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10 Lucrative Career Options For Social Science PhDs

Lucrative career options for PhDs
Written by: Gemma Paech, Ph.D.

I watched as the news reported cuts to research funding.

It felt like watching animals around a drying watering hole.

Less and less funding meant more and more intense competition to receive grants.

It was literally a “survival of the fittest” situation.

I was especially worried, because social science is often perceived as a “soft” science.

Would these perceived opinions mean that funding to social science research would get cut first?

I watched as many early career researchers at my university failed to get grant funding, while the aging tenured professors were not retiring, despite being well past the retirement age.

Research funding was drying up and tenure-track academic positions were scarce.

It seemed like there was no way to progress or succeed in academia.

I started to think about alternative careers outside of academia.

I spoke to my advisor about my concerns for my future in academia and my desire to leave.

In no uncertain terms, I was told that moving to industry meant I was selling out.

I was told that industry jobs were unreliable, that industry groups only wanted STEM PhDs, and that there were no jobs in industry for social science PhDs.

So, I resigned myself to staying in academia and hoped this was just a phase.

But, funding kept getting more competitive.

My advisor kept asking me to do more and more extra work to earn grants that I would not benefit from.

Plus, I had all my own research to do.

This stress slowly became too much for me to deal with.

So, I made the decision to transition into industry.

I quickly realized that there were many job options for me outside of academia.

I also realized that social science PhDs have transferable skills that are unique from other job candidates.

Unlike the non-existent job prospects I faced in academia, there were seemingly endless prospects for me in industry.

For once, my future as a social science PhD looked bright.

Do not go into a postdoc position or your career will suffer

Why Social Science PhDs Need To Leave Academia

Many social science PhDs aim to stay within academia.

The academic system leads PhD students to believe that the only thing that comes after a PhD is an academic postdoc, which then leads to a tenure-track university position.

However, the lack of job prospects within academia means that this doesn’t happen.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported that 30 years ago, only 32% of all university faculty were hired on a part-time basis.

Today, the number of part-time university faculty has increased to more than 50%.

While these university faculty are only hired on a part-time basis, which tends not to lead to a tenured position, many are still expected to complete a full-time workload.

They are working full-time without any of the benefits of full-time employment.

Plus, this report by AAUP also indicates that non-tenure-track positions are increasing throughout academia.

Even full-time faculty members can find themselves on a non-tenure-track.

As reported by Nature, of the more than 40,000 US postdocs, nearly 4,000 had been in their postdoc position for more than 6 years.

Universities are hiring more part-time faculty and the length of postdoc assignments is increasing because there are not enough academic tenure-track positions to support PhDs.

Do not be strung along by the academic system and work as an underpaid postdoc for upwards of 10 years, only to be denied the academic position you wanted.

Now is the time for you to leave academia.

There are multiple career options for social science PhDs outside the ivory tower.

Top 10 Career Options For Social Science PhDs

There are endless industry opportunities available to social science PhDs.

As a PhD, you can learn anything.

You can learn to write an excellent resume and cover letter.

But, if you don’t know what types of jobs are out there, you won’t be able to successfully transition into industry.

No matter how much preparation you do, you need to know what areas to target.

Here is a list of the top 10 industry positions for social science PhDs…

Life Science PhDs should consider working for a non-profit organization

1. Nonprofit organizations.

Most PhDs don’t initially think of nonprofits as an attractive career option.

This may be because the term, “nonprofit” suggests that you wouldn’t be getting paid.

However, this is far from the truth.

According to PayScale, median salaries for nonprofits range from $50,000 to $63,000.

And, in the US, the nonprofit sector is the third largest among all industries.

The term, “nonprofit” is used to describe an organization where profit is not the main purpose, rather they are committed to a certain goal.

There are nonprofit organizations across a number of different areas including healthcare, charities, advocacy groups, and research institutes.

This industry is ideal for PhDs who want to get away from the hierarchical structure associated with academia.

A nonprofit is also well-suited to PhDs who wish to apply their skills and expertise to working alongside a team of people all reaching towards achieving the same larger goal.

2. Entrepreneurship.

PhDs have excellent transferable skills that are highly sought after in all areas of industry, including entrepreneurship.

As a PhD, your creativity, project management skills, and willingness to learn are indispensable for an aspiring entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is an attractive career option for PhDs who want to be their own boss and take control of their career.

As your own boss, you set the rules, but you also need to be confident in your ability to generate new ideas and sell them successfully.

A successful entrepreneurship can be a very lucrative career option for social science PhDs.

While the average salary for a CEO ranges upwards of $100,000, you are only as successful as your company.

In entrepreneurship, it’s up to you, as the CEO, to make your company profitable.

3. Consulting.

A consultant is someone who provides expert advice.

This advice can be in areas of management, marketing, human resources, finance, education, and information technologies.

One particular consulting area that would be well-suited for social science PhDs is educational consulting.

Consultancy is an excellent alternative career option for a social science PhD who has gained a variety of skills and expertise during their PhD or postdoc.

Consultancy positions offer vast opportunities for career advancement, from entry level positions, all the way to CEO positions.

Consultants tend to have reasonable work hours and a good salary, depending on the level of experience and size of the company.

Government jobs pay well and provide excellent career paths for PhDs

4. Local or national government.

PhDs don’t often consider government positions to be a viable career option.

However, if you look at Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, who has a PhD in chemistry, you might change your mind.

Regardless of your field of expertise, government positions offer a variety of options for social science PhDs.

Government positions are a good fit for PhDs who have a desire to serve their country or community and who want to leave the private sector behind.

Having a government job comes with predictable paths of promotion, flexibility, and excellent benefits, such as health care and good retirement plans.

Within government, there are multiple job options, ranging from diplomats and scientists, to consultants and politicians, making this an area with options suited to all PhDs.

5. Financial industry.

One area where social science PhDs definitely have an edge over other job candidates is their data analysis, quantitative analysis, and analytical skills.

Many social science PhDs are required to work with large data sets while earning their degrees.

These quantitative and qualitative research skills make social science PhDs great candidates to transition into the financial industry.

The finance sector offers a broad range of specializations including, but not limited to, insurance, actuary jobs, and investment banking.

Financial positions offer high salaries and high levels of job satisfaction, even at entry levels.

According to PhD Career Guide, financial positions offer great opportunities for career progression, which can lead to large salaries of up to $300,000.

6. Professional research.

Many PhDs often mistakenly think that to do research, they need to remain in academia.

However, PhDs can continue to do research outside of academia.

Research positions are available in think tank organizations, publishing, government agencies, banking, education, and many other industries.

All industry areas are extremely eager to hire PhDs, who they know already have the invaluable research skills needed for the job.

The supportive environments, structured promotion systems, and higher pay are just a few reasons it’s better to be a researcher outside of academia.

Additionally, industry researchers are often rewarded, not penalized, for showing initiative and acting as leaders.

According to PayScale, the median salary for industry scientists is $77,000 and can be as high as $120,000.

Technical writing fits well with Life Science PhD skills

7. Writing positions.

PhDs, and in particular social science PhDs, are required to do a lot of writing during their degree.

Social science PhDs are expert writers.

PhDs who enjoy the writing aspect of their degrees may also enjoy becoming professional writers.

While you may think that professional writers are just people who write books, there are writing positions available across a wide range of areas.

Newspapers, academic journals, media outlets, and grant-writing organizations are always on the lookout for professional writers.

As a social science PhD, you are able to write on a vast array of topics, not just those related to your research field.

The writing process is similar across different disciplines and your academic writing skills are transferable to a professional writing position in all areas.

8. Working as a freelancer.

For social science PhDs who want to have more flexibility surrounding their work situation, freelance positions can be a good industry opportunity.

As a freelancer, you can choose what type of job you want, who you work for, where you work, and when you work.

There is no other position with this type of flexibility.

This work environment makes a freelancer position particularly well-suited to PhDs who have families and want to spend more time at home.

To be a successful freelancer, you will need to have excellent management skills, organizational skills, and have a self-starting mentality.

Freelancers control their own salaries, as you determine how often you work and how much to charge for the services you provide.

9. High school teaching.

High school teaching may not seem as enticing or lucrative as some teaching positions in academia.

However, if you are a PhD who enjoys sharing your knowledge with others and you are passionate about teaching, high school teaching may be a good career option for you.

One of the biggest perks of teaching high school is that teaching children is highly rewarding.

Many teachers enjoy the chance to interact with students and the opportunity to develop a curriculum.

It can also be rewarding on a personal level to see students improve in their knowledge and understanding.

Plus, high school teachers enjoy an especially long vacation time, compared to other industry positions.

10. Academic and non-academic publishing.

PhDs who enjoy writing and editing may be well-suited to transitioning into a publishing position.

Many academic and non-academic publishing companies look for professional editors and writers with a PhD.

Given the large amount of reading, writing, and editing required in the social sciences, a position at a publishing house is a great option for social science PhDs.

Publishing positions also allow you to stay connected to current research discoveries.

By working with talented scholars and editing the latest research papers, you will have endless opportunity to expand your knowledge.

But don’t limit yourself to the area of your PhD.

The transferable skills you gained during your PhD mean that you could work for a publishing company in any discipline.

As a social science PhD, you may think your job options outside academia are limited. However, there are endless industry opportunities available to social science PhDs outside of academia. These include working for nonprofit organizations, entrepreneurship, working for government or the financial industry, or doing professional research. You can also explore writing positions, freelancing, high school teaching, and academic and non-academic publishing. As a PhD, you can learn anything. But, if you don’t know what types of jobs are out there, you won’t be able to successfully transition into industry. No matter how much preparation you do, you need to know what areas to target.

To learn more about 10 Lucrative Career Options For Social Science PhDs, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Gemma Paech, Ph.D.

Gemma Paech, Ph.D.

Gemma has a PhD in Social Sciences specializing in sleep and circadian rhythms with a background in genetics and immunology. She is currently transitioning from academia into industry. She has experience in communicating science to lay audiences and believes in sharing scientific knowledge with the public. She is passionate about educating the public about the importance of sleep and the effects of sleep loss and disruption on general health and wellbeing to increase quality of life and work productivity. She is also committed to mentoring students across all demographics, helping them reach their full potential.
Gemma Paech, Ph.D.
  • Winona Petit

    As a social scientist, this article is near and dear to my heart. When I first got my PhD many years ago, PhD’s were quite unusual and most of us were expected to end up in academia. I found myself to be restless, and ventured out into industry, eventually ending up as manager of a travel incentive firm, where my knowledge and skills were not only helpful, but quite valuable to the company. It’s worked out really well for me, and I’m so happy you’re putting so much good attention into our younger PhD’s. There’s a big world out there.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    I really appreciate this article. People who appreciate learning and succeed in a postgraduate program don’t have to be stuck in ambiguity, wondering where they’re going to end up. As you stated in this post, there are a myriad of opportunities, and anyone who is an expert in learning can learn how to tease out and exploit the opportunities. It is my profound belief that our world benefits tremendously from the social sciences, as no species is quite so complicated or powerful (both in good ways and undesired ways) as human beings.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Yes, Sissy! Social science PhDs have so much to offer beyond academia.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    Excellent point of view for those getting their PhD’s in the social sciences. A lot of my friends are going to be very happy to read this article, as I just don’t think the Universities are as proactive as they could be in helping PhD candidates raise their horizons and reach out to the private sector.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      That’s true, Madeline. From what I’ve observed, universities are failing to help and fully support social science PhDs transition to industry.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Wow! It never occurred to me that Angela Merkel had a PhD in chemistry. That would have been the last thing I guessed. I think it’s great to have these examples of PhDs getting such a wide array of careers. It’s really inspiring for anyone on the search for just the right placement.

  • Kathy Azalea

    This is a pretty exciting discussion, because I realize that non-profits can have lots of openings for any PhD, depending on where you’re going and what your focus is.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Hmm, I’m not too sure that people figure in the looong vacation time of a high school teacher! That element escaped me. I’m pretty sure that the freedom involved would be very interesting to a lot of social scientists, especially if they also do writing on the side.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Good point, Matthew. They have the freedom to write on the side or engage in other lucrative projects.

  • Julian Holst

    I know a lot of fellow PhD’s who took the social sciences track, and they are terrific writers. I’m not sure if it’s something hardwired into the brain, or just the years of intensive study without such an emphasis on labs and math, but I can easily see how they could make a good income writing. Not only that, I bet a lot of them would love it!

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Fantastic points, Julian.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    These are great ideas! PhD’s should never feel ashamed, insecure, or uncertain about the value of a PhD, no matter what field it’s in. If we’ve spent this much time and energy to make this achievement, we should all feel proud. I’m very happy that Cheeky Scientist is giving some play to some of our fellow PhDs who are in the social sciences. Thank you, Gemma. 🙂

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Great words of wisdom, Carlie!

  • Theo

    Amazing how few jobs there are in academia. Professorship is not an option. Fortunately for me, I’m not into it anyway. But for those who believed there would be lots of opportunities in upper-division academia, it’s just not that way.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      It’s true, Theo. Many of us come to academia with a desire to teach and learn. The fact is that academia has largely become problematic and exploitative for many grads, PhDs, and postdocs.

  • Harvey Delano

    Glad to hear that social scientists are not left out. I truly believe with all the hard work it takes to become a PhD, life should open up in a great way and pay great dividends.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Agreed, Harvey! And social science PhDs have so many industry transferable skills!