‘job titles’ can this apply to? Again, this is all included and discussed in a different post. There’s also a free downloadable spreadsheet which can help assist with this exercise.

This journey makes it sound easy and straight forward. This post might also feel unhelpful as there isn’t any clear or tangible guidance on what you could do with a non-STEM PhD. However, that’s the nature of this issue. It is ambiguous. It isn’t clear what the career paths are. But what is also certain is that you have unlimited potential, could do a million different things that you will enjoy and be good at, and have the luxury of being able to choose. Due to this, it’s important you spend some time thinking about it, how to approach this problem, what it is you actually want to achieve out of your life and career (again back to the life values question). Once you’ve started to get some answers to these deeply personal questions, you’ll be able to know how to proceed. Non-STEM PhD’s are not useless, and they certainly can carry over to industry – you just have to work out what it is your skills are, how these apply to different contexts and lastly, how to communicate and explain this on LinkedIn, within your CV, in your cover letter, and at a job interview.

Once you’ve got this right in your mind and adopt a growth mindset. The world is your oyster! You can do anything you want; you just have to believe in your ability and put that imposter syndrome to bed once and for all.  

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