PhD in English? What the F%$@#K! have you been doing for the last ten years?


Here is a strategy to land jobs with your PhD outside of academia. It covers some of the common mistakes made by PhD’s looking for alternative careers, and how to sell the value of yourself, not your PhD, in nonacademic job interviews.

A few months ago, a reader of this site joked that he was tired of explaining to nonacademic employers why he was 30 with zero practical work experience and so he decided that he was just going to take his PhD off his resume and tell people that he had been in a coma for the last ten years.  At least, I think he was joking.

While most undergraduates sign up for the PhD because they think it will open both academic and nonacademic career doors, it is ironic that prison inmates often have better resumes than new PhD’s leaving academia, after spending 10 years detached from the ordinary world inside their respective walls.

This article is about addressing that uncomfortable hole in your resume after you decide to leave academia. The moment in your nonacademic job interview when they ask you. . .so tell me your story.  Silence. I’ve been in grad school. Other than that. . .

Last January, when interviewing for an internship at an advertising agency, I was surprised to hear myself reference my sales experience as a peddle-cab driver (the losers on bikes who ferry fat tourists from restaurant to restaurant), glossing over my work experience as a research assistant for an eminent scholar, guest lecturer, conference speaker, and humanities researcher.

The other academic jobs were prestigious croutons, the long-winded litany of egotistical conquests which is otherwise known as the academic CV. My time as a bike slave for tourists involved me, at least, interacting in the world of commerce, selling things, talking to people instead of whispering to librarians. . .could you find me the 1935-37 Ezra Pound fonds?

Since then, I’ve come to see my past mistakes in trying to sell my graduate degree to employers. I’ve tried to sell the prestige of the degree, rather than the stupid work ethic that made me want to do something ridiculous like become a professor.

As I’ve said before, your PhD (or MA) is useless for finding jobs outside of academia. But there are ways of positioning why you were interested in doing a PhD in English, salvaging that giant hole in the experience section of your resume.

How to get nonacademic jobs for PhD’s

It’s simple. Don’t sell your degree. Sell the personality trait that made you want to do something insane like spending 10 years in a graduate department.

This is opposite to what most professors and career counsellors will advise you to do. After you leave academia, they tell you to sell your skill-set, your research abilities, your advanced analysis power, your tolerance for ambiguity.

But outside of academia, these academic skills are nice (yes, every industry needs problem solvers and creative analysts), but they don’t pay the bills.

You hire a lawyer not only because he is brilliant at interpreting facts, but also because he has stepped inside the courtroom a few times. There is a difference between potential (PhD’s looking for nonacademic jobs) and proven ability (the other nonacademic candidate, who seems reasonably smart, has an undergraduate degree, and has 5 years of practical experience.)

But if you sell the personality trait that made you want to do a PhD in English, you become a different type of job applicant. More flexible. An individual looking to switch careers, rather than a failed academic.

Do you know what makes a PhD hireable?

The ten years you spent writing a 300 page dissertation on Emerson and death isn’t the winning quality in you.

Do you even know what makes you hirable?

It’s not your advanced understanding of culture.

It’s not your research skills, love of ambiguity, ability to think, problem solve, synthesize, analyze, gather facts or any of that.

It’s not your BA, MA, or PhD. It doesn’t have anything to do with the degrees you line up along your wall of fat books.

Your work ethic is what’s hirable. Inspirational? Not really. There is tons of evidence to prove you to be a particular type of person that is very employable.

Tell your prospective employer that rather than going to the beach in Thailand for your twenties to get black-out drunk under palm trees, you worked 60-70 hour weeks.

Tell your employer that you are driven to become an expert. Tell them that you rose to the top of your academic field, that you were called one of the “most promising young scholars on modernism of your generation.”

Tell them you were given over $90,000 dollars of government money for your PhD. That you beat hundreds of applicants to get your place in your PhD program.

Tell them that you created original, creative research while working two jobs, struggling in debt.

Tell them that you read over 100 books per year. Tell them that you have written over 100,000 words of criticism. Tell them that you have one ambition in life, to challenge yourself and surprise yourself.

Then tell them that you are ready to transfer that insane work ethic into their company.

You don’t care about benefits (I was a grad student; poverty is second nature).

You don’t care about salary. The only thing you want is a field to pour your energy into, a field that will eventually reward you for your effort.

If they are willing to invest in your salary, you will pour the dedication you put into academia into your new nonacademic career. You will read 5 industry books per week, attend training workshops, work weekends, and study to become an expert in this new field.

Tell them all of this, and they will look down the hallway.  They will see that “business major 2-year diploma holder,” with his constant complaints for more money, his laziness, his shallow knowledge of the industry. That lazy kid, working 25 hour weeks, taking long lunches, and thinking just because he learned a few fundamentals about business in college, he is ready to manage a massive company. Macro economics. Micro. Brand affinity. Sales funnel. Got it!

That kid did multiple choice tests in his communications class. He thinks that just because he has a Twitter account, it makes him a ‘social media consultant.’

That kid is sloppy. You can beat him.

You synthesized 400 books, three boxes of rough data, and 7 years of general knowledge into a coherent thesis that offered an original contribution to a complex field.

Your PhD isn’t directly relevant to any career outside of academia. And you can’t just say ‘my ability to problem solve is a skill desired by many companies which is the reason why you should hire me.’ That’s selling the degree, rather than the person beneath the degree that is able to complete complex tasks.

Outside of academia your PhD has little value

Your PhD has little value to nonacademic employers. It is a completely different set of skills than is required by other jobs. Just because you are a world-champion in Martial Arts doesn’t mean you can glide in and take the World Belt for Boxing. They are different jobs, different skills.

But it was an excellent exercise in breaking down a massive project into small steps, an excellent exercise in creativity and high-level thinking.

You might not have the practical skills. But in one year of insane work, you will beat the doors down, and work methodically to develop your skill-set. Tell that to the hiring manager.

The problem is that employers just don’t know what to do with you.  That is, if you come in the door, talking about your presentations at Harvard, your theories on the discursive ideology of torture narratives, your article on post-human ethics, your book on the mechanism of aesthetic discourse in the post-war avant-garde. . .this is just babble that might, possibly, impress an employer, but doesn’t have much promise of making them money.

They are tempted to pass. To hire an employee with fewer qualifications and a solid resume in their industry.

But a work-horse, a smart work horse, a curious person willing to put in the time to become an expert in a new industry. . .that is something worth a second interview.

Academia didn’t make you

Education doesn’t own your personality trait. Academia took that trait, exploited it. But academia didn’t create you. You only used academia as an outlet for that passionate, driven ambition to do more than the next person.

A hiring manager with any type of vision will understand that an insane work ethic and curious nature will beat out 5 years of lazy experience from some mediocre employee.

So don’t be a genius. Have a single purpose: to attack the study of a new industry just as you attacked your study of literature.

And then actually do it.



Cool grad school blog


This week, I’m very proud to release my book: How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days.

If you are at a loss of what careers you can get with your BA, MA, or PhD in the humanities, then you are not alone.Most humanities majors go through a difficult transition after they leave academia.

How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days is a 18 week challenge (126 days) where you are shown the exact steps and actions needed to get out of liberal arts career limbo. Designed for BAs, MAs, and PhD’s with no money, an empty resume, and no idea of where to start.

Find out more about the book here

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