A Well-Kept Secret for Finding a Job post-PhD

Reducing graduation stress by putting off your full-time job search with short-term consulting
JAN 2020
Claire
D.
Biological Engineering

During my PhD, I performed a lot of exit interviews with graduating students and learned that finding a job is often the most stressful part of graduating, and among the most stressful in the entire PhD. After my own defense, however, I was able to avoid some of that stress by discovering a valuable post-PhD job option that I had rarely heard discussed: getting a part-time or consulting gig after graduating to hold you over while you figure out your next full-time non-academic career move.

From my exit interviews, I had learned about the two most common strategies for figuring out your post-PhD (non-academic) career:

Strategy #1. Figure out what you want to do and find a job while you're also frantically finishing up your thesis. This is common, and also by far the trickiest strategy to implement. Figuring out what you want to do is a pretty heavy existential activity, and piling that on top of the stress of finishing up your degree is really tough. Even if you have a clear and easy path to your defense, defending is still a stressful time, and trying to do some serious soul-searching on top of it really takes a toll.

Strategy #2. Stay on as a postdoc in your lab after you finish, wrapping up PhD work and poking around for jobs more leisurely. While this works for a lot of people, it isn't always the best option. For example, if you don't have a good relationship with your PI, you might risk feeling — or getting — "trapped" until you've gone through even more of their hoops. And even if you do have a great relationship with your PI, maybe you're just really over grad school. Staying on in the same environment might burn you out to the point that you won't be productive or motivated to advance your career. And let's be honest: being a postdoc is a pay bump from grad school, but not by much.

At the end of grad school, I had all but secured an offer from a former labmate to join her      startup in a position that was basically my dream job, so I didn't really go through a legit job search before my defense. But then, a few months into my post-PhD travels, the job offer became less certain and I had to get back on the job market. That's when I discovered this third option no one ever talks about.    

Strategy #3. Line up a part-time and/or consulting gig after your PhD, and use that well-paid and flexible time to figure out what's next. It turns out it's entirely possible to find companies hiring PhDs part-time — either because they aren't ready to hire someone full-time, or because they hope they'll be able to convert you to a full-time hire. With a consulting gig, you could find a halftime job where you're making twice the rate you did as a grad student. This gives you some room to really explore your options and think about what you want to do next. Plus, you'll gain new skills, build your network, and get a fresh perspective away from MIT.

In my case, the original job offer actually ended up working out after all, so I didn't end up taking any of my short-term offers. But I found this short-term consulting option so amazing: as soon as I realized this was possible, all of my stress about finding a job disappeared. I recognize that I speak from a place of privilege, and that this option is not available to everybody. It might not be possible to go this route because of visa concerns, health insurance requirements, or financial constraints outside of the PhD. I also had a skill set and field of study that is in high demand, and so I certainly have a rosy view of how "easy" it is to get these positions.

However, I do think there are some things I (unknowingly) did during my PhD that led to me finding this third option viable. If you're interested in potentially pursuing the short-term gig route, here's what I think might be helpful:

Build a specific skillset that someone can hire you for, which allows you to get Something Done Now. It could be a technique that only you know how to do, or a specific tool that companies might need someone to make ASAP. For example, some specific biological assays might be in high demand, or being able to use specialized imaging tools might make you highly desirable. I've also had friends get consulting gigs where they design or review complex experiments they had expertise in because of their PhD research.

Your skillset could also be something broader, like data science or software development. If you're marketing your broad skillset, it's likely easier to find positions where you're being asked to do something directly related to your thesis. In my case, this skillset was microbiome data analysis. I was confident I could find consulting work in the microbiome field, and the part-time job offer I secured was also related to my expertise in computational biology.

During your PhD, build your network with an eye toward future consulting. I never really understood networking, and didn't particularly try during my PhD because I never knew what I "wanted" out of it. Turns out networking just means "get to know and become friendly with lots of people" so that you can reach out to them later when you do know what you want. And it also turned out that I had done that through my PhD by being president of the Microbiome Club, organizing a conference, being active on Twitter, and just generally getting to know my department and my scientific community.

When my job offer fell through, I was fairly confident I could get consulting offers from two companies the next week. One from my PI's company, and one from a competitor I had met at multiple conferences and had kept up with via Twitter. If your PI has a company, make sure you get to know what they're doing, who they are (beyond what your PI tells you), and set the stage for joining them as a consultant. If you interact with companies throughout your PhD, float the idea of consulting regardless of how far away from graduating you are. Internships aren't usually an option during grad school, and many PIs don't support consulting on the side, but there's no rule against consulting for interested companies as soon as you graduate and no one can stop you!

Broadcast your availability to everyone (AKA be loud and desperate). I came back for Commencement week, mentioned that I was suddenly unemployed and looking for part-time work, and got a job offer by the time I left for another trip the following week. Chances are, your peers are probably also looking for similar jobs and might have rejected an offer that might be good enough for you temporarily. Also, don't be afraid to ask companies for part-time, temporary positions. I interviewed for a company that desperately needed more people, and I got virtually no pushback when I asked for a part-time gig.

Don't be picky. This is a temporary stop-gap, not your dream job. You don't need to love the mission or even the people, you just need something to tide you over until you do find that perfect fit. I had no interest in working in the microbiome field after I graduated, but I was willing to do it for the quick and easy cash. Plus, if you find a job that is easy and that you're good at, it'll give you even more time to figure out your next career move.

I saw a lot of PhD students really struggle through their last six months, in large part because of the stress of finding a job. But I never heard about the option of finding a temporary way to make money that frees up your time so you can explore options and make a strategic career move. As more students recognize the need to prepare for non-academic careers during their PhD, I hope this option becomes a normal part of the conversation. Tell all your friends!