If you’re anything like me, you may have started or are thinking about starting a PhD with the goal of embarking on a career in academia. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy research so a career as a college or university professor seemed like a good fit for me. I knew the PhD was going to be long and likely difficult journey, but in the end, I thought it would be worth it to land that hopefully tenure-track job. While this is still a goal of mine, over the course of my five-year PhD I came to the realization that this goal may not be achievable. This is not because of a lack of effort on my part, but more because the academic job market is highly competitive and in many fields such as my own there are many more PhDs then there are jobs. There are many accomplished PhDs who do not end up with academic jobs despite their best efforts.
PhDs or terminal degrees in your field are generally required for academic positions, particularly at four-year universities. What about non-academic fields? Does having a PhD make you overqualified for positions outside of academia? Can someone even be overqualified? What does that even mean? Overqualification is often a fear recent PhD graduates have when they are seeking non-academic jobs. Rest assured, simply having a PhD does not make you overqualified for every job outside of academia. Below I will discuss some of the fears associated with overqualification and the way PhDs can get around that fear, and also some general things to think about if you are starting a PhD, but don’t want a career in academia.
*Obligatory caveat: I am not a career specialist, just a recent PhD grad currently facing some of these issues letting you know what information I have gathered so you too can have a happier job search. This post was written by a recent PhD graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software. R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say about being overqualified, check out this video:
What Does Overqualified Even Mean?
Overqualified is a word you might hear thrown around a lot if you are a recent PhD grad looking for a non-academic job. But, what the heck does that even mean? How can someone be overqualified? A standard definition of overqualification is “having qualifications that exceed the requirements of a particular job” (Oxford Dictionary). On the surface being overqualified seems like a good thing. You meet all the specifications of the position and can clearly handle the position with no problem. However, a quick Google search will show you an endless stream of articles targeted at the overqualified stating that is can mean anything from simply exceeding the expectations to code for asking for too much money or appearing pompous. Overqualified is really a very vague term that can mean many different things from a potential employer. PhDs often live in fear of being rejected from a job they want because they are “overqualified.”
Simply having a PhD can make you seem overqualified because PhDs are not generally well understood degrees by those outside of academia. Most people do not know what a PhD entails, what skills you build, or even what you do all day (if you have questions about what PhDs do all day see this post). Just for an idea of the general knowledge about getting a PhD think about the questions your family asks you. For instance, my family was under the impression that I was just doing four more years of classwork like undergraduate until I actually described what I did all day. Because PhDs are not well understood if is often on the job seeker to explain how their PhD can actually help them complete the job rather than make them overqualified for it simply because they have this advanced degree.
Am I Overqualified for Jobs Outside Academia?
In a technical sense yes, you are overqualified in terms of having a degree or two over what is required by the position. Your skills and abilities may fall into the category of exceeding the expectations of the job. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if it is a job you want. Some employers will undoubtedly have the sense that if you have a PhD and are applying for a job that requires a BA or even a GED, you may not stick around, or the position may not be enough for you. There are ways however, to get around this initial hump of seeming overqualification. It is going to take some creativity and ingenuity, but PhDs looking for nonacademic jobs needs to learn to market themselves in a way that highlights the skills and experiences they gained during their PhD as an asset rather than a roadblock to success in their potential position.
Are There Non-Academic Jobs That Require a PhD?
On the flip side of overqualification there are also many job fields outside of academia that do require or at least value PhDs. The heart of many PhD fields is research and practice. For every field inside academia there is an outside profession. It is not always a direct link, but there are all different kinds of fields that require PhDs in every subject. For instance, many science PhDs end up working not in academia but in industry at places like pharmaceutical companies or in private research labs. They often do the same types of things that professors do, research and publish their findings, but they do not have to teach as well. (Check out this wonderful post on becoming an executive with a doctorate. Many government agencies, think tanks, NGOs, and companies seek out PhDs to work in all sectors of their specialties because they require the specialist knowledge that PhDs possess. While they may not need the exact niche that you work in, they value your understanding of research and your ability to acquire and process knowledge.
If you start a PhD and think that academia is not for you, particularly as like some you may find you don’t like teaching, then seeking an outside career like those above maybe the best track. However, just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you are limited to working jobs or starting a career that specifically requires a PhD. Many PhDs are working in fields that don’t necessarily require a PhD to get a job, but their skills and experiences from their PhD are a great asset to them and help them grow their careers. (If you are thinking about a career in academia see this post for some helpful productivity tips.)
Skills and Experiences Gained from the PhD Research Process
You may be thinking, how can my very specific research translate into a career outside of academia. Who is going to find that skill useful? Well your very specific research topic may not do of interest to someone else, but the broader skill set that allowed you to conduct your research is a very valuable asset. You spent the entirety of your PhD developing and honing your research skills, and those skills have a wide variety of applications outside of your specific dissertation topic.
Research is a very broad area. To conduct and subsequently complete your PhD you need to become a skilled researcher. Most people can do a basic Google search, but their wider research skills are a little lacking among the general population. You on the other hand can find, vet, and process information in a top-quality manner. This skill is highly valuable in a number of non-academic fields and is something you should highlight when looking for a non-academic job (see this post on the criteria that PhDs are evaluated on). Don’t underestimate the value of your research skills. You are among the best and brightest researchers in the world thanks to your experience as a PhD (see this post for more on PhD research).
This can be either field specific or can be much broader. In order to conduct your research, you had to use a specific framework and methodology. This methodology will have might wider applications. If you are looking at research posts, knowing specific methodologies will be in your favor. However, on a much broader plain, simply knowing how to go about conducting research and answering questions is a sought-after skill. At some point during your PhD you developed your own methods for acquiring and analyzing data. This is an easily transferable skill. You may have spent your PhD collecting and analyzing 18th century historical documents for what they could tell you about the Enlightenment, but that skill and method to approaching different types of written data can be easily transferred to a wide variety of topics.
A PhD also allows you to build investigative skills. PhDs are fantastic at learning to ask and answer hard questions based on evidence and research. PhDs are great at putting together information to find solutions to problems, and this creative thinking is invaluable in almost any career. By the time you are done your PhD you are very comfortable with dealing with large and small bits of data and evidence and piecing together what it is they all mean. You are a pro at handing unexpected situations learning from them.
While it is always helpful to take workshops and classes in formal project management, the process of doing a PhD is managing your own large research project from initial inception of the idea to the final dissertation defense and submission. This is no small feat. You have to propose and organize and number of events from lab experiments, to interviews, to research trips, to massive amounts of writing. Many PhDs involve several stages of data gathering which involves other people and a ton of secondary research. The PhD process is a long and complex one and you have to manage it yourself every step of the way.
While this sole experience likely will not get you an actual project manager job, project management is part of many different careers. The research, organization, planning, coordination, and writing that go into a finished PhD dissertation are the same skills that it takes to plan an event or devise a recruitment strategy. Highlight how you managed this large project and how you did so successfully.
Ability to Quickly Learn New Skills:
One of the best things that came out of my PhD was the knowledge that I can learn just about anything I need to at a basic level in a short amount of time. You might be super interested and knowledgeable about your immediate research area when you start your PhD, but you will grow your knowledge over the course of your PhD when you find that you need to revise your methodology or you experiment because the initial one did not work. You also need to form a good large base of knowledge for your field.
During my history PhD I learned a number of new skills at least at a basic level that I would not even considered when I first started such as the basics of computer programming (yes, really), database construction for a quick easy way to organize my data, I learned the basics of a new language, and I also learned how to be an editor. All of these things were relevant to my PhD research. Through a little bit of time and dedication I could master them at the basic level and continue to grow those skills now. However, this also means that I can highlight my quick skill acquisition to potential employers.
PhDs are long processes. They are at least 4 years of research and writing, and the payoff of PhD research is not immediate. Research is a difficult process with lots of starts, stops, roadblocks, dead ends, and occasionally awesome breakthroughs (Watch this video on how to get research breakthroughs). PhDs become very practiced in patience and looking towards the long term for results. They become skilled in planning for the long term and delayed gratification in their project. With that in mind, PhDs have a lot of perseverance, and while they do get frustrated, they don’t often give up (see other posts).
During your PhD you are going to do a lot of writing. Dissertation writing, literature reviews, presentation writing, proposal writing, and maybe be lecture writing. PhDs often develop a lot of skill in writing because they are trying to translate the outcomes of their often very complex research into an understandable manner. They often also have to verbally explain their research with also helps with this.
Some people love writing, while others detest it. If writing is something you enjoy and you have honed this skill throughout your PhD it is a very valuable skill in many careers, such as academic publishing. You specialized knowledge and writing skills combine very well in this type of career path.
Skills and Experiences Gained from the General PhD Journey
Outside of researching and general working on your dissertation you likely also engaged in many other activities during the course of your PhD. These activities also have helped you develop skills that can be useful in looking for a career outside of academia.
Many PhDs gain at least some teaching experience during the process of their PhD. Some are TAs, and others take positions as Adjuncts. Teaching is of course applicable to academic posts, it is part of the job of a professor, but there are other ways to apply teaching skills. Teaching skills directly translate into training, but also other aspects of education. TAs and Adjuncts get a lot of experience working with students one-on-one to help them develop skills or assist struggling students. You may find that you don’t necessarily like being in front of a classroom teaching, but that you like working with students one-on-one. Teaching experience is valuable in so many ways and displays your expertise in communication, presentation skills, and often IT skills as well.
Related to teaching is a development of leadership skills during your doctorate. PhDs lead their own research projects, and often become involved in activities and organizations on campus. Many times, PhDs end up being in leadership positions during these activities. Effective leadership skills are always valuable and should be highlighted. Leading the Graduate Student Organization or a research project is a big deal and is a very recognizable and valued skill in the job market.
Many graduate students become involved in academic journals. Journals allow you to develop your writing and editing skills, but also display your ability to work with large sometimes international teams. Journals whether big or small require a lot of effective communication between all its members to get an issue out on time and error free. Working on a journal, particularly in a leadership position, helps you develop a variety of skills necessary for nonacademic jobs.
Getting over the label of “overqualified” requires creative marketing of yourself and reflection on what skills and abilities you developed during your PhD. Simply having a PhD is not an overqualification for nonacademic jobs, but rather an asset in every facet of life. If you want to learn more about the R3ciprocity project check out these posts: