Pivot After PhD: Why, When, and How? Career Development Strategies for Career Change After PhD.

December 28th 2021

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Career Change After PhD: The Timing Is The Key.

As we discussed in the article “We Are the Champions. Leaving Academia After PhD Feelin’ Good,” you should be proud of your PhD. But of course, finding a new career path outside of academia is a complex problem. Decision-making is energy-costly for the brain in general, and taking life-changing decisions is even a much higher burden. 

So, how to strategically plan your PhD and prepare for the possible career change after your PhD? Is it better to start thinking about your further career plans from day one? Or, perhaps, better to live the “no plan B” philosophy, as famously envisioned by Arnold Schwarzenegger as described in his best-selling memoir “The Total Recall” (2011).

Well, today, the decision to go for a career change after PhD is not a plan B anymore. The statistics are becoming increasingly dreadful: in most fields, the capacity to accommodate new PhD graduates in academia is rapidly dropping. In this situation, switching careers after completing a PhD program is slowly becoming plan A. Developing industry careers after a PhD is no longer stigmatized. More often than not, it is becoming a sign of professional success.

Governments also spotted the problem related to career development.

Today, most universities were funded to develop their own training and career development centers where researchers can get helped with their career choices and dilemmas in professional life while still working at the university.


We also developed a special, intensive career transition program tailor-made for PhD students and graduates who seek to start new careers in industry; please find all the information and registration links HERE.

Before You Find Reasons To Leave Academia: Optimizing Your Academic Career Track For Industry Careers.

Given how the job market for PhDs is shaping today, it is best to take the possibility of choosing the industry career management into account early on and keep as many doors open as possible. You can play your academic career strategically so that you optimize your options in the industry in case you ever decide to switch a career development path.

It is all about skills not diplomas. You need to first carefully look into your academic curriculum and try to identify your current core competencies. What are your personal strengths? What do you enjoy doing at work the most? Core competencies do not necessarily relate to the activities on which you spend most of your working time but rather, to the activities that allow for achieving flow states.

Then, you need to think of industries, professions, and positions where these particular skills are desired. Are you still unsure in which direction to go next? Discuss with your colleagues, and your friends in the industry, schedule informational interviews, and educate yourself about the job market for PhD graduates. 

Please find an extensive list of materials, including books, blogs, courses, YouTube channels, and podcasts for PhDs at the pivotal point of their careers here.

Start Optimizing Early.

If you do this exercise at the beginning of your PhD track, for example, after your first year of study, you will still have plenty of time for further developing your skills and adapting them to industry personal and professional development standards before your contract comes close to expiration. Many wonderful online programs are dedicated to PhDs who wish to gain their first industry experience and build skills necessary in industry careers. 

For example, Code-Switch Consultants lead a program in which you can embark on a 6-month group project developed by a private company and build your project management skills. The necessary commitment, in essence, a few hours per week, allows you to marry this program with your daily research.   

The bottom line is: do not wait for the last moment with building your transferrable skills. Career development management is not just a sequence of decisions taken at pivotal points in your life. It is all that happens meanwhile: small, everyday, gradual effort. It is like a gym. If you exercise every week, after a few years you will have a great body. 

Similarly, if you spend one afternoon a week for four years developing transferrable skills, you will become a highly competitive candidate in multiple industries. You will just look good to the employers.

So, When Is The Right Time To Look For Reasons To Leave Academia and Pivot?

And now the central question comes: when is the right time? There are a few possible approaches to looking for reasons to leave academia.

1. As soon as you start wondering and ask yourself, “why to leave academia?” A popular opinion is that, once you start wondering whether the academic career is the career path for you, it is probably a sign that the idea of pivoting is already hatching in the back of your mind, and sooner or later you will pivot to another professional career track. So, better sooner than later.

This is not necessarily always true as many successful faculty members went through periods of doubt in their careers, or even went outside of academia and back. However, statistically, most people who start mind-wandering will eventually pivot outside of academia and start the career development process.

2. Take a final career decision at your own checkpoint point. A good, functional strategy, is to set your own checkpoint. For example, after your second or third year of a PhD, you can take a long walk in the park and take time to think about your future. Did academia meet your expectations as a workplace? Do you enjoy academic work? Which aspects that you enjoy / dislike? What is the progress with your PhD career?

And realistically, what are your chances of getting the faculty position in the long term? What are the stats in your professional field? Most PhD candidates are still overly optimistic about halfway through their PhD programs as they feel that their first publications are right behind the corner. But sometimes, for your career management, it is better to be brutally honest with yourself. If the answer is, “At best, I have a 20% chance to become a faculty member in the future,” it is a good reason to pivot.

3. As soon as you encounter a good career development opportunity. As a rule of thumb, you should keep your LinkedIn profile updated at all times, regardless of whether in academia or beyond. There are multiple good guidebooks to drafting your LinkedIn profile as a PhD, for example, this Roostervane article.

Once you use this free personal ad platform, career development opportunities may come at anytime. Who knows, perhaps a Google scout will call you one day when you are just peacefully drafting your next manuscript in your office? Or, the ministry of education calls you with an invitation to a very important think tank? There are certain career opportunities worth saying “Yes!” for the sake of a once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunity, even if you were not planning to go this way in the job market.

4. As soon as your career development opportunities in academia dry out. This is probably the worst scenario that you should avoid in your professional career development, on behalf of the former three options.

Anyways, many academic researchers experience hardship with finding new contracts. And, they spend way too much time trying instead of accepting the fact that the chances are slim and pivoting to another career. If you do not have any personal invitations to apply for a Postdoc after your PhD or a personal grant that would allow you to propose your own project, the chances are slim by definition.

Let’s be real here: at senior levels, academic jobs are usually given away via contacts and personal recommendations and not just in a fair, open recruitment process. Therefore, if you keep on applying and with no success, it might mean that your personal network is too weak to ever get another contract. And the longer the gap in your academic CV, the worse it becomes. So, this is a perfect situation to take the final decision about career change after a PhD.

5. As soon as you reach the wall. In your career, you write your own career story, chapter by chapter. If you start feeling like Bilbo Baggins, namely “thin, sort of stretched, as butter scraped over too much bread,” perhaps it is just time to go and start writing your next chapter. You can learn more about the concept of building a career story from Keri Twigg’s book “Career Stories.” 

Conclusion. Career Change After PhD: When and How? 

With a career change after PhD, it is a bit like changing partners. If all the signs on Earth and in the sky are telling you that you are in a deeply suboptimal situation, and you feel unhappy or anxious about your future, it is better to admit the truth to yourself and go. After all, you only have one life. You don’t lose the time spent in academia. You will just need some time to integrate this experience with your new knowledge in a new discipline, that’s all.

And if you will eventually decide to step out, you should know that you are not the only one. Actually, the exodus from academia has already started and many research groups around the world struggle with finding candidates for Postdoctoral positions. Hundreds of thousands of PhDs have realized how much they can do with their lives outside of academia and this trend will probably continue.

One thing worth remembering is that it is not your hard skills but your work ethic, a PhD creed of sorts, that presents the most value to employers. You should be proud of what you achieved, not because of your publications but because of the unique character that you have built over the years. Please find more insights on the PhD creed in our article “The PhD Creed: Why Work Ethic Is An Important For Your Professional Development As Your Knowledge.” 

Are you thinking of changing your career path? Would like to get an intensive training oriented at discovering your identity as a professional, and learn effective career development strategies for landing great jobs? 

Join us at our intensive online career transition workshops! We will help you choose the right career path, help you land your new job, and teach you self-navigation strategies that will guarantee your success in professional development, and stay with you for a lifetime! Please find all the information about our game-changing online workshops and registration links HERE.

Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2021, December, 28th). Pivot After PhD: Why, When, and How? Career Development Strategies for Career Change After PhD. Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/pivot-after-phd-why-when-and-how-career-development-strategies-for-career-change-after-phd/

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