#beyondAcademia: How to go beyond academia

In the first half of our digital event on experimental psychologists working in non-academic careers, we covered the experience of pursuing a new career outside of academia. Our respondents explained what their motivations were for pursuing a new career, what skills acquired in academia they use in their new careers and what new skills they had to learn, how satisfied they are with their new careers, and where they want to go from here.

This week, we’ll cover the practical side of making a transition from academia to a non-academic career. Are you finishing up a PhD this spring or summer and know that a non-academic career is not for you? Or maybe you’re a postdoc who doesn’t want to have to move again if (and that’s a big if) you get a tenure-track job? Or maybe you’re still in graduate school and want to know what you can do now to prepare for the possibility of a non-academic career in the future? If so, then read on, because we’ll have advice, resources, and pitfalls to share with you this week. If plan A was to pursue academia, we hope this week’s posts will help you come up with a plan A’ (no need to think of this as Plan B).

What should you consider when choosing a non-academic career path?

Today, we start by asking what factors you should you consider when choosing a new career path. We draw on the experience of our respondents to help you think through four factors that matter: interests, values, fit, and freedom.


If you completed a graduate program in experimental psychology, chances are good that you enjoy some, if not most, aspects of doing research. Perhaps it’s because research satisfies your curiosity, or because you like the excitement of making and testing hypotheses. Whatever your reasons, your pursuit of research doesn’t need to end when you leave academia.

Most of our respondents wanted to find non-academic careers that involve conducting quantitative research or working with data in some capacity. For example, the main consideration Anita Bowles (all our respondents were introduced here) had in her search was to find “a job that would allow me to conduct applied research in my field.” Likewise, Katie Rotella shared: “I really wanted a job where I continued doing research, so I looked mostly for posts within R&D departments and in-house consumer insights.” If you keep your eyes open, you can find entire career fields that rely on research. In his search, Mike Winograd “identified market research as a great chance to work in industry while still doing what was essentially psychological research.”

Another consideration is whether the topic you’d be working on in your new career is personally interesting. For example, Ryan Dewey said that he “went into grad school with an interest in bridging across disciplines.” When he was looking for a new career, he was “naturally drawn to the role of advocate for cognitive science in the fine arts and in design practices like architecture and landscape architecture.”

Other respondents also prioritized specific interests or passions in their work. For Anita Bowles, that long-standing interest was foreign language learning. “I’m lucky that my industry job allows me to continue conducting research in this area,” she said. Meanwhile, Maria D’Angelo, whose interest was data analysis, “looked for a job that would allow me to work on the topic of reproducible data analysis in R.”

You may not have been able to pursue certain interests in your academic work. Starting a new career could be a great chance to prioritize those interests. For Brock Ferguson, “academia satisfied the “research cool things and think deeply about tough problems”” interests.  But now, his “non-academic path has integrated this with the “build cool software/tech things” and “lead great teams” interests, as well.”


The second factor to consider when choosing a new career is: what are your values? Do you value innovation and new ideas? Do you want your work to help others? Do you value cooperation and mentorship? Your answers to these kinds of questions are important, because they can help guide you into a career that gives you a sense of purpose.

Values came up again and again. Our respondents wanted their new jobs and careers to reflect their values and to allow them to make an impact that they thought was important. For example, for Carly Kontra, one of the main considerations when looking for a job was “pride in the mission of the company I work for.” Katie Rotella agreed: “I really wanted to work for a company where I thought I could do some social good.  That’s why I chose my company, because of the link to health care and well-being.“ Nick Gaylord stressed that “it’s important to consider values – not everyone can/should work for a social good nonprofit (I don’t), but it’s important to think about whether your career path is something you can feel good about.”


Next, consider a possible career’s fit with your existing skills and the new skills you’d like to learn. Respondents prioritized career options that would let them build on their existing skills. For example, Winograd explained that he chose his new field because “it was an area where the skills I developed in academia would translate and potentially lead to me moving up at an accelerated pace to try and “catch up” to people the same age who had been working in the area for a few years.”

Respondents also cited learning as an important consideration. For Carly Kontra, the number one consideration when looking for a new career was “ability to keep learning,” while Maria D’Angelo prioritized finding a position where she could “continue to learn about new domains and develop new skills.”


The final factor to consider is how much freedom a new career could offer you. Respondents reported searching for a career that would provide a sense of autonomy. For example, Brock Ferguson’s main consideration was “freedom to do what I want,” and D’Angelo looked for a “position where I could be independent.”

Aside from freedom at work, respondents also wanted freedom to shape their lifestyle. They wanted to have time to focus on their outside interests and strike a good work/life balance, and used these considerations to prioritize or deprioritize certain careers. For example, Rotella didn’t “want to have a travel-heavy job, so I was avoiding consulting roles.” In addition, respondents looked for an income that would allow them to have a comfortable lifestyle and minimize stress. For instance, Kontra wanted to find a career where she could “earn enough to not be stressed about money.”

Working in an existing company vs. starting your own business

 If you’ve decided to start a new career, should you look for job at an existing company or start your own? Most of our respondents began their non-academic careers by finding jobs in existing companies, and cautioned against starting a company without experience and a clear plan.

Those respondents who ended up starting their own companies found the process difficult, but very fulfilling. Having your own business allows you to create the job you want. For example, Ryan Dewey, was “interested in installation art, landscape, and spatial organization,” so he started thinking “about how to translate principles from cognitive science into tools that the creative class could use to build better experiences.”

“Early on,” he continued, “I realized I needed some sort of organization or business platform to do work, but I wanted a hybrid platform to work from so that I could move between art and science at whim. I started a collaborative platform called Geologic Cognition Society, a kind of research and experience design group.”

How did he make it work? “I started publishing in journals of the industries I wanted to enter in order to get some visibility and to introduce concepts from cognitive science into practices like urbanism, architecture and landscape architecture. These initial articles gave me something to give to professional acquaintances in the industries I was trying to reach.” Then, “I started building relationships with people in my city who work in the industries where I wanted to work. Sometimes I would spend time analyzing a company or an individual’s work and then write up an analysis with insights from cognitive science and I would schedule meetings with them to talk about what I noticed. I did this without any payment at all and I invested a lot of time upfront ensuring I had something they would see as really valuable to them in helping them accomplish their own work. This ended up getting my foot in the door in a handful of institutions and before I knew it, I was being invited to collaborate on small projects, bid on contracts with them, enter design competitions with them, hold workshops, et cetera.”

Brock Ferguson has started two companies since leaving academia – “a data science consulting firm with two other colleagues from graduate school, Strong Analytics, and Optimail — our first data science product, a marketing automation tool that automatically optimizes business’ email campaigns using deep reinforcement learning (a space that is advancing at a rapid pace).”

In order to build a company, Ferguson advised first building a strong network: “If you’re going to start your own company, ensure you have some kind of a social network to lean on for early leads. (And academics don’t count because they don’t want to pay for anything).“ Ferguson built his network from owning two companies before graduate school. “I honestly don’t know how I was lucky enough to start building a network of clients and colleagues in the first place (sorry to those looking for some secret tip), but it’s incredible how one project has always led to another and people seem to pop up at the perfect time.”

If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, getting a start at an existing company before launching out on your own might be the way to go. To start any kind of business, Stefania Mereu pointed out, “you need to have a clear idea of what’s needed, mostly by other businesses. Also, you need to know what is the unique skill you would be bringing to the table.” Without non-academic experience, you probably won’t know what those are.

Now that you’ve considered what to prioritize in a new non-academic job, we’ll cover tips for finding and getting that job in tomorrow’s post.


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