Transition out of Academia

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This section is designed to provide resources for those students who wish to exit academia after completing their graduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy. This section does not provide advice for planning and pursuing academic positions. The resources and literature listed in this section are by no means comprehensive, and students are encouraged to continue developing and refining their individual career plans after consulting this wiki.

Motivation

A higher degree in a STEM field, such as physics, has proven career value for those who obtain the degree. Unfortunately, often the only obvious career is to pursue a tenure-track position at a research institution. The truth is (probably much) less than 20% of PhD holders in the physical sciences obtain tenure track position at a university. The rest must exit academia and obtain work outside a university. The act of planning a non-academic career takes considerable effort, honest self-assessment, and time commitment. The resources below should aid students in planning a transition from academia.

The general skills learned while obtaining a degree in physics (high level problem solving, etc.) are transferable to a large number of non-academic careers. A physics degree also endows a student with very refined skills relevant to their specific research field. A student needs to understand how the general and specific skills obtained during their degree will be used to find a suitable industrial position.

In addition, a student should identify and obtain additional non-academic skills, resources and experience which may be needed to pursue their desired career, especially if they are not offered in the Department. Efforts should be made to look for appropriate extra-curricular activities, volunteer opportunities, or networking opportunities.

Resources

  1. General career planning and navel gazing. The need for graduate students to consider non-academic careers has been recognized by most universities and scientific organizations. Plenty of resources are available online to help students think about what they may want to do. Two examples come from the AAAS and APS (linked below). In particular, APS has testimonials from physicists in non-academic positions.
    1. APS Testimonials
    2. Science Careers by AAAS
    3. Jobs For Astronomers
    4. Panel Discussion: Advice for a Diverse Range of Careers (from AAS)
  2. Networking opportunities. Organizations exist within McMaster and the Hamilton area which provide opportunities for students to meet and speak to those with careers outside of academia. A brief list is below. In addition, opportunities are provided by the Department, the GSA, and Graduate Studies to learn about non-academic careers through events such as career nights. Students are encouraged to carefully monitor their email, and consider attending these events.
    1. Sustainability Professionals Network
    2. McMaster Consulting Association
  3. Funding for internships and collaborative opportunities are available for students who wish to continue in science, but in an industrial setting. If your project may be applicable to an industrial client, and you think there is interest on the part of the client, funding is available to make that connection easier.
    1. Mitacs
    2. NSERC Engage
    3. NSERC Connect
  4. Below are resources to help students craft resumes/cover letters. There are many online resources not listed here.
    1. Caroline Burgess: A local career consultant with ties to the department.
    2. SCCE
  5. Additional commentaries (note: These served as references for the material in the Motivation section).
    1. You Need a Game Plan
    2. Some Employment Statistics
    3. Cheeky Scientist

Testimonials

The passage above serves as theory. Below are testimonials submitted by recent graduates from the department who have found work outside of academia.

J.C., class of 2010:

Take advantage of seminars and resources specifically focused on the non-academic job hunt. Writing a resume and a CV are very different, and it can be challenging for students to know how to frame their academic experience in a broader context to match "real-world" needs. There are really great career-service resources on campus to help you figure out how to do this.
If you know early on that you are interested in a non-academic job, then try to take advantage of funding to connect with employers while you are still a student, for example, through NSERC's industrial scholarship programs.
Learn to network. Request to talk to people in industries you are interested in through informational interviews. These feel incredibly awkward to do, which is why everyone should do at least one. I took classes through McMaster's continuing education department to expand my network. This connected me to people outside of academia, and gave me a better idea of what the job market was like, and make connections that could lead to job possibilities.
Stay positive. Job hunting is hard work and can be incredibly demoralizing. Don't take it personally.

S.G., class of 2014

Come to terms with the fact that not everyone who starts grad school is *lucky* enough to have a career in academia, nor having a PhD or a MSc degree entitles you to a good job. Understand what is at the stake and what are the pros and cons of each choice. Make sure you fully understand what you are committing yourself to.
Work on your personal skills. Employers look for someone who plays well with others in their team on top of the ability to perform the tasks they are given.
Develop some computer skills. Proficiency in at least one widely-used programming/scripting language (C++, Python, Java, R, etc.) is a MUST.
The process of searching for a job (academic or non-academic) takes time and a lot of effort. Customize your application for each position you are applying for.
Never ever underestimate the importance of networking.