LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Catherine Reynolds

November 27th, 2018

Finding your own path: one PhD’s non-traditional career journey

0 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Catherine Reynolds

November 27th, 2018

Finding your own path: one PhD’s non-traditional career journey

0 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

LSE PhD students move on to many and varied careers. The options are vast and you probably don’t yet know all those that are relevant to you. Here, Teresa Whitney (LSE PhD 2015, Social Psychology) describes how she taught herself about her dream job and offers her insights for how you might do this too.

The challenge

I didn’t go in wanting to be an academic, but PhD programs have a way of indoctrinating you. I toyed with the idea on and off over the course of my program, often romanticizing the profession and glossing over the sometimes-harsh realities. I applied to several positions and was shortlisted, but the realities of the pay set in. Ultimately it wasn’t for me – my country (the USA) doesn’t support higher education in the way many others do, so I was stuck with student loans that needed to be paid and an academic job would not enable me to do that and feed myself at the same time. Not to mention pay rent.

Finding non-profit work relating to my PhD was easy. But since my research surrounded multi-faith dialogue and conflict mediation, all these jobs were highly stressful and very low pay. After four years embedded in the topic, I realized that for my own personal wellbeing, I needed to remove myself from the sector.

That left me with the standard “consulting” career path. But in what? Government – no, not for me. I went to several consulting group career talks and did the McKinsey test, but I had a gut feeling that this type of consulting also wasn’t a good fit. So where did that leave me? Feeling very frustrated and very worried.

My initial reaction was to look for anything that would be a good fit for my methodological expertise but quickly learned that the private sector loves to pigeonhole people. Everything pointed towards marketing research, which I have to admit, didn’t pique my interest. I reached out to my network for insight and spoke to others who had gone down that road and realized very quickly that I needed to figure out something else.

Building a plan

I have found personal audits useful in the past when making major life decisions (like starting a PhD), so I decided to do one again. I reserved a rainy Saturday morning at my favourite café to do some serious soul-searching. I love lists, so I started with:

  1. Inventorying various aspects of my life:
  • How do I work best?
  • What do I love to do?
  • What would do if I didn’t have to worry about money?
  • What do I refuse to do?
  • What can I tolerate?
  • What kind of lifestyle do I want?

Then I started to think about my PhD research and the trajectory I had spent the last 4 years building. So my second set of lists focused on:

  1. What made my PhD novel:
  • What was its biggest added value?
  • What part of it was I most proud of?

That’s when a comment from my Viva committee flashed into my head – combining the social psychology of inter-group relations with the built environment. Surely there had to be someone out there working in this area.

So I made it my full-time to job to find out.

The hard work

I went to the library every day to build up my knowledge base. I quickly found a ton of posts on LinkedIn by one guy in particular, so I read everything he wrote and watched all the videos of him speaking at trade conferences. Then I sent him a message introducing myself and my PhD research, making a connection to one of his recent articles, and asked him what his biggest pain points are and the toughest questions he’s trying to answer. I got a response almost immediately. Our 15-minute informational interview turned into an hour phone call and an invitation to his office in New York City. I needed to go where the action was, but I was a broke newly minted PhD, so I had to get creative.

Luckily my brother lives in NYC, so through an extended network I was able to make a prolonged visit to NYC via couch surfing and cat sitting. Before the office visit, I made sure to read everything I could find relating to architecture, workplace design, and inter-group relations, and traced out how it related to my research and how social psychology could lend insight into the most pressing issues. And let me tell you, it worked. The guy I reached out to initially wanted to hire me, but couldn’t, so he put me in touch with someone who might want to work with me. My 30-minute informational interview with that person turned into a very long conversation, an invitation to a champagne reception in NYC’s financial district, and a job offer. I moved to NYC the following week.

The first job

Now this isn’t the kind of job offer many would be thinking of – it was at a startup and a big part of the job was making connections and getting myself known. Which translates to making just enough to eat cheaply and pay rent. It was a rough first year, but it was essential. I learned that I would have the most luck finding a place in the field of Real Estate and Facilities, which was a huge surprise to me. I guest lectured at NYU and learned that I needed to rebrand myself, so I became an ‘Environmental Social Psychologist’. Through client work I learned that I needed to translate academic jargon so that it would make sense to the business world. They desperately want the knowledge and expertise that academics have, but only if it makes sense to them and their bottom lines. This is where ethnographic research skills really come in handy. Talk. To. Everybody. Find the common themes, make the connections, identify the gaps. The gaps are where the magic happens – that’s where you show your added value.

I started my own website and put in countless hours towards building up my own consultancy. It was during this time that I realized that if I was going to build a consulting bus, it was going to break down to 75% sales and 25% client work, which was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to roll my sleeves up and dive into the work. I’m also a terrible salesperson and knew that I would need a regular salaried job if I was going to survive, so I started looking for full-time work.

Keep pushing forward and building your knowledge base

I’ll be honest; I was terrified I’d made a huge mistake, that I’d gambled and lost. But all you can do is keep pushing forward – I met up with an old mentor, networked with more people, scoured the LinkedIn profiles of people whose jobs I envied for keywords and skill sets to highlight on my own, and I did very targeted job searches. There were three jobs that looked like good fits, so I spent a day specifically tailoring my resume and cover letter for each position. I got two bites, one from my dream job and one that I knew I’d be good at but wasn’t totally psyched about.

Then I did what LSE PhD’s do best – I thoroughly researched each organization and hiring manager. And I mean thorough – I turned into an internet sleuth, even finding the hiring managers’ Instagram accounts. I made note of their big career accomplishments, key points from interviews with them and the industry articles they had published, and even gleaned insights into their likes and dislikes via social media. I noted the key performance measures of each company (this takes some work, as it’s not directly stated, but you can figure it out). I prepped responses to every topic I could think of that might come up and related it back to my PhD research and career experiences. It sounds over the top and a little crazy, but I wanted that dream job. I thought I was perfect for it, and I was determined that the hiring manager would leave the conversation knowing I could do it.

In the end I did just that and I got my dream job. Which is a funny thing to say, because a year prior I hadn’t even known it was a thing. So what do I do, you may ask?

What I do now…

I am the Workplace Design & Change Manager for the Americans, in the World Wide Real Estate and Facilities group for Research and Development at GlaxoSmithKline. That’s a mouthful, but essentially I support the implementation of large-scale change management plans through the planning, design, construction, and post-occupancy of laboratory and office spaces. I also get to do research on spatial performance across our global portfolio, which is really, really fun.

Now that I’m in the role, I’m focusing on developing my industry presence and expanding my skillset. I’m working towards a Masters in Corporate Real Estate, developed a 2019/2020 industry publication strategy, and am driving my own initiatives at work in addition to my ‘regular job’. My long-term career focus is in developing more data-driven change management and workplace experience strategies. Essentially, I want to use mixed methods research to help workplaces suck less.

What I’ve learned so far…

I’ll leave you with this – your knowledge base and skill sets are invaluable, you just need to learn how to translate them.  Don’t ask people for opportunities – ask them what their biggest challenges are, then show them how you can help. Be pragmatic, thorough, and solutions-oriented.  So few people are and it will set you apart.

Follow Dr. Whitney on LinkedIn

LSE Careers supports the career learning of PhD students and has experienced Careers Consultants facilitating moves into many and varied careers. Speak to Catherine Reynolds in a one to one confidential careers meeting, book a time online using Career Hub Appointments. Career events and seminars to support the career development of PhDs and research staff are listed on Career Hub Events.
If you have ideas for additional support for PhD career progression (events, seminars, information, blog posts) please email Catherine Reynolds.

About the author

Catherine Reynolds

Posted In: LSE Careers | PhD

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Bad Behavior has blocked 640 access attempts in the last 7 days.