Are you a PhD researcher contemplating the private sector landscape? Do you wonder whether your skills and expertise could be a good fit for a private sector role? Do you feel confused or intimidated by the language of private sector stakeholders?
In a series of events run by LSE Generate and the PhD Academy, PhD and Early Career Researchers came together to discuss these questions. Find out what Dr Lawrence Ampofo, founder and CEO of the digital ethics company Digital Mindfulness, and Adam McNichol, co-founder of the mental health start-up Well Good, had to say on how to navigate opportunities and position oneself within the private sector as a social scientist.
Private sector doesn’t simply equal ‘big company’
The good news is that there are many options out there for fresh PhD graduates and Early Career Researchers contemplating private sector engagement: you can work for yourself, work for SMEs, large corporates or multiple organisations at the same time. To find the “right fit”, ambitions, skills and knowledge, as well as personal and organisational ethics should align as closely as possible. Ask yourself – what kind of work do you want to do and where can you do that kind of work? Make use of LSE resources such as LSE Careers, LSE Generate, or LSE Innovation and find out about the private sector landscape, organisations that interest you and employment or research collaboration options (for instance Knowledge Transfer Partnerships).
You’ve got more skills than you might realise
Luckily, PhD candidates or graduates already possess a range of highly valuable (and marketable) skills. The key issue is to think of those skills and experiences not simply as a list of “things learned and things done” but in terms of transferability and adaptability. By completing a highly specific research project, PhD researchers become equipped with an impressive range of transferable skill sets such as project and time management, multi-stakeholder engagement, networking, interviewing, data analysis or team building, to name just a few.
Realising the value of one’s skills is empowering, as a participating PhD candidate from the Department of Government found out during a skills assessment exercise conducted by Lawrence: “I really enjoyed the session on how to best leverage your academic skills within the private sector. I went in thinking that most of the knowledge and skills that I had picked up during my PhD had little relevance to the private sector. I was pleasantly surprised when Lawrence demonstrated how these skills were actually transferable, and indeed desirable, within the private sector. I came out feeling much more confident!”
Transitioning can be a nerve-wracking process
No matter how well everything may ultimately work out – transition periods are often experienced as nerve-wracking and destabilising phases as they unfold, this is especially true for post-PhD transition periods whether or not they involve switching from academia to the private sector. However, there are strategies that can help shape the transition process positively.
- Reach out to people and grow your network by offering conversations. Building connections enhances opportunities for learning, training, and experimenting. It gives you a chance to engage with people from organisations you find interesting. Get to know the people you would like to work with!
- Create your own opportunities by disseminating your expertise. Explore other-than-academic channels to generate interest in your work. Have you thought of writing opinion pieces about your areas of interest? They are an effective way to generate discussions and forge new relations. Make use of social media or start blogging to get your word out there and participate in online conversations.
- Build up confidence gradually. The language and norms of a new sector may be intimidating at first because they are unfamiliar. But new languages, vocabulary and norms can be learned as exposure increases. Seek out opportunities for small-scale exposure by attending conferences in your area of interest, doing internships, shadowing or volunteering.
Not all of the jobs need to be paying the bills – it’s all about the mixture!
Ever thought of a portfolio career? Portfolio careers are an attractive option for those who fear pigeonholing and want to maintain multiple options. Speaking from experience, Adam described portfolio careers as “door opening”. “They build networks beautifully”, he emphasised, allowing for creative cross-fertilisation across boundaries and preventing boredom. To achieve financial and social security, a permanent role can be combined with freelancing or side projects. Employers these days are increasingly open towards portfolio careers and the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be further hastening this trend. Turning a portfolio career into a consistent CV narrative can be challenging but clear labelling (“freelancing”, “full-time”) introduces clarity. Always tweak and adapt your CV to an application and think of a compelling narrative (talk of “projects” rather than “roles”) that will make sense to a potential employer.
What about pitching for freelance work?
Freelancing is a good way to get a taste of the private sector and to experiment with potential roles. LinkedIn offers a great starting point for spotting opportunities – join groups, participate in discussions and shape your online presence by imitating the style of people whose profiles you like. Search for freelancing networks and make use of available resources and platforms such as squarespace.com (free website building) or medium.com (idea-sharing platform). Freelancing platforms like YunoJuno or agencies can help connect you with clients and organisations. But keep in mind that commission-driven agencies may not always have your best interests at heart. Do proper research of agencies in your sector of interest if you think of using one. They usually come in two types – larger and more boutique, niche ones. If in doubt, ask around and find out which ones are recommended!
You already are an expert!
The heartening message that came out of the sessions with Lawrence and Adam was that PhD graduates from LSE find themselves in a highly advantageous position vis-à-vis the private sector – they can ultimately move in any direction. There may be no magic bullet for overcoming perceived and existing barriers in bridging the gap. But with your PhD skills and subject matter expertise, you already are an expert! When it comes to claiming that expertise and building an identity around it, lots of different strategies exist. You need to find what feels comfortable for you and enables you to build a supportive network.