Some Advice for Social Science PhDs in their “Real World” (Research) Career

10 more pieces of advice for PhDs who aren’t going to be a professor

Most PhD students in the social sciences enter their program with the intention of doing research by way of landing a post-doc role and then an assistant professor role at a university. But, the academic job market is tanking and it’s unlikely to get better anytime soon.

So, you’re finishing your PhD (or have students that are). Now what?

Now, you must get a job. A job out in the “real world” where you have no direct experience. You’re going to begin a new and uncertain career path, learn a new job language, and work with a more diverse group of colleagues than you ever have before.

This is a major challenge for fresh PhDs to navigate. I landed my current job as a Research Scientist in December 2019. I’ve previously written about advice for PhDs and my experience as an EdTech researcher. Now that I’ve been post-PhD for almost a year and half, I want to share more about my experience. Whereas my first column focused on advice for navigating the job market, this list focuses on advice for PhDs once in their new career.


1. Get things done

This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but you really need to actually get things done. When we were in graduate school, we certainly finished research projects over the course of several years, but your new role is almost certainly going to comprise of more than just doing research projects. If you land in a research role, research projects still take as much time as they’re going to take (but you’ll be pushed for them to get done fast), but all the other stuff you’re responsible needs to get done, and in a much timelier fashion than you may be accustomed to in graduate school.

Meetings are a normal part of your workday, and at these meetings you’re expected to have progress to share, deliverables to. . . deliver, and action items to complete for the next time you meet. Email isn’t your main mode of communication anymore, and taking weeks to decide on an action or months to complete a document is unlikely to cut it in most roles. You need to focus on getting things done.

2. Make decisions

As a PhD student, you are used to having a person – your advisor – to run major decisions past. In your role, you will likely have a manager or director to look to for guidance, but they don’t need to check over every decision you make: you need to make decisions. Sometimes big decisions. Remember: you have a PhD. You’re not (or shouldn’t be) in an entry-level position, and this means there is a certain level of trust in you, and an expectation of you, to do the job you have been hired for. After your initial learning curve on the new job (first few months) you should feel confident and able to make decisions within the scope of your role. The best piece of advice I’ve received from my director: “default to action.” Do things. Make decisions. Push things forward.

3. Let others do their jobs

Remember the crushing weight of having to do everything yourself? When I was a student, I was responsible for all aspects of my research projects: conceptualization, design, IRB, analysis, writing, publication, presentation, etc. Our dissertations we do to earn our doctorate literally depend upon our ability to do everything ourselves. We are quite literally trained to do everything. This is a hard mode of work to shift out of, and is something I still work on.

A colleague of mine told me early on after I started my role, “you are accountable for things getting done, but that doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for doing everything.” This is spot on advice. You need to let your colleagues do their jobs. You are part of a bigger and more diverse team now, and you no longer responsible for every aspect of every project.

4. Trust others to do their jobs

Is this the same as number 3? No, not really. Now that you’re getting comfortable with letting others do their jobs and not feeling the need to take on all the responsibility yourself, you now need to trust your colleagues to do their job. Even if you’re in a research role, there are most likely many other types of professionals and teams you’re working with (i.e., “cross-functional teams”). This means that there are many other experts in their respective fields. This takes time to get used to because in our PhD, we’re surrounded by other scientists in our field nearly all the time. But now there are UX researchers, content creators, marketing professions, business professionals, engineers, policy experts, program managers that you may work with – and remember that you are not and expert in their field. This means they probably know how to do their job better than you know how to do their job. You may not understand their job and their knowledge base, but you should default to trust others to do their job.

5. Get organized

The main difference between doing research as a PhD and as a professional researcher isn’t the research itself, but rather the fact that there is just a bunch of other stuff happening around the research you’re doing. You have a lot more things to keep track of, including how your research fits within the broader organization’s mission and business goals.

Organization is a great strength of many PhDs as we’re used to juggling our own courses and training, research, teaching, lab management, and other lab needs. If you’re someone with strengths in organization – which translate well into project management – use these to your advantage. Great organization is a highly valued skill, though one that is hard to convey on a resume, so it’s something you can really shine on once you’ve started your role.

6. Keep writing

Writing, especially technical writing, is something that we develop and excel at during our PhD training through writing publications, term papers, presentations, etc. Most jobs require “excellent oral and written presentation skills” and this is a skill in which you should excel at. In my opinion, PhDs are extremely well positioned relative to others to begin their career doing well with written communications and oral presentations. Your role is likely to involve regular writing and frequent presentations, with the difference being that these communications are primarily internal rather than external facing.

A positive to moving out of formal academy research is that journal publications are not your primary outputs and currency for career advancement anymore, although they may certainly be a factor. The benefit, however, is that your writing can now be less. . . rigid, and therefore, more fun to do! So keep writing, and expand the types of writing you do. Since graduating I still write a lot, maybe even more than before, but the majority is not for formal publications.

7. Gain confidence in your strengths

Remember points 3 and 4? In the “real world” you work with diverse, cross-functional teams – you are not expected to know everything and excel at everything. Although as researchers we all share to some degree a broad set of skills – being an expert in a specific niche area, a great teacher, mentor, researcher, statistician, and more – we are not all equally excellent at all of these things, and that is okay! The great benefit of working with people of all sorts of professional backgrounds is that there are plenty of roles in which you can use your strengths to benefit your team and company.

Figure out what things you excel at and focus your career development to highlight those skills. Some of us are proficient coders and statisticians, some of us are proficient project managers, and others still are skilled and developing programmatic strategy, or content creation. There are places in the “real world” for all these types of researchers and scientists. And, even if you don’t want a lifelong research career, you can prioritize and flex your skillset in non-research roles as well! There are lots of things to do with your career. You just need to figure out what it is you want to do next (see next point).

8. Facing career uncertainty

The blessing of the tenure-track is that you know exactly what your career path looks like and what the next role is. The career track is intensely linear. Outside the academy: very, very not linear. Quite literally everyone’s career path can look wildly different. And, you may have no idea what your next step is or what the long-term future of your career holds for you. Everyone around you will tell you that it’s okay and totally normal, and that you’ll figure it out when the next opportunity presents itself. And this is all probably true.

But this can also be very hard. I, for example, am someone who likes to have a goal and understand how the work that I am doing helps me advance to the next step I have for myself. Not knowing what my career looks like long term can be hard, but it’s a result of there being so many possible paths to take – opportunity and variety that the tenure track doesn’t offer to the same degree. I’m still in my first role post-PhD, so I don’t have many answers here, but it’s definitely an aspect that others may struggle with, too, after launching their career.

9. Embrace your whole life

Academics are known for overworking, burnout, and so thoroughly blurring the lines between work and personal life that they become a singular identity. You can certainly do the same in your post-PhD career (I still maintain too many extra roles and responsibilities outside of my job!), but you definitely don’t have to – and you honestly shouldn’t! Weekends, vacation time, holidays where your colleagues aren’t in their office, company events, respect for work hours are all things that are normal. At first it almost feels as if you’re not working enough, but in time you’ll get used to normal work hours and find that you have time to live your life, try new hobbies, read books for fun, cook, or do anything else you want to do that isn’t work! Embrace it. Enjoy it. And Live.

It’s worth it.

10. Let go of academia (at least a little bit)

I’m still working on this one. After three years on the academic job market, it’s just unlikely to happen, especially since I love where I live and don’t think a professor job is worth moving to a random city (see point 9). But letting go is hard. After a decade in school to get a specific job in a tanking job market, it can be a challenge to switch gears and figure out a whole new plan (see point 8). To be fair, I still have a foot in academia: I adjunct on the side and I serve on the board of my favorite scientific society. But, I am slowly letting things about academia go. I no longer stress about publications and CV lines, I have asked for more extensions on R&Rs for my few last(?) publications than I ever did in graduate school, and my identity is no longer tightly tethered to my academic work. It’s simultaneously liberating and overwhelming. It’s okay if this takes time, and you can keep your foot in the ivory tower – but don’t be limited by it.

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BONUS: Give back

The problem that PhD students have when navigating career options outside the professoriate is that they are surrounded, advised, and mentored by. . . professors. Not all programs or universities have extensive career resources for PhD students, and many may not know where to start when inside their ivory tower bubble. So, if you successfully navigated this terrain, give back. Speak at events for graduate students, agree to 30-minute calls with students who want advice, write about your experience, send jobs to your friends, review resumes, etc. There are many PhDs that have careers helping other PhDs, such as Chris Cornthwaite and Jen Polk that I follow online – these are people that I found really helped me remain optimistic on the roller coaster ride that was (and sometimes still is) the transition from PhD student to professional.

The “altac” track for (social science) PhDs will increasingly become more normal, but PhD students will continue to be mentored by professors. If you’re a student, reach out to those that have jobs outside the professoriate and ask questions. If you’re a professor, seek out professionals to supplement your training of PhDs to prepare them for a variety of career options.

There is no single right way to have a career outside the professoriate.