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From PhD to Life

Redefining success after a PhD

A successful career transition starts with an adviser who’s supportive, encouraging, and open to different ways of defining professional victory.


This is a guest post by Joseph Fruscione, PhD. He is an editor and writing consultant in the Washington, DC area. In addition to the new book he co-edited with Kelly Baker, Succeeding Outside the Academy (UP of Kansas), he’s also co-editing a new book series, Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia with Erin Bartram. See here to learn more about the series and/or how to propose a project. Learn more about him and his professional journey at

If you’ve left academia for a career outside it, ask yourself this: what resources would’ve helped me make the transition, highlighted my skills, and defined “success” differently? For many of us who finished our PhD programs in the late 1990s or early 2000s, there were few resources and even fewer faculty willing to guide us to career paths beyond the professoriate. Many of us embraced a “tenure track or bust” mindset because our mentors and other faculty did as well. We weren’t exploring other career options because we didn’t think we had to.

Since leaving academia in 2014 for a career as an editor and writing consultant, I’ve regularly advocated for PhD students (especially in the humanities) to think early and often about career diversity, as well as to connect with other PhDs working outside or around academia. This work, plus the connections I’ve made in the past few years, has led to the new book I co-edited with Kelly Baker, Succeeding Outside the Academy (available through the University Press of Kansas). Like our 15 writers (as well as many others), Kelly and I planned this book as a resource for people at various levels of an academic career transition. It takes a “PhD career day” approach that many graduate students don’t get — either at all or with any regularity — in their programs.

One of the most interesting essays in the collection comes from Jessica Carilli, who has a PhD in earth sciences and is currently a federal scientist at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific in San Diego, California. Jessica’s “Finding the Fulcrum” describes her journey from tenure-track professor to federal scientist; it also shares her experiences with academia’s two-body problem as work obligations necessitated her and her husband living separately. (Her section about her typical day of teaching and solo parenting is especially strong.) I recently spoke with Jessica about her experiences, her essay in the book, and what she wants readers to learn from both. Looking back now, Jessica realizes what she could’ve done differently:

Instead of spending time learning teaching methods, current-me would have benefited from learning budgeting, project management, and leadership skills. I’m pretty sure all of those skills would also have been useful had I stayed in academia, but I was too laser-focused on teaching and research. I think I could have saved myself a lot of misery had I spent time researching positions outside academia, learning about what those jobs entailed, and building a network that included people outside the academic realm.

Like Jessica, I didn’t do adequate networking outside graduate school while I was still in it, so I tell PhD students and others to make the connections now. You can build networks while building your skills and knowledge in graduate school; you’ll need all three regardless of where you end up. Like me and others in the book, Jessica regularly draws on the writing and researching skills she learned in graduate school. “My current position,” she notes, “is heavily focused on completing technical work and then communicating that work, mostly through writing.” The most important thing she learned? Not specific scientific knowledge but “how to find information that I do not know, and how to synthesize that information.”

All of us involved in creating Succeeding Outside the Academy hope that the book starts changing the culture and conversations around PhD career diversity at the department level. You’ll learn about career transitions from people with backgrounds in history, religious studies, English, law, Hispanic linguistics, gender and sexuality, and other fields. For students, Jessica and the other writers offer concrete advice, the start of your new professional network, and — perhaps most importantly — hope that you can succeed outside the traditional academic track. For advisers and other faculty, they offer both a concrete resource to help your students and a way of thinking differently about what graduate study and training should look like. They also remind you that if you’re not an expert on résumes, networking, and other elements essential to careers outside academia, then you should steer your students to people who are experts. A successful career transition for a student starts with an adviser who’s supportive, encouraging, and open to different ways of defining professional success.

Jessica has some closing advice for both PhD students (particularly in STEM fields) and faculty:

For students: Don’t be offended if your PI suggests that you might enjoy a non-academic job. Non-academic jobs have a lot of benefits — for example you might be able to actually chose where you live instead of just chasing a fleeting job. This potentially makes non-academic jobs inherently better for families and/or dual-career couples. You might also be better paid or have more job security while doing work that feels more directly relevant to addressing problems.

For faculty: Don’t be offended if your students don’t want to continue in academia. Truly discuss career options with them, not as a “Well, if academia doesn’t work out…” plan but more as a “Here are really good options…” conversation. Ideally, you’ll also connect them to people outside academia to build their networks. Focus on building both the hard and “soft” skills they will need to succeed in whatever their future job may be — writing, speaking, critical thinking, project management, leadership, and teamwork.

Clearly, one article about one essay in one new book won’t change academia. But this article, essay, and new book can start changing things at individual and departmental levels. Arguably the easiest and most important thing a program can do is celebrate all of their graduates — not just those who get traditional academic jobs — on their websites, newsletters, and other media. Such a wider celebration also plants the seeds for an MA or PhD alumni network so current students can learn about different kinds of work and skills from the graduates doing it.

In a recent talk about the book for Beyond the Professoriate, Maren Wood noted that understanding new career options is essentially a research problem. Her advice for students and faculty thinking of leaving academia is simple: do research on what else you can do and who else you should know. Among other things, Jessica’s experiences and Succeeding Outside the Academy itself help you do this kind of research. (And, while you’re there, read Maren’s great essay in it, “How To Move Beyond the Professoriate.”) I’ll add this to Maren’s advice: keep an open mind and learn about your career options now. Those of us in the book — and many, many others — are examples of PhDs who did the right things, followed our advisers’ advice, and didn’t get permanent academic jobs. The system is unforgiving — especially for its precarious workers — but it’s also not the only game in town. Keep your options open; you owe it to yourself.

Maren Wood
L. Maren Wood earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel hill. Maren delivers interactive workshops to help graduate students prepare for a non-faculty job search. In addition to her research, Maren provides one-to-one career coaching to PhDs.
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  1. Reinhart Reithmeier / February 4, 2019 at 20:45

    Staying open to career options and starting to consider these options early are two good pieces of advice for graduate students whether they aspire to continue in academia or are keen to learn “How to move beyond the professoriate.”