The Non-Academic Career Path

by Lori Mielcarek, MA and Christina J. Borbely
Teachers College, Columbia University

Today, 33 percent of those with a doctoral degree in psychology are working in academia compared to 55 percent of psychologists in 1973. It would seem that a large majority of us have opted for suits or at least business casual attire instead of the scholar’s robe. One reason for this shift has been new opportunities to apply doctorate level skills in the private sector. How do emerging professionals find and prepare for these opportunities? As graduate students, we are in the midst of academe and can rely on the experience of faculty advisors and professors to “learn the ropes” of the academic career path. The academic arena does not, however, readily offer insight into the professional world outside the ivory tower.

An abundance of resources and options are available for graduate students who are carving out nonacademic career paths. Internet searches result in a multitude of helpful sites, university career centers are catering to doctorate recipients on the nonacademic track and articles on the topic appear frequently in professional newsletters. The challenge that graduate students face is how to sort through all the information and narrow down their options.

Students interested in life outside the ivory tower do not lack the skills or experiences necessary for other job settings. Margaret Newhouse, assistant director of career services for PhDs at Harvard University, describes the most obvious skills as being analytical, research competence, communication, teaching and discipline-related skills. Newhouse recommends that graduate students create their own list of skills and attributes gained from their academic, work and extracurricular experiences. For example, Newhouse breaks down the process of writing a dissertation into the following skills: managerial capabilities, marshaling and organizing resources, time management, initiative, endurance and optimism. Teaching and supervising other students also involve a host of valuable skills.

Since skills gained from graduate studies can be transferred to a variety of nonacademic settings, students should conduct thorough self-assessments to narrow down their options. Self-assessment tools are available at career centers and via the internet. Career opportunities lie in a range of employment settings, including non-profit organizations, foundations, research institutes, corporations and government agencies. A sample of potential U.S. and international employers is listed below.

In preparation for a nonacademic career, graduate students need to transform their curriculum vitaes (CVs) into resumes. Newhouse explains that while a CV displays academic credentials and accomplishments in great detail, a resume indicates seriousness of intent to an employer. Students may want to consider gaining experience in the private sector to inform their professional decisions as well as their resume. Internships and part-time or summer positions are valuable opportunities to “learn the ropes” in a nonacademic setting.

The best place for students to begin their journeys to nonacademic careers is The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website — the article “Where to Find Information on Nonacademic Careers,” by Gabriela Montell, is a good first step. Other valuable resources include the American Psychological Association and The Vault. Listed below are general resources, in addition to a list of nonacademic organizations oriented towards child and adolescent development and public policy.

Good luck with your search!

General Information Articles

  1. Grad School Reality Check

  2. Life After Grad School: It Does Exist

WORK4US: Expanded Horizons for Graduate Students Past and Present

Child and Adolescent Development and Public Policy Agencies

Non-profit Organizations & Foundations

International Organizations

U.S. Corporations