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The Black Hole

Postacademic Jobs

BY BETH | NOV 18 2009

So what does a PhD do when they decide to leave academics?
The prospect of figuring out what to do for a living when you decide that you don’t want to be a “principal investigator” (PI) is daunting.  As Basalla & Debelius put it in their book “So What Are You Going To Do With That?”: A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s:

“The biggest difference between academic careers and post-academic careers is that the road is almost too well lit in academia — you don’t even need your headlights.”

When I decided to leave academic research, I had no idea what I was going to do, but I did know that I needed a job.  I had no savings (having just spend more than a decade in school) and a $70,000+ student loan debt that I’d need to start paying off six months after I finished school.  I was pretty much living on a $3,000 TA union signing bonus that I’d unexpectedly (and very fortunately) received in my last term of school plus a few freelance gigs designing websites for people and I was sharing a very cheap apartment with a dear friend.  The clock was ticking.

And so I hit the job posting sites –; Workopolis; all the local colleges; Top Higher Education jobs; , CharityVillage; local, provincial and federal governments, health authorities, any non-profit I could think of – and applied to anything that seemed remotely interesting.  I applied to countless sessional and full-time university and college teaching gigs – and learned that these jobs are nearly impossible to get.  Despite having several years of university teaching experience throughout my PhD and three teaching awards, I only once got a call from a college (and only then, I believe, because my former supervisor now worked at that college – from everyone I’ve talked to, the only way to get a college teaching job in this city is to know someone!)

I also learned that very few employers will ask for a PhD in their job posting and they often won’t really know what doing a PhD is all about – so it’s your job to explain to them how your experience relates to the job (which I’ll be talking about in my next posting).

Having been in the postacademic life for three years – and having recently started my second postacademic job – I’ve met quite a few people who have completed a PhD and, for various reasons, moved out of the “tenure-track” life ((which makes sense since, as has been mentioned in previous postings here on The Black Hole, the vast majority of PhDs won’t become PIs)), I’m now familiar with a pleothera of jobs that one can do with a PhD.

Some of the careers that I’ve seen people go onto after a PhD that weren’t PI include:

  • school teacher
  • college or university instructor (either sessional or full-time)
  • running a university teaching & learning centre
  • working for a non-profit research or advocacy organization or think tank
  • science outreach
  • writing (e.g., journalism, popular writing, technical writing)
  • editing a scientific journal
  • health care (e.g., medical school or other health professions, health services administration)
  • public service (e.g., Health Canada, coroner’s office)/government
  • industry (e.g., biotech, selling science supplies, university liaison office ((this is the office that connects university researchers who have patentable ideas with business/helps them write startups)))
  • law
  • police
  • business ((there are some MBA programs that are specifically targeted to scientists)
  • consultant
  • university administration
  • drawing comics for a living – though I’m sure that only works for this guy
  • open & operating a winery ((actually, the person I know who did this didn’t finish the PhD. She’d done all the lab work and just needed to write up the dissertation, but decided she was out!))
  • librarian ((props to Shannon for this one!))

Feel free to add more in the comments section and I’ll add them to the list!

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  1. Shannon / November 22, 2009 at 06:35


  2. Beth / November 22, 2009 at 09:15

    Thanks, Shannon!

  3. Beth / November 23, 2009 at 17:34

    Thanks for the link!

  4. Terri / November 23, 2009 at 17:32

    I really like the fact that people are writing on this issue and putting together social networking groups to address some of the challenges we face in academia (and, of course, in leaving it).

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