Thirty-Eight Things to Help You Transition out of Academia

Thirty-eight things that help someone make the transition from academia to outside work. They aren’t in any order. Just listed, and described as they popped into my head.

1. Apply for jobs – Pretty self-evident, but it is almost impossible to get a job outside academia unless you apply. I say almost impossible because, through your network (see below) you could be tapped on the shoulder to take a non-academic role.

2. Attend interviews – As self-evident as applying for jobs. But, perhaps even more necessary than applying for jobs is attending relevant interviews. Even if you are tapped on the shoulder for a role, without an application, I’m guessing the people you work with will want to meet you.

3. Blog – Blogging about yourself, your work or other aspects of your life increases you public profile. That, in turn, increases the people who get to know and like you. That in turn increases the chances that someone might ask what you do and if you’d consider working for them, their friend or their colleague. Other than profile raising, blogging also improves your writing skills, which can make you more employable. Depending on your audience, you might also be able to write to your readers and directly as for a job (or at least let them know you are looking for work).

4. Build a network – The main way blogging helps get work is by growing your network. So, the next item on the list is to grow your network. Growing your network is not a game of collect-a-card. But it does involve working hard to connect with people in real life, and via social media over mutual areas of interest. I’ve written many articles on growing your network, that you can read here. And, as I mentioned above, the more people who know you means the more people who can recommend you for a role or who can look for roles within their network and recommend them to you. As with blogging, don’t be afraid to ask your network to help you find a job.

5. Describe your ideal boss/manager – This is a little left field but trust me here. Write down the characteristics of your ideal boss or manager. Then go and look for that person within your network. Would you work for them? If not, why not? If yes, chat to them about work. And even if no, you may choose to have a chat with them about work and how they became your ideal manager and what you could do to get a manager like that.

6. Describe your ideal employer – A bit closer to home than the ideal manager, is the ideal employer. You decide the characteristics. But think about things link gender mix, location, work focus, pay, conditions, company ethos, etc. Once you have this list, look for companies that meet the criteria. If there are no companies, rank the features and look for companies that meet those in your top 3, 5, or 10.

Want to leave academia? Make sure you

apply for jobs! So many people want to

leave, but don’t do the most obvious thing.

7. Describe your ideal job – Probably the best of all the ideal lists is the ideal job. Again, the list should include whatever you think is important. But don’t forget things like type of work, full time or part time, commute, staff to manage, your boss, your teammates. Once you have this list, look for roles that fit. Again, if none are evident, prioritise your list and search based on the top 3, 5, or 10 depending on how many jobs or opportunities you find.

8. Do extra curricula project management – As PhD holders, we all understand that successful and timely completion of a PhD relies on good project management. However, most people don’t have a PhD. And most people don’t understand what is required for success (other than a lot of hard work). So, taking on roles where project management is evident and relatable, demonstrates your project management skills. For example, taking on organising an event or conference will allow others to easily empathise with your project management skills. But it does not have to be part of an event, it could be building something, making something, managing a club or society. There are lots of examples.

9. Do extra-curricular financial management – Similarly to project management, sound financial management is essential to academic success. However, this is not immediately obvious to non-academics and non-PhD holders. So, take on extra curricula financial management. This could be as part of a committee of management for a club or society, organising a conference, or even being the sponsorship manager for the student or ECR seminar series.

10. Dress like the job you want – When I was in my PhD, I dressed like a student for most of my candidature. And there were definitely times when the lazy me kicked in and I wore tracksuit pants to work – unheard of for me now! However, towards the end of my PhD I realised the way I dressed impacted the way I approached work and the way others perceived me. The nicer I dressed the more inclined I was to try to get lots of work done. The nicer I dressed the more others noticed. This carried into my first job. Although smart casual was sufficient for the role I was in, more senior staff wore professional dress, such as suits, ties and jackets. Although wearing that stuff did not make me more senior, it did let others know I was serious about the role and I aspired to be at a higher level. So, even though it is easy and tempting to wear whatever consider wearing smarter clothes or casual business attire.

11. Engage a recruiter – There are lots of recruitment firms out there. Some specialise in particular fields; others are more general. If you know the kind of role you are after, try to find a recruiter that specialises in that field or role. Arrange to have a meeting with them. Make sure you dress well for the meeting – they’ll be assessing you, and they will be your advocate to a prospective employer. Be sure to share your CV with them and ask for feedback.

12. Get a pit crew – Looking for work is a tough task. And leaving a field or industry you’ve trained your whole life for is even harder. So, make sure you look after yourself. This includes surrounding yourself with a couple of people who’ll be there to support you when things get tough. When the rejection letters, and calls come in. When it seems like no one will hire you. These people aren’t “Yes men/women”. They are good listeners. Like a pit crew, they can repair your damage.

13. Get a truth sayer – It’s also necessary to have someone who can speak the truth. Someone who’ll be comfortable telling you that your CV needs work. Or that you’re not presenting yourself well at interviews. Or that you’re applying for roles beyond your skills or experience. They’ll tell the truth in other areas too. They’ll let you know that your track record is strong. That the ability to write successful grants is a transferable skill. That asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

14. Know your champions – Many people focus on mentors, and coaches when it comes to job search. But more important than either of those is a champion. Unlike a mentor (who guides through discussion), or a coach (who guides through questions), a champion does their work in your absence. They tell others how good you are. They advocate for your inclusion, promotion, etc., when the question is “who’d be suited to this?” or “who should we hire?”. It is possible for a mentor or coach to also be a champion, but it is worth making sure. You could ask them to be that person. Or you could ask if they have already done that for you (make sure you show your appreciation). For a champion to be effective, they need to know what you are after. Which means you need to know what you are after (see points 5, 6,  and 7 above).

15. Get used to working 9-5 – As a PhD student, you may have fallen into habits that are not conducive to a non-academic environment. This could be the way you dress (see point 10 above). But more than likely it is the hours you keep. Perhaps you start late and finish late. Or maybe its start early and finish early. Or maybe start late finish early. Or perhaps even start early, finish late. Whatever it is, make sure you are used to working 9 – 5, Monday – Friday. At the very least, that is what will be expected when you start in a role. So, if you are not currently fronting up to the office/lab like that, then start. I was once supervising a recent graduate and they could not get into the routine of 9 – 5, Monday – Friday. They’d been so used to working in their time, on their terms that they could not sustain the commute and 8 hours of effort five days in a row. As a boss, you’re looking forward to having new staff as it means your workload will change and/or you’ll be taking on new projects. There’s nothing worse than having someone who has all the skills but doesn’t quite get the work culture.

16. Know the industry you want to move into – This is a very literal know. Like question 5, 6, and 7, but know getting concrete rather than ideal. So ideal job might include teaching others. But that could be many industries. So, narrow it down to one – e.g. VET, TAFE, tertiary or even RTO (registered training organisation).

17. Know the employers in the industry – If you’ve answered 5, 6, and 7 then you’ll know role you’re looking for and where. But, if that has been hard for you, take a look at who employs PhD graduates in your region (or regions you’d be happy to live in). What do they do? Is it their head office, or a regional office? Do they conduct work from this office? Or do they just offer sales or after sales service? Where possible, look up their website to see their specialisations, etc. Also take a look at their social media (don’t forget LinkedIn will allow you to find their employees). Looking into a prospective employer is particularly important when you are applying for a role. Don’t rely on the job ad. It is even more important at interview. But it can also be useful to actually finding a role. Particularly if you are willing to use LinkedIn, and your network to connect with people who already work at that company.

18. Know the issues faced by the industry – If you’ve spent your whole studying and working life in academia then you know it pretty well. You know key dates. Key issues faced by researchers versus those who teach only or teach and research. You know the administration struggles, etc. But you probably know nothing about the industry you plan to move into – so take the time to learn. Read blog posts by people in that industry (there’ll be heaps on LinkedIn, as well as Medium). Find out the issues they face. If it is an international industry, understand the factors that make your preferred location more or less attractive as a place to work, as well as a place to conduct business (e.g. regulation, exchange rates, work culture, etc.).

19. Know the issues faced by the employers – This builds on 18 but gets specific to the employers you might want to work for. Like 17, it’s important to learn some of this information as part of the job application process, particularly in preparation for the interview. Issues to look out for include impacts of exchange rates, work culture, regulatory regimes, international trade practices, proximity to partners and competitors, history in specific product lines or services.

20. Know the roles at the employers – Different organisations have different role names/titles. It is important to know what they are. Beyond helping you at a potential interview, it will help you identify pertinent terms for a job search. It will also help when trying to network with people who might have similar roles. Roles that you might be interested in or that might help you get your dream job.

21. Know the jobs of the future – There are lots of lists of jobs of the future and it is worth looking them. They will give you an insight into the kinds of jobs you might find yourself in. They may also give your ideas on what you might want to do. Places to look for these lists include the World Economic Forum, Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, job search sites such as Seek, Indeed, and careerone. These lists are especially useful tools for planning ahead as you can position yourself with the right skills and experience to hold one of these roles in the next 3 – 10 years.

22. Know the skills of the future – Just like jobs of the future there are lists for skills of  the future. The same sites that lists jobs of the future also list skills of the future. Again, like jobs of the future, knowing these lists is useful for medium to longer term planning.

23. Know what jobs are out there / being advertised – If you’re keen to transition immediately, you’ll need to know what jobs are being advertised. So look! Too many people want to leave their academic job, but all they do is talk about it. While talk is great, taking action yourself is way better. Get proactive. Look at job sites. Look through LinkedIn. Look at your network. What are people doing and how did they get there? Learn the stories. Learn the pathways. That way you can replicate them or adapt them to your situation.

24. Know what you don’t like – I think knowing what you don’t want is under rated. Too many people focus on what they want. Or they’ll know what they don’t want but never make it into a list of things they avoid. So, I’m saying take the next step. Write the don’t want list. And then if you see those things you know to avoid them. Furthermore, you can use the don’t want list to create your want list by taking the opposite.

25. Know what you like – Have you ever stopped to write down all of the things you like doing? Not just for work, but in life as well? Write this list down. Note everything. It does not matter if the item could be used to make money or not. Just note down all of the things you like. Then come back, take a close look. How do items on the list relate to work? What about you skills? What about the skills of the future (see item 22)?

26. Know your hard skills – Very few people actively think about the skills they have. Of course they write a CV. But they really write down all of the things they can do. From my experience working with people getting a job, taking the time to list all of your hard skills – including those that you don’t use to make money, or you don’t think can make you money – is an eye-opening experience. Most people are surprised with how long the list is. Especially for PhD graduates or long-term academics who often don’t see their skills as going beyond academia or being relevant outside academia. When doing this activity, don’t fall int the trap of only listing work skills or research techniques. You can fight this urge by also listing the skills you have outside work. These might include music, sport, art, cooking, and gardening.

27. Know your soft skills – Like hard skills, few people go to the effort of listing their soft skills. Soft skills are generally considered to be the skills necessary for good person-person interaction. People often talk about emotional intelligence (sometimes also called EQ). But there are others as well. Such as personal character, attitudes, and attributes.

28. Know your transferable hard skills – If you’re looking to leave academia and you have a good idea of where you want to go or what you want to do you can use that information to identify transferable hard skills. Or, more to the point, you can know which of your hard skills will be useful outside academia. If you’re struggling with this there are lots of online lists. These lists cover general transferable skills, those useful in academia and outside it, as well as those required inside or outside academia. You can use these lists to build a list that is personal to you. Then, of course, you can use the list to build out your LinkedIn (see below), to include in your CV or to use in job search strategies.

29. Know your transferable soft skills – Just like hard skills, knowing which soft skills are transferable is essential when moving from academia to a different (research) life. Indeed, many people see soft skills as being more important as they are considered harder to learn and/or teach.

30. Let your network know – Sometimes the job search needs to be kept discrete. However, in many cases it does not. If you’re a PhD student close to submitting your thesis or dissertation it is reasonable that you’d be looking for a job. So, talking to you supervisor, and others in your department is a reasonable thing to do. So is communicating you desire for a job via social media (not just limited to LinkedIn). If you’re an academic, the reasons you could be leaving are many and varied. It could include reduced grant success, reduced publication success or just a dislike of the academic environment. Again, all of these are reasonable reasons to leave. And you should not be made to feel uncomfortable or bad for wanting to leave. Thus, you should not feel bad about letting your network know. For both graduating students and academics, letting your network know can (and should) take many forms. It should include posts that directly indicate you’re looking for work. Make them as specific as possible so people know how they can help. But they shouldn’t involve updating your profile to say, “looking for work”. Bear in mind social media is essentially a search engine. Recruiters, etc., don’t search for people “looking for work”. They look for people with specific skills. Skills that you could possess. Skills that you’ll need to make evident in your profile(s).

31. Let your peers know – As noted above, letting your peers know is a perfectly reasonable thing to do as a graduating PhD student or someone leaving academia. There will, undoubtably, be a need to tread carefully. As a student, you can be made to feel like a failure or a traitor. Mainly because supervisors have put much effort into training you, and they probably hoped you’d stay on as a researcher. As an academic the same might also be the case, but this time relating to collaborators. Or perhaps even your own students or staff. Regardless, letting your peers know will help them help you find the right role. It will also allow them to plan and prepare for your departure.

32. Let your supervisor or manager know – Getting more specific again, letting your supervisor and/or manager know could be tough. However, it is important for the reasons outlined above. In addition, your supervisor is also likely to have a wide network. They’ve probably supervised many other staff, and students. Thus, they would likely be able to introduce you to people who have undertaken a PhD and gone onto non-academic careers. Gaining access to those people will make your job search so much easier.

33. Remove excuses/procrastination – If you cannot do that for yourself, lean on your truth sayer (see point 13). Set some simple and easy to reach goals. It could be updating LinkedIn. Or setting up job search notifications. Or describing your perfect job. Research shows If you make the goal public (e.g. by writing it on social media or letting someone else know) you are more likely to follow through. This is regardless of follow-up from any other person. So, make it public. And, like for any other project you’d have tasks that you’d like to complete daily, do the same for the job search process.

34. Stop behaving like an academic – You might not know what this is. Especially if you have been an academic for your entire working life. But there are some things that you’ll need to undo. For example, you’ll need to stop being overly critical. It is amazing how as academics we constantly find what is wrong with things, rather than what is right. Even grant writing is a process of finding what is wrong, rather than what is right. Then there is the whole peer review process, which is almost exclusively about identify wrong points, rather than what is right. As an academic, you can constantly look for more data before making a decision. The only time you might be happy with a small sample size is a pilot experiment before going onto something larger or bigger. Whereas, in the wider world pilot-level data is sufficient to make a decision. Get comfortable with that.

35. Understand social media in the new industry – Academia doesn’t do much social media. Through design, planning or happenstance, Twitter has become the quasi -default social media channel for academics. That might change as you move into a different industry. They might, for example, use Facebook to engage potential end users. Or they could use LinkedIn to engage with representatives from other businesses.

36. Work experience – As intimated above, getting experience in things that are immediately recognisable as valuable in an industry outside academia will make the transition easier (see point 8, and 9). The next step on this is to get work experience in your industry or job of choice. This could be to do some summer work. Perhaps taking leave from your PhD or job to do work experience. If it cannot be directly related, then at least showing you can work is an important step in getting a job. Many PhD students give up work as they take on their PhD because they need to devote more time to their research. And this is great at the time. However, after 3 to 7 years of not having a job (well not a job as other people might see it), it can be hard to select you as the preferred candidate compared to someone who has been in the workforce that whole time.

37. Write your CV – This is on the list purely for completeness. If you are looking for a job, and don’t have a CV or resume, then I’m not sure you’ve passed the first hurdle. However, I will add that each time you send your CV to someone that you should make sure it is customised for their job or their needs. You need to make sure that your CV (as well as cover letter or any other application documents) addresses the job ad, and clear selection criteria.

38. Write your LinkedIn – I think LinkedIn is essential for any job search. Get your profile built. Either with professional help or follow the many, and varied guides online. Then, get to work growing your network.


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@drrichardhuysmans.com) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).