Academic Exit Plan: rough guide towards non-traditional careers beyond and within academia #AltAc #postphdlife

  • update: video of panel discussion here
  • Do not miss many useful references and resources listed at the end of this blogpost

Based on my personal experience and difficulties in planning my career, as well as talking to a number of my friends and mentees in STEM, I believe there is a great need for proper career planning for PhD students and postdocs. By that I mean, there is a general lack of awareness, and much less practical guidance, within universities to help them succeed beyond finding typical traditional research faculty jobs (that are highly competitive to put it mildly). Hence, I believe it’s crucial we find ways to encourage them to pursue non-traditional alternatives-to-academia opportunities (usually hashtagged #AltAc or #postphdlife or #fromPhDtoLife etc), as well as support them in those roads less traveled.  

We plan to discuss this at length with the following great panel of academic “activists” I am aware of, who have been working on improving the status quo for sometime (ordered alphabetically by last name): Dr. James Heathers (Everything Hertz podcast), Dr. Sonali Majumdar (PhDPlus, University of Virginia), Dr. Gary McDowell (Founder, Future of Research), Dr. Jennifer Polk (From PhD to Life), and Dr. Chris Smith (Postdoc affairs manager, NCSU). The overall goal is to share our experience and suggestions, discuss the different aspects of it in detail, and hopefully that will lead to a rough guide on how late-stage PhD student or a postdoc can follow. Hopefully! 🙂

The rough agenda:

  • Short “talk” from each panelist (4-5 minutes each, no longer than 30 mins)
    • Short Bio / where do you come from?
    • What do you think are key challenges?
    • How can we best solve them?
  • Open discussion (20-30 mins)
  • Q&A with the audience (15-20 mins)
  • Practical guide (or shall we call them Ten Simple Rules?) for an “Exit Plan” (~10 mins)

Date: November 19, 2021, 11am-12.30pm EST


Join us and bring friends!

Please share it widely.

This panel would be the fist of various open science debates I would be hosting as part of our Quality Conversations webinar series. As with all others, this will be recorded and openly shared here, so don’t worry if you can’t make it.

Full disclosure of my personal bias:

I personally advocate against an academic career for most (even going so far as to discourage folks to enroll into a PhD in the first place), as I believe it is a big stressful pursuit with a relatively lower return on investment for most people, to the typical graduate student ON AVERAGE. To help achieve this, I wanted to gather a panel based on our collective knowledge and experience, try offer a rough template for an “Exit Plan” to help them plan their #AcExit (from training) into whatever career path they choose. My own experience and talking to a few others who tried to do this taught me it takes a long time (I say 2 years) to transition out, and many don’t realize this until they dive into these “uncharted waters”. The time it takes for transitioning out may differ substantially for different individuals and different fields depending on individual skill set, as well as the alignment of their research with opportunities in the industry. To my understanding, this process has few key steps: 

  • realizing the need to explore beyond the ivory tower, 
  • making the tough decision to leave, which can take a lot of time, as it involves soul searching 
  • identifying job markets and their requirements, 
  • Identifying any skill gap, and bridging it 
  • Searching for the jobs, and preparing the materials and the pitch
  • Interviewing, negotiating and landing the right position!

Different candidates might take different amounts of time for the above steps, and sometimes personal life gets in the way adding small or large delays. Hence, it’s best to plan a couple of years ahead of time to minimize stress and to finding the right job. Hence, it might be a good idea to take up the a postdoc or a research assistant job while preparing and searching for non-academic jobs in the industry.

Useful Resources

Useful references (not comprehensive at all):

  • Gibbs, K. D., & Griffin, K. A. (2013). What Do I Want to Be with My PhD? The Roles of Personal Values and Structural Dynamics in Shaping the Career Interests of Recent Biomedical Science PhD Graduates. CBE—Life Sciences Education12(4), 711–723.
  • Roach M, Sauermann H (2017). The declining interest in an academic career. PLOS ONE 12(9): e0184130. 
  • Burnett, B. and Evans, D (2016). Designing Your Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing.  
  • Sinche, M.V. (2016). Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science. Harvard University Press
  • Carolyn Beans, Biology Graduate Programs Educating Students for Life beyond Academia: Broadening horizons for young scientists, BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 2, February 2018, Pages 53–59.
  • Cheryl Lyn Dybas, The Road Not Taken: Paths to nonacademic careers in the biological sciences, BioScience, Volume 63, Issue 12, December 2013, Pages 915–921.
  • Baker B. 2015. Beyond academia: Grad students offered new tools to find the right career. BioScience 66: 92. doi:10.1093/biosci/biv161
  • Denecke D, Feaster K, Stone K. 2017. Professional Development: Shaping Effective Programs for STEM Graduate Students. Council of Graduate Schools.
  • Dybas CL. 2013. The road not taken: Paths to nonacademic careers in the biological sciences. BioScience 63: 915–921. doi:10.1525/bio.2013.63.12.2
  • St. Clair R, Hutto T, MacBeth C, Newstetter W, McCarty NA, Melkers J. 2017. The “new normal”: Adapting doctoral trainee career preparation for broad career paths in science. PLOS ONE 12 (art. e0177035). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0177035.

For Humanities and Social Sciences:

  • Rogers, K (2020). Putting the Humanities PhD to Work. Duke University Press
  • Caterine, C (2020). Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide. Princeton University Press
  •, a career exploration and planning tool for humanities & social sciences PhDs

One thought on “Academic Exit Plan: rough guide towards non-traditional careers beyond and within academia #AltAc #postphdlife

  1. Pingback: Quality Conversations webinar series [on niQC, open science etc] – cross invalidation

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