Getting Hired with a “Useless” PhD

This post is a followup to a previous one in which I talked about the skills people with “useless” PhDs have in work outside the academy. But how do you get a job outside the academy? That is trickier. There is no secret formula. Mostly a lot of persistence and luck. Still, there are some things academics can do to make themselves more attractive to a potential employer.

Write a Resume

Academics have things called a curriculum vitae. The vitae is sometimes described as a resume for academics, which is sort of like saying that the Easter bunny is like Santa for the crucifixion. It maybe makes sense if you think about it sideways for a bit.

The fact is that a resume and a vitae serve two completely different functions. They are two different genres. One is slam poetry. The other is supernatural romance. The audiences for each tend to have rather different expectations.

  • Vitae: A comprehensive list of all intellectual accomplishments.
  • Resume: A selective list of skills and experiences.

Think of a resume as a selected bibliography of the elevator pitch of your life. So to know how to organize it, you need to start with your story.

Tell Your Story

“Tell me about yourself” is going to be one of the first questions you are asked at interview, and it is one you must anticipate in your resume and cover letter if you even want to get there. Your story should have three parts.

  1. Where are you from? Keep it simple. Identify two or three dominoes that knocked you into the present moment.
  2. Where are you now? Keep the focus on your skills and personality. This is a story about you, not your research.
  3. Where are you going? End your story in the future. In 5-10 years, why will “future you” be happy they had this job?

Be careful not to belabor the last point. Employers want to know there is something at stake for you beyond the paycheck, but you don’t want to come across as too self-interested.

Be Relatable

Nobody is hiring your brain. They are hiring you. Academics, especially junior ones, spend a lot of time trying to prove to others (and themselves) that they really are pretty smart. Avoid that. Your employer knows you are smart. If anything, you need to overcome the stereotype of an aloof intellectual. Be yourself (use words like “aloof” if they are part of your vocabulary), but resist the urge to posture. And avoid the temptation to geek out once conversation turns to your research, which it will.


At interview, you will be asked about your research, either what it is or why you got into it. Again, do not geek out. I mean, you can geek out a little bit. Passion can be compelling. But keep the focus on you and your skills. For example, I study religion, which means I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to understand one of the predominate forces that shape human behavior. (See what I did there?)

You can also talk about the skills your research gave you. If your current job is “grad student,” then you read several hundred pages of difficult text a week, write and present at conferences, teach and mentor new students, and work across departments to bring your dissertation to committee.

Watch Your Face

This is just an observation that may turn out to be rather controversial, but I have found that academics tend to have more transparent faces than others. They spend a lot of time looking away as they think, furrowing their brows, or demonstrating obvious incredulity at the asinine observation of a peer.

Either way, though, be mindful of what your face and body may be communicating. That is just good advice in general. All I am saying is that, if you are an academic, you may need to be especially mindful of that. The academy is a place of often friendly combativeness, but that culture does not translate well to other contexts.

Be Persistent

The trick to getting an interview is like the trick to publishing: overwhelming volume! Apply everywhere for as much as you can get. Employers (not unlike Reviewer 2), are sometimes fickle and distracted. Apply again. And again. And again.

Getting a job is as much about timing and luck as it is skills and qualifications. For my current job, I happened to be the right individual at the right time for a position that was very high need. Yes, I was qualified. But I was also lucky. Employment is half-serendipity.

When it comes to job sites, I have found personal success with ZipRecruiter. Your main goal is not to get the job. It is to get to interview. So any site with screener questions is going to work in your favor, especially if you are a half-decent writer.

Settle, But Don’t Settle

You may need to take a “gig” that is short-term and pays less than you are worth. You should definitely negotiate for the highest wage you can get, and you must be willing to walk away from bad deals. On the other hand, know that an employer is taking a risk when hiring you. There are people above me looking at how much I am paying the people below me. I prefer to hire for potential and train for competence. Most employers are going to be conservative if they have any reservations about you, but a reasonably competent boss is always looking for people to mentor into leadership roles they know they will eventually need to fill.

If you decide to take a job for less money than you would like, be upfront about that. It will not hurt your chances. If you want to move into leadership, be upfront about that too. Small opportunities can lead to bigger opportunities. You may have to start from the bottom, but the more work you do the more possibilities you create for yourself to gain meaningful, long-term employment outside the world of academe.