Student Notebook

Non-Academic Careers: Plan A, Plan B, or Simply Curious

Few graduate students have a clear idea of what an academic career entails before they enter their programs. Eventually, some decide that they do not enjoy the prospect of remaining on an academic path (Basalla & Debelius, 2007; Johnson, 2003). Regardless of whether this decision is made before or after obtaining a degree, graduate students should be aware of career options outside of academe (Basalla & Debelius, 2007).

Perhaps you already know that you do not want to pursue a career in academia, perhaps you are undecided, or maybe you are interested in learning about alternative options “just in case” (Vick & Furlong, 2005). It may be that you want a non-academic job, but do not know what exactly you would like to do and where to begin the search. Even if you know what you want to do, you still may have this nagging feeling that you are selling out. You are not. Basalla and Debelius’s (2007) book on non-academic careers for PhDs may be useful in convincing you that it is all right to leave academia by providing evidence of graduate students who have successful careers in non-academic settings.
In any case, you may want a better idea of the availability of various careers, what kinds of skills and preparation they necessitate, and how to make the transition. This knowledge may help you make your final decision and improve how you feel about the decision.

Mad Skills
Regardless of the specific discipline, training in psychology gives you many advantages (Bryant, 2005). Graduate students in psychology receive extensive training in research skills, designing surveys and experiments, collecting data using various qualitative and quantitative methods, critical thinking skills, statistics, and teaching (Bryant, 2005; Chamberlin, 1998).

A variety of non-academic positions utilize these skills.  Graduates with advanced degrees in psychology find employment in fields ranging from the Federal Government (e.g., the FBI and Department of Education) and national institutes (e.g., the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation), to consulting companies (ranging from McKinsey to local businesses), to think tanks (e.g., Catalyst), to intergovernmental organizations (e.g., United Nations) and nongovernmental organizations (e.g., Amnesty International) (Dittmann, 2005). Options are limitless, often to the surprise of graduate students who believe that they cannot do anything else but “study” (Johnson, 2003).

Given the variety of the available options, if you don’t know which path to take, talk to career counselors if your university has a career center or pick up various career tests at a bookstore to see where your interests may lie (Basalla & Debelius, 2007). Read career guides on finding jobs outside of academia. Check out online resources (i.e.  Think about what you like about the academic world (e.g., flexible schedule, intellectual environment) and what you do not like (e.g., low paycheck, pressure to publish). Make a list of your priorities (Vick & Furlong, 2005): Would you like to continue to do research or teach? Maybe own a business? Where would you like to live? Do you prefer working in groups? What kind of activities do you enjoy? What types of careers could satisfy most of your requirements? Talk to people who work in those fields to find out what their jobs entail. Talk to people in other fields too — you may be surprised to learn that they use similar skills. Keep your mind open.

While in Graduate School
Although you acquire many skills that are useful outside of academia while pursuing the degree, you can improve your chances of finding the right non-academic position by engaging in additional activities (Vick & Furlong, 2005). Basalla and Debelius (2007) recommend taking a part-time job, volunteering, enrolling in computer or business classes, applying for internships, or writing for newspapers and magazines. You can also take administrative and leadership positions to show that you have the skills needed in a number of different careers.

Informational interviews will help you to find out what specific skills and experiences will make it easier for you to land the perfect position and ensure that you will succeed in your chosen career (Basalla & Debelius, 2007). There are a number of online and print resources on how to successfully conduct informational interviewing to gain useful information and perhaps even obtain an internship or a job offer.

Gaining skills and experiences will not only give you more advantages when applying for positions, but also will help you learn more about what you do and do not like. Moreover, it may also help you decide that, after all, you do want to stay in academia. It will be a more informed decision and will satisfy your curiosity about career options.

You Are Not Alone
If you are considering leaving the academic world, remember that you are not alone. The most difficult part may be accepting the decision to leave, as opposed to finding a non-academic job. You may be filled with feelings of failure (Bryant, 2005; Johnson, 2003). Bear in mind that most people change careers (not to mention jobs) many times throughout their lives; no one is required to make a life-long career commitment in their twenties or early thirties (Vick & Furlong, 2005). As a psychology graduate, you have learned invaluable skills that will let you contribute meaningfully and significantly to society. Talk to others who have made the decision to transition out of academe. Your school should have a listing of graduate school alumni; find those that have left and contact them. You will see that there are meaningful careers and happiness outside of the ivory tower.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.