Transition from PhD to Industry: 7 Simple Steps from a Fellow PhD

Historically and to date, PhDs are generally built for a career path in academia. However, there is a group of PhDs who desire to transition from a path in academia to industry. Are you one of those academics wondering where to start from? What are the alternative paths for PhDs? What if you don’t have the experience? Is it even possible?

I have a PhD and have successfully transitioned into a role in Business Analyses. In this article, I describe the process and steps to take to make a successful transition from a career in academia to industry.

Is a PhD useful in Industry?

A PhD degree is not necessarily useful in industry, except the PhD is directly relevant to the industry position. For instance, a PhD in mathematics and economics is relevant to an industry position in Finance, particularly in Financial Quants and Analysis. The way to make a PhD useful in industry is to extract the transferrable skills that are relevant to industry positions.

Can PhDs get jobs in Industry?

PhDs can get jobs in the industry as long as they are able to demonstrate transferable skills from your PhD such as time management skills, written and oral communication skills, project management skills, and analytical skills.

7 Steps for Transitioning from PhD to Industry

Step 1: Explore your options in Industry and set goals

As a PhD there are many options for you in industry. The question is which of these options is best suited to your skills, experience, and aspirations.

There are five broad groups of industry positions that are particularly suited to PhDs

Research & Development Positions

Research and Development (R&D) in industry is a mentally stimulating field that demands practical and profitable results. Many researchers and academics are drawn to R&D in industry by its financial rewards and challenging work.

R&D roles span various industries, including Pharmaceuticals, Communications technology, Automobiles and Aerospace, Banking and Financial Services, Defence, Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), and manufacturing.

Example roles include R&D Project Manager, Research Associate, Research Analyst, User Experience Researcher, Experience Analyst, Quality Assurance.

Product, Sales, and Marketing Positions

Positions in product, sales, and marketing involve building products, communicating value, building professional relationships, and maintaining client relationships.

Example roles are Application Scientist, Market Research Analyst, Tech Sales Specialist, Capital Equipment Specialist, Marketing Communication Specialist, and Product Manager.

Finance & Consulting Positions

Financial organisations from global banks to investment banking specialists to private trading companies are seeking PhD graduates who can demonstrate relevant expertise and experience for roles requiring quantitative and research skills.

In consulting, employers are looking for candidates who can process vast knowledge of information and make use of that knowledge to provide expert advice. This is very well suited to PhDs who are known for generating literature reviews from processing vast amounts of literature.

Government and Policy Positions

Governments are responsible for nationwide policy-making and implementation in almost all aspects of life.

Within government, there are multiple job options, ranging from diplomats and scientists to consultants and politicians, making this an area with options suited to all PhDs.

Medical Communications

Medical communications involve communicating highly technical information to other professionals with technical expertise.

Example positions in this group include Clinical Trials Project Manager, Clinical Trials Research Associate, Clinical Data Management, Regulatory Affairs Associate, Medical Affairs Associate, and Medical Science Liaison.

When I finished my PhD, I chose to move into Product Sales and Marketing because I had some background experience in this field. I initially trained as a Business Analyst and then transitioned into becoming a Product Manager.

Now that brings me to my next tip.

Step 2: Build foundational knowledge in your chosen career path

Once you have selected or have an idea of your new career path, the next thing to consider is building some foundational knowledge.

The truth is, you probably don’t know much about your new chosen career path, and that is fine. In the world today, there are numerous ways to acquire knowledge.

It is important to acquire foundational knowledge in your chosen career path before you invest further time and resources.

There are many cheap ways to gain knowledge in today’s world, including watching youtube videos, binge listening to relevant podcasts, purchasing a course on Udemy (during sales period), subscribing to Linkedin learning, free webinars.

Personally, when I chose a career path in Business Analysis, I began by first purchasing books on Business Analysis just to get some understanding of what it is all about.

I then proceeded to purchase a course on Udemy. I completed the two best on Udemy on Business Analysis (It was the first time I actually completed a Udemy course 😃).

At this point, I knew what the role of a Business Analyst entailed, and I was confident in my choice. I then went ahead to register for a professional training course to get certified in Business Analysis.

PG Tip: Once you have foundational knowledge, if your industry position requires you to have some form of industry certification, then I recommend you register for professional training to acquire your certification. That said, I'll focus more on experience which is basically evidence that you're applying your knowledge.

Step 3: Speak to other professionals who have Transitioned from PhD to Industry

Let’s face it, switching career paths from Academia to Industry is no easy task to embark on. There are lots of uncertainties and unclarity; different paths, different disciplines, and diverse backgrounds.

Historically and to date, PhDs are generally built for a career path in academia. As a result, there are not a lot of people who have made this transition, and it can be difficult to identify them.

Speaking to other professionals does a couple of things; it will help you understand the requirements and commitments to make this career change.

Secondly, it will provide you with encouragement and belief that it is possible to successfully make such a transition.

But where do you find these professionals who have had PhD and are not working in industry positions?

  • Start with researching past PhD students in your university. Check their linkedin profiles for current roles. Reach out to those who are in industry positions
  • Join facebook groups of professionals who have transitioned to industry positions

Step 4: Identify & package your Transferrable skills

Even though you are leaving the career path of a typical PhD, your PhD knowledge and experience are not wasted.  

As a PhD, you already have applicable skills that you can repackage in your resume and cover letter to better fit the position you are looking for in the eyes of the hiring manager.

It is important to take this step because you will be surprised by how many transferrable skills you have as a PhD that would make your transition to the industry smoother than you thought.

Furthermore, it is important to package it in a way that is relevant to the position you have chosen.

In this study of over 8,000 PhDs, here are the top 10 transferable skills that were identified for PhDs interested in industry positions:

  • Time management skills
  • Ability to work on a team
  • Written communication skills
  • Ability to set vision and goals
  • Written communication skills
  • Ability to learn quickly
  • Oral communication skills
  • Ability to analyse data
  • Ability to manage projects
  • Creative and innovative thinking

As a PhD, your interpersonal skills (transferrable skills) are your biggest asset, and it’s up to you to package them to fit your new position in the industry.

Step 5: Evaluate and Reframe your work experience

Review job specifications of your new chosen position and evaluate your previous experience to identify where you have gaps.

It is also possible you also have performed aspects of the job specification in your previous roles.

Reframing your work experience highlights those relevant experiences to your new chosen industry position.

It is important to stress that this isn’t falsifying your experience. It highlights relevant experience in your current or previous roles and reframing them to fit your new chosen industry position.

For example, you decide to start a career in Product marketing which requires you to have social media marketing experience. You haven’t quite worked directly in marketing; however, during your PhD, you were the coordinator for a research group. This involved using social media to promote and advertise upcoming research events.

I would reframe that experience as Social Media Marketing Coordinator helping ABC research group at XYZ University to coordinate, manage and grow their online presence through social media.

Reframing your work experience gives you the language to describe and focus on the relevant experiences you possess and how they will help you succeed.

Step 6: Acquire new work Experience

Not everyone is able to simply reframe their previous work experience. Also, employers are more interested in your most recent and relevant experience.

Thus, in addition to reframing previous experience, it is important to acquire new relevant work experience.

It is also important for you to have this experience to be confident in yourself when conducting interviews.

There are different opportunities to acquire relevant experience. It is important that these are safe places as you are just learning, and you might make mistakes. The focus is on learning.

  • The first place to consider is in your current organisation. Find opportunities to function in the capacity of your new position. Ask to be included in projects where you can contribute in that capacity. This might mean taking on extra responsibilty
  • Volunteer for Charity organisations: Charity organisation are constantly looking for help. Find one close to you and volunteer your help in the capacity of your new industry career choice. Although you won’t be getting paid, you are helping the charity and are applying your new skills so win-win for both parties
  • Join a Startup: Very early stage startups usually appreciate any help they can get. You might have a colleague or family member who is starting a new business and requires some help. Join them and apply your new skills.

    Some more established startups will still appreciate you as long as you’re adding value. It is possible to get paid but do not expect much at this stage. Remember, the focus is on learning.
  • Freelance: Consider freelance if you’re not making any headway with the above options. Freelancing is almost like starting your own business so there is that extra responsibility.

    However, it is possible and much easier to advertise your newly acquired skills in a freelance capacity, get customers and leverage that to gain professional experince.

Personally, I started with a freelance career. I set up my own web design agency and built websites for over 30 clients. I was functioning as a Business Analyst in my own Web design agency.

I then partnered with a marketing agency which then gave me access to bigger clients, but I was always focused on learning.

At another point, I joined a growing startup and supported them to build their product from an idea stage. I also volunteered at my local church in the capacity of a Product Manager.

Step 7: Update your professional brand

Once you’re ready to begin your job search, revamp your resume/CV, cover letter, and Linkedin profile which makes up your professional brand artifacts.

It is important to take this step, so employers see you from the perspective of your newly chosen career path and not your previous experience.

The rule of thumb is to make it easier for your new employer to invite you for a conversation/interview.

Begin connecting with employers and other professionals in your intended field. Add new skills and experiences to your LinkedIn profile.

Update personal websites and any material that employers will interact with.

BONUS: Apply for jobs

Once you have completed all the above steps, now take action. Apply for jobs, attend interviews and apply for more jobs until you land your new role.

It took me 3 months post my PhD, about 800 applications, and 3 interviews.

It might take you less time or even more time. Just keep at it.

Final thoughts

It is unconventional and challenging to transition from a PhD career to a career path in the industry, but it is very possible because many have done it, including myself, and it is well worth it, in my opinion!  

Also, let’s face it, there are not enough academic jobs for the number of talented PhDs.

So, if transitioning from a career in academia to industry is something you want, then I strongly encourage you to go for it.

Build resilience because there will be challenges on the way. But if you put in the effort, I am sure you will come out victorious.

To your success!✌️

Patrick is passionate about supporting other professionals to find success in their chosen career paths. So far, he has successfully navigated four career transitions and is currently a Product Manager Consultant helping businesses build products their customers love.