What To Do When You No Longer Want A Research Career
Tips for research PhDs making a career pivot
It still sounds weird to think that I am no longer a researcher. After spending a decade in college to earn a research doctorate and working professionally as a research scientist for two years, I decided that I no longer wanted to continue that career path.
Several self-observations led me to my decision. First, I had tried and failed to learn coding, which is increasingly needed in tech-based research roles. I know I could learn it, but I literally hated it, so I chose to not do things I despised. Second, I love to write and communicate about research, rather than conducting the research. Third, I have great organizational skills that are highly valuable in professional settings.
I had the honest realization in mid-2021 when I burned out at work and found myself with zero motivation to do research tasks. I simply didn’t enjoy the day-to-day professional life of a research scientist. So, I started figuring out what to do next. It took several months of researching, interviewing, and rebranding to find myself on a new career path of content marketing and communications.
If you’re in a similar position, or are just curious about what a change might entail, here are some tips to make a career pivot out of research.
1. Find Ways to Test-Drive New Career Experiences
To make a career pivot to a space in which you have no formal training or professional experience, as I did, you must find a way to demonstrate how you add value to organizations in the role you want with the experiences you have. And to do that you need some sort of relevant experiences. But they don’t need to be full time jobs with professional titles – they can be anything similar to the types of tasks you would do in your desired career.
These experiences are important to show a new company that you do know how to do what you’re applying for (at least partially), and for you to nail your interviews since leveraging concrete examples is necessary in interviews.
You can gain such experiences a few ways. In your current role you can work with your supervisor or manager to begin expanding your responsibilities to include some tasks that you’d like to eventually do full time in a career. I began taking initiative to produce more written content for my team that I could later leverage. You can also do things on the side, outside your normal working hours. I write a lot my blogs, and have done some voluntary communications work for HBES for many years.
The main goal is to have clear projects, examples, and experiences that you can leverage in your interviews. You don’t have to be doing your ideal job most the time, you just have to do it enough that you can leverage it effectively to land a full-time job doing it.
2. Get A Certification For Your LinkedIn Profile
The job markets are changing, and most employers are more interested in what you can do than what degree you have. Luckily certifications can provide you with an extra signal to employers that you can do this new job effectively.
Certifications are everywhere online and can be a cherry on top of your resume to show employers that you’re serious about moving into a new career space. They also help you to learn the lingo of a new career space, learn a few new things, and give you insight to what you didn’t know you didn’t know. It’s a win-win.
I spent a week doing a content marketing certification course and I applied many strategies and templates to my current workflow in my new role. It also helped me understand the performance expectations of this new career space as well. PhDs don’t need more degrees, they need more applicable skills – certifications are a great and quick way to get them.
3. Don’t Think Too Hard About Job Ad Requirements
In fall 2021 when I went on the job market I applied for all sorts of jobs in the content and communications space. Most of which required just a bachelor’s degree. But many required years of “full time professional experience”. Many more required proficiencies in programs that I didn’t know.
Never mind all that. I applied anyways and got several interviews and a couple offers.
Job ads are tricky in general, not just for career pivots. But they can seem extra intimidating when you feel like you’re probably the least qualified in the bunch. On the one hand, yes, they list out relevant skills, but much of the time such a person doesn’t actually exist, and if they did, they would be over qualified for the role.
If you hit half the requirements and you really like the job or company – apply! Especially you, ladies!
4. Become The Whole Package
If you’re serious about a career switch, your online presence and your application must reflect that. If you’re looking to do something else besides research, make sure that your related work is visible, and your personal branding doesn’t scream “I AM ONLY A RESEARCHER”.
This means several things. You need to redo your resume to emphasize the experiences you have that are relevant to the job you want. Your online presence – LinkedIn and personal website – need to have these experiences and work visible so that when interviewers look you up (which they will) they see evidence that you can do the job you’re saying you can do.
Because I was aiming for a content writing and communications role, my website was a saving grace. Every single interviewer mentioned they had been to my website and were impressed with my writing. I even got out of doing an interview assignment to assess my writing because my skills were clearly visible online.
To do all the above, you need to do your career research to 1) ensure you’re using the correct lingo for your career path, 2) highlight the right kinds of experiences, and 3) know what job titles you’re aiming for. I spent months doing research to figure out what career path I was looking for and aligning my materials and online presence accordingly.
Career pivots are hard, especially when you feel that there is a sunk cost of the long years spent training for a PhD (certainly most content marketers don’t have PhDs!). Ultimately though the time may come when you want to do something else. And the great thing about a career path outside the professoriate is that there are a multitude of options.