By Tyler Yank |

Graduate work is a many-headed hydra. Grant writing, public speaking, journal editing, and group management represent a fraction of the hard skills we pick up as we navigate the tedious path of dissertation-writing and research. Yet, there remains this myth – not least among my peers in a Humanities department in Canada – that we are gaining non-transferable and esoteric skills that will only serve to haunt us if (when?) we enter the non-academic job market.

there is a world outside of academia, and you should not fear it

Frankly, I have found that discussions of (dare I say it) leaving the academy are met with such disdain that many PhD students are encouraged to keep their insecurities and non-academic interests simply hidden from supervisors and peers alike.

Well, everyone needs to sit down for a minute. I have an important announcement to make: there is a world outside of academia, and you should not fear it. For those who are not enticed by a lifelong dedication to the university professoriate, and for those who, for financial or familial reasons, simply cannot remain in academia, there is a world of opportunity waiting. I’d like to start the conversation.

Before entering graduate school, I worked for several years in media and communications. I am proud of my dissertation research, but there are days when I miss life and work outside the confines of a History Department. I am now nearing the end of my PhD programme, and I have been thinking a lot about how to position myself as a “professional non-academic,” e.g. someone with a non-academic CV filled to the brim with skills acquired in academia.

We, fellow doctoral candidates, are capable beyond measure of existing in the professional non-academic world. So, I have made a short list of steps that we can take now and after graduation to enhance our resumes and continue strong personal and professional development.

We… are capable beyond measure of existing in the professional non-academic world

Seek out support resources (because they may not exist in your department). There are many online resources for recent doctoral graduates who wish to broaden their horizons, and networks of individuals who are thriving post-academia. My favourite site is From PhD to Life, a blog and coaching business by Jennifer Polk, who helps graduate students successfully transition out of the university setting. [Edwin Goi’s posts have more advice on building your skills, start with part 1 here]

The words 'I am a writer' being handwritten on paper

Continue writing. Your own publications, as well as the editing, translating, and proof-reading you have done for peers or research assistantships can and should act as samples within your own professional writing portfolio, for job applications in marketing, online and book publishing, communications, and similar fields. (free) and (not free) are both easy-to-use platforms to showcase writing materials. [Our interview with Rob Attar of BBC History Magazine includes some thoughts on popular history writing]

Continue public speaking. We are well-practiced public speakers from years of conference presentations, learning to speak-up in seminars, and teaching lecture courses of our own. Presentation-giving and the ability to comfortably ad lib (e.g. not be silent and awkward) in a business meeting or other professional setting positions us very well at networking events, job fairs, and job interviews.

A busy classroom of adult learners. A woman in the foreground is writing or drawing on sheets of paper

Continue teaching. Small colleges, adult education centres, tutoring centres, and library or community education programs are great options outside of the hectic university setting for those who are passionate about teaching, but not so passionate about research or the politics of university tenure.

Join a committee or association on-campus. Find fulfilment in extracurricular and volunteer activities. In the past, I have acted as the chair and communications coordinator of my department’s graduate association, and I currently sit on a graduate equity and diversity committee. In my mind, these roles demonstrate leadership, team-building, and a keen interest in wider issues (that is, beyond academia).

Plan events. I am just going to say it: event-planning is a beast and not everyone has the time for it. However, the organization of seminar series and graduate conferences can often include fundraising, chairing meetings, and managing volunteers, all of which are excellent skills to develop and highlight in CVs and interviews.

Gordon Brown at the World Economic Forum

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh

Consider the broader political or policy-driven implications of your field of study. Your knowledge of the places, languages, and institutions you have worked in over years of research can serve you well in many settings, including non-governmental and governmental organizations, research councils, new companies looking to expand globally, and media outlets. Multilingualism and institutional knowledge beyond the country you live or study in can be widely applied, and is often eagerly sought out by recruiters. In other words, travel opportunities and language-learning in the workplace need not cease simply because you have graduated.

Most importantly, stay excited and optimistic about your career prospects, whatever shape they may take. Over the past year, I have started perusing local job websites, and keeping an eye on which institutions and businesses are hiring in my city. I have even drawn up a few applications to small colleges and book publishing companies, just to get the hang of it. The non-academic world is bold and beautiful, too.

Tyler Yank is a senior PhD candidate at the Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill University, researching the history of enslaved women in Mauritius. She enjoys writing, bagels, and Saturdays. You can follow her on Twitter: @Tyler_the_Girl

Image 1 by Max Pixel, CC0

Image 2 by Ramdlon, CC0

Image 3 by COD Newsroom, CC-BY