December 28th, 2021 | Pivot After PhD: Why, When, and How? Career Development Strategies for PhDs

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Pivot After PhD: The Timing Is The Key

How to plan your PhD, strategically? 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 pivot from academic career towards industry is not a plan B anymore. The statistics is becoming increasingly deadly – 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 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

But, developing a new career is a time- and energy-consuming process. When is the best time to make this commitment and start your career transition process? If you start too early and embark on your first industry projects, the danger is, you will never find the energy to finish your PhD. Or, that you never develop your talent for academic research. Many PhDs leave academia too early and for the wrong reasons, for instance, only because they fell into conflict with their PhD advisor who didn’t believe in them (more on that later).

On the other hand, if you linger and hesitate if to change your career path for too long, you can find yourself spending many years in academia as a Post doctoral Research or Research Associate with no viable chances to pursue the academic career long term. And then, the number of options to start industry careers will also gradually shrink. In many companies and organizations, the preference is to hire new people via hiring fresh graduates with carte blanche as professionals for internships and then include them in career development systems.

On The Right Versus The Wrong Reasons To Leave Academia

First and foremost, it is good to ask yourself, “Why am I thinking of leaving academia?” In general, there is a class of reasons that lead to a good start in industry career path, and a class of reasons that, in general, can lead to disappointment.

As a rule of thumb, choosing to leave academia for external reasons such as the bandwagon effect (in essence, because all your colleagues are leaving for industry) a dysfunctional relationship with your supervisor, or because you despise political games at your department, do not lead to good career development decisions. If you rely on such external reasons, you can soon find out that there is no El Dorado; no professional environment free from struggle and stress. Wherever you go, there will be just another source of inconvenience.

On the other hand, choosing to leave academia for internal reasons such as curiosity or the inner feeling that there is some more fulfilling career out there, is a good idea. You need to be prepared for the long journey as the feeling of job satisfaction might not come straight away after the career transition. Yes, it might happen that you will need to explore and change jobs once or twice before you eventually find the right place. 

Please find more information about the right and the wrong reasons to leave academia in Natalia Bielczyk’s book “What Is Out There For Me? The Landscape for Post-PhD Career Tracks.” 

Like Bilingual Children

With PhD graduates are a bit like with bilingual children. Initially, bilingual children might develop slower than other kids as learning two languages at a time is a high cognitive burden in early childhood. As a result, they tend to start talking slightly later than other kids BUT this comes at a benefit: they become better at focusing their attention on relevant information and ignoring distractions than other kids. 

Similarly, fresh PhDs who need to requalify into a new profession might take a bit longer than specialists coming from another company in the field to become proficient at their new job. However, after they take time to integrate their background and skills gained in academia with the new skills and knowledge gained at their workplace, they become powerful professionals and often get far in their industry careers.

Optimizing Your Academic 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 industry in case you ever decide to switch a career development path.

It is all about skills. 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 wanted. Are you not sure? Discuss with your colleagues, your friends in industry, and educate yourself about the job market of PhD graduates. You can find for the training and career development an extensive list of materials, including books, blogs, courses, YouTube channels, and podcasts 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 for 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 experiences 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 transferrable skills. Career development management is not just a sequence of decisions taken at pivotal points of your life. It is all that happens meanwhile: small, everyday, gradual effort. It is like with 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 fours 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 Pivot?

And now the central question comes: when is the right time? There are a few possible approaches.

1. As soon as you start wondering. 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 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 halfway 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 20% chances to become a faculty member in the future,” it is a good reason to pivot.

3. As soon as you get a good career development opportunity. As a rule of thumb, you should keep your LinkedIn profile updated at all time, 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 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: 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.

Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2021, December, 28th). Pivot After PhD: Why, When, and How? Career Development Strategies for PhDs. Retrieved from

Disclaimer: Ontology of Value participates in the Amazon Associates program. Some links in this article are the affiliate links.

PhDs can choose any career direction and adapt everywhere! The whole difficulty is how to choose well to fully develop your potential and achieve the most fulfilling career.

We have built a self-navigation tool, The Ontology of Value Test, that helps professionals and students in choosing the right career path. The test will show you where you fit in the job market given your natural working style, personality, and values. It will give you a great overview of the potential and the opportunities that you have in the job market of today – and if you have traits of a good investor, the test will pick up on them! 

Interested in reading more career advice for PhD candidates and graduates? 

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