Top 10 Tips on Making the Transition from PhD to Whatever Comes Next

  1. Get support. This can be a tough journey – a real transition – and it won’t be easy. You’ll want to get as much support as you can. You may need to branch out beyond your usual contacts: your friends and family may have different ideas than you do about where you’re headed; sometimes you need to check out for a bit to clear your head and focus on your own goals. Check out The Versatile Graduate: Exploring Diverse Career Paths for PhDs module here on, read and post on Versatile PhD, get active on Twitter (my favourite), and otherwise connect with others who are going through the process. Consider whether working one-on-one with a coach might help you – it helped me immensely.
  2. Recognize the cult-like nature of academic culture. Academia is wonderful, except when it’s not. Are you making assumptions about the “real world” based on flimsy evidence or unrigorous thinking? Are you narrowly focused because you want to be, or because you’re ignorant of other possibilities? If you’ve drunk the Kool-aid – and who hasn’t after so many years in university? – it’s time to spit it out. (This might take lots of spits!)
  3. “Tenure-track or bust” is a pernicious myth. Our departments, supervisors, and scholarly associations may not know what to make of PhDs working beyond the professoriate, but let me assure you: We’re doing marvelous work in all sorts of different places, and we do not feel like failures … at least not after we’ve thrown off any vestiges of that academic mentality!
  4. Focus on your values, strengths, and priorities. Academic culture tends to impose its own set of values and expectations on us. Some of these may align well with who you are, but no doubt at least a few won’t suit you at all. That’s ok. That’s good! What is most important to you? How can you lead a life full of meaning and engagement? What are your top priorities?
  5. Career exploration is crucial. One of the biggest challenges PhDs face is determining what other sorts of jobs they might do. Doctoral degree holders find employment in universities as staff members or administrators. Many others will wind up working in government or the non-profit sector. Some will work as K-12 teachers, while another chunk will get jobs in business, for companies or for themselves. The list is endless. Looks around before you leap. You’ll be a much more convincing applicant if you know – because you’ve done your research — you’d be a good match for a particular job and workplace. The Non-Academic Work Search module is a great place to start.
  6. Follow your intuition.  Intuition is a cognitive shortcut, a way for us to make decisions based on what we know without having to go through all the intellectual steps to get there. If something feels off, it likely isn’t right for you. Listen to that feeling.
  7. Quash your gremlins. We’ve all got them: little monsters crowing about how we’re not good enough, couldn’t possibly, would never. Shhh! If fear’s holding you back, recognize it as such. Make peace with your gremlin, but tell it to disappear while you take just this one risk. Feel free to put it in the freezer, or sit on it, or crumple it into a little ball and chuck it in the trash. Then it can come back to keep you safe from the world until the next time you’re going to take a risk.
  8. Oh yeah: take risks. Not huge ones! Just baby risks. It may sound counter-intuitive, but taking risks can make you more confident. It’s all about standing up a bit taller in the world, taking up more space, being a little louder. You’ll build resilience too, which will go a long way to helping you weather any feelings of failure or other setbacks.
  9. Write a gratitude journal. Here’s another trick to build resilience and boost your wellbeing that actually works. I’m not talking false positivity or obliviousness to a crushing reality; I’m talking taking stock of what’s been good and right and joyful, thinking about how you can have more of these good things, and about the ways in which they were important to you. This stuff actually works. Job searching can be a LONG, difficult process. Any boost you can give yourself will help you focus and stay energized to keep moving forward.
  10. Job search right. From informational interviews (a must) and other kinds of networking to actually submitting applications and job documents, make sure you’re maximizing your chances of success. Know that applying blind – responding to online job ads – has a very small success rate versus finding opportunities through your contacts. Completing the Converting a CV to a Resume module is a great way to start understanding the differences in approaching academic and non-academic job applications. Get help and support for the process by visiting your university’s career services, hiring a PhD expert, or attending events such as Beyond the Professoriate, an online conference aimed at PhDs in career transition.

Best wishes to everyone on the journey!

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk works as an academic, career, and life coach. Her clients include graduate students working on dissertations and PhDs figuring out life and work beyond the tenure track. Jen speaks on campus and at conferences on issues related to graduate education and career outcomes for PhDs, and her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, University Affairs, Vitae, and Academic Matters. Find Jen online at, and at her University Affairs blog. Join her twice a month for #withaPhD chat on Twitter, at the monthly Versatile PhD meetup in Toronto, and for Beyond the Professoriate, an online conference for PhDs in transition. Jen earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012.
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