When You’re a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

Just like everything looks like a nail if you are a hammer, your PhD appears academic when all of your skills are presented in that context. Similarly, people in other sectors will have the same problem. They’ll see how their skills are specific to their sector.

Our preparation for life outside academia is presented entirely through an academic lens. Yet, in Australia, 50% of PhD graduates will leave academia upon graduation! And in 10 years, less than 10% will remain in academia.

Careers days – academic setting, with mostly academic panellists.

Resume writing – academics giving advice on what they write in their resumes. Which mind you, are all for grant applications and promotion rounds. Not for non-academic jobs.

Grants – academics talking about the peer reviewed process.

Yet, all of these situations could present non-academic life if tweaked a little.

Careers days – take them off-campus. Even the same panel off campus will present careers in a different light.

Resume writing – ask what it is like to review a pile of resumes. You’ll very quickly find out it is a long, and tiring process. With each one looking the same as another. So shorter, concise, and memorable resumes will perform better.

Want to know more about other industries

and sectors? Talk to your family about

their career pathway, and skills.

Grants – industry love a person who can attract funding. So don’t talk about peer review, talk about writing well. Talk about writing tenders, and proposals.

Now, if your uni or supervisor or academic peers already do all of that, try this.

Talk more widely than your academic circles. Start with your parents. Ask them about their career. What they value in the people they work with. What they value in the people that work for them. What is work like? What did they do today? How did they develop those skills? Have they hired someone recently? What was that like?

Then, move onto your siblings. What do they do on a daily basis? What are the skills they use? What are the traits they value in themselves, and others?

Now, in this process it can be easy to say “Yeah, but I’m different, the situation is different, you’re different”. There will be something inside you that tries to say how special you, and your circumstances are. And that the advice, and experience of others is not transferable. Fight the urges to voice those arguments. Listen. Count to three before talking if you have to. Bite your tongue.

If you can, ask a question that invites your mum, dad or sibling to become a hammer. To see how your skills might be useful to their role, industry or sector. Trust me. They will be able to find those skills. Of course, if your whole family are academics, choose a different group. Maybe it is people in your music or sport club. Maybe it is the knitting or reading group you are part of. The key here is to find people who are not academics. Then ask them about their work, and life. No judgement. No expectation. Just listen. Ask. Listen.


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).