Dr. Chris Humphrey, who holds a PhD in Medieval Studies, left academia to pursue a career in business, technology, and consulting. He is the founder of careers website Jobs on Toast, which aims to help career academics find fulfilling occupations for the next stages of their lives. We recently sat down with Chris to pick his brain about the innate advantages of PhD holders in the job marketplace, and to learn how these individuals can better market themselves to potential employers in the IT and tech industries.
Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to create Jobs on Toast?
While PhDs have traditionally sought employment within higher education and teaching, the job market has deteriorated markedly in recent years with fewer good posts available and ever more PhDs graduating. In my own case, having completed a PhD and post-doc in Medieval Studies, I couldn’t find a permanent job; so I decided to jump ship. I left academia to join a tech start-up, and after a spell in consulting, today I work as a project manager in financial services. I run Jobs on Toast as a side project and a way to give something back to the PhD community by sharing the principles behind a successful career change.
What are some of the biggest adjustments that PhD holders have to make when transitioning from academia to the private sector?
Probably the biggest adjustment is learning to think and work in a more commercial way. As a funded researcher in a university, you already have experience in winning research grants to pay for your salary and for your institution’s facilities. In the private sector, you have to take this mindset up a notch and focus more on efficient methods of working, creating marketable products and services, and really looking after your customers. The bottom line is profit, not quality, so you have to know when your work is "good enough" - and not spend forever making it perfect!
Finish this sentence: "The most marketable skill that people with PhDs have but don't know they have is..."
Problem-solving. People with PhDs are excellent at solving problems, and this skill can apply just as well to business and social problems as it can to academic questions. Having spent years managing their personal research projects, doctoral graduates are resilient, tenacious, and resourceful when it comes to finding solutions to tough problems.
What are some of the major differences between an academic CV and an effective resume for a private sector position?
One big difference is that an effective resume highlights your transferable skills and relevant work experience, rather than being a record of your education, publications, and teaching experience (which is what a CV is). Another difference is that a resume typically starts with a personal statement, which is a few key sentences describing you, your experience, and your desired role. A strong personal statement is vital for catching the recruiter’s eye and making you stand out from the crowd – so sell yourself!
Since PhD holders are experienced in conducting research, what types of private sector occupations might value those types of skills?
The ability to conduct original, independent research is a skill that’s valued by many private sector employers; most obviously by pharmaceutical companies, market research agencies, and policy institutes, but also by legal and consulting firms as well as IT and tech companies. Think of all the research that goes into producing the Google Doodle, for instance!
For PhD holders who are trying to find work in the IT or tech sector, is their transition typically easier or harder than PhDs who are trying to find work in other industries?
Doctoral graduates in computer science are certainly highly sought after by companies who explicitly advertise for candidates holding this qualification, so their transition is easier. That said, tech companies know it takes more than just programmers and engineers to make a successful business. They also need to recruit people like:
- Sales staff - who understand the technical and scientific background to the products they’re selling
- Writers and editors - who can create engaging content for a website or app
- Project managers - who can oversee the development of new products and services
Doctoral graduates are well-qualified for all of these roles, making IT and the tech sector one of the more attractive options for researchers looking for work in other industries.
What additional skills might it be wise for PhD candidates to learn before searching for a job in the IT or tech sectors?
When I went for my first job outside of academia, which was with a tech start-up, I talked about what a future world would look like if everyone used their technology. This showed I was enthusiastic about their mission and that I’d fit in well, despite my background in academia and the humanities. So my advice would be to develop your confidence in talking about possible futures and how tech can help us to get there.
And remember, knowing an in-demand coding language is another route into IT and tech. A friend of mine once bought a book and learned Visual Basic in three weeks in order to land a job as a VB programmer!
What is your opinion about the future demand for PhD holders in the private sector, especially in the tech and IT industries?
I always refer people to a quotation from Marissa Mayer, Vice-President of Consumer Products at Google, who said that they want "people who are smart and get things done." In my mind, this fits the profile of a doctoral graduate perfectly!
Going forward, there’s a high demand for staff across all sectors who can demonstrate the following characteristics:
- Digitally literate
- Good communicators
- Able to work collaboratively to solve business and social problems.
To meet this demand, PhDs need to leave behind their disciplinary affiliations and market themselves using the job titles that companies are now recruiting for. Some examples of sought-after roles/job titles in the IT and tech space are business analysts, data scientists, content editors, user experience specialists, communications experts, community managers, project managers, and event organizers. Which one of these roles will you reinvent yourself for?
Looking for one of these highly sought-after jobs? Browse our list of job openings today!