Interview: How to Shawshank Your Way Out of Academia

Getting a non-academic job with your (forthcoming) Philosophy PhD

My grad school alma mater invited me to talk to their PhD students looking into non-academic careers. What follows is a version of their questions and my (slightly edited) responses…

About me

At Fordham, Aaron specialized in phenomenology, embodiment, and the emotions. Through much “sturm und drang” he somehow managed to pivot his work on human experience into the field of User Experience 7 years ago. Since then, he has worked primarily as a User Researcher in a number of industries (e.g., automotive, medical, finance, music production) and has been at Google for just under 2 years. Right now, he lives in Los Angeles, works at Loon on Human-Automation Teaming, and tries to surf as much as possible. He would really like to help philosophers avoid much of the pain and suffering he experienced leaving academia and trying to get a job.

Your Career

Tell us about your current position. What are your responsibilities? What does an average day look like?
As a User Experience Researcher, I’m responsible for delivering insights to my team so we can make product design and development decisions. I’m also responsible for maintaining and advocating for the perspective(s) of users. I do, as my title suggests, lots of research and testing; the methods vary widely.

An average day really depends where I am within the lifecycle of any of the various research projects I am either executing or managing. Typically I am in a lot of meetings, (sometimes averaging about 4–6hours of meetings per day), Pre-COVID, due to the nature of the projects and teams I was on, I travelled a lot.

Is it common for those with a background in academia to hold a position similar to yours?
Kind of. Many have an MA in a directly related field (e.g., Psychology, Anthropology, Human Computer Interaction, or Human Factors Psychology). A decent amount at Google have PhDs (mainly in Psychology), but there are lots that don’t and most did not spend any time in academia after getting their degrees.

How are PhDs perceived outside of academia? Is it a liability? Is it seen as an over-qualification?
Nobody knows what to make of a philosophy PhD outside of academia, and they don’t know what to ‘do’ with us. We’re not seen as “overqualified”; we’re seen as overeducated. Before you’ve accrued any non-academic experience this is (in some respects) a liability. After you’ve got some private sector experience under your belt, however, it’s a strength. But you have to be very careful how you position yourself, address, and explain the degree.

How did you come to your current position? What other positions did you hold prior to your current one?
I had, what I thought was, my dream job, leading research at Native Instruments (fun fact, while I was at Fordham, I also had a lucrative and busy career as a DJ…that’s part of why it took me so long to finish my dissertation), but things went sideways with that company and a bunch of us got laid off. It was awful. Fortunately about a month before they let us all go someone from Google reached out to me on LinkedIn. The next 3+ months were very difficult and scary (e.g., you cannot survive on unemployment, Google’s hiring process is really intense and takes a long time) but I got super lucky and it all worked out.

Prior to Google I worked in a number of industries (e.g., Agency, Music, Finance, Automotive) mostly as a UX Researcher. I also did a lot of freelance (and completely free) UX work when I was first starting out. This also included some design work. I also did some Fellowship and Adjunct Teaching, the former was cool, the latter was not.

What is your career trajectory? What are the next steps for you? What are your career aspirations?
I’m not 100% sure what my trajectory is. I like working in tech, but I also like writing and thinking about more philosophical/academic issues. I’d like to end up in some kind of role that allows me to do deep research and writing but also have a direct impact on a product that adds real value to the world. I would also like to do some work bringing the gap between the philosophy world (esp. the stuff I specialized in) and the tech world. I’m convinced, for example, the phenomenologists can add value to UX…I mean, experts in experience proper I hope should be able to add value to user experience, right? If not, something is terribly wrong.

Transitioning from Academia

When and why did you decide not to pursue an academic job? What did that decision-making process look like for you?
I think I decided not to pursue an academic job when I was into the ‘second half’ or ‘second third’ of my degree. Two main reasons started to emerge:

  1. Horrible Odds in a super crowded job market

I was seeing my colleagues who had much stronger chances (e.g., more/better publications and teaching accolades) apply to something like 73 jobs, hear back from maybe like 5 and then get onsite interviews with 1 or 2. That was scary and super depressing. I didn’t like those odds. There was a huge backlog of applicants and so few positions open. Now, as I understand it, it’s like 100,000x worse for a variety of super sad reasons. It really bums me out just thinking about it.

2. Unappealing realities of the job

Let’s say I did, by some stroke of massive good luck, get a job offer. It would, in all likelihood, be at a random institution somewhere in a remote part of the united states, probably teaching 4+ sections of intro to Ethics each semester. While I did enjoy teaching, teaching undergrads got old after a while (my adjunct work, for example, felt like glorified babysitting). I was really only interested in new ideas, new research, and doing my own work, not teaching Utilitarianism to a bunch of uninterested undergrads. I’m sure this would have been better if I taught grad students, but that wouldn’t happen for quite some time. Also, I did not like the idea that I had no control over where in the US I might be living, and that I would be getting a pretty small salary. My wife, for example, was making 2.5x what I would have been offered. Why would I ask her to uproot herself for something so unappealing to both of us?

The only other (and, in my opinion more appealing) option was to do the specialized research I loved doing, which likely meant a research role at one of the specialized places in the EU that I had spent a good amount of time at (and had solid contacts in). But even here things were largely unappealing. The reality of this scenario meant my life would hinge off of research grants–highly competitive ones that only lasted about 2–3 years. I saw friends and colleagues who were much smarter and more prolific philosophers just about lose their minds every couple of years when their grants were running out.

Were you looking for opportunities in a particular industry, or within a broader scope?
I really had no idea. I wanted to be somewhere where I could utilize my skill set. I explored a lot of different options. I knew I wanted something where I could still grapple with ambiguous problems in more abstract spaces, but I had no idea how that translated to different job roles or industry types.

How long did it take you to transition out of academia?
AGES….it really felt like an eternity. I was doing a lot of ‘sweat equity’ type work (i.e., working for free) and contract gigs while I was still finishing my dissertation. If you’re asking how long it took me to be gainfully employed in a full time role, the answer is 2–3 years.

What should someone thinking about leaving academia do to figure out what kind of career they would enjoy?
Talk to as many people as you can outside academia and ask them all kinds of questions about their life and their job(s). We have a tendency to get tunnel vision in the ivory tower and only surround ourselves with academic perspectives. Most of the world is not academia, so cast a wide net.

Research non-academic stuff…
This is a lot easier than the kind of research work you’re probably used to. It consists largely of looking through the morass of information on different job roles. There’s loads of free information and training out there.

Try your hand at a bunch of different stuff…
If you’re a business owner and someone comes along and says “Hi, I’m a functioning adult and would like to work for you for free”, you’ll probably get their attention if you’re not totally off putting. There are plenty of opportunities to try your hand at a variety of jobs. In all likelihood, you’d very quickly start to discover the kinds of things you like and don’t like.

What kinds of alt-ac careers are philosophy PhDs best suited for?
This one is really tough. I know philosophy PhDs in a variety of industries (e.g., Finance, Government, Engineering, etc.). I think it all boils down to the kind of person/philosopher you are and what you’re most interested in.

If I had to generalize (which I’m really hesitant to do), I would say that any job that requires you to distill a lot of specialized information, analyze, and translate it to other (non-specialist) people is a good place to start.

What can someone be doing now (in the final years of their program, at the ‘all but dissertation’ stage) to prepare for jobs outside of academia? How important was it to finish the PhD/degree?
See two responses up.

Make sure you are connecting with and surrounding yourself with that which is not academia; this means books, articles, and, most importantly, people.

Start ‘re-branding’:

  • Writing about yourself and your work for an audience of ‘regular people’. (e.g., what does your ‘about me’ LinkedIn look like….which reminds me, create a LinkedIn
  • Practice interviewing. Seriously. Rehearse in front of a mirror a bunch, then hand some questions to a friend and ask them to ask you them. Better yet, see if you can do a mock interview with someone that hires people (*bonus points if said person is in the field/industry you want to break into)

If you went through that process again, is there anything you would do differently?
I would have been easier on myself. I really beat myself up thinking I had ‘failed’ or ‘given up’ in some way by not pursuing an academic job like I was “supposed to”. I would have ‘gone with the flow’ a bit more. That said, it’s pretty much impossible for someone like me to have done that, because I had no idea how things were going to shake out.

I probably would have reached out to more people and created even more of a network. I also would not have been as stubborn about what was supposed to happen or what people were supposed to understand about me outside academia.

Did you have to deal with feelings of grief or anything else surrounding leaving academia? Did you find there were other consequences of making that choice?
I beat myself up pretty badly at first. However, once I ‘left’ (i.e., started working somewhere that wasn’t academia) I was so happy. People cared about the work I did, more than 3 people actually read stuff I put together, people depended on me for things, and I was a part of a team, plus I got paid like real (livable) money.

If I think back to my decision, the grief associated with it was largely internal (e.g., how I felt about myself), and a bit of vanity (e.g., not telling people I’m a professor, that I’m not sure what I’m doing, that I’m a “Junior XYZ” at some corporate so and so). But once I got a job this all instantly vanished, I had a massive community of people, co-workers, teams, and others in the industry that also worked as a ___.

Making the Transition

How do you turn a CV into a resume?
I didn’t really. My “education” section on my resume is super short:

If you have teaching experience (e.g., Adjunct Instructor, Instructor) it might look something like this:

I added, for example, things in there (e.g., “A/B Testing”) that highlight the elements of the job I wanted (i.e., UX Research)

Here’s an example of my (super old) one:

What are the main differences between drafting a CV and drafting a resume?
Length. Your resume should be no more than one page. A hiring manager should only have to take a cursory glance to see that you’re qualified for the job (or at least are worthy of an interview/consideration). Most likely, no one cares about your CV. I used to add it as an attachment to my resume, but I’m sure no one looked at it. This might be different if you’re applying to a more scholastic or ‘writing heavy’ kind of job (e.g., academic advising, teaching, writing/publishing), but honestly, even there I doubt anyone cares at first blush. You might need it for subsequent interviews or onsite stuff.

Because your resume is likely to be ‘light’ in the “professional work experience” part (and if you’re staying honest) you might consider putting in a “skills” section. Here’s an example:

*I bet you can spot the ones directly from ‘raw academia’ and the one’s I had to teach myself later.

Everyone always says that you must customize your resume for each job application. What does this look like? Is it just swapping keywords to match for AI resume readers and maybe adjusting a few bullet points to reflect different parts of experience? How much “matching” of keywords is too much? Is it possible that resumes for very nearly related job listings will be virtually identical, even if they are at different companies?
Customize your cover letters, not your resume (unless you’re applying for wildly different job types). Yes, nearly related jobs will have nearly identical resumes.

Where should the “Education” section go? At the top, like the advice is typically for those in early career stages? Lower down to look more like experienced professionals, or because the education part is irrelevant or “overkill” for the position?
Put education at the top, but keep it SHORT. (see my example above)

What should a non-academic career cover letter look like? How much tailoring should one do for the cover letter?
It should be super short and make 3 main points:

  • Dear so and so, I’m writing in regards to the ___ position. It’s the perfect role for me given (insert more relevant and ‘eye catching’ stuff here) AND [I’m now looking for exactly those things in my next opportunity].
  • This role is perfect given my experience and interests, here’s why….
  • Right now I’m doing XYZ, but am interested in ABC….therefore THIS is the THE perfect role for me.

Is it necessary to satisfy all of the requirements for the job advertisement? Is there anything we should know about how to interpret or understand these requirements?
This likely depends on the job, listing, level, and industry. As a general rule, the first few requirements in the listing are absolutes. That is, if you don’t completely satisfy them (and then some) you’re likely to be passed over. That said, the rest of the requirements/qualifications tend to have a bit of wiggle room. This is particularly true for entry-level jobs, which are often a copy-paste type thing from HR departments (or just simply taken from other job listings).

Were there any certification requirements to make the move you made? How did you navigate those requirements? Did you find that you needed additional training or internship-like experience(s) in order to be believable as an applicant in another field?
Yes and no. There are lots of UX certification courses out there, most of them are kind of a scam. You’re a PhD candidate, you clearly know how to read, research, and absorb the teaching(s) of written material. As such, you can:

  • ‘build your own online course’, familiarizing yourself with the skills necessary
  • Try out/practice these skills (either in the form of ‘free work’ for unsuspecting people, or just fabricating something yourself)

That said, internships are a great way to do all the above, plus make meaningful connections. This is particularly helpful if the connection between where you are now, and where you want to be next is hard for other people to understand.

Did you use an agency or recruiting group to help you find your position? Do you have advice on using such groups?
Apart from being opportunities to practice interviewing, they are, by a large, a massive waste of time. I spent countless phone/interview hours with many of them, had them clog up my inbox and spam me with calls for jobs I already knew about or were largely dead ends. They really left a bad taste in my mouth and, to be honest, left me feeling really depressed.

How did you go about networking? Who were the first people you contacted, and who connected you to them? Was your network from graduate school useful or part of this process?
I reached out to family and friends, and, like most of us with social media accounts, leverage superficial connections through facebook, twitter, etc. Plus lots of creeping people on LinkedIn. The first super meaningful connection I made was my cousin-in-law. He was the one who really was like “Dude, here’s what it’s like to work in Tech. No one cares about your PhD. This is what you can offer, but, in their eyes, you have zero work experience. This is not good. Right now, read these books, practice interviewing with me, etc. etc.”

The first “real” (i.e., salary and benefits) job I got was through a connection I made at one of those particularly depressing and cringeworthy in-person meetups for people in the industry (I think it was through meetup.com). It was toward the end of the event. I was talking to this one person who had an MA in psych. He knew a little bit about my specialization and recognized it was valuable. I started blabbering on about my dissertation and my undergrad honors thesis. He interrupted me by saying “Dude, I think I can get you a job, you just have to stop being an academic…” His former employer needed an entry level researcher, and they were in the middle of doing a usability test on motorcycles. (The bonus here was that I rode/restored vintage bikes as a hobby and it turned out that no one at the agency could actually ride. This was massively helpful during my on-site interviews with them).

(Side note: I found out later that after my interviews hiring committee/managers were basically like “This dude has no work experience, but he has a PhD and he knows how to ride motorcycles. He also seems like a nice guy. He’s probably worth investing in, let’s give a shot”. Hiring is really weird like that. There’s so much happenstance involved, most of which you have no idea about because you’re not working at the company. They could just like your vibe. They could also be completely wasting your time because they are really just going to hire someone internally. This is all to say that when you get your job rejections (which we ALL get tons of) 98% of the time, it’s got nothing to do with you. It’s impossible not to take it personally, but I’m here to tell you that you need to do the impossible in this case. Most of the time, if you’re at the actual on-site interview stage: It’s not you, it’s them).

Did you get your current job or a previous job from applying to a job ad? From a networking contact?
I was apparently one of those very few that actually got a job off of LinkedIn. A recruiter from Google reached out to me and asked me if I would be interested. I think I probably I came up in their system because I had the right ‘properties’ that they troll troll LinkedIn for when they are looking for that kind of job.

How, if at all, is interviewing for a non-academic job different from interviewing for an academic job?
It’s more formulaic. Most of the questions are the same. Plus, you get the added bonus of being able to ask a lot of questions to the people interviewing you. You also need to be much more concise and speak to a wider range of experience and examples. You might also get a lot of oddball questions (e.g., how many tennis balls can fit in an airplane?) that are designed to reveal how you think and break problems down. It can be kind of fun (emphasis on kind of).

Did you have to drastically change how you presented yourself to potential employers? Did you have to prepare differently for interviews? Did you have to speak to your PhD training and how that was perceived by the interviewers? Were you asked why you were transitioning from academia, and if so, how did you answer?
YES. It’s a very different game. I felt like I had moved to a different planet when I started having these conversations. My preparation was lots and lots of rehearsing answers and talking points. It was kind of like theater. I made my poor wife keep asking me “so tell me about yourself” over and over again, until I had that answer committed to memory.

When you first start out, you will unquestionably get questions about your PhD training. Be ready to speak to it (this is NOT a bad thing, it actually makes you stand out). These will be questions like “Why not stay in academia?” “Why are you making (or why did you make) the jump from academia to this kind of role?” “How has your PhD helpful for this kind of job?” “WTH is a philosopher doing applying for this role? I hated philosophy and got my worst grade ever from the one philosophy class I ever took. The professor was an asshole!” (This last question is actually one that I got. Seriously)

Supporting the Transition

Were you supported in the department when you decided to leave academia? How did your mentors or other supporters (friends and family) help you make the transition?
The department was pretty hands off with my ‘life after Fordham’ stuff. I only got asked if I was interested in applying for an academic job about 5 minutes after I defended my dissertation (which was a little late to say the least). That said, my committee made my work and philosophical thinking strong and I owe them for that. My non-academic mentors are the ones I owe 100% of my success outside the ivory tower to. My wife and others outside academia were my support network.

What do you think faculty members can contribute by way of support or training to assist people looking to leave the academy? What are faculty members doing that makes it more difficult to transition to different careers?
I think faculty members (and academic philosophers in general) could really do with reaching out to people outside academia. Full stop. There’s so much crossover and value add, but we often stay in our ivory tower silos. I don’t know if this is simply a generational thing (like when people could actually get jobs in philosophy out of grad school) or because we’ve been out of that horribly painful situations for so long–it’s really hard for me to remember what it’s like to be a ‘all but dissertation’ grad student and that was less than 4 years ago, I can’t imagine having to do so 8, or 10+ years out of that scenario.

Just a few ideas off the top of my head:

  • Bringing in people to give talks about how they’ve used philosophy in the private sector (and maybe even vice-versa). (And maybe offering these speakers some kind of incentive in return, doesn’t have to monetary, but some kind of thank you)
  • Setting up mentorship opportunities/programs for grad students
  • There’s SO MUCH “what do you do with your PhD in philosophy” type information (essays, presentations, videos, etc.). Sifting through that and offering it to the grad students so they don’t have to hunt that stuff down

What kinds of resources did you utilize to help transition out of academia? Are there resources you see available now to job applicants that you wish you had been able to access?
I wish I had forged even more connections outside academia without the guilt that I was somehow “cheating” on my academic career. There are so many resources nowadays with respect to ‘free education’ on pretty much any topic. I think I could have chased down a lot of dead ends much faster, for example.

Most of the resources I utilized I mentioned above–viz. reading a lot of non-academic stuff, talking to people outside of academia, and sweat equity (i.e., free work for experience of trying your hand at something).

Philosophy PhD turned UX Researcher. Googler. Displaced former NYC club DJ. I surf & restore vintage motorcycles.