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ABC-advice for PhDs looking for a job outside academia

Author: Bérénice Kimpe (Head of International Department)

From A to Z, each letter of the alphabet, you will find one piece of advice that might help PhD candidates & PhDs find their way to opportunities outside academia. 

  • A like anticipation

It’s the keyword for a successful career development because it gives us enough time to gather information on our next professional step and thus enables us to make decisions accordingly to our wishes and our reality. It’s the twin word for proactivity: don’t wait for your contract to end to question yourself.

  • B like business-oriented communication

The rule n°1 for an efficient communication is to speak the same language (tongue and body). If you, academic researchers, want to take the plunge and go to the non-academic sectors (industry services, non-profit organisations, international organisations, administration…), you have to do some translation, from an academic mindset to a more applied one (because translation is not only a matter of vocabulary but also a matter of context). Avoid using words like “bibliography”: use instead “benchmarking” or “technology watch”. Edit your own dictionary by analysing job ads and news from professional associations.

  • C like choice

Our whole life is based on choices, both personal and professional. We talk about right and wrong choices. Actually, they are neither bad nor good, but the reasons and motivations leading to the choices may be:  because you have been mostly influenced by your environment (family, friends, colleagues…) or because you were not honest with yourself. For each of your work experiences, ask yourself what your true motivation was, it will help you to sketch your own guideline.

  • D like dreams

If you don’t have a clue what your professional future holds, make a list, with three columns: your needs, your wishes, your dreams. The last one is the best one because you are not slowed down by any inhibitions or influences, you are authorised to discover what lies in you, your potential. Just one last recommendation from Theodore Roosevelt: keep your eyes in the stars, your feet on the ground!

  • E like expert

In many companies, the career development inside a company is related to a choice between being an expert or being a manager. It doesn’t mean that there are no in-between positions, but that’s the common representation of internal development. With that said, it’s interesting to highlight two main challenges for experts: maintaining their status and being visible.
Maintaining your status as an expert means you have to keep yourself updated on your expertise area, the related technologies: that’s obvious. But it also means enlarging your field of knowledge by exploring contiguous areas: don’t get stuck on your comfort zone!

  • F like family

One of my colleagues told me once that a great life is a balance between three pillars: love and family, leisure, work. At some point, your family will weigh a lot on your professional decisions: what’s the best for you and your family? A career planning is not only an individual decision, it will impact your family as well: some consensus should be found. Don’t forget that more and more employers are family-friendly: many of them offer flexible worktimes, children daycare, additional days-off to take care of the parents, sport activities… If such a balance is important for you, put it in your criteria while planning your career and target your potential employers wisely.

  • G like grass may not be greener out there

Many of us tend to think that we should probably feel better in a different environment, that it sucks to be where we are now. In short: the grass is greener out there. It’s a danger as long as it remains a fantasy, without any reality-based information. So now, the questions are: how do you check the colour of the grass out there? What actions do you undertake to reach the right grass?

  • H like hidden job market

The job market is like an iceberg: what we see is the smallest part of it. The visible job market (ie jobs are advertised) makes only 30-40 % of the overall job market. It means you really have to activate your network to get an access to the hidden job market: make yourself visible and let your network know you’re looking for a new position!
Another way of understanding this part is to consider the types of employers for PhDs. For most of you, when you consider working in the industry, you target big companies. Quite obvious because we all know them, they are visible, which is not necessarily the case of small and medium entreprises (SMEs). That’s a pity because they need you! 50 % of researchers in France are employed by SMEs, 73 % of R&D staff in the US are in SMEs. To find them, explore the clusters and the SMEs that get funded by the European Commission.

  • I like international and intercultural

Higher education and research are maybe the two most important areas where internationalisation plays a big part. There are so many programmes to encourage you to go abroad: Erasmus+, Volontariat International en Entreprise, postdoctoral funding schemes… And many organisations to help you to implement your project: ABG, CARE, Euraxess
But before leaving, answer the following questions: what are your motivations and constraints? What do you want to achieve by going abroad? If you do, it will be easier when (and if!) you come back to talk about it and market it in front of recruiters.
Last but not least, getting intercultural skills is useful even if you come back to your home country afterwards: it will help you change your framework of references and communicate with people having a different mindset from yours.

  • J like job advertisement

When you browse job boards, pay attention to structure of job ads. Most of the time, you will find the following parts: information on the company; job description; required profile; information on the application process. In each of these parts, you may find interesting information for your application: keywords (try to put them thoroughly in your CV and/or cover letter), additional skills that are not explicitly requested in the profile (eg event management means organisational skills).
Especially in international job ads, you are asked to indicate your salary expectations and your earliest start date: don’t forget to give the information in your cover letter, otherwise your application might be out!
By reading the required profile, try to relate it with your own experience and highlight on your CV the relevant information (eg if you’re applying for a position that is not so much technical or scientific, focus more on your soft skills).

  • K like kiwi

There are two kinds of kiwi: the classical green one, the sweeter golden one. Same fruit, same shape but the inside colour and the taste are different… like your work experiences! Of course you’ve got a specific position, within a specific organisation, with a specific research project to conduct. That are facts you can’t change but you can decide how to present it in order to make it tasteful for non-academic recruiters: less jargon and more business-oriented vocabulary, bigger focus on tasks and results than on your research topic itself…
What flavour do you want to give to your profile? An academic one or a more transferable one? It’s up to you!

  • L like luck

I organised many networking events in which doctorate holders were proud of sharing their experience as a job-seeker and –finder. For many of them, luck was part of their success. Even if we talk a lot about methods for career planning, consider it as an orientation map from which you can step aside when you catch an opportunity you may have not thought about. As Pasteur once said, “chance favours the prepared mind”.

  • M like motivation

Everyone wants to work with motivated people: employers, co-workers, clients. That is one of the main reasons you will be hired. The challenge is now: how can you convey your motivation? First of all, by preparing your application: no generic CV, pinpointing the fit between you and the position to fill, excellent knowledge of the company, its activities and its environment, use of a dynamic and positive vocabulary (short sentences, active form)… During the interview, show your motivation by interacting with the person in front of you: ask questions about what (s)he has just said, about the company’s or department’s  development, the team you are going to work with… And try to imagine what you would do if you were recruited.

In the 19th century, people were more likely to lend money to strangers than to their own family members. With non-members, called “weak ties”, people could get a greater benefit: more potential clients (strong ties like family members were limited, so were the business opportunities with them), more freedom to create profitable conditions (with strong ties, it was common to practice friendly prices). And to do business, they relied on intermediaries, i.e. people connecting loaners with borrowers, because they created trust. So, from a historical perspective, it was established that weak ties and connections to people with resources were more beneficial than strong ties or getting acquainted with decision makers.
Back to nowadays: for your career, connect to people with resources (information, connections…)!

  • O like outfit

The way you are dressed is part of your professional branding: don’t underestimate it! In order to avoid a fashion faux-pas, check out how people in the company are dressed and match their dress code. So, leave your Hawaiian shirt at home!

  • P like paint

Van Gogh said: “It’s difficult to know oneself. It isn’t easy to paint oneself either”. That’s something you may feel when looking for a job: deciding what you really want and don’t want, defining who you are and what you want to become is difficult. And then a second difficult question is how do you paint yourself in your applications so that recruiters get the real and vivid picture of you? Analyse your background, do personality tests (eg keirsey.com), get feedback from your family and acquaintances about how they perceive you and what kind of jobs may be suitable for you, request a proofreading of your CV, do a Development Center to determine your personality strengths and development potential… The more you know yourself, the better you can steer your career by setting up the right goals for you.
A good way of painting yourself? Your pitch! Check the next P.

  • P like pitch

Whatever situation you are in – job interviews, career fairs, networking events, conferences… - there is one question that is asked every time: who are you? Of course, there are plenty of variations like “Tell me about you”, “What do you do?”…
It may sound surprising but even if it is a recurrent question, not so many people are prepared to answer it! That’s a pity because you’ve got only one chance to give a good first impression. Instead of fumbling your lines on the D-day, prepare at home different versions of your pitch that should present you in a way the person in front of you can’t forget: a short one (30 seconds) and a longer one (2-3 minutes). In your pitch, you have to present your current situation (who you are), your past (what you have done so far) and your future (where you’re heading at). Keep it short but precise, it should arouse the curiosity of your interlocutor and make him/her engage in a fruitful discussion. So don’t be boring!

  • Q like qualify and quantify

Being convincing is about giving striking examples to illustrate your skills, being as much precise as possible. If you are too generic or if you use “we” instead of “I”, recruiters won’t be able to understand your role and your impact in the research project. When you say you have developed, optimized, improved, initiated, created…, try to answer these questions: how much/many (eg. events you organized)? What kind of (eg. partners were involved in your project)? How often (eg. did you report on the project progress)? … By qualifying and quantifying your information, you give a better overview of your environment and increase your credibility as a professional.

  • R like red thread

Maybe you feel anxious by making career choices: you have heard so many times that they must be consistent with everything in your life, you may fear they won’t be. Don’t think like that: as long as you’re consistent with yourself, you can’t be out of track. You find the so-called “red thread” retrospectively, not necessarily before making your choices. As long as you can explain why you have taken this road and not the other, as long as you don’t randomly make decisions, as long as your career choices are meaningful for you, you’re good and that’s what you have to tell recruiters.

  • S like social media

Can you imagine being visible for recruiters or headhunters without using social media? Quite difficult, especially nowadays when reactivity, networking, content sharing… are a must. Different tools are at your disposal to create and promote your professional online identity: LinkedIn, xing, Research Gate, Twitter… Just pick up two or three media on which you invest your time and your efforts, keep your information updated and keep being proactive. If you think it takes too much time to post regularly contents, you’re wrong! Just press the button “share with” at the bottom of the article: it will be displayed on your profile and shared with your followers.

  • T like timeline

Ok, you spent many days or months to define your career goals. Now, you’re ready to implement your strategy to reach them. Great news! But before taking the plunge, set up timelines for each step of your strategy you have defined very precisely beforehand: you know what you have to achieve and when. If you don’t do that, you may be distracted by other things and your search will be longer than expected. Define your own timelines - stay realistic and don’t set goals you are sure you won’t reach within the defined timeline – it will keep you on track.

  • U like unsolicited application

Even if they are unsolicited, it doesn’t mean they are not welcome. However, to avoid wasting your time or energy by writing them, you need to identify what the current or future needs of the company you’re targeting are and to submit your proposition of collaboration. The latter must describe the type of projects you could develop to meet the company’s needs. By doing so, you showcase your ability to see yourself in the position, your motivations by exploring precisely the company’s environment. You are proactive by proposing something in both interests (yours and the company’s). And even if your project isn’t suitable, for different reasons, it doesn’t mean you won’t be of interest for the person who is receiving your application: companies need people who can take initiatives! Anyway, in your job search strategy, don’t forget that unsolicited applications have a success rate of around 10%.

  • V like volunteering positions

If you think that only your research experience or the positions for which you were paid can be in your CV, you’re wrong! Many recruiters are interested in your extra-curricular activities, your social commitments. Why? Because it shows that you think out of the “research box”, meaning that research is not all your life. And because it may disclose other abilities such as strategic development, business partnerships development, fundraising, team building, team management… In many cases, it’s a great opportunity to meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise and to discover new professional activities, to be informed on societal or economic trends.
So, if you’re an active member of an association (by that I mean you do more than paying your membership fees!), highlight it during your application: it gives a more personal touch to your application and may be a good way of icebreaking with the recruiter!

  • W like work history

That’s your life, or lives to be more precise: the personal, educational and professional ones. Before describing it in your CV, I would suggest you to analyse it, by drawing your time line. Draw a simple line and mark the major events of your life: your PhD degree, your meeting with someone special or with a mentor, the start and the end of your work contracts, a specific mission, the birth of your children… For each of these periods, write what made you happy and what didn’t, why you felt this way. It will help you to design the first patterns of your dream job (or at least a fulfilling job).

  • X like X-Files

If you’re a fan of this TV-show like I was (and still am), you know for sure two mottos: “the truth is out there” and “I want to believe”. Well, you can apply the two baselines to yourself when searching for a job:
-    “the truth is out there”: your own perception is influenced by many things, like your education, your environment, your culture, your resources… To get a more objective view on things (you, positions, potential…), confront your point of view with those of other people. It will help you to have a less biased perception of yourself or of your opportunities.
-    “I want to believe”: that’s an optimistic motto you should keep telling yourself when you feel low, when you have any doubts. I want to believe there are employers who trust their staff, who encourage their staff’s development. I want to believe I will find my own way despite adversity. I want to believe I will find a job that fits my values and personality. I want to believe that doing fundamental research is not dissuasive for the industry.

  • Y like YMCA (from the Village People)

“Young men, there’s no need to feel down (…) It’s fun to stay at YMCA”: you all know this disco hit and you certainly remember the famous choreography as well as the costumes the band was wearing.
To be part of the community dancing and singing on this song, you have to respect the code, i.e. putting your hands in the air to form the famous four letters. Adopt the same behaviour as the others, with your own style: the same goes for your application. Adopt the professional habits of recruiters (CV layout, vocabulary, communication style), with a touch of yourself!
The band was wearing clothes that were representative of some professions: cow-boy, policeman, soldier, construction worker. When you meet the recruiter, wear the right outfit: even if we can’t judge a book by its cover, the first impression you make will stay in the recruiter’s mind. Check out the company’s website to see how people are dressed.

  • Z like zebra

A zebra can be two things: the animal and the zone where you can cross the street.
What makes a zebra unique and easily recognisable is its white and black stripes. No one can’t mix it up with another species. And you can say it’s a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes. Exactly like you: a PhD with academic research and teaching experience or a PhD with transferable skills and methods. Up to you to decide which light you put on your profile (see K like kiwi).
Crossing the street is like transitioning out of academia: you leave the sidewalk behind you, you cross over determined and willingly, not because it’s a dead-end, you keep moving forward…smiling, of course!