practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

To wrap up the series on jobs, this post is about non-academic research career options.  Full disclosure: Evaluation research was my career for 8 years before starting a PhD program.  Based on my positive experiences, I am a big advocate for non-academic research jobs. There are a wide range of options in this category of jobs that draw on different preferences and strengths of social scientists, but common across them is no teaching and little to no solo research.  Remember that even though PhD programs train explicitly for the professoriate, the skills that PhDs develop provide a wide range of job opportunities beyond the tenure-track these days. This is especially true if you’re in a social science program like sociology, economics, political science, or public policy.  The methodological and pedagogical training and experience you receive in these programs are highly sought after in private corporations, foundations, government agencies, and nonprofits. Below are descriptions of the range of opportunities based on my pre-grad school work experience and where I’ve seen grad school friends land research jobs.  Where possible, I highlight additional experiences you might pursue to be more marketable in these fields. For all of them, personal connections can be incredibly important, so network, network, network. Whether through LinkedIn, conferences, or informational interviews, connect with professionals in the field you’re interested in to learn more and to contact when you’re looking for a job.  

Why Non-Academic Research?

Non-academic research jobs are a great opportunity for those who love research, but are less in love with teaching.  These jobs can have better work-life balance than academic jobs as you can work 9-5 and have actual vacation days. The pay can be better than an academic job, but depends on the size and budget of the employer.  And the work is generally more collaborative and less isolating than what most social science PhDs experience in graduate school.  

Some non-academic research can include more public facing work than academia.  Companies like MDRC and Urban Institute have a designated publications department to disseminate reports meant to be accessible to policy makers and practitioners.  Smaller non-profits will have opportunities to translate evaluation findings to changes in practices including training front line staff.  

Evaluation Research 

Almost all funding entities require an evaluation component these days including private foundations and government agencies.  PhDs are hired as program evaluators in several capacities. First, there are organizations like MDRC, the Urban Institute, Mathematica, the Community College Research Center, and Vera Institute, which are hired as external evaluators by funders or fundees.  These companies hire PhDs skilled in quantitative and qualitative methods to design and implement evaluations including designing surveys of program participants; analyzing survey and programmatic data; conducting observations, focus groups, and interviews; and writing up results into briefs and reports.  Second, many nonprofits and local city agencies have in-house evaluation departments to design and implement the required evaluation components. The larger the organization, the larger the evaluation department is likely to be. For example, NYC’s Department of Education has a large research and evaluation department because of the enormous number of K-12 schools across the 5 boroughs.  Other large organizations with offices in multiple cities like Catholic Charities or Goodwill are also likely to have larger evaluation departments. Regardless of where, these jobs are great for folks who enjoy research, but are less interested in teaching semester long courses. Training and mentoring are often part of the position as junior team members need to be oriented to the project and trained on how to collect, process, and analyze data, as well as mentored around their future career goals.  

If you’re interested in this line of work, you may want to do three things to increase your chances. First, take a course in program evaluation.  You should be able to find one in the policy program at your university. As someone who has taken courses in both program evaluation and research methods, they are not the same course, particularly if you took research methods outside of a public policy program.  There is a vocabulary and approach to research design that is distinct to program evaluation. Take a course to learn the vocabulary and tenets of strong evaluation design.  Second, get some experience working in teams. Evaluation research is almost always done with a team even if it is one PhD with a small group of RAs. Gain experience working on group research projects to demonstrate that you know how to work with collaborators and supervise RAs.  

Research Evaluation 

Foundations and government agencies hire PhDs to evaluate grant applications, decide what projects to fund, and monitor funding use.  This includes places like the Ford, Russell Sage, MacArthur, and Annie E. Casey Foundations, as well as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.  These jobs are about evaluating research designs and plans, not conducting research, which is a great fit for folks who enjoy designing research projects and critiquing research design more than executing research.  

For these jobs, it helps to have exposure to a wide range of methods.  You can get that through taking a variety of methods courses and working on research projects with different methods.  In addition, each foundation and government agency has a substantive focus that you should have expertise in to assess the merit of grant applications.  

Marketing Research

The for-profit world is full of opportunities to do market research.  Most of these jobs are about gauging consumer response to and interest in a company’s products.  Similar to evaluation research, this domain is a good fit for folks who enjoy research, particularly collaborative research, but do not want to teach.  

This is arguably the area I know the least about, but my read is that needed skills include survey design and analysis, focus group implementation and analysis, memo writing, and oral presentation.  These skills can be signaled through coursework, conducted research, writing samples, teaching, and conference presentations or guest lectures.  

User-Produced Data Research 

Finally, there is a growing number of jobs working for companies that generate large quantities of data.  This includes companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google who have more and more data every day just based on users interacting with their products.  These companies hire PhDs to analyze the data they collect from users including (primarily) a wide range of quantitative data analysis. Some of these companies even hire psychologists and related social scientists to conduct experiments.  

For these jobs, experience working with social media data is certainly a plus but not a requirement.  You can signal relevant skills through the methods you use instead.  

For the Non-Academic Research Job Market

Before you’re looking for a job, get more information about these options.  First, look at job postings to see what kind of prior experience and responsibilities these companies are looking for and whether those sound like what you’d like to do.  Second, talk to people working those jobs. These days, all PhD programs should have alumni in every one of these types of jobs, so alumni networks can be a good place to start for more information about different job options.  But you can also connect with folks through LinkedIn and professional conferences.  

Keep in mind that these jobs may be available at times that don’t align with the academic calendar.  Strategize with your committee and your connects about how to deal with this. Finally, remember that for every year of work experience (including doctoral training) you have, it will take about one month to find a job in this market.  There are of course exceptions, but using this as a general rule can help manage your expectations for how long the job search will take. Good luck out there! 

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